In New York City, Equinox carries a certain mystique.
The uninitiated are likely to hear bits and pieces about the gym, either from friends or through the rumor mill.
They have eucalyptus towels. There’s a special Equinox with an iris scanner. Shawn Mendes and Anderson Cooper work out there.
But for most, the high price — starting at $185 per month for access to a single location and topping out at $500 per month for the premier experience — acts as a gilded gate that keeps those outside wondering what resplendent luxuries lie inside.
For years, I was one of those people.
My journalism career hadn’t necessarily given me mountains of cash, and I thought I could get almost as good for much cheaper.
But in February, I took the plunge.
Read more:I worked out at every Equinox in New York City to see if the luxury gym lived up to the hype
As a fitness-oriented person who had recently lost my motivation to go to the gym, I had to know if Equinox’s special sauce could possibly be worth it and re-invigorate my interest in “Wellness.”
Out of my own curiosity, and for the potential of a good story, I signed up for one of Equinox’s top memberships and committed to experiencing everything Equinox had to offer.
I wanted to know — Why are so many people willing to pay Equinox’s high price? Would I be willing to pay that price at the end of all this?
I worked out at all 34 New York City locations, took dozens of classes, swam in four of their six pools that were open, had two spa treatments, a five-hour fitness assessment, and one personal training session.
This is my journey to the center of the world of Equinox, and how I ended up a convert.
When I first visited Equinox in Williamsburg, I wasn’t sold.
As the friendly salesperson, JV, showed me around, he touted the small luxuries — the chilled eucalyptus towels, the Kiehl’s products in the locker rooms, and a nicely lit and tiered cycling studio that made spin class feel like the Roman Colosseum. He even talked about how Equinox had affected his own fitness, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being ripped off.
I’d be paying over double for what my gym down the street charged for roughly the same size workout area and only a slightly “elevated” experience, with bigger locker rooms and a steam room.
Base memberships that only grant you access to one club still cost at least $2,200 a year, plus a $500 initiation fee. If you want to go to multiple Equinox locations in the US, an “all access” membership runs $3,120 a year.
But that still won’t get you in to the most luxurious locations in the city — to get into those, you need a “destination” membership that grants you access to all locations worldwide, which costs $3,600 a year. And then, you can also get an executive membership with even more exclusive benefits for $5,220 a year.
As I sat down to discuss the details, I think JV could sense that my interest was waning. He switched gears from touting the virtues of the Williamsburg gym specifically and started to trace a rough outline of how I could integrate multiple Equinox locations into my life, identifying classes based on my interest at other locations that fit into my daily commute.
Despite the higher price of “global membership” that would allow me access to all of Equinox’s normal-tier gyms, the level of convenience it would add to my routine was significant.
I’d venture to argue that no Equinox gym by itself (except for the uber-nice Sports Club New York, which includes an outdoor track, rock climbing wall, pool, and more) is worth the monthly floor price of $200 alone.
Equinox’s real value is in space and convenience.
What people are really paying for at Equinox
According to GQ, the Errico siblings, who founded Equinox in 1991, philosophized that Equinox could endlessly expand because customers weren’t willing to travel over 10 blocks to work out.
Now, with 31 locations spanning Manhattan’s 262 blocks, the company actually has roughly one gym per every eight blocks, making it extremely convenient for members to work out across the borough.
When I considered the added value of this convenience, the high price tag became much more palatable.
For me, stopping by the Wall Street or TriBeCa Equinoxes, which are blocks away from the INSIDER office, makes working out much easier than when I was previously enrolled at my local Williamsburg gym. The added variety was also appealing. Tired of ogling the same gym crush? Equinox has over 30 other locations waiting for you if you’re willing to cough up the money.
While the number of gyms definitely doesn’t disqualify the possibility of crowding, it does allow for a pretty good variety of amenities that other gyms probably don’t offer.
You can do an exhausting CrossFit-style class in one of the handful of gyms that have a “playground” space, take a competitive and interactive cycling class, play basketball, swim in a saltwater pool, or even go rock climbing.
If you tend to spend your money to maintain fitness variety, Equinox can easily be worth it in the face of individual classes at other gyms that frequently run above $30 a pop.
Besides convenience and variety, Equinox’s biggest draw is physical space.
At the base-tier locations, it’s not uncommon to experience a “rush hour.” Like at most gyms, the number of people during these times can be prohibitive to a workout.
At the Williamsburg location, the bottleneck created by awaiting yoga classes got so bad that I witnessed a salesperson actively avoiding showing potential members the locker rooms until a crowd had cleared.
