Leaders behind the UAE’s most successful gyms, fitness centres, and boutique studios
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“A key focus for us has always been to stay close to the communities”
Loren Holland, Founder and CEO, Frank Afeaki, Founder and COO, Ant Martland, Founder and Marketing Director, Gymnation
How did you come up with the idea for GymNation?
Loren: GymNation was borne out of the frustration that gyms in the UAE had been overcharging residents for far too long. As consumers ourselves, paying Dh400+ per month in one upfront annual payment, for substandard facilities, didn’t make sense.
As a result of this industry-wide high pricing, we felt too many people were being priced out of fitness in the UAE, so, we set out to create world-class gym facilities that were all open 24/7, with membership prices from just Dh99 per month.
It’s now been 3 years since that first GymNation location opened, and we currently have 7 open UAE locations, with at least 3 more in the pipeline to open this year. This will take us to 10 gyms and a UAE membership base well in excess of 50,000, further solidifying our position as the number one gym chain in the UAE.
What enables GymNation to make such big moves with expansion during this time?
Frank: The Covid period has of course been a disruption, but it definitely hasn’t affected our overall business objectives or our plans for growth.
Prior to Covid, our Al Quoz gym had been open for just over 18 months, and our Bur Dubai and RAK gyms had opened a few weeks before lockdown began, yet, after what was a tumultuous year for the fitness industry globally, we still managed to expand rapidly and finish 2020 with seven open GymNation locations.
How do you keep the price so low and maintain the quality of the experience?
Ant: We manage to keep our membership fees low by cutting out the typical frills and the costs associated with them such as saunas, steam rooms and swimming pools. Our focus is on other key areas, such as investing heavily in streamlining and digitising our systems and processes. Whilst minimising costs enables us to offer lower cost memberships, we will never cut costs in areas that would be a detriment to our product offering. From the equipment we install, through to making sure we work with the UAE’s best group exercise instructors. We’ve even started installing very expensive GHD hair straighteners and hair dryers in our changing rooms.
What are some of the biggest business lessons you’ve learned in 2020?
Loren: A key lesson that was reinforced in 2020 was to not be afraid to take risks, but to make sure those risks are always calculated. At a time when many gyms around us were closing, or pausing their expansions plans, we decided to go in the opposite direction and invested heavily to take us from 1 gym at the start of 2020, to end the year on 7.
Any initiatives for post-Covid? Tell us about any new projects in the near future?
Ant: For GymNation, 2021 is about continuing to widen the gap between us and our competitors as the clear market leader within the UAE, at the same time as expanding GymNation into GCC markets.
Post-COVID, we have invested significantly into creating and launching our own in-gym boutique workout concept called BLITZ in a number of our existing locations. BLITZ provides members with the opportunity to burn 1000+ calories in a 1-hour, high intensity group exercise class, through a mixture of cardio and strength exercises.
We have also just launched GymNation On Demand, which provides members and non-members with free access to 1000+ online Les Mills workouts, that can be streamed anytime, anywhere.
What attracts members to GymNation?
Frank: From the very first interaction a member has with GymNation, typically through our marketing or partnerships, through to their first time entering one of our gyms, people can see that we have fun, do things differently and push the boundaries versus what has been previously seen.
We call ourselves “The People’s Gym” and we live by that motto too! We were recently voted as The Best Gym in the UAE by UAE residents on Virgin Radio’s The Kris Fade Show, with a landslide victory of over 51 per cent of a total 70,000 votes!
“Competition is literally healthy”
Billy Graham, Co-founder, Vogue Fitness
In your opinion, what is the current state of the UAE’s fitness industry and what is the future?
The fitness industry in the UAE is maturing quickly. Previously health and fitness was the domain of the large international chains, whereas now in the last five years, homegrown UAE brands are creating tremendous fitness concepts. The future of the UAE fitness industry will continue to evolve to provide more niche services.
What is the brand’s single greatest accomplishment this far?
The single greatest accomplishment of Vogue Fitness is the number of lives that we are able to change for the better in the UAE. We have prevented people becoming diabetic, taken people from obese to athletic, and inspired people to adopt fitness into their daily lifestyle.
What is your advice to people looking to explore new ways of getting fit?
Just try new things that are offered by professionals until you find something that you enjoy doing. Then stick to that until you no longer enjoy it, or it no longer challenges you, and then repeat that process on a continual loop. Try to avoid joining a service simply because they offer you a discount on an annual membership. It can often be a trap where you only go for a few weeks, don’t enjoy it, but then psychologically won’t use another service until that annual membership expires. This can lead to years of inactivity. Only join a fitness service because you enjoy it and it can deliver the results that you are looking for in a supportive environment.
