When HCM last interviewed Simon Flint a few years back, Fitness First Asia and Celebrity Fitness had just come together under the banner of a newly-formed parent group, Evolution Wellness, of which Flint was CEO.
Even then, this was touted as just the beginning, with the creation of Evolution Wellness foretelling further acquisitions and ventures into wellbeing – and so it has transpired. Here, Flint offers an overview of the current Evolution Wellness portfolio, and a sneak preview of growth plans moving forward.
Let’s start with Fitness First and Celebrity Fitness. What has been the story here since 2017?
The big news for Celebrity Fitness has been its expansion into new markets: the Philippines in 2018, and then Thailand in 2019. These are both strong markets for Fitness First, but there are good opportunities for Celebrity too: the two brands are quite different, providing distinct experiences for members.
Fitness First is more corporate, about 15-20 per cent more expensive, and offers slightly more expert support and science, with DNA testing and so on – perfect for exercisers who want to challenge themselves.
Celebrity Fitness speaks to the young, and the young at heart. It’s about having fun while getting fit: we promise the liveliest vibe in town, with every class feeling like a party.
In addition to moving into new markets, over the last couple of years we’ve done some work across the Celebrity Fitness estate to enhance the brand and amplify its edgy attitude. That work has included major makeovers at the two biggest clubs in Malaysia, which has led to a 26 per cent uplift in new joining yield at those two locations.
Meanwhile, Fitness First has been about growth within existing territories. We have a new flagship location in Bangkok – a club called Icon Siam – which is spread over three floors, with facilities including an infinity pool and the country’s first dedicated Lagree Pilates studio.
We’ve also opened The F Zone in downtown Bangkok, which is a heart rate training, athletic performance club.
Both of these are Club Class locations, which is the tier above Platinum, as is our newest club in Malaysia. This one is actually a relaunch of a club we secured as part of the acquisition of CHi Fitness – a chain of 13 clubs in Malaysia – in 2018. This particular club, located in the upscale neighbourhood of Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, re-opened in November following a US$500k rebrand of a high-end Fitness First club.
We’ve also spun off some of our more successful group exercise formats to create club-in-club, boutique-style studios. The best example is The Box, which is entirely dedicated to boxing, with two proprietary classes: Boom, which is boxing to music; and Hook, which is more of a technical class where you learn the basic boxing moves.
But we also have other concepts with their own spaces, although members can also use those spaces when classes aren’t in progress. Surge, for example, is centred around Technogym Skillmills, with three bodyweight or free weight stations sitting behind each treadmill. And then Burn is more cardio-based, using four different types of equipment, such as Aerobikes, Concept2s and Versaclimbers.
Does your multi-brand approach have any benefits for your members?
In Malaysia and Indonesia – markets where we already have a critical mass of both Fitness First and Celebrity Fitness clubs – we introduced a dual-brand membership in 2018, which allows members to enjoy access to locations across both brands. We’re currently at 9.1 per cent penetration for that membership option.
Additionally, we acquired a small aggregator app a while ago, which we’ve further developed to allow us to become our own aggregator. As of last month, we’re piloting member and non-member apps for Fitness First and Celebrity Fitness where – along with the usual features you’d expect in an app, from booking and tracking to challenges and ‘invite a friend’ – we can release some of the capacity in our clubs to non-members, as well as allowing members to consume products and services in a pay-as-you-go fashion.
One day, as our estate continues to grow, it might even be that we create an Evolution Wellness membership and app – a way of aggregating across the total portfolio, allowing people to consume any of our brands by using credits from their digital membership. But for now, our aggregator app covers only Fitness First and Celebrity Fitness.
Tell us about your new brands since 2017…
The objective we set in 2017 was to build an ecosystem to service different price points, different attitudes to fitness, different modes of consumption, with an ability to respond to the broadest range of locations and spaces. As a result, we’ve expanded our portfolio significantly over recent years.
I’ve already mentioned CHi Fitness, which we acquired in 2018, along with wellness retreat Fivelements. In that same year, we acquired MembersFirst – a club management software created, used and fine-tuned by Fitness First Group over the years – and rebranded it to Circuit. It’s a very powerful membership administration tool which we’re planning to monetise going forward.
Then, in 2019, we acquired Malaysian boutique brand FIRE Fitness, developed a new brand format – Fivelements Habitat – and launched our own low-cost brand, GoFit.
Can you share a bit more detail on each of these brands?
CHi is a well-run chain of health clubs with good, mostly lower mid-market locations in Malaysia. These will complement the existing Celebrity Fitness-Fitness First club network well, and in time will allow members to derive more value from a triple-brand membership. However, we first have a little more work to do to codify and cement its brand positioning.