This is, however, something you can avoid if you’re willing to pay more.
As I explored Equinox’s upper-tier gyms, I noticed that there were significantly fewer people in the gyms and locker rooms. When I went to Equinox’s higher-tier locations — including Printing House, Sports Club New York, or E Madison — I never felt like there was any crowding. It’s no coincidence that it costs more to access these premium locations.
In a city of 9 million people, free space is the ultimate luxury.
E customer Steve Motino, who is a student and chief technology officer of small startup Chaply, told me this was one of the main reasons he ended up signing up for the gym’s most premium membership, costing $500 per month plus a $750 initiation. Personal training fees are extra on top of that.
“[Printing House] has this sense of exclusivity and comfort. There were never more than 20 people there when I went,” he said. “It drains most of my income, but it’s worth it because I feel like my life has changed since I had it.”
In the last 2 years, Motino has lost 45 pounds, which he credits to his Equinox membership.
Equinox controls its brand with an iron fist
Equinox’s ads have repeatedly gone viral, featuring nearly nude models flashing signs of wealth, sex, and excess.
Celebrities are routinely reported to attend Equinox in gossip publications, and some even name-drop the gym freely, like when Tina Fey said she burst into tears at an Equinox when she found out “Mean Girls” was nominated for a Tony award.
Before starting my project, I discussed the idea of going to every Equinox gym in New York with my editors and the company’s PR. Equinox’s representatives came off as excited and helpful.
But shortly after starting my project, a coworker sent me something surprising they had received from a tipster.
Equinox had distributed my photo to every location in New York City with instructions to show all staff and notify management if I was conducting interviews.
The handout was creepy, to say the least, but the shrewd commitment to protecting the brand also kind of impressed me.
Equinox’s brand, as it’s recognized in the culture, is hard to live up to in real life — How do you evoke money, sex, and luxury in an everyday gym experience?
The sex appeal that Equinox has branded itself with isn’t actually meant for the gym. While Equinox certainly has numerous models and celebrities who are customers, the gym is explicitly un-sexy. Tiny placards remind patrons that “silence is golden,” reinforcing a sort of cold and anonymous individualism that dominated most of the locations I visited.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Equinox caters to the individual who is striving toward a personal goal, and who prioritizes efficiency over community. The sexiness that Equinox is selling isn’t meant to come at the gym itself, but rather as a result of it.
The difference between the top-tier membership and a regular one
The luxury experience at Equinox, however, depends on the level of membership you get, which of course depends on how much you pay.
At Equinox’s most expensive locations — which require memberships costing between $300 and $500 per month — special amenities and features are included that actually are notably luxurious. At the top-tier E by Equinox on Madison Avenue, the nearly empty locker room features personal vanities and full-body showers with three shower heads and digital temperature controls. You can also get your shoes shined and suits pressed while you work out.
At the mid-tier Printing House location in the West Village, a sundeck and rooftop pool evoke a SoHo House vibe. Of course, the pool isn’t big enough to swim laps and is only open three months out of the year.
At Equinox’s normal locations, meanwhile, amenities may signal luxury, but they don’t always mean you’re actually getting it.
You can get Kiehl’s products (which some Yelp reviewers allege are watered down), cool eucalyptus towels, and similar West-Elm-style aesthetics. And yet throngs of people are waiting to use the same machine as you, or a swamp of sock lint is floating outside the shower stalls (as I recently experienced at Equinox’s Wall Street location).
But after fighting tooth-and-nail in New York just to get a seat on the subway, those sorts of small luxuries can be a breath of fresh air.
This evocation of extravagance is strategically and firmly managed from the top of the company.
When I visited the luxurious E Madison, they were in the process of changing the color of the floors to gray under direct orders from Equinox executive chairman and managing partner Harvey Spevak, according to two separate employees, who is said to have seen the color at E’s Columbus Circle training space and liked it so much that he ordered the change.
It was rare that employees didn’t say my name and smile when I checked in, and nearly every class I took was high-quality with a great instructor. I’ve taken yoga classes for years, and Equinox’s instructors were still able to teach me things I didn’t know about poses that I’ve done countless times before.
But on Yelp, some Equinox customers have alleged predatory and upsetting billing practices. Federal Trade Commission records obtained and analyzed by Business Insider back up those complaints.
Out of 97 complaints from the last 7 years, the vast majority allege that Equinox’s cancellation policy, requiring notification 45 days in advance, was overly restrictive and out of line with what salespeople promised customers. In the documents, multiple consumers complained that even after presenting evidence of medical reasons for cancellation, they continued to be charged dues.
