Tag: Asia-Pacific

Shine Brunei


Her Royal Highness Princess Azemah Ni’matul Bolkiah & Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Muda Bahar – Shine founders

Empowering a community

Why did you create Shine?

Boutique fitness is a global phenomenon, offering specialised, intimate spaces for working out and socialising. We used to live in London and took classes that were fun, inspiring and kept us fit. 

We believe people are now more motivated than ever to improve their wellness and become physically active, and we felt Brunei was ready for this boutique experience. 

We commissioned Barbara Chancey to guide us through the journey. Her team took our ideas and created two beautiful, functional spaces unlike anything in Brunei.

Shine X launched in June 2019, inspired by the boutique bootcamps

What was your vision?

Shine is about empowering people to live life to their full potential. Our vision was to create high-end boutique fitness studios with top-quality instructors and facilities. We wanted to build a brand that not only centres on a great workout but that also offers spaces that inspire people to adopt a positive, fun and energetic lifestyle. 

How would you describe the studios?

From the moment you walk through our doors, you’ll forget about the outside world and feel the positive energy and passion that fuel both Shine Cycle and Shine X. Every aspect of our studios is designed with meticulous detail to brighten your life. From our friendly front desk staff to our internationally trained instructors, we offer a high level of fitness so you can experience a higher level of success.

We offer fun and inspiring classes – something you can enjoy daily and look forward to the next workout – as we want to encourage and motivate people to make fitness a lifestyle. Led by our amazing instructors, our classes aim to make you feel as though you performed at your peak, with a little bit of euphoria that you can carry with you for the rest of your day.

The founders remain involved and hands-on in the day-to-day operations at Shine

We drew our inspiration from our own experiences of joining classes at other boutique fitness studios during our travels – from how uplifted and energised it made us feel. In those classes, we were pushed to our limits in a unique blend of fun, intensity and camaraderie. 

We felt Shine would be the best way to translate our love for fitness, delivering happiness through exercise and empowering people to be their best selves.

What are you most proud of?

What is particularly special is the community we have created. Incredible friendships have been forged that go beyond our studio walls. People bond through an unspoken support. We are proud and grateful to be part of an incredible community where people of all fitness levels can come together to radiate positive vibes and become stronger together.


“Incredible friendships have been forged that go beyond our studio walls. People bond through an unspoken support.”


How important is exercise to you?

Very important! We both play polo competitively and we also play other sports such as tennis and golf. For us to stay on top of our game, we need to stay fit, flexible and work on specific movements to develop our strength and prevent injury. Exercise is an integral part of our lives, benefiting us in our sports and in our health.

Shine has an incredibly strong community, with regular member events

What are your future plans for Shine?

We believe in doing one thing extremely well and we specialise in coaching creativity, class programming and special events to keep momentum strong. We also host guest instructors from the US, UK and Asia.

We are exploring new ideas which are top secret for now, but many surprises are on the way. Stay tuned!

Aiman Abdullah – Studio manager

Spreading happiness

When and why was Shine created?

When Shine Cycle opened its doors in February 2018, there was nothing else like it in Brunei. Even now, it’s the only true cycling boutique in the country.

Shine was founded by Her Royal Highness Princess Azemah Ni’matul Bolkiah and Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Muda Bahar – Azemah and Bahar. The concept was theirs and they remain 100 per cent involved in the business every day, so only they can really elaborate on their vision for Shine. I do, however, know they enjoy this style of boutique training when they travel overseas and they wanted the Brunei population to be able to enjoy it too, raising the bar in our local fitness industry and supporting the health and wellbeing of the nation.

Shine Cycle is about the power of positive energy, and its world-class instructors lead the way

From the outset, Shine Cycle had two studios: Ride, which has 33 bikes; and Studio B, where we run small group strength classes of up to eight people, based around TRX but also incorporating assault bikes, rowers, boxing, kettlebells and other weights. 

A few months after launch, we also added yoga to the Studio B timetable, catering for a maximum of 11 people across three different styles of yoga. It means we can offer cardio, strength and flexibility all in one destination, with most members doing a bit of everything.

“Shine cycle is about positive energy. We believe that as your light shines brighter, you ignite that same power in others.”

Tell us about your community.

Shine Cycle is dedicated to helping its members achieve a healthy lifestyle through exercise and inspiration. It’s about training your body, focusing your mind and finding a new radiance inside and out. It’s about the power of positive energy: we believe that as your light shines brighter, you ignite that same power in others.

Immerse yourself in the Shine Cycle vibe in this video

And we see this in our community of around 300 members. Our reception team provides a warm welcome, our instructors motivate everyone in class, our space allows people to escape the stresses of everyday life, our customer service is consistently excellent… but it’s also our members who spur each other on to train regularly, making pacts to work out together the next day.

And members do attend very regularly: we run classes at 6:15am, 5:30pm and 6:45pm every day, plus some lunchtime classes, and many people come two or even three times a day, perhaps doing TRX in the morning and a cycle class in the afternoon.

Click here for a flavour of the workouts at Shine X

The absolute minimum we see is one or two visits a week, but that’s very rare. Generally it’s at least four or five visits a week, and most people come at least once or twice a day – so much so that when a member is heading out, we don’t say “goodbye”. We say “see you later” or “see you tomorrow”. 

Then you launched Shine X…

Shine X launched in June 2019, once again inspired by the workouts our founders were enjoying overseas – in this case, boutique bootcamps. Combining treadmill running and strength, each day’s workout focuses on a different body part: Monday is legs and abs, Tuesday is chest and back, Wednesday is full body and abs, and so on. 

The lighting at Shine X was designed by rock concert specialists

We have capacity for 19 people in our Shine X studio, although the 19th is ‘double tread’ – you don’t do weights. Some members want this, though, so we give them the option to specifically book that space. 

