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Upscale gym prepares for opening at International Plaza

For people who normally stay at the Ritz-Carlton hotel when they travel, there is now a gym in Tampa where they'll feel right at home.

The Life Time Athletic center at International Plaza opens for business this Saturday, firmly targeting the top 20 percent of earners in the area; people for whom $284 per month for a family membership is hardly worth worrying about.

“We don't have long-term contracts, so our task is to exceed people's expectations every time they visit,” said gym General Manager Joe Liotine, while giving a tour of the massive, 55,000-square-foot facility. “Ideally, that means people never think of going elsewhere.” The target customer, Liotine said, “is not necessarily price conscious.”

The gym opens amid an increasingly crowded health club market in the Tampa area, with everything from major brands like LA Fitness to specialty gyms where people run with beer kegs.

The luxury gym takes the space of the former Robb & Stucky at International Plaza mall, and like the mall, Life Time targets the affluent.

Right at the front, there's a cafe the size of a Chipotle, but it serves only gluten-free, organic and other health-conscious items, plus a specific detoxification menu that Liotine notes is designed to work without the digestive drawbacks of most “cleanse” diets that leave people in the bathroom for much of the day.

There is a top-level spa offering hair treatments, manicures, pedicures, massages and waxing, plus “medispa” treatments like botox injections and laser hair removal.

Across the hall, there is a form of child-care center that takes kids from infant up to 11 years old, and it includes rooms for language training, arts and math classes, plus rows of iPads and a two-story climbing structure and workout room for kids Pilates, karate and other classes. That kids area costs $30 per month for kids alone, but is included for gym members.

For grownups, the locker rooms have stone-lined walls and hardwood lockers, each with customized combination locks. The women's locker room has granite counter top primping areas, each with its own high-powered hair dryer, nearby dry and wet saunas and a hot tub. (A secret door connects the ladies locker room to the spa so guests wearing robes remain private.)

Before reaching the main gym area, there is a specialized Pilates gym room, complete with strength and stretching equipment. A separate yoga studio has its own heating and air conditioning system and eucalyptus-water filtered air to remove any scent of sweat — particularly helpful for “hot” yoga sessions. A spin cycling room has several dozen bikes, each wirelessly connected to a person's particular health and aerobic profile.

To get that profile, there is a separate health screening and assessment service for all new members. Liotine explains that each person receives a blood test to determine levels of hormones, cholesterol, sugar and other factors to customize their workout plan. “Everyone's body is different,” he said. “How one person processes oxygen or sugar is very different than another,” and bodies store fat differently. For instance, women going through anxiety, Liotine said, may add fat from their hips down, while women with low sex hormones may puff up around their back and behind their arms. Men, conversely, who suffer with stress will add belly fat. To help combat this, staff draw up a special diet plan and a special oxygen processing test will show when a person will hit certain thresholds while working out. Below a certain heart rate, they'll burn fat, above that they'll burn sugar, but not fat — negating their work to lose weight.

This is the 110th Life Time facility nationwide. Many stretch much larger than the site here. A new facility in Des Moines, Iowa, for instance, will soon open at 250,000 square feet (Twice the size of a Super Walmart) and include tennis courts and an outdoor waterpark.

Life Time officials aim to open a club that's well set apart from other high-end gyms in the area, but there is plenty of competition from gyms large and small. LA Fitness recently opened a gym on Dale Mabry Highway in South Tampa, and a location in Brandon offers a slew of services, with an opening rate of $99 to start and $29.95 per month.

At the same time, there's a broader trend in the fitness market towards specialization, including very niche gyms that offer evermore exotic workouts. Powerhouse Gym, for instance, in the Channel District has ultra-intense workout areas meant for very serious athletes with equipment like Santa Monica Steps — huge steel steps where guests carry anchor chains and weights up and down. Memberships there run $46 to $69 per month, depending on the package. The Harbour Island Athletic Club & Spa caters to those who work downtown or live on the island, and has more than a dozen tennis courts. Memberships there can run $125 per month for an individual and $206 per month for a family.

Other niche gyms specialize in workouts like running with beer kegs or flipping over tractor tires. On the budget end of the spectrum, there is the YouFit gym that has opened several locations nearby, charging less than $30 per month, depending on the package.

The overall Life Time company has been expanding in Florida, particularly by acquiring several organizations that stage events such as the Miami Marathon — and in keeping with their philosophy, each gym member can tune their workout in the gym to the races outside the gym.

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