One year on, what’s the competitive environment in the UAE like for Vogue Fitness?
The competitive environment is ever changing as fitness in the UAE continues to evolve and grow. The more the competition, the more awareness it creates for the fitness industry overall, which then encourages more people to participate in fitness, which then continues to grow the industry further. Competition is literally healthy!
“Our gyms are built for any member looking to keep fit”
Tell us about some of the major turning points in the history of METROFITT.
We started METROFITT with the aim to change the market trend and make fitness affordable and accessible to all residents and citizens within the UAE. Why must good health come with an expensive price tag!
Our major turning point was when we opened our first Gym located at Dubai Airport Free Zone, the response from members to a new brand was unbelievable, we immediately knew we were on a winning formula. This gave as the motivation to open another four gyms in a span of three years.
What are you most excited about that METROFITT accomplished during the pandemic?
This was a tough time for many businesses, I am pleased to say we did not let go of any staff during this period and also opened our flagship club 3 months after the lockdown with our 5th gym opening in November 2020.
Which industry and customer segments are you targeting?
We target all residents and citizens of the UAE, our gyms are built for any member looking to keep fit, we offer a well-planned and fully kitted gym together with group classes for those members looking for some upbeat music and sick moves from our energetic instructors. We have partnered with Les Mills to provide our members with the quality they are now accustomed with our brand. We also offer personal training modules.
What sets your business apart from the competition?
We bring affordable premium fitness to the country, Our clubs are of international standards and tick all the boxes that a member is looking for. We have partnered with Matrix, the leading equipment suppliers across the globe, who have done an excellent job in filling our clubs with equipment that you will not find with other brands.
What’s next for METROFITT?
The long term goal is to open more gyms, giving our members access to a METROFITT close to their home, and work is our ultimate goal. Our immediate goal is to continue to keep our members engaged and have them coming back for more!
“We will keep on investing in our people and products”
What are the key challenges you faced during this time and how did you manage to turn it around?
We operate 57 clubs in 49 locations across six territories and one of the biggest challenges we faced was keeping up with the constant regulations for the health, safety and well-being of our members. There were constant updates on regulations and we had to make sure that all staff was trained well. We overcame all that by rigorous staff training. We did additional spot checks and the followed the specific guidelines of the Dubai Sports Council. The point was to enhance the overall experience for our members.
Which accomplishment of Fitness First during the pandemic are you most excited about?
It is very unusual for any business to have time to reflect and look back at their business and see what can be done differently. The pandemic helped us make that time to do that. We looked back at the structure of the business and the member experience and we undertook many new initiatives that we were in the past only thinking of doing such as digitising with an online stream of classes. We were very keen to make sure that we stay in contact with our members and get them engaged and informed on what we are doing.
What trends do you see in the UAE’s fitness industry?
Everyone thinks everything is going to go online, but I completely disagree. I think there will be a general mix of people supporting their gym workouts by doing classes at home with their friends and family. We have experienced a huge amount of our members returning to the gym because of the community sense of belonging that we create in our clubs. Our members want a safe environment and they want to work out with their friends. The future trends will always be a mix of going to the gym and the occasional digitized experience. Wearable technology will continue to play a huge part and at Fitness First we offer our members Myzone which tracks your activity and heart rate which is used by a large percentage of our members and all of our staff. What has also happened during the lockdown time many people have taken the time to become more educated about their health and wellbeing, they know more now what a great PT should offer or how an amazing group exercise instructor can push and motivate them and we are very proud that all our staff are without doubt able to exceed their expectations.
What do you see for the future of Fitness First clubs in the UAE?
We will keep on investing in our people and products. To continuously provide excellent facilities, outstanding customer experience along with introducing new innovations to keep us the best fitness operator.
“It’s all about our customers’ exercise journey”
What does The Platform Studios bring to the fitness table, that differentiates it as a business?
For us, it’s all about our true north, our brand purpose and we have spent the last five years experimenting, prototyping and co-creating what experiencing the joy of exercise could mean to our members …ultimately that it should leave them with the thoughts and feelings of “Being Alive”.
At the Platform Studios it’s all about our customers exercise journey, and to this end, we will constantly develop and innovate the experience of exercise. Around here it’s affectionately known as “the joy of exercise” and we pay particular attention to the environmental sensory aspects and high touch personal engagement with our trainer/performers. In tandem these elements make up our stickiness DNA… and this is at the heart of our brand and resultant culture.