“Most people come at least once or twice a day, so we don’t say ‘Goodbye’ – we say ‘see you later’ or ‘see you tomorrow’”

Shine X is located just a few units away from Shine Cycle, and while some members just do Shine X, many combine Shine X and Shine Cycle, mixing and matching for a well-rounded workout routine. 

The Shine community regularly takes part in charity team events

Our Unlimited package covers Ride and Strength (TRX) only. You can also buy monthly Shine X-only packages. But if you want to do a bit of everything – Ride, Strength, Yoga and Shine X – you need to go for a Universal class package. 

What cycling classes do you offer?

Set to a soundtrack of great music, ours are rhythm cycling classes, with most following our signature 45-minute Shine programme: joyful, high-intensity, low-impact cardio parties that strengthen mind, body and soul. 

At Shine Cycle, Studio B offers yoga classes as well as small group strength workouts

We do have 30-minute class formats, but these are only used occasionally, such as during fasting months. At other times, our members tend to prefer 45-minute classes.

We have a Tag Team class every Saturday night, too, with two instructors up on stage and a great party atmosphere. There’s fancy dress, special themes and the rider of that week’s ‘lucky bike’ – chosen at random via a lottery draw – wins a prize. Tag Team is incredibly popular and always waitlisted.

“The studio timetable changes slightly each week to incorporate what members have told our instructors they want”

Then at least twice a month, we host a Custom Ride: a private class where the studio is rented out for a celebration such as a birthday ride. It’s basically a healthy disco!

All our programmes are designed by us, with templates outlining the overall shape of the class as well as suggested movements for a safe workout; we don’t go crazy in the saddle. But then we hand over to our instructors to bring their own style to each class. They’re the ones in the room with our members. They see what our members enjoy. They know who are beginners and who are more experienced. We give them the flexibility to choreography accordingly.

Don’t you wish your club did this? The Shine community takes part in The Shine Games

We also ask our instructors to help shape the studio timetable, which changes slightly each week to incorporate what members have told our instructors they want.

How do you train your instructors?

Our original team of master trainers all went to the US to train, and every new instructor – we now have a team of eight – goes to London to experience the studios there. But it doesn’t stop there, with regular visits to conferences and studios around the world, from London to Singapore, Malaysia to the Philippines. 

We also invite guest instructors to come in from overseas. They instruct classes for our team and spend time with our instructors, sharing knowledge and ideas. From this, our instructors can take away the elements they know will work in Brunei culture.

Shine trains instructors in other markets, too: we recently sent a team to train instructors in Singapore, for example. Our view is that this helps our instructors as much as it helps the people learning from them, furthering their own development.

So, ours is a constant learning and development process, with our instructor team both supported and empowered. As a result, only two instructors have ever left Shine and it was pretty unavoidable: one joined the army and one moved to Australia!

Shine regularly brings in guest instructors from overseas to continually coach and develop its own instructors

Tell us about Shine’s charity work.

There’s a strong social agenda at Shine, with a culture of giving to those in need and helping as much as we can.

Across the year, we host special classes that tie in with events like International Women’s Day, Breast Cancer Day, World Autism Awareness Day and so on. All proceeds from these special classes – and sometimes that whole day of classes – are then donated to a relevant NGO. We also have donation boxes around the club, sometimes for money, other times for things like unused shoes that we can distribute to rural areas.

“For us, success is asking our members what impact shine has had on their life and hearing how happy it makes them”

We also run Shine Community Challenges; we always try to get our members involved in our charity efforts rather than just making simple donations ourselves. Members form teams of two to four people and we set them challenges like ‘most classes in a month’. There’ll be a range of targets they can aim for, with Shine donating a set amount to charity for each target achieved. It’s a win-win-win: members stay active and feel involved in the good work, Shine benefits from even more regular attendance, and the charities benefit from the donations.

What plans for the future?

We take all member and instructor feedback onboard and continually try to make what we do even better. We were thinking about introducing barre classes before COVID, for example, so we may well do this now. 

In fact, our instructors are always coming up with new ideas: new equipment to keep things interesting in Studio B, for example. Our approach is to stay flexible and let our instructors take the lead: they know what our members want and they’re also incentivised to ensure every class is great, with commission paid per class attendee on top of their basic class fee.

Would we open another studio or even a new concept? Maybe – we discuss lots of ideas– but probably not yet. We pride ourselves on our customer service and quality of our instructors, so we’d need a really strong team in place to guarantee those same standards at any new location, all without letting levels drop at our original studio. We’d never expand at the expense of quality, and would certainly never franchise Shine.

What motivates you personally?

I get a real buzz from seeing people coming out of class having worked hard but also smiling and knowing they’ve achieved something. We’re helping people become better versions of themselves. 

For us, success is asking our members what impact Shine has had on their life and hearing how happy it makes them, how much they look forward to coming back, how we help them escape their daily stresses and provide a space where they don’t feel judged. 

I’m also inspired by our founders, who are constantly involved in the business, always looking for ways to make Shine an even better place not only for our members but for our team too.

Barbara Chancey – Studio designer & consultant

Designing a brand

Light and dark

“Design is storytelling, and both Shine Cycle and Shine X create journeys full of adventure and curiosity, incorporating a mix of materials and influences that evoke two opposite moods.

“At Shine Cycle, the brief was to create a sense of radiant joy. A place where your inner light shines to inspire the light in others. It’s a joyful and uplifting space: open and welcoming with touches of art deco modernism that nod to the client’s affinity for art, travel, design and appreciation of quiet details.

Shine X “reflects the journey we all go on in a workout, from dark doubts to bright accomplishments”

“Shine X is the direct opposite in both attitude and design: it’s the dark, mysterious, rebellious little sister that reflects the journey we all go on during a workout. From dark doubts to bright accomplishments, the design embraces both conflict and euphoria, incorporating recycled materials and reclaimed wood indigenous to Brunei’s rainforest.”

