Insight into The Houstonian Club and its $23.5 million renovation project, including top takeaways and lessons learned from the months-long, expansive project.
“Don’t mess with success.”
This quote is a commonly held view among entrepreneurs implying if you’ve found success, why should change be considered?
However, The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa, founded in 1980 as a premier resort destination in the heart of Houston, Texas, doesn’t hold to this belief.
Over the years, the 27-acre property has undergone a number of improvements and changes. But, its most significant renovation to date began in March 2019 with a commitment to make more than $70 million worth of upgrades to the campus.
Construction on The Houstonian Club — the property’s 185,000-square-foot fitness club — began in March 2021 and ultimately impacted almost 70% of the gym’s facilities. With a $23.5 million renovation budget, the project took three phases to complete.
The result? The Houstonian Club now has a completely transformed health club that general manager Cher Harris said is sure to serve the brand — which already had a membership waiting list prior to the process — well into the future.
Following are highlights, challenges and lessons learned during the course of the expansive, 20-month-long project, completed in partnership with construction company Forney Construction, Kay Lang Designs, and architectural firms Fabiano Designs and Huitt Zollars.
According to Harris, the major goal of The Houstonian Club’s renovation was to open the overall layout of the club and develop areas for socializing and connecting, as well as update the group exercise studios and other fitness spaces alongside operational areas such as childcare and food and beverage.
Four of the club’s previous group exercise studios were completely rebuilt, and two were added for small group training and private lessons. In addition, these spaces were centralized whereas previously they had been in different wings of the club.
“Two were in front of the club, one was on the east side and one was on the west side — so they were all separate,” explained Harris. “Now they’re all together and they have one group exercise lounge at the entrance where members can socialize while they wait for their classes.”
The Houstonian Club’s fitness floor was also expanded with the addition of a 4,100-square-foot indoor turf area, and the indoor basketball court was relocated. Members now have a roughly 6,000-square-foot space in which to utilize strength, cardio and functional fitness amenities.
The club lobby and rotunda were also updated, and a new atrium was built with ample seating, which connects the main level to the second floor of the building. The atrium leads directly to The Houstonian’s newly renovated boutique, The Shop at The Houstonian, and a brand-new restaurant and full-service bar concept called The Kitchen.
“The Kitchen was designed to have separate family-friendly and adult-only seating and separate dining areas for both,” explained Harris. “The restaurant and decks overlook our beautiful pool complex where our members can enjoy the beauty of our outdoor foliage and the sound of the waterfall. The Houstonian Club did not have a full-service restaurant and bar of this capacity before.”
An additional food option — a grab-and-go cafe serving Starbucks and dubbed Refuel — was built as well.
The Houstonian’s childcare areas were also completely overhauled. These include The Bungalow, serving children between the ages of six weeks and five years old, and the Houstonian Hideout, for kids ages five through 12. Like the group fitness studios, the spaces were relocated to be together.
In addition, an important new feature of The Bungalow includes a moveable wall in the toddler area that allows The Houstonian to expand or retract the space depending on member need. “Oftentimes there are baby booms, and we needed the flexibility of a moving wall to take more toddlers or less,” said Harris. “It’s a great feature for an evolving membership base.”
The Houstonian Hideout now boasts a Ninja Warrior structure, bouldering wall and ICAROS Clouds, a virtual reality gaming platform that allows kids to play video games while remaining active.
Last but not least, the Houstonian also saw the addition of two meeting rooms, a card room and new staff offices.
Overall, the entire project has rejuvenated and energized a club that’s history spans over 40 years.
“Other positive results from our renovation include new areas for social events and gatherings, which will nourish connection and community in the club,” added Harris. “The additional group exercise and fitness spaces allow us to expand our fitness offerings and expand personal training and private lesson opportunities. The Houstonian Club now has an updated and consistent look with a more current, luxurious feel.”
The biggest challenge of the three-phase project was keeping services functional for members during the course of the renovation. For example, the kids gym and cafe were moved three separate times, creating an operational challenge for the team.
According to Allie Clark, the club marketing manager of The Houstonian Club, a clear communication strategy was vital to eliminating frustration and maintaining excitement among the membership.