Fivelements, when we acquired it, comprised one location in Bali – a wellness retreat – which we’ve expanded with 20 new rooms and a culinary school for plant-based cuisine. We have, as I say, also begun to develop new brand formats: Fivelements Habitat launched in Hong Kong in 2019 as the first example of Fivelements’ urban wellness model. It focuses on yoga, sacred arts and plant-based cuisine. As a city sanctuary, it’s a space for quality ‘me’ time – for physical, mental and spiritual ‘maintenance’ – and offers a safe haven to unwind, decompress and reconnect.
FIRE Fitness enjoys a leadership position in the Malaysian boutique segment, with class experiences including Ride, Strike, Stride and Force. These classes are all proprietary and created in-house by the Fire team.
Despite having only two sites at the point of acquisition, it commands a really strong community base. Six weeks after joining the Evolution Wellness family, we opened the third site – Firestation 3 – which at 200sqm, and with a maximum 18 people in a class, promises to keep things intimate.
Then there’s GoFit, a brand and concept we created completely from scratch, which offers a no-frills, fuss-free gym experience: it offers everything you need, and nothing that you don’t, for about US$20 a month.
Technology is an essential enabler to deliver this high value, low price product.
GoFit clubs will start from 350sq m, but our first site – which we opened in Malaysia late last year – is a 1,200sq m flagship that showcases all the possible components of this model. That includes a ladies-only zone, accessed through the women’s changing rooms and not even visible to the rest of the gym; our proprietary, automated, traffic-lighted Super Circuit; virtual group exercise; and spaces where you can plug in your phone and work out following your own content on a big screen. There are premium add-ons too, such as hydro-massage and FitQuest.
What are your plans for all these brands moving forward?
Starting with Fitness First and Celebrity Fitness, our focus will be on existing territories, with steady growth on the cards. In particular, we’ll be looking at Thailand and the Philippines for Celebrity Fitness; and Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore for Fitness First.
Fivelements is set to be a very exciting brand, and I’m interested to see what we can do with it as we grow. We’re in negotiations at the moment for a second Fivelements Habitat site in Hong Kong, and as we go forward I can see us having some smaller studios too, reaching further into communities to make the offering more accessible still.
We’re also already mapping out other brand architectures – Fivelements Residences, for example, in response to a lot of inbound enquiries from developers and hotels interested in licensing the name and getting us involved in creating wellness components for their properties. It’s easy to see how some of the Fivelements expertise and ethos could be incorporated into our more mainstream club businesses, too, either in person or via the app.
But the real focus for growth at Evolution Wellness will be GoFit and Fire.
Our fourth Fire site, which we’re dubbing Fire Station 4, opens in Malaysia in March 2020 and this will already begin to ramp things up a bit. This new club will feature a new barre class, as well as a content delivery platform designed to facilitate our newly created Fire Circuit classes.
This set-up will allow us to expand quicker, with more easily replicable classes. The platform can help with instructor education too, quickly raising standards by letting instructors practise the content in their own time.
We expect growth of the Fire brand to accelerate as we go through this year. Even faster growth is planned for the GoFit brand.
We will ultimately operate Fire and GoFit in all our markets – Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – and our track record is already helping in this respect. When we’re talking to landlords about GoFit, for example, we’re already in a very different position than we would have been had the brand simply arrived from nowhere as a standalone business.
Do you have any plans to expand beyond your existing territories?
We do, yes, and again it will be Fire and GoFit that will drive new market expansion. This will be done through licensing.
Where previously, as with Fitness First, we were a division of a global business, now we can actually be the global business if we wish. We have the rights to GoFit and Fire, which changes the dynamic quite significantly from just being a south-east Asia player. We can play globally, and indeed have already had interest from as far away as Russia.
We don’t really work to a five-year plan, and I don’t want to pull numbers out of the sky, but for example it’s not unrealistic to think we could – through the franchise model – have a 1,000 GoFits in that sort of timeframe.
Are there any new initiatives planned to further grow your wellness reach?
Thinking out of the box – as our Evolution Wellness remit allows us to do – I envisage a next chapter that will focus on low inflammatory regimes and low oxidative stress lifestyles, encompassing everything from diet and the air we breathe to the amount of sleep we get and the kind of exercise we do.
I believe we must use the size of our platform to educate the market, helping people to understand that including a variety of exercise modalities in their life is likely the best path to optimum wellness.
We’ll need to get some authoritative content to make sure we’re really ready for this, but fortunately we already have the real estate and the space to be able to offer this kind of programme.