What has been your highlight of 2020?
I’d have to say the highlight of an extremely tough year was the ability for us to remain true to our purpose of bringing joy to people’s lives through exercise experiences.
We have always believed that our people are the foundation of our value chain. The future of irresistible exercise and wellness experiences depends on our ability to create joy for our trainers and coaches in their day to day working environment. That’s was tough under the unprecedented conditions, but we banded together, driven by a common purpose, and grew stronger than ever with a collective spirit of creativity and resolve.
What do you think is new about today’s fitness studios?
Design, equipment, variety have all become table stakes now … the winners will be the ones that create a memorable experience.
How have digital options impacted the fitness industry, particularly for studios?
Digital has been fast tracked… but it’s not about one or the other it’s about a blend of the two.
From a digital point of view our purpose is to create a platform that helps coaches monetise their passion and effort and we have created a product that is driving industry innovation.
But on the other hand, people will always crave connection and so our physical spaces will continue to deliver variety…it’s the spice of life and that is why we have always remained true to this philosophy by ensuring that we deliver a multi-modality offering. From Cycle to HIIT, Box to pilates, Yoga to Mix it up we have, innovated and will continue to innovate in this space.
What’s your vision for The Platform Studios?
Our vision hasn’t changed … that’s the great thing about having a true north. It keeps you grounded and you don’t lose your way when the tough times come. Like I’ve said we set out on this journey to truly understand what the joy of exercise means and how it can contribute to changing people’s lives for the better.
We will continue to tweak and develop this value proposition across the physical and digital platforms available to us. Ultimately, we see ourselves providing an ecosystem that delivers the joy of exercise to anyone who wants to live happier and healthier… anywhere in the world.
“You are as good as your last brand experience”
Tell us more about Snap Fitness?
Snap Fitness is a premier international chain of gyms providing fitness and wellness solutions to customers across the globe. We, JSB Fitness, as master franchisee brought this brand to the region in 2016 with two 24/7 facilities in Media City & Motorcity and the third in Downtown in Dubai.
What does Snap Fitness do differently?
Snap Fitness’ philosophy and what they call their method of making members achieve their fitness goals is unique. The brand truly believes in result-oriented programs which revolves around the 4 Foundations of Fit - 1. Get fitter faster 2. Get fit your way 3. Get fit when it fits and 4. Get fit together. These are simple practical philosophies to getting fit, for which we are loved and which keeps us growing across the world. In the UAE, we stand out for offering affordable membership plans that include goal-oriented programmes, personal training & access to a range of unlimited global and home grown group exercise classes. Our club sizes range from 500 to 700 sqm and fits into the definition of neighbourhood clubs. We also have special packages for Corporates called Fit for Future, which offers tailor-made solutions to employees across organisations.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from the fitness industry?
That you are as good as your last brand experience. At Snap we pride in having a loyal community of members whose experiences are reflected in the high referrals we get which drives our growth.
What is your ultimate goal for Snap Fitness in the future?
Our goals for Snap Fitness are pragmatic and modest. We continue to improve our services and experience to grow organically in our existing locations. We are also looking at expanding Snap Fitness to strategic locations which are currently under served. Our next facility in Sharjah at Rahmania Mall reflects this intent as its our first Ladies Only gym to serve the local and expat women population in this growing community. We don’t have a presence in Abu Dhabi yet and are open to sub-franchising the brand. Potentially, the brand can grow in excess of 25 locations in the UAE in the next couple of years. While we consolidate our presence here, we are looking at opportunities in other countries as well.
“Our warm, family-like environment makes everyone feel welcome”
What is your inspiration for CRANK?
We wanted to create a successful homegrown brand that is tailored and unique to the market. Our aim was to provide people of any level with great workouts that are challenging, fun and exciting, with an element of competitiveness where we push our clientele to their limits and beyond. Creating a strong sense of community and a warm, friendly atmosphere was central to our offering.
What emerging industry trends have you observed for boutique studios?
We have seen fitness enthusiasts generally move away from traditional mainstream gyms into boutique fitness. People want to challenge themselves through fun, energetic experiences; furthermore, we find that customers want to be part of a friendly community.
What opportunities and challenges do the fitness industry provide to your kind of boutique studios?
Fresh and innovative concepts are rewarded, and social media is playing a significant role in attracting people to boutique fitness. The critical challenge studios face is the intense competition as new concepts continue to emerge globally and locally. This requires businesses to continuously adapt, change, and invest in order to continue seeing success.
Can you elaborate on the ideal experience for a member at your studio?
