What’s the story of Urban Gym Group?
Meijer: We have to rewind to my first business, Clubsportive, which launched in 1998, with a second club opening in Amsterdam in 2000. We loved the energy of the city – the clubbing, the music, the dancing – and brought that into the look and feel and experience of the club.
Things started going fast and by 2002 we had five gyms. But in 2008, budget clubs arrived and with our price tag – €50 or €60 a month – we were losing members to brand new gyms, with brand new equipment, where you could train for €15 or €16.
They didn’t have the atmosphere of Clubsportive, so we survived the crisis, but it was a turning point.
By 2011, when Fit4Free acquired four of our Amsterdam clubs, we realised it was time to reinvent what we did. Setting out to make a healthy fitness lifestyle more affordable, we created a new brand called TrainMore, where your membership cost less the more often you trained – right down to getting it for free.
Starting in 2012, we converted all but one of our Clubsportives into TrainMore clubs; the remaining Clubsportive – in Amsterdam’s financial district – still exists today.
TrainMore grew fast, but we hit a ceiling at nine clubs and could never seem to get beyond that number. We knew we needed to find someone to help us grow.
At the same time, Jordy happened to be looking for a small company to invest in and by chance we met and got on. This was the end of 2015 and a year later, we’d come together as business partners.
It was a new beginning for TrainMore. We’d been doing what we did for so many years we’d developed blind spots; Jordy showed us new ways of doing business and made investment available to fund our growth plans.
My former business partner and I also owned Clubsportive and were part-owners of High Studios – a HIIT studio brand founded by Barbara den Bak (HCMmag.com/denbak). With all these brands on the table, by mid-2018 Jordy was asking the question: “What if we bring everything together into one group and go to the bank for further growth funding?” And Urban Gym Group was born.
What’s your background Jordy?
Kool: I’m 46 and have been a fitness fanatic since I was 13 – from being a gym member, to competing nationally in jiu-jitsu and judo and being an assistant manager of a gym while I was studying.
Then came a corporate career in IT, telecoms and media, before setting out on my own and starting a few small companies as an entrepreneur. That wasn’t for me though – I was too used to being a director of big corporates.
In 2009, I had an opportunity to buy myself into an IT reseller called Infoteek – a company we grew from €55m to €1bn. I sold it three times: in 2014, in 2016 and then in 2021, selling half the business for half a billion Euros.
With the funds raised from the 2014 and 2016 sales, I gradually started setting up my own investment firm and currently have 16 investments – a lot of them in sports, health and wellness, which is what makes my heart tick. I’m an investor and advisor with expertise in marketing, sales, business development, expanding businesses abroad, finance funding and helping others scale their businesses.
What brands form the Urban Gym Group?
Meijer: There’s Clubsportive: the very big, high-end club with lots of personal training. It also has lounge spaces, boutique studios inside the club, as well as a 25m swimming pool and a range of wellness offerings.
Then there are 17 TrainMore clubs. Wherever possible, we take on historic, characterful, beautiful buildings in the centre of the big cities and we bring them alive. Music is key to this: we have our own radio channel, with DJs curating the latest sounds for our gyms, and booths in some clubs where local DJs can come in and do their sets. The clubs have Technogym equipment.
We now have a simplified business model, though, with membership starting at €35–40 a month and €1 deducted each time you visit. The problem with our original model – train three times a week and you train for free – was that people in the Netherlands train a lot, so a lot of members were getting membership for free. They brought their own drinks, too. Looking back on it now, it definitely wasn’t sustainable!
Kool: We’ve moved to an all-inclusive concept at TrainMore rather than trying to sell add-ons which – whatever sector you’re in – is always a challenge. And we’ve introduced our own personal training service. We’ve always offered PT, but we now have our own PTs on our payroll. We decided it was better to take control of that offering to standardise the quality.
Meijer: The next brand is High Studios: the HIIT boutique, currently with four locations, that we’re developing further, as well as growing. We’ve just launched a new location that has three concepts under one roof: High Run, which is the original boutique bootcamp-style class; High Ride, a new SoulCycle-esque cycling class; and High Flow, which is hip-hop-style power yoga. We also have an outdoor bootcamp concept, High Outdoors and High Tracks, a HIIT audio workout.
Kool: Outdoor was big in lockdown and we know it’s here to stay. High Tracks really began to take off during lockdowns. It’s still at a very early stage, but we were downloaded in around 25 countries. High Tracks is about music combined with workouts and coaching. If someone wants to learn to run, for example, they can buy a programme to do that. We’re still experimenting with it though: we don’t make a lot of revenue or profit on it yet.
Meijer: Then there’s BTY CLB, which as the name suggests is all about glutes. The founder June Mirit has created such a nice concept, but she’s never had her own studio before, running sessions on rooftops and in nightclubs. It’s a real show with music, lights and dancers. I’ve never seen anything like it – it’s honestly as though you’re out clubbing for an hour. We’ll be opening her first boutique studio in Amsterdam soon.
