Back in the day, the Bow Valley Club was the place to be in downtown Calgary. If you played squash, the Bow Valley Club was a premiere club and tournament venue, attracting top Canadian and world talent to its courts. Built in Bow Valley Square as an executive fitness establishment, the club was a major part of the city’s social and athletic fabric since 1981.
But sliding popularity, declining membership, facilities in need of repair, shuttering of its women’s operations five years ago, and the final blow of COVID forced Bow Valley to close its doors last summer. It was destined to be just a memory.
But that was then.
A chance meeting between two old friends and former squash pros altered the fate of the shuttered club. Calgary entrepreneurs Dean Brown and Darren Thomson thought they could save the beloved club. They partnered with fellow Calgary businessmen Eric Watson and James Muraro to rebuild the club, only better.
And this is now: A revamped and revitalized downtown social and athletic club for all, paying homage to its legacy but looking to the future. The new Bow Valley Athletic Club is undergoing an extensive facelift, with a scheduled grand opening for September.
“We’ve got an real opportunity to bring back the women’s side of the club that’s been missing, and create a real co-ed feel again,” said Brown, who will serve as CEO. “We want to make Bow Valley a real social downtown club again. It’s our community spirit that sets us apart from others.”
What’s on tap
The plans are ambitious. To start, a $2+ million investment is targeted for current renovations and overall modernizing. Some of the capital was raised by pre-selling lifetime memberships, ranging from $15,000 to $30,000.
The managing partners credit their landlord, Oxford Properties, with helping them to realize their vision with a favorable long-term lease, assistance with renovations and a like-minded goal of keeping downtown Calgary vital. Tourmaline Oil Corp., whose head office is in Bow Valley Square, is a corporate sponsor dedicated to rebuilding the women’s locker rooms.
“We want to make this a real urban country club,” notes Thomson, who will serve as general manager and squash director. “The club had not had capital influx in the last decade and the club lost its value proposition for its members. People were asking why they were paying to belong when things were falling apart. Things needed to be redone.”
To that end, the men’s shower/locker rooms have been extensively repaired and upgraded, with the addition of a dry sauna and a steam room enhancement.
The women’s executive change room, scheduled to open in the fall, will have a spa aesthetic, fully enclosed showers, a lounge area and possibly a steam room/sauna. There will be direct access to the fitness centre.
The fitness expansion includes dedicated studio space for bootcamp, yoga, Barre, Cross-Fit, Pilates, group classes and personal training. Interactive fitness equipment, including Technogym interactive bikes, and a state-of-the-art dynamic fitness studio, will be added to the offering.
A new gaming centre, including a golf simulator, golf pro instruction and golf-specific fitness programming, is in the works.
The club entrance, main floor and lobby will also be modernized with a more user-friendly front desk area, new flooring, lighting and furniture. There will be flexible meeting and work spaces and “social engagement centres.” Larger spaces can accommodate weddings and other large gatherings.
The club has partnered with former world number one squash champion to create the Jonathan Power Squash Academy. The goal is to re-establish BVAC as a premier squash facility and capitalize on its existing doubles courts as doubles squash has become increasingly popular.
The 30,000 square foot facility has ample room and potential for everything the managing partners want to do, and that means more than just squash. The 6,000 square foot rooftop, which had a running track, could house pickleball, padel (a popular European racquet sport), a bocci court and putting green, food and beverage facilities, and a deck with umbrellas and chairs for lounging.
Renowned Calgary chefs are being brought on board to create two new, upscale dining experiences – one for members only and another for the general public. The latter will be named LILLEY, after the club’s first squash pro and former world ranked squash player Murray Lilley.
“We have a huge opportunity to make this into something really special,” said Thomson.
Not your dad’s club
At its peak, BVAC had a membership of 850 men and 400 women. By the time the club shut down during the pandemic, there were fewer than 300 men and a handful of women. The target membership is 1,000.
The management team knows they need to nurture a diverse, inclusive and welcoming atmosphere, and offer a variety of services and amenities – something they believe was lacking in the past.
“This is going to be a much different place,” said Brown. “It’s going to be a real fun place, not a stodgy men’s racquet club.”
They’ve been actively using social media channels to get the word out, and are planning marketing campaigns specifically targeting women.
Both potential and former members have responded positively, and one recent post had more than 30,000 views on LinkedIn. Brown and Thomson are tapping into their database of more than 500 members and past members to boost views and sales, and report that momentum and buzz are building.
Making it safe
“Ironically, the timing with COVID gave us a real opportunity because we’re able to renovate while things are closed down,” said Brown. “And over the past year, I think people have realized they miss that community atmosphere so much and want to be part of it again.”
“I think people need to get back,” agreed Thomson. “It’s sad when you see the government shutting down health clubs, which is the last thing you need to do because health clubs are such a contributing factor to your bottom line health, mentally and physically.”
Brown says the plan is to reopen in phases, diligently following COVID protocols and guidelines for safety and respecting government regulations. There will be limits on the number of members coming to the club, and people need to follow social distancing guidelines.
As restrictions ease, more memberships will be available and more of the club’s facilities, including group classes, will open.
Brown knows people are ready and anxious to return.
“We’re in the hospitality and human connection business,” he said. “That’s just human nature and it’s never going away. As long as you can create an environment of belonging, I’m very bullish about our chances for success, because that is an important part of the human race.”
Kathryn is a journalist and features writer who has been published in major newspapers and magazines in Canada and the U.S. She keeps fit with daily online yoga and walks along the beach. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org