A member’s journey starts from the point of booking a class, and we have developed a seamless reservation system, which gives our customers the ability to book in advance, choose their favourite spot and make changes to match their needs. From then on, the experience at the studio itself needs to be impeccable, as clients have high expectations.
“We consider ourselves a second home for our members and employees”
Your concept of a premium lifestyle holistic facility is very different from a regular gym. Tell us what you do differently.
The services that we offer and our attention to detail is what makes SEVEN unique. We don’t consider ourselves as a gym but as a second home for our members and employees.
How do you see the need of fitness education, right coaching, and nutrition in the UAE?
We are very fortunate to be in a supportive and health focused environment in the UAE. It is really something that we don’t see everywhere in the world.
How important is it for health clubs to focus on selling memberships for a broader and complete health agenda?
At SEVEN we are not focused on selling memberships, we are providing an experience focusing on mind, body and soul. By keeping SEVEN as a members-only club (new registrations are on a waitlist basis), we can maintain unprecedented standards for all of our members.
What were SEVEN’s major achievements in these two years?
There was a big gap in the market for a place like SEVEN - and we took it. We are proud of the contributions we have made to the industry and the support we have given to our members on their holistic journeys.
What vision do you have for the facility in the coming years?
Dubai is the ideal environment for us to evolve and perfect our brand. We consider SEVEN Dubai as the base from which we will launch our future worldwide developments.
“We create that feeling of being at home for everyone who walks in”
Shaazia Qureishi Kanchwala. Managing Director, The PAD
How did you start in the UAE? What was the impetus for The PAD?
The PAD is the brainchild of myself and my husband, Abbas Kanchwala. He is a passionate dancer, and Yasmin Karachiwala who is the pioneer of Pilates in India, is my aunt – so opening a Pilates and Dance studio seemed like the perfect blend of both our backgrounds! We opened The PAD on our first wedding anniversary in August 2018.
I was new to Dubai, and I wanted to build a community that I felt connected to. So, The PAD was built not just to be a place to work-out, but a place to hang out. Over the almost 3 years we have been open, we have had 3,000+ clients walk in through our doors and along with getting a great workout they meet like-minded people, make friends, laugh and always leave feeling great.
What makes you different from every other gym or Pilates studio?
One word: Community. Our members call The PAD their second home, and our reviews on Google and every other platform show the love and belonging they feel. We create that feeling of being at home for everyone who walks in! At The PAD, no one is allowed to body shame themselves! We promote accepting your body the way it is, and working from a place of acceptance rather than hate.
Tell us about the most popular exercise or exercises that are currently trending at The PAD?
Reformer Pilates is everyone’s all-time favourite class! But two classes that are unique to The PAD are “Bhangralates” and “Bollywood Cardiolates” – they’re basically Bhangra and Pilates on a trampoline! They’re high intensity cardio classes but very low impact on the joints. The trampolines are the best quality and absorb 96% of the shock of your jump. Everyone at The PAD LOVES the trampoline classes! Besides these, our dance classes like Bollywood, Afro, Contemporary are all very popular too. We have tied up with Pure Bhangra to offer the best Bhangra and Bhangrafit classes in Dubai!
TOP FITNESS EQUIPMENT AND SOLUTIONS PROVIDERS
“We take a user centric approach spanning design, materials and safety”
Hany Abu Omar, Managing Director, Johnson Health Tech-Middle East
Being a premium fitness/health equipment company, how do you ensure the consistent quality of your products across all your brands?
Quality is non-negotiable, we take a user centric approach spanning design, materials and safety, 100% designed and manufactured in our premises across US, Japan, China and Taiwan. Today Johnson is the global largest health and wellness company, Matrix is the world’s fastest growing brand.
What state-of-the-art technology are you using in your fitness equipment?
Seamless Digital Connectivity. Our digital platforms ensure managers, trainers and users enjoy the best experience. Our new Cardio won global awards, we have it in the UAE at the Ritz Carlton DIFC, Emirates Golf Club with more options soon.
How do you bring the exact reality on the desk while setting up a gym, and kindly share some details about the after-sales service of your equipment?
We work collaboratively with our customers starting with the desired user experience, the space and the budget, we visualize using 3D drawings & walk through video to +90 per cent of reality, all done in-house in our regional HQ in Dubai.
We’re the only company with 24/7 support, an industry record of 12 hrs/ same day replacement, customers voted us the best after-sales.
“Successful gyms are all about creating a community.”
Greg Boucher, CEO, MeFitPro
How did the idea of MeFitPro originate?