Kool: And then finally – for now – we’ve acquired the master franchise rights for TRIB3 in Benelux. We’re always looking for new concepts, though. (see HCM Feb 21, p28, for an interview with TRIB3’s Kevin Yates HCMmag.com/KevinYates)
What were the benefits of creating a group?
Kool: First of all, it allows us to build a bigger business to get more funding from the bank. A group approach also works for our strategy – focusing on one big city and conquering it with various brands that give our 16–45-year-old target audience all sorts of different workout options.
If you have a simple, ‘one size fits all’ gym model, it’s easy to roll out anywhere in Europe. But we’re not doing that, we’re offering high quality and high service across multiple brands, and with that approach it’s easier to understand one city than 20. You can also better leverage your marketing and your overheads. Geographical focus makes you stronger.
Meijer: Being a Group that spans various brands also gives our employees a far more diverse career path, more opportunities to learn and develop and do new things. It’s one of the many reasons why people love working for us.
How focused are you on Amsterdam?
Kool: We’re growing in a few cities – The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Groningen – and have some legacy clubs in other cities. What I would say, though, is that if you give me two options – Amsterdam or somewhere else – I will go for Amsterdam.
As much as anything, it’s crucial to have a very firm position in a market where the aggregators are so influential. It allows you to stay in control of your yield. We work with the aggregators – we work well with them – but our strong position in Amsterdam means they want to work with us. We’re in control of our pricing.
We might sell the legacy clubs at some point, or we might not. We don’t need to sell them for now. They exist in a sister entity called My Local Gym Group which can accommodate any sites that come to us via acquisition and that are not in large cities. We don’t want too many outliers in the Urban Gym Group, but if they make money and we can learn from them, they’re OK where they are for now.
The second reason we created My Local Gym Group was that we’ve run across some very interesting concepts along the way we think we can learn from, but that for now at least, are small enough to be a distraction to the main business.
If some of these projects get big enough to justify pushing them into the Urban Gym Group, we will – but then we might need to rebrand the Group in the longer term anyway, because ‘Urban’ really is focused on the city and may be limiting. That point is still a way away at this point though.
The third reason was very simple. During lockdowns, the banking industry basically pulled the plug: our banks weren’t happy with us acquiring companies unless we financed it ourselves. That wasn’t an issue, I was happy to fund them, but I’m not stupid – I wasn’t going to put those acquisitions into the main Group.
What are your growth plans?
Meijer: We want to grow fast. With TRIB3, for example, we aim to open 15–20 sites over the next three to five years. With TrainMore we hope to get to 40. We’ll have more ‘three-discipline’ High Studios as well – Ride, Run and Flow – plus a few BTY CLB studios and maybe one more Clubsportive. We’re closing contracts for a number of new sites at the moment.
Kool: Our first focus, however, is getting to 50 sites. That was in our plan a year ago, and if you count the six clubs in My Local Gym Group, we’ve already added 30. Factor in the acquisitions we’re working on and we’ll quickly get to 35, maybe more, so 50 is a goal to aim for within a year or two – and then we’ll make the next plan!
I never work on five- or three-year plans. I have a view on where I’d like to be, of course, but I’ve also learned that almost every year you have to adapt your plans. Hopefully when we adapt ours, it will be to put bigger numbers on it – but you just never know, because at a certain point in time we might just think: ‘This is it, this is the right size.’
We certainly don’t want to get into an overly-crowded market where everyone’s competing on price and nobody benefits. When there are too many gyms, too many boutiques – which I’d say is already the case in some cities – it drives the price down. When that happens, the profit goes down too, so the costs have to go down, and the quality goes with it. And that isn’t something the consumer wants.
The end point as I see it is having ‘x’ number of clubs or studios in Amsterdam, combined with outdoor and online offerings to dominate the city for our target group, with a range of offerings that enable us to stay in control of our own price and yields.
We’re actively looking at expanding abroad and researching opportunities in Spain. Again, we’d want to find one city – could be Barcelona, could be Madrid – where we’ll roll out as many of our concepts as possible. The city would need to have some resemblance to Amsterdam – the same vibe, the same needs and interests among the consumers – but if we do it, and it’s still an ‘if’ at this stage, it will happen in 2022.
It could even be that we acquire a small chain or small boutique operation in the city, and that will be the start of the roll-out of our other concepts there.
Will you bring new brands into the group?
Kool: We’ll look at most things, especially if we don’t think we can create them ourselves. That’s our approach really: if we can’t build it, we’ll buy it. As an example, Barbara den Bak created High Flow, which as a power yoga workout is a style that resonates with her. More traditional, meditative yoga isn’t her thing, though, so we’re now actively looking to buy into a yoga chain to help it roll out.
We’re also looking to move into the broader wellness category. At the moment, Urban Gym Group is really about fitness concepts and HIIT workouts. However, we believe health, wellness and fitness are converging, just as everything in the IT world moved into bundled services, so the same will happen in fitness and wellbeing.