Lighting the way

“Shine’s illumination is designed to evoke emotion at the touch of a button, from soft candlelit moments of reflection to high-energy, grand finale sprints to the finish line.

“Daryl Vaughan of Light Partners – a lighting designer who’s worked with some of the biggest names in rock & roll, from Genesis and Paul McCartney to Sting, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones – created the lighting systems at Shine Cycle and Shine X.

Lighting is used creatively throughout the social spaces, as well as in the studios

“The starting point was weaving the brand into the lighting and working with Shine instructors to identify specific points in class where lighting changes might bring a sense of drama, a magical moment, something unexpected. We then developed a library of special effects and themes to be used at just the right moment; the magic happens when everything is seamless and timed to perfection.”

“We developed a library of lighting effects to be used at just the right moment; the magic happens when everything is timed to perfection.”

“Lighting is used creatively throughout the social spaces, too. The backlit, suspended X beams along the ceiling of the Shine X corridor are a personal favourite, where high-output LED fixtures produce slow pulses of light all along its length when class is about to start.” 

Shine X’s bootcamp classes combine treadmill running with strength

Social interaction

“In Brunei, there are no nightclubs or bars. Shine Cycle and Shine X fill this gap, providing healthy, fun entertainment. 

“At Shine Cycle, there’s a juice bar and café for laughter and hanging out, as well as a selfie wall. At Shine X, recessed alcoves along a darkened corridor provide discreet seating for more intimate conversations. In both cases, it’s about creating places to linger, social spaces that allow members to come early and stay late.

“All of a sudden, Shine Cycle and Shine X aren’t just about fitness. They’re about lifestyle. They’re about social interaction and the forging of friendships. And the resulting sense of community is evident when you look at events like the Shine Games, which perfectly illustrate the culture of kindness and joy that imbues everything at Shine.”

Flexible design

“We don’t just design for today: we imagine the future and design spaces to hold fitness trends for the next 10 years. 

“For example, Shine Cycle’s Studio B features a barre, built-in storage and reinforced walls and ceilings for anchoring equipment. It’s a versatile space that affords Shine total freedom to adapt to new trends, new instructors, new ideas.”

At Shine X, workouts are designed to train a different body part each day

Natural talent

“Your instructors should be allowed to retain an aura of superstardom, so at Shine, we included a dedicated space for instructors to get ready for class. When they come out, their star persona is in place and they’re ready to command the room and deliver.

“I’ve been amazed by the level of showmanship at Shine. I’ve never come across a more naturally talented group of instructors. Musicality is in their blood.

“Nor have I ever met a group of instructors who take what they do more seriously: they truly see it as a profession. We brought them to the US for training with Parker Williams, a legendary veteran of rhythm rides with 20 years’ experience. He encouraged them to take it back to basics, focusing on technique, consistency in language and meeting their clientele where they were: at the beginning of a journey, having never known anything like rhythm cycling before.”

Spreading joy

“The princess is hugely creative, with an infectious sense of humour, and we had a lot of fun along the way. One great memory was developing names for the juice bar menu, with Diplomatic Immunity one of my favourites!

“Her generosity and gratitude epitomise the essence of Shine. This was a joyful project to work on, surrounded by some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.”

Bebe Ding

What was the inspiration for CRU?
Ten years ago, when we first came up with the idea for CRU, there was nothing else like it in Singapore. In fact, there was no fitness sector to speak of: the only things to do in Singapore were shopping, the cinema or the one nightclub that everyone went to every single weekend!

However, my siblings – Valerie and Calvin – and I had grown up between Singapore and California. In fact, we were students in Los Angeles when, inspired by the likes of SoulCycle, Calvin and I separately came up with the idea of launching our own studio.

“Being siblings determines how we run the company. The sense of community runs deep. Our family values are why our brand is so strong.”

We had become addicted to the ‘party on a bike’ vibe and we qualified as indoor cycling instructors, initially just so we could keep doing that style of training in our own workouts. However, we knew we wanted to bring something fun to Singapore, Valerie came on-board too and CRU was born.

Calvin, Bebe and Valerie Ding founded CRU in Singapore in 2014

How would you describe CRU?
CRU is more than just boutique fitness, more than just physical locations. It’s a lifestyle brand: a culmination of music, fitness and lifestyle. Crucially, it’s also about family and community – what we call our wolfpack.

We launched with rhythm cycling in 2014, opening our first CruCycle studio at 68 Duxton Road, Singapore. Our intention was always to expand into more concepts across multiple studios, though, with a growth mindset that’s encapsulated in our name: CRU. ‘Cru’ draws from the French language, where in the world of wines it relates to top quality production growth; for us, it represents our ethos of organic spiritual, mental and physical growth.

Our second studio opened in Los Angeles in 2017: a boxing concept launched under the CruBox brand. As with CruCycle, and indeed all our programmes since, the workout was set to the beat of the music and quickly became a success story, leading us to open CruBox in Singapore – in the same building as our first CruCycle – in 2019.

In 2021, we opened a new flagship on Orchard Road, in the heart of Singapore, bringing us to three locations in the city. This time we had two studios in one location: a CruCycle studio and a multi-purpose studio offering CruYoga and CruHIIT.

Alongside our physical studios sits our CRU TV digital platform and CRU TV Bike, while over the years we’ve also launched things like merchandise and a lifestyle blog.

Tell us about the wolfpack.
The wolfpack is our community, as I say, and that’s what we’re all about at CRU: a sense of family, of familiar faces. We believe that through togetherness, we’re able to achieve so much more than we would be able to achieve alone. In our workouts, you follow the Pack Leader – the instructor – to grow as a pack and become stronger together.