I came to the UAE in 1999 to set up the first commercial fitness club Planet Fitness. Three years later, I started MeFitPro, mainly as a consultant training those who wanted to work in the fitness industry. Now we are focussing on education, distribution, and recruitment and online.
When are you launching your Echelon Fitness concept?
We plan to do an intial launch in July and a relaunch in September when people return from vacation. What we’re doing is bringing the gym to your house. So you can use the app to do yoga, Zumba or boxing. All the classes are led by an instructor. It also links to your Apple or Samsung watch to gives you all your health information.
How is technology changing the fitness industry?
It’s a game-changer. With all the technology people are wearing on their wrists, they can track their fitness goals in real time. There is also the concept of exertainment, which is about making exercising fun while focussing on results. It can be strength training, cardior, yoga, or even pilates and crossfit.
What are the trends or innovation you see today?
Home fitness solutions like Echelon, where you can do online live classes at home on demand is the biggest development. Group fitness has also become a big thing, while. fitness tracking is continuing to grow and smartwatches and other gadgets evolve.
“One thing that won’t change is our mission of a fitter planet”
Glen Stollery, CEO Les Mills India, Middle East and Africa
Les Mills’ mission is to help people fall in love with fitness so that they want to work out. How do you plan to achieve that?
We’re in the business of motivation. Our secret sauce is an incredible mix of rockstar instructors, the hottest music, and engaging workouts that are backed by the latest scientific research. It’s that powerful combination that gets people excited about exercise. Quite simply we make exercise fun!
Should instructors be worried about the threat of digital classes?
Absolutely not, in fact quite the opposite. Online classes open up an entirely new market for instructors. Our research in 2019 showed that 85% of gym members were already working out at home, and most were using some kind of digital device, app or website. Even pre-COVID it was already an established behaviour, just now due to the pandemic even more so. At Les Mills we provide instructors livestreaming solutions so they can offer something to those training at home themselves, rather than their members working out to a random YouTube video or third-party app. This way members get to maintain engagement with their favorite instructors, and train with them at home even on days they can’t make it into the gym.
What excites you the most about the impact of technology on fitness?
There are quite a few but what I think excites me most is the use of technology to enhance the workout experience. If we consider how technology has changed so much of our lives, like how we consume music and media content, it’s been transformational, but the way we workout hasn’t fundamentally changed in 50 years. Technology allows us to make workouts more experiential and compelling.
THE BEST HEALTHY FOOD SERVICE PROVIDER
“We continually strive to bring a firm call for healthy food”
Mark Carroll, Founder, Kcal
Why do you think healthy home delivered meals are so popular nowadays?
Thanks to the digital age, everyone can purchase nutritious meals with just a few clicks on their devices and be delivered directly to their home. The availability of healthy home delivered meals pave the way to easily access a range of food menus that are rich in proteins, vitamins, and other minerals. And similarly, Kcal provides numerous channels in order for you to avail meal plans tailored specifically for your needs.
How did you grow Kcal into one of the country’s most popular meal delivery company?
Kcal was founded in 2010 with the passion to inspire people to live a healthier life and introduce the convenience of eating wholesome meals with the freshest ingredients to make meal plans that are crafted with the right amount of energizing carbs, proteins, and healthy fats without compromising the quality and taste of the food. Through the years, we continually strive to bring a firm call for healthy food with far-reaching benefits sought by our customers.
Fuel-Up by Kcal delivers meal prep designed to support physique performance goals through perfectly portioned nutrition and clean supplements.
How important are supplements in the whole fitness process?
Fuel-Up by Kcal provides fresh, tasty, and healthy packed meal prep designed by our certified nutritionists and fitness specialists. Our brand is created for those who have big goals and need to prioritize their time – less time in the kitchen worrying about food means more time in the gym to achieve your fitness goals. We believe that what you intake can determine how you feel and perform and so we bring you an accessible range of nutritious meal plans to choose from. Our prepared daily meal can be accompanied by our clean supplements ranging from whey protein, for pre-workout, BCAA, L-Glutamine and more that you can take together with your meal prep depending on your fitness needs.
What does the future look like for Kcal?
We have the goal to constantly educate and promote better food alternatives with our more diversified food menu to battle the ongoing concern for poor health decisions. We are making the greatest effort to link every community with a positive shift in lifestyle and make healthy food options available as the demand for wholesome food in the region increases. And we are ensuring that the promised quality, natural, and healthy taste from the start of our journey will be maintained for the successful years to come. Future plans also include expansion across the region with goals to open more of our dine-in restaurants and kitchens.