With this in mind, we’re working on another new brand and will hopefully open a new concept club towards the end of this year.
We’re also experimenting with physiotherapy in one of our gyms – once again, under its own brand and with its own entrepreneur in charge – and it’s going very well. In fact, it’s a good example of a brand that started out in My Local Gym Group and which, as we now look to introduce it at all our clubs, we’ll bring into the Urban Gym Group.
What do you look for in your investments and acquisitions?
Meijer: It has to be a great concept, of course, as well as there being good energy between us. But we’re also looking for people who live their brands and who really want to grow – they just don’t know how. BTY CLB founder June is a good example. I met with her yesterday and her eyes were twinkling at what we can now do together. She knows she isn’t battling on her own any more.
Kool: We prefer to buy a small chain – someone who’s already proven they can go from one to two to three to four to five sites. Then we figure out why they’ve hit the wall so we can help them fix it. It could be financing, it could – like June – be a lack of sparring partner to challenge them, it could be difficulties in finding locations.
In every case, though, we’re buying into the entrepreneur or manager. We want them on-board – they become a part-owner of the Group. We categorically aren’t buying institutions where we replace the manager or entrepreneur with someone else.
But it’s very important they’re willing to be challenged. If I sense someone just wants our money and isn’t open to being challenged – if I feel their ego is going to get in the way, I’m not interested.
Anyone can supply money. We add value, but to do that, there will sometimes be tough conversations to get the best out of the opportunity and the people involved.
Meijer: Our values sit at the heart of everything – we absolutely live and breathe them. We care, we challenge and we energise.
What makes Urban Gym Group special?
Kool: One of our trademarks is that we prefer to let founders be in the limelight. Obviously we’re in the background, but they run their businesses independently and shine with their brand. Unless we reach a point where they want a change and we find them another role in which they can shine – as we’ve done with Barbara, who’s now Urban Gym Group’s chief marketing and innovation officer.
Then we’re about executing, even if we make mistakes. I’d rather get on and do than talk about something for ages; rather try things and fail than miss out on a super idea. This comes back to our core value of ‘we do’.
We’re honest about our mistakes with our employees, too. We might acquire the wrong company, might integrate it incorrectly, might make a mistake in the launch. We tell our team if that happens.
Meijer: This is because we don’t want anybody in the company to be afraid. They need to know they really can say what they think needs to happen to make the business better.
A lot of companies really don’t know what kind of talent they have, because they don’t ask and don’t give people an opportunity to show their potential. We ask and we give opportunities. For example, we have strategy calls where our employees are divided into teams, each focusing on a different area of the business. One presentation was on our IT strategy, and on that team was a girl who was just doing nine hours a week of host work at Clubsportive while studying at university. She was always so quiet, but on this call she was amazing – talking about a topic she was passionate about – and she now has a job in our IT team.
Kool: Ultimately, neither Marjolijn nor I are in the target group any more. We might want to be, we might feel like we are, but our target group is younger than us. If we don’t talk to staff who are in that target group, if we don’t listen to our customers, we’re going to have a problem. This isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ gym chain. We need to know how to engage our customers.
What was the impact of COVID-19 on your business?
Kool: I think there are three things to say about COVID-19. Firstly, our members were super-loyal, which says something about our group. Employees too: even when we had to let them go, they were the first to raise their hands to come back when we started hiring again.
Secondly, the pandemic has shown that we invest anti-cyclically, which is something I’ve done in other businesses too. We actually accelerated our growth, made acquisitions, invested in new equipment almost everywhere, did some rebuilding and invested in new concepts.
Some investors might have found that very scary, but I’ve had this experience twice before and it’s always turned out well, as it puts you ahead of the curve.
Thirdly, it says something about us as individuals, because we got fired up by it. It sounds awkward maybe, because it was a tough time for everyone, but we became even more energised.
What’s the dynamic between you, as co-CEOs?
Meijer: We’re buddies, a team and we trust each other. We’re different characters and challenge each other, but we appreciate each other and have the same passion and goals. Ultimately, we want to be the best. We strive to be front-runners in everything we do. But we also want to have fun. Life’s too short. I’m passionate about health and I’m not finished yet. I’m an entrepreneur at heart and I still have so many ideas of things we can do to help people and build energised, active communities.
Kool: I love working with someone who’s so eager to learn and in everything we do, thinks about the company, its members and staff first.
What gets me out of bed is my desire to learn and develop myself, as well as to share my knowledge and experience to help others develop. If I don’t add value, even if it’s going to make me a lot of money, I don’t want to be in.
It’s not about being number one in the market for me, though. We can be number two or number three, as long as we did everything we could and we aspired to be number one. If we then make 10 per cent, 5 per cent or 7 per cent, it doesn’t really matter. If you do what you love, you’re going to get a great return.