“CRU is synonymous with indoor cycling in Singapore and it’s still at the heart of what we do, even as we expand into more concepts”

We have a wide demographic age-wise, although our core audience is around 25–40 years old, but we do sit at the premium end of the market. We charge S$45 for a single class and S$400 for a 10-pack across all disciplines, so we have a fairly affluent customer base – generally CEOs and those in other senior positions who are looking for an hour’s respite from long days at their desks.

We do cater for all levels, but at the same time ours are known to be the toughest workouts in town. It’s back to CRU’s wolfpack mentality: people come to push themselves.

And our instructors reflect our customer profile: aged 24–46 years, a good number of them originally came to us as customers.

Incidentally, the notion of the wolfpack was also inspired by our love of dogs. All three of us each have a pet husky – the silhouette in the CRU logo – and the communal areas of our studios are dog-friendly. In 2019, we even launched a PUPS at CRU sub-brand selling all-natural dog treats and toys!

What are your USPs?
Singapore is fairly conservative, but the way we do things at CRU is more relaxed, friendly, open-minded, comfortable: people call it the ‘CRU Swag’. It’s just that bit more outspoken and daring than you get elsewhere in Singapore, influenced by our US upbringing.

We train all our instructors to think out of the box, pushing themselves out of their own comfort zones to interact with our customers in new ways – cheering, clapping and so on. And people respond very positively: CRU becomes the one place they let go and experience a real sense of release.

“Singapore is fairly conservative, but the way we do things at CRU is more relaxed. People refer to our vibe as the ‘CRU Swag’.”

Quality of instruction is another USP. It tends to be that instructors work their way up to becoming a CRU instructor. Ours is their ultimate, aspirational destination – once they reach us, they stay with us – but even then, every CRU instructor goes through at least eight weeks of training, 15 hours a week, before they take a class. We also design all our own programming. Quality is a CRU hallmark across the board.

Underpinning all of this, we’ve simply been doing this a long time now. We know who we are and what we’re doing. Our riders have grown with us, we’ve pushed our programming to challenge them and we’ve played the long game. CRU is now synonymous with indoor cycling in Singapore. It’s also still at the heart of what we do, even as we expand into more concepts. In fact, we’re often referred to as the O.G. – Original Gangsta – brand!

CruBox originally launched in Los Angeles before also opening in Singapore

Last but not least, our sibling relationship is key. We were kids when we started out, in our early 20s, and we stepped on each others’ toes. But blood is thicker than water and our close relationship now underpins CRU’s sense of community. Being siblings determines how we run the company, which influences how our instructors feel about working for us, which influences customer perceptions. The sense of community runs deep. Our family values are why our brand is so strong.

How did COVID impact CRU?
In 2020, in response to COVID, we started creating our own content so customers could train at home. It started off fairly simply: only business owners were allowed to go into a business premises, so it was just me, Calvin and a single bike in our Duxton Road CruBox studio. There I was, on-stage, surrounded by boxing bags, teaching to Calvin behind the camera!

Eventually the government allowed us to bring in five instructors, on a rota, so we could offer a bit more variety in our content. We made the decision not to build our library by having our instructors filming from home, though. We wanted to ensure the brand experience was as good as it could be, even in those early days.

Our customers paid for this online content from the outset and we also rented out our bikes; within two hours of the Singaporean government announcing lockdown, we had already rented all 200 bikes. So, we had a revenue stream throughout COVID.

Rentals plus CRU TV Bike sales have totalled over 1,000 bike transactions to date

We’re also fortunate that our membership didn’t really worry about COVID. They were always desperate to train. We’ve had two major lockdowns in Singapore, but in between, every class has been waitlisted.

In our cycling studio, capacity was reduced from almost 50 bikes to just 12, so we put on classes every hour from 7.00am to 10.00pm to keep up with demand. Only now are we finally able to start scaling that back, with 25 bikes per class meaning we’ve been able to drop two classes a day from the timetable.

In a strange way, though, COVID was good for us. It gave us a chance to build our digital product and experiment with a few things. We tested our yoga concept in an outdoor space we had, for example, rather than having to build a new location straight away. Meanwhile, our HIIT concept came from seeing what people were enjoying online during lockdown.

We also continued our charitable work during lockdown, including a big campaign over six weekends where we ran Zoom classes and asked people to donate to take part. We raised around S$20,000, which we shared across a number of different charities.

CRU is the “ultimate destination” for GX instructors

Tell us more about CRU TV.
Since early 2021, we have our own film production studio and our own CRU TV digital platform, and we’ve continued to evolve our content and its quality. Calvin now takes the lead on digital production, while Valerie is our marketing and PR expert and I’m CRU master trainer, in charge of instructors and programming.

We also have our own CRU TV Bike with a 21.5” screen, and since COVID started – combining bike rentals plus sales of our CRU TV Bike – we’ve had over 1,000 bike transactions.

“In a strange way, COVID was good for us. It gave us a chance to build our digital product and experiment with a few things.”

If you purchase our bike – at a cost of S$3,800 including mat, weights and cleats – it comes with a year’s free subscription to all our content. Alternatively, if you just want our content, a subscription costs S$49 a month. And our content is really strong, filmed from multiple angles and now diversified to encompass all our programmes: cycling, boxing, HIIT and yoga.

We’ve also recently launched meditation classes online; the flexibility of digital means we can listen to customer feedback and experiment with new concepts. As another example, we’re currently developing a road cycling-type concept to sit alongside rhythm cycling in our CRU TV library. This will just be online for now, but you never know – we’ve got used to plans evolving quickly and dynamically over the last couple of years!

And your physical growth plans?
We’re in a good place in Singapore. I think there’s space for perhaps one more location before we start to cannibalise our own clubs. Ours is a higher price point, as I say, and there are only a small number of neighbourhoods that can support that. Our main objective in Singapore is to continue filling every class to capacity.