“The most important message to convey was educating members on what was in progress, what was to come and when it was coming,” said Clark. “Our goal was to keep our membership engaged with the project since it was a longer renovation with new areas opening every few weeks. With changes to their experience — new entrances, temporary spaces popping up, new hallways — it was vital members knew what to expect, how to enter the building and how to get to their desired part of the club. It was also a priority of ours to keep the membership excited about what was to come.”
The Houstonian Club achieved this through regular email marketing, social media posts, app and website updates, QR codes displayed throughout the club that drove members to important information, and even printed materials and brochures detailing the renovation. Digital signage also showcased important dates, closures and changes in operation resulting from the upgrades.
However, arguably the most important communication component was ensuring front-line staff were educated and informed.
“They have a direct line of communication with our membership. By keeping staff excited — giving them tours of the construction areas, getting their opinion on future equipment, etc. — it trickled down to how they spoke to the membership about the ongoing renovation,” explained Clark.
Communicating about spaces and a layout that didn’t yet exist was challenging, according to Clark. However, the addition of a “showroom” in the club — where members could walk through and see renderings — created a space to conceptualize the future of the facility more clearly.
“Our inspiration was a showroom for home builders where you could feel the granite, see the samples of paint and visualize all of the elements,” said Clark. “We had all our renderings printed on foam boards. These were hung on the wall along with multiple shadow boxes of flooring, wall and fixture samples for each new area being built. The showroom created a wonderful opportunity for our sales team to walk people through the renovation process and have them ask questions one-on-one.”
Ultimately, the showroom and clear communication strategies minimized what could have been an extremely frustrating experience for members and staff alike.
According to Rudy Fabiano, the design principal and founder of Fabiano Designs, The Houstonian Club project emphasized the importance of a club’s design and architecture being not only beautiful but functional. Previously, areas of the club that drove revenue — such as programming and retail — were downplayed, whereas now they are centerpieces of the facility.
“We really looked at that analytically as an opportunity and said proportionately programming, retail, and food and beverage need more of your attention — which translates to more prominent spaces in the real estate of the building,” said Fabiano.
In fact, Fabiano shared aesthetics should always come second to functionality, which can seem counterintuitive to many operators.
“The aesthetics should be a byproduct of the deep thinking of the programming mix of the project,” said Fabiano. “Where many operators go wrong is not being diligent about the use of real estate in maximizing where the profits are coming from and what you need.”
According to Harris, another key takeaway from the project was the importance of considering the member’s perspective from every angle. “The biggest learning lesson was to always remember to think about what the members have lost in the renovation, rather than just what they have gained in the process,” she said.
For example, although The Kitchen is an exciting new amenity for many members, Harris shared they realized some members might grieve the loss of Center Court cafe, the counter service offering the renovations replaced.
“We had to think about still offering quick service through The Kitchen to benefit members, while also adding the fine dining option,” explained Harris. “You’ve got to continually think, ‘We’re going to improve it with this renovation, but what do the members think they’ve lost in the whole process?’”
Additionally, another takeaway from The Houstonian project for Fabiano ties back to the adage, “Why mess with success?” He reiterated the best operators always seek to make improvements, even when they’re doing well.
“I work with a lot of amazing clients, and the common thread that separates the ones that are really extraordinary — meaning their businesses are thriving and growing — from the ones that are kind of flatline, is that extraordinary leaders make their moves when they’re doing great,” said Fabiano. “The Houstonian Club is a great example. They didn’t need to make these improvements — they had a waiting list to join.”
In fact, The Houstonian Club’s improvements aren’t ending anytime soon. In January 2023, the health club will launch a new recovery space licensed through The Covery franchise featuring amenities such as cryotherapy, IV therapy and other recovery modalities.
“Our members are going somewhere else for recovery options, so we feel this will be an extremely valuable addition to the membership,” said Harris.
Ultimately, the biggest takeaway for Harris during the $23.5 million renovation was the importance of teamwork. She acknowledged the countless professionals and staff who made the project a smashing success.
“All of our staff, leaders, vendors and partners on campus were vital to the project,” said Harris. “It’s been a really great experience from that standpoint, seeing everyone coming together to make it happen.”