Network meets…
NIKI DEAN, MANAGING DIRECTOR, GO HEALTH CLUBS

Every now and then a business in our industry makes you double-take and say ‘Wow – that’s different’. Such is the case with Go Health Clubs, which was named Fitness Australia’s Club of the Year in 2011. Network met Niki Dean, the visionary behind Go, to discover how to stand out from the crowd.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I started Go Health Clubs in 2007. We have grown the business in recent years by opening two sites during the GFC and two more in 2012. In 2011 we were named Fitness Australia’s Club of the Year and Les Mills Asia Pacific Club of the Year. Our clubs generally house around 4,500 members each, with the main focus being entertainment. My route to this point was via Britain and America. After finishing a sport and business degree in the UK I went straight into the gym industry and proceeded to work in all aspects of club operations. I also worked in the US for Major League Soccer in sports program development. I arrived in Australia in 2001 and managed the Queensland division for Life Fitness. This exposed me to a diverse range of fitness offerings, which was invaluable in helping me identify the type of gyms that worked and the type that didn’t. I studied, and have a keen interest in, behavioural psychology, which has been pivotal in creating a successful business – once you know what makes people tick it makes things a whole lot easier.

What makes Go Health Clubs different to other ‘big box’ facilities?

The whole business is geared around being different. When making a decision we always ask ourselves ‘Is anyone else doing this?’ If the answer is ‘yes’ we will look for another way to do it. The team at Go identified some time ago that we needed to differentiate. By copying and trying to emulate competitors you can’t gain a competitive advantage. We have a Go Culture Book called The Chronicles of the Spark in which it is stated that Go is ‘Friendly, vivacious and a little bit out there’. That would probably be the best way to describe us in a nutshell.

The Go Culture Book states that Go is ‘Friendly, vivacious and a little bit out there’

Go has a strong emphasis on group exercise – what made you decide to take this approach?

Group fitness is one of the most effective ways to connect with members. It also links in well with our goal to be ‘Australia’s Best Workout Experience’. The group fitness environment is one of the easiest spaces to create a lot of entertainment, which is one of the key elements of Go. The term ‘group fitness instructor’ really doesn’t do some of our people at Go justice – a lot of them would be better described as performers or entertainers. We have world-class dancers doing Burlesque and Hip Hop classes. It’s incredibly entertaining for members.

I went to the U2 360 concert a few years back and was blown away. It was a catalyst to look at how far towards that experience you could take a group fitness studio and gym. We don’t have 50,000 people in our gyms or flying spaceship effects like U2, but we do have huge video walls, concert style rigging, concert lighting effects, enormous stages and great audio. Throw on top of that great performers and all of a sudden it feels like you’re at an event or show.

 

The four elements that Go Health Clubs’ put together to create the spark integral to its culture

Where is membership to Go Health Clubs positioned in the marketplace?

We pitch ourselves as a big box full service facility with plenty of variety at an affordable rate. The 24-hour model has done a good job of keeping bigger facilities like us accountable on pricing. The introduction of no-contract memberships has also been a winner for us. We have plenty of variety and service, with all classes and small group exercise included in the weekly rate, so we find that no-contract memberships actually have pretty good longevity. In terms of differentiating in the marketplace, we pitch from a different angle. A traditional large gym may be described as ‘A well-equipped venue that offers a diverse range of fitness services and facilities’. Go, on the other hand, describes itself as ‘An entertainment-based facility that connects emotionally with its members’. Entertainment is the primary focus and fitness is ultimately a by-product of their attendance.

 

Is this model unique in Australia – and is it in evidence internationally?

Yes, the model is unique in Australia. We took inspiration from various facilities around the world, including David Barton Gyms in the US. It’s not unusual to find a skeleton sat in a chair under the stairs in one of his clubs. Gymbox in the UK have very cool gym environments with DJ’s playing, unique class programs and edgy design. However, probably the best gyms I’ve seen anywhere are the Les Mills gyms in New Zealand. The group fitness studios and general set up is mind blowing.

 

The Go Health Clubs gym floor, featuring video wall, at Carindale, QLD

How important is group exercise for your member retention?

Group fitness is a big part of what we do, but it’s not the only aspect that drives our success. The club design and general environment is very different to a traditional gym. When people first tour the club they will often comment that it feels like they are at a concert or nightclub.

Another key area of our business is personal training. We run a successful contractor model and have a cap of 20 trainers per club. Once you hit a cap you can drive quality. If you are purely chasing quantity of trainers then quality is harder to achieve. The PTs are a critical part of our business. We don’t want them to be leaving every five minutes because we have oversupplied the gym and they can’t build a decent client base. The decision to cap trainers was because of our goal to be ‘Australia’s Best Workout Experience’. If we are to achieve that goal we need the absolute best in the industry, not a large volume of trainers of varying quality.

We aim to have 50 per cent of our visits engaged in what we term assisted training (35 per cent attending group fitness and 15 per cent using a PT). If a member is being assisted, either by a group fitness instructor or personal trainer, they are connected and engaging with someone who represents the Go brand during that visit. This has a hugely positive impact on retention.

With such a strong emphasis on connecting with members, your instructors must be incredibly important to Go Health Clubs. Do you struggle to find enough great staff to deliver all the programs?

Once we started to look at group fitness instructors as performers and entertainers the ‘penny dropped’. Entertainers want big crowds to perform to, great stages, incredible sound and awesome lighting effects. If you can provide a great experience and environment for the instructors then they will come to you.

As far as programs go, we are big Les Mills fans and this makes up around 50 per cent of our timetable. We also developed our own group fitness brand called Go Xcite (Hip Hop Drop, Burlesque, Cage Fit, Warrior and Transformers) to plug the holes that weren’t currently serviced by Les Mills. There is a basic structure around the classes for quality control, but as with all group fitness, it’s about finding an awesome instructor to do it.

 

Group exercise instructors at Go Health Clubs are considered to be entertainers

What do you see as the defining trends in group exercise, and in the fitness industry more generally, in the coming years?

I think the frequency of micro-trends will accelerate. A micro-trend explodes in the first twelve months and tapers off in the second twelve months. Some micro-trends can be longer, but they all have a shelf life. You have to be ready to capitalise on micro-trends quickly – if you introduce it too late you will catch it on the downward curve. There will be more diversification in small group training with new innovation coming in, and we are already seeing mind body is on an upward curve.

We live in an age in which we are all connected via social media, however, research is showing more people are feeling isolated and lonely. This is because we are trading real life conversations and relationships for an electronic connection, ‘comment’ or ‘like’. Social media definitely has its place, but there's also a downside to comparing our ‘behind the scenes’ lives to the showreel highlights of other people’s facebook or Instagram profiles. I believe that gyms, and in particular group fitness and personal training, are real ways to connect people and fill the emotional void that our digital lifestyle is creating.