And then in Los Angeles, obviously we only have CruBox at the moment; when we launched, although we knew we could do cycling really well, the boutique cycling market was just so saturated. That’s changed over the last two years, though, with lots of studios closing down and a lot of good instructors moving on from their former brands. South-east Asia is our focus for now, but we’ll never say never when it comes to the US.

CruYoga was originally piloted outdoors before launching in-studio

In terms of south-east Asia, before COVID we already had our eye on a number of potential markets to grow into, and the data we’re getting from CRU TV alongside enquiries for our CRU TV Bike – including from Malaysia, the Philippines, Tokyo, Indonesia, Hanoi and others – have validated our thinking. There haven’t really been any surprises for us in the data.

For now, while immigration rules keep changing, we’ll start with pop-ups – we have a number of these planned – but even after that, we’ll be careful in how we proceed. A lot of these countries are still developing and the law can make things tricky. In Thailand, just as an example, you need a local partner to launch any business. Yet of course, what makes us special – our brand, our soul and our story that’s all based on family – is very hard to hand over to someone else.

“I think we’ll expand into new markets in south-east Asia by next year, leading with cycling but most likely opening multi-purpose studios”

Nevertheless, I do think we’ll expand into new markets in south-east Asia by next year, leading with cycling but most likely opening multi-purpose studios to allow us to offer more than one concept in each location.

Any other plans you can tell us about?
We have a number of new lifestyle concepts in the pipeline: a coffee bar, for example, and food and nutrition including meal plans; I’m a qualified nutritionist as well as a master trainer. And as I say, we’re also continuing to experiment with our digital programming.

Ours is a story of constant evolution. Everything is always in progress. We’ve seen our audiences grow every year across all our concepts, but I still believe this is just the beginning for CRU.

Bebe Ding is the dynamic face of CruCycle in this teaser video for the brand’s at-home cycling content

RIDE HIGH readers can enjoy a free 30-day trial of CRU TV. Just visit crutvofficial.com
and use promo code RHXCRUTV30 – valid until 31 December 2022.


Ben Karoonkornsakul

Editor’s note: Since this interview was conducted, Bangkok has entered its third lockdown. 

You founded the Absolute brand 18 years ago. What was your vision?
As much as anything, it was a gut feeling. There were no boutique studios in Bangkok at that time – whenever I talked about it, people didn’t even know what I meant. But I had a vision of a studio that would be dedicated to, and particularly good at, a particular discipline. 

When people like a particular form of exercise, they do it repeatedly. That’s how I was with yoga, but there were no good yoga studios anywhere in the city. So, I created one: a dedicated, purpose-built yoga studio that I, and the others like me who I imagined were out there, could enjoy. And that’s how it started. I just did what I knew I wanted, started small, worked to make that one space work and took it from there.

What has been your growth since then?
We now have 11 studios in Bangkok, with another one opening in July, and three in Singapore. 

We’ve also branched out into other exercise disciplines over the years. No one form of exercise gives you everything you need, so we’ve added pilates and rhythm cycling too, as well as one-to-one functional training at a couple of our locations. We also have our FITFOOD brand, launched around seven years ago; no matter what exercise you do, you can’t escape the need for good nutrition. And then we have our resort, Absolute Sanctuary, which opened on Ko Samui around 13 years ago.

As a result of this expansion, we rebranded from Absolute Yoga to the Absolute Group four or five years ago, with the customer-facing studio brand changing to Absolute You.

My approach is always four-fold when expanding our offering. First, I pick the things I love to do myself. Second, I pick elements that complement each other and that are sustainable: exercise that’s functional and that supports health and a good quality of life in the long term. Third, I choose things that will have mass appeal over an extended period, not things that will be ‘out’ in a year’s time.

Fourth, very importantly, we don’t rush our expansion, only launching a new product roughly every six years: pilates launched around 11 years ago; cycling in 2015. It takes time to perfect a product and develop a really good instructor training system, and all that needs to be in place before you can successfully scale.

“In the boutique world, people are looking for specialists. You have to become known for one thing at a time” – BEN KAROONKORNSAKUL

Our four core disciplines are now yoga, rhythm cycling, reformer pilates classes and private one-to-one pilates; these private sessions have become particularly popular since COVID.

All disciplines are available at the majority of our locations, with yoga, cycling and pilates enjoying an equal weighting on the class timetable. There are just a couple of studios that don’t offer yoga, and that’s because there’s now more supply of this in the market. Rhythm cycling and reformer pilates are newer and scarcer.

Has rhythm cycling attracted a new audience?
Rhythm cycling participants can be a bit younger than in yoga and pilates: we get teenagers cycling with their mums, as well as a lot of 20-somethings who enjoy the fun and the music. But it attracts other groups for other reasons: workers who want to come in and get rid of the day’s stress, for example, and people in their 40s and 50s who know they need to do a bit of cardio but don’t want to hate the process!

Because honestly, I’m 50 now, and people my age? A lot of us hate cardio! I have to talk to my members and say to them: “You may not think indoor cycling is for you, but you need it, so give it a try. It doesn’t have to be your favourite thing, and you don’t have to do it in the same way as the 20-year-old in the front row. But it’s only 45 minutes, you won’t get bored, and then you’ll have done your cardio!”

I then have to persuade my instructors to play some music that appeals to the older members in the room!

What are your studios like?
We try to design our clubs so the studios open directly off the lobby; members can then mingle in this communal area before and after class. We’ll often have people doing two or even three classes in a day at the weekend, so they chat to friends before going off into the relevant studio for their next class.

Outside of COVID times, our yoga studios cater for 30–40 people, and our cycling studios typically hold 30–50 bikes. We want them to feel busy, but for rhythm cycling we obviously like people to have a bit of space to stretch their arms out, so it isn’t shoulder-to-shoulder.