When asked about the complaints, Equinox responded by saying, “Our cancellation process is clearly disclosed in the membership agreement that each member reviews and signs upon joining Equinox. Cancellation procedures may differ by state to ensure compliance with applicable state laws but in general, cancellations must be done in-club with a club manager or via registered or certified mail. Our clubs allow cancellation for medical reasons, and this process is also clearly disclosed in each membership agreement.”
How Equinox makes working out better and easier
It was 8 a.m. at Equinox SoHo, and Marquis Johnson was twirling, spinning, and dancing on top of a lit spin class bike.
“The only person you’re here to compete against is yourself,” he told me and the other riders as we pushed against a Florence + The Machine remix he had chosen for the “hill” we were climbing. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I giving my all right now?'”
The encouragements could easily be dismissed as empty fitness platitudes, but in combination with the pure joy Johnson brought to the class, I was buying what he was selling.
I was about halfway through my project to visit every Equinox in New York, but I still wasn’t bored or miserable. How was that possible?
I had found that the pure number and variety of classes offered at the various locations in New York had made it easy to switch things up and prevent boredom, meaning that I kept visiting the gym. On top of that, the sheer number of instructors kept things interesting.
While Johnson brought his own dancing flair to spin class, one instructor in Williamsburg freely recounted her unorthodox opinions on Amazon’s HQ2 pull-out, which she bemoaned because it meant it was less likely an Equinox would open in Long Island City. Weird and potentially politically incorrect? Definitely. Amusing? Certainly.
Besides the sheer scale of Equinox as an organization, there were a few other things that kept me going back.
While at some gyms, the app may be an afterthought, for Equinox, it’s clearly a focus. Not only does it allow you to search and schedule classes by location, type, and instructor, it also holds you accountable once you’ve booked them. After three missed classes, you’re locked out of class scheduling online for a week (you can still do it in person).
While for some, this may seem overly punitive, but for those who have trouble sticking to their resolutions, the small push can be helpful for making and sticking to your fitness schedule.
Equinox’s app will automatically show you how far you traveled and what calories you burned in your latest spin or treadmill class, and can connect with the company’s digital scales. All that is to say that Equinox makes it extremely easy to track your own personal fitness.
Equinox also uses its app to surveil classes and instructors. “Instructor on point?” the app will ask after a class. Was that a “two towel class?”
All of your answers presumably feedback into how the class is taught, and what instructors are kept doing what class. Sources told me that it’s not uncommon for trainers to get feedback on how hard they’re training customers, and are frequently encouraged to push clients as hard as possible.
Knowledge is power at Equinox
It was near the end of my project, and I was proud of myself. I had visited every Equinox location and worked out pretty hard nearly every day of the week for two months.
One of the final aspects of my project was doing a “Tier X evaluation.” This is the top tier of training available at Equinox and costs over $150 per hour. Part of the training is a five-hour full-body evaluation of your health and lifestyle to inform your training, diet, and sleep.
The company set me up with Tier X trainer and program manager Michael Ryan for a battery of tests.
Ryan, who has been with Equinox for over 10 years and has a Masters of Science in kinesiology and exercise science, put me through multiple metabolic rate tests, body fat tests, and mobility tests over the span of a few hours, I was asked to return for a separate results session.
Despite my self-directed workout regime over the last month, what he told me was a gut punch — I needed to lose body fat or I would be at risk for certain negative health outcomes.
The news was frustrating. I’d been working out like crazy for the last month and I still had more to do? How?
My shock revealed the utility of the session — despite my hard work, there were things I didn’t know about my nutrition, my body, and my workouts that could increase how efficiently I was working toward my fitness goals. Ryan also gave me specific guidance on my workout routine, diet, and other habits based on the information he gathered during the evaluation.
Having those pointers has already shown results, and taken a lot of the mystery out of working out. Instead of hopelessly not really knowing what to eat or which workouts to try and just hoping my work pays off, I’m able to use the information and have a certain amount of faith that results will follow. That’s proven to be a good motivator.
Why I’m keeping my $300 a month membership
Over the course of a few months, Equinox had given me more than I bargained for.
I tried new workouts, experienced my first 3D-body scan and personal training workout, explored over 30 locations, and had the best turkey burger of my life at Sports Club New York.
Some may balk at the expense, and it’s not cheap, but for those who choose to take advantage of what Equinox has to offer (and can afford it), a motivating, data-driven, luxurious fitness universe awaits you.