And then our reformer pilates studios have 15–20 machines. This is more than you might find elsewhere – and of course, we offer one-to-one sessions for anyone with specific rehab needs – but we’ve developed a special technique to deliver an effective group workout that stays true to the principles of pilates. These dynamic classes deliver what the majority of members are looking for – strong abs and body conditioning – and all exercises and sequences involve detailed verbal cueing, so everyone moves together at the same pace. We also offer foundation classes to learn the basics.

“It’s really important to me that we create communities where nobody feels out of place,” says Karoonkornsakul

On the topic of verbal cueing, our instructors all have a framework within which they must work, and that includes specific vocabulary to use. Whatever class a member is in, whichever instructor is running it, they’ll say something and the member will immediately understand what they’re meant to do.

How would you describe the Absolute vibe?
We have an absolutely beautiful community with a real mix of people, where everyone fits in. All ages, all sizes, all fitness and confidence levels – they’re all there, smiling together. It’s really important to me that we create communities where nobody feels out of place.


That’s down to a lot of things, from our brand ambassadors to our instructors, who are great at what they do but – because they aren’t always the most ripped – allow members to think “they’re just like me”. It’s also about showing real people in our marketing and social media. We don’t always pick the fittest, most beautiful members to show in our ads. It isn’t about looking super-cool. We have teens, single mums, housewives, workers. We show real people who are enjoying themselves and feeling comfortable in their own skin.

What’s the secret of 18 years’ success?
Consistency is key – being consistently good at what you do – and you have to work really hard to sustain that over 18 years.

People are of course vital to that, so we have a really good instructor training system and, as previously mentioned, a framework and structure they must work within for every class. It’s also the case that our approximately 80 instructors only work for Absolute You. Even if they’re freelance, they don’t instruct anywhere else – they’re part of our team and our brand.

I think the other thing goes back to what I said before, about not rolling things out too quickly. Yes, people like variety in their exercise routines; it’s why many boutiques have quickly introduced new disciplines or else launched with multiple disciplines from the outset. But I don’t believe this works. 

If people want a bit of everything, they’ll go to a big box gym. In the boutique world, people are looking for specialists: they want to go to the place that’s best at delivering the type of exercise they love the most.


That might sound a strange thing to say because of course, we’ve launched new disciplines under the Absolute You brand. But don’t forget, we’ve done that over a period of 18 years. In Bangkok, we started out with yoga and only moved on to offer something else when yoga was so established – with such a strong reputation and client base – that really, we didn’t need to talk about it any more. Everyone knew we were the best place to go. Only then did we launch pilates, and then another five or six years before we launched rhythm cycling.

On the other hand, look at our experience in Singapore, where we first launched a few years ago. Our clubs there offer all three disciplines, but it was too hard to build a market-leading reputation for all three at the same time. We had to choose a star discipline, and we chose rhythm cycling. It’s really only now we’re beginning to put some momentum behind pilates too. My advice: as a boutique studio, you have to become known for one thing at a time.

Let’s talk about COVID…
We were closed for three months last year, and another month at the beginning of this year. We have 15,000–20,000 active members, and most are on class packages – we sell anything up to 200-class packages – so our cash reserves have been OK. But it’s been tough. 

During lockdown itself, we rolled out some online yoga content that we already had from a project we’d begun and shelved. We also sped up the launch of our Absolute You Home Edition bike and so far, we’ve sold around 300 bikes in packages that also include dumbbells and an exercise mat. Uptake has mostly been among existing members so far, with around 20 per cent sold to new customers.

Absolute You Home Edition launched during COVID, but had long been planned.

Our bike is priced around the same as Peloton, but our monthly subscription is currently higher at around US$70. We hope to get that down in time, but at the moment we simply don’t have the economies of scale to make it cheaper. People seem happy with the price point, though, because their whole family uses the bike and they can do as many classes as they like.

Our clubs are now open again, but we’re operating with capacity restrictions: we’re currently at about 90 per cent in pilates, but only around 65–70 per cent for cycling and yoga. [Editor’s note: information correct as at date of interview, 22 March 2021]

We haven’t been re-open for that long, but members are coming back. I think it’ll take another month or two to feel more like normal attendance, though, so we’re doing one of our unlimited membership packages – deals we only release now and then – to further encourage people. 

Overall, though, I think we all have to be realistic in terms of what we can achieve this year. 

How significant will Home Edition become?
For the member, I believe online will be a complement to the in-club experience, not a replacement. It does grow our reach to those who may not be able to get to a studio, though.

It also allows us to expand into whole new markets. We can film content in English using our instructors – in Bangkok and Singapore at the moment, but potentially also local talent from the new markets we expand into with Home Edition – and deliver a high-quality experience wherever people are.

Starting in 2022, the goal is to franchise the virtual studio concept across south-east Asia

I would say we launched Home Edition without our usual level of finish: we normally only launch a product after we’ve really polished it, but COVID brought this one forward. So, there’s definitely more we want to do to develop it. Live streaming is coming soon, for example, and we want to do more on the community side of things too, building rider communities. And then just marketing it and really building our message around what it is.

But the content is already good, all filmed by us, and we have a strong brand. It’s also a high spec bike – developed in collaboration with Stages – and of course, Peloton isn’t currently available in Asia. In any case, the Asian market responds to a different style of coaching from the way they run classes in the US, with different vocabulary and a different style: more about fun, less about inspiration and soul searching. So, we have an opportunity to claim this space. We’re already in conversations with possible collaborators in Indonesia, and are eyeing up fairly rapid growth into Hong Kong, the Philippines and Malaysia too.

Are you doing anything new in-club?
We already had all this great rhythm cycling content from Home Edition – we’re filming around 20 classes a week – so we thought ‘why not use it elsewhere?’ 

With that in mind, we’ve just launched our first Absolute Cycle Virtual Studio, where there are no instructor-led classes, just scheduled virtual classes. The club is smaller footprint as it’s cycling only, and the studio feels like walking into a cinema: as you walk in, there’s a black wall and you have to turn right as you hit the wall to enter the studio, which has 30–40 bikes arranged over three tiers in front of a 4m x 3m screen. There’s great light and sound. It’s a fantastic experience. 

We already had all this great rhythm cycling content from Home Edition, so we thought ‘why not use it elsewhere?’

Crucially, it provides us with a solution to the biggest challenge of all when it comes to rhythm cycling in Asia: the lack of good instructors. It will make it far easier to expand our rhythm cycling offering into new locations across Thailand and Singapore – and beyond.

What are your growth plans?
In terms of physical locations, we’re planning to build two or three studios in Bangkok this year and perhaps three in Singapore. In Bangkok, they will all be Absolute Cycling Virtual Studios – the market is already so saturated and so competitive – but there’s still room for growth in Singapore, so we’ll build probably two virtual studios and one normal studio there. All of this is subject to finding the right sites, of course.

I’d say the virtual studio product is about 90 per cent there now, so I think we’ll be ready to replicate it in a second site in around six months. All the sites we open this year will be owned by us, but longer-term – starting in 2022 – the goal is to franchise the virtual studio concept across south-east Asia. I think it could be a great franchise concept for smaller local studios, where we provide all the content and the owner really just needs to focus on operations and sales.

Why is cycling your focus for growth?
The virtual side of things – our virtual studios and Home Edition – are my babies for this year, and in the virtual studio space, the focus is definitely on rhythm cycling for now. In fact, even in our normal studios, cycling is the fastest-growing discipline. 

Rhythm cycling has a genuinely broad appeal and relevance, with everyone from teens to those aged 50+ coming to it for a different reason. And yet it’s still new in Asia: a lot of people haven’t experienced it yet, and there’s still a low supply even in markets like Hong Kong. This is the untapped market and where I see the growth being for the next five to 10 years. It’s like yoga was 20 years ago.

The word from New Zealand

There’s an easy way to wind up a New Zealander. Actually, there’s more than one, but the one I’m referring to is quoting at them the well-worn analogy that life in New Zealand is ‘like going back to the 1950s’. The subtext being, life here is slow, pastoral and mono-cultured, with dinner at 5.00pm and no need to lock your doors at night. It’s a subtext that’s guaranteed to trigger your modern urbane Kiwi.

However, there’s definitely a taste of the olden days at the moment. It’s just that the clock has wound back one year rather than 50.

If globally, our collective time stopped at COVID o’clock back in March, in New Zealand, time has slowly ticked back to January. Not quite to a New Year’s Day mindset of: ‘This is going to be the best year EVER.’ More the January 10th phase, where your resolutions are wavering and you’ve still not started your novel, but the year still seems like it might be bright.

Like a few other lucky countries, New Zealand is currently COVID-free. The virus lurks at the borders and we’ve been through lockdown pain, but right now we can go to gigs, visit grandparents, plan our summer holidays, work from the office and, yes, go to the gym.

Business as (nearly) normal

The initial COVID impact was severe for the fitness industry here: clubs were closed for six weeks, with memberships suspended or cancelled. Since then, there’s been a slow walk back to normality through the gates of social distancing and de-escalating alert levels to the current Level One at the start of June. (To note: Auckland had a separate two-week lockdown mid-August, after a short-lived community outbreak, but the rest of the country was largely unaffected). At the current Level One status, there are no formal restrictions for fitness clubs across the country.

cycling studios during covid
With NZ currently COVID-free, clubs such as Les Mills are able to operate almost as normal

At first glance, a trip to the gym feels the same as it ever did: courting couples, newbies being shown around, dads trying to hold back the years, that guy who always wears jeans (why does he wear jeans?) – and not a face mask in sight.

Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see the ubiquitous government COVID-19 posters and QR code check-ins for the national tracer app at the door. Additional spritzing and cleaning by conscientious staff and hand sanitiser stations are the other conspicuous changes.

some sites are at 95 per cent of january numbers, with class attendance back to something like normal

Like the rest of the world, club owners in NZ have felt the financial pain of mandated closures and the knock-on effects for their members. The initial lockdown cut income to zero and it’s been a task to build member confidence and site visits since then. The good news is that across the industry, gym visitation, revenue and new membership sales were tracking above 85 per cent (compared to the same time in 2019) by the first-half of August and have slowly been improving since then. Some sites are back at 95 per cent of January numbers, with attendance in group fitness and the cardio floor back to something like normal density and frequency.

Les Mills online classes during COVID lockdown
Consumers are learning that a virtual workout can be as good as in-person, says Aldred

lockdown saw the state broadcaster tvnz airing a daily les mills workout to get the country moving

Inner city clubs, particularly in Auckland, continue to be the most impacted by the COVID hangover: a combination of reduced foot traffic in the central city and a higher sense of risk among members. New Zealand borders are closed to all but returning residents, and these individuals must pass through two weeks of government quarantine in hotels largely dotted around the Auckland CBD. The increased risk to members is likely small, but a sense of business-as-normal is harder to maintain when members must pass military-controlled, fenced-off hotels on their way to work out.

Follow your members

Digital workouts have taken up some of the slack. The initial lockdown had the state broadcaster TVNZ airing a daily Les Mills workout to get the country moving, but mostly the action has been driven by clubs and at-home consumer apps. There’s nothing complicated about the consumer fitness app market in NZ, with familiar brands dominating the app charts: Nike, SWEAT, Centr, Freeletics and, of course, local favourite Les Mills’ LMOD app.

Fitness app
Aldred: “Follow your members to where they live: at home and on a device”

Clubs have continued to evolve their digital offerings. The initial burst of live Zooms to drive member engagement during lockdown has given way to a more sophisticated proposition.  Clubs are realising that the best way to obtain mindshare at-home is to drive traffic to channels their members are already familiar with: their existing member management apps and websites. Here, it’s a mix of live and on-demand classes, with local instructor talent and improving production standards beginning to create compelling content.

on-site fitness is a habit and, based on the nz experience, your members will return

This digital approach for clubs in NZ is less about taking the clock back to January and more about meeting the challenge of those mega-trends: ‘digital everywhere’ and COVID. COVID might be less a trend than a curse, but we can’t deny its impact. It’s undoubtedly poured accelerant on some parts of the fitness industry, teaching consumers that they are capable of working out at home, that a virtual workout can be as good as in-person, and that the economics of a club membership isn’t really economic if you don’t actually go. With these lessons in mind, the only sensible action is to follow your members to where they live: at home and on a device.

online fitness

Old habits die hard, but…

An observation from New Zealand’s current truce with COVID is that the behaviour change it has created isn’t evenly spread. In some respects, our human elasticity pulls us back to familiar shapes: we shake hands, we hug friends, we easily forget the new normal. In other areas, you can identify where habits have changed: flexible working feels here to stay, online exams for university students are being rolled out even as lectures are still taking place in person, video calls rather than in-person meetings are becoming default for those ‘business as usual’ work catch-ups.

For fitness clubs, this is mostly good news. On-site fitness is a habit and, based on the NZ experience, your members will return. Improved hygiene standards might be something that comes with it, but as long as we feel safe and restrictions are lifted, the social interaction and experience of a gym will pull us back.

Less Mills classes during COVID lockdown
Clubs will need to cater to members outside of the gym, but digital will complement – not replace – the in-person experience

A key difference for clubs to figure out, as we move through COVID, is an understanding of the needs of members outside of the gym. That means supporting their desire to work out at home, developing a proposition that can engage and attract current (and former) members at the same time. There is competition here for mindshare; clubs have to combine their instructor talent, brand and member loyalty to create a digital proposition that’s attractive and adds value.

The New Zealand COVID experience is the result of circumstance, a little good fortune, excellent planning and exceptional leadership. These are qualities we all ought to consider as we plan out the next few years. I’m confident that the future looks good for the industry: we just need to understand what has changed and adapt accordingly.

Sam Aldred

About the author

Sam Aldred is head of APAC for digital fitness expert Wexer, having joined the company in September from his previous role as head of virtual products at Les Mills International. Sam brings with him a wealth of digital experience from a 15-year digital career spanning everything from music to TV, and is now applying that insight to virtual fitness.

Setting the world on fire

Let’s start with a bit of background.

Founded in 2015 by Dave Nuku and Rich Hutson – and with Nuku’s wife and industry veteran Tracy Minnoch-Nuku at that point “advising from the kitchen table” (her words) before officially joining the business six months later – the innovative, community-focused FIRE Fitness soon made its presence felt in its home city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Offering proprietary class experiences RIDE, STRIKE, STRIDE, FORCE – and more recently REVOLUTION and BARRE – all created by the in-house team, FIRE quickly established a leadership position in the Malaysian boutique segment.

Let’s now fast-forward to November 2019 when FIRE Fitness, by this point operating two sites, was acquired by multi-brand parent group Evolution Wellness, under the leadership of CEO Simon Flint. In the process, FIRE joined an impressive brand line-up that already included Fitness First Asia, Celebrity Fitness, mid-market club chain CHi Fitness, wellness retreat business Fivelements and no-frills gym brand GoFit.

Evolution Welllness CEO Simon Flint and FIRE's Tracy Minnoch-Nuku
Evolution Welllness CEO Simon Flint and FIRE’s Tracy Minnoch-Nuku

“A key mantra for FIRE was ‘Set the world on fire’, but running the business on our own meant we were limited in our ability to achieve that,” explains Minnoch-Nuku. “We wanted to work with a business that would help us go global.”

And Evolution Wellness’ belief in, and intentions for, the FIRE brand were clear from the outset: FIRE Station 3 opened just six weeks after the acquisition, with the flagship FIRE Station 4 – offering three distinct studios under one roof – opening in early 2020, just before COVID sent the sector into lockdown.

Here, we speak to Evolution Wellness CEO Simon Flint (SF) and FIRE’s head of programming Tracy Minnoch-Nuku (TMN) about the FIRE story so far, the buoyancy of its indoor cycling concept in these post-lockdown days, and their plans to take the FIRE brand global.

What did you set out to create with FIRE?

TMN: Dave and I had a lot of conversations at the very beginning around “the way it could be”: what the signature programmes might look like, how the trainers should deliver the workouts, the culture, the branding, how to package all of this within a boutique format.

Dave had never been to the other big boutiques around the world: SoulCycle, Barry’s and so on. His concepts were 100 per cent original, born from self-study and his own passion for small group training, personal training and instructing group exercise himself. He already knew how to create a rock concert environment in a studio.

The class concepts we’ve developed at FIRE are kick-ass small group training programmes that change lives. We talk a lot about ‘living a life on fire’, which is about empowering people to be the best they can be.

FIRE Fitness small group cycling boutique

the way i describe it, if soulcycle and rpm were to have a baby, it would be Ride!

We place a big focus on our trainers, too, going far beyond simply ensuring they’re rockstars who are able to bring their A-game to every class. We also provide them with training in social media, community-building, how to make people feel connected even before they’ve been to the club. That sense of connection and community is central to the FIRE concept. We aim to ensure every class participant genuinely feels part of the experience – not just watching and following the instructor but, in a small group environment, actually being part of it, with lots of personal interaction.

What’s your signature style when it comes to indoor cycling?

TMN: Our RIDE classes are small group cycling: we typically have 16 bikes in a studio, with plenty of space around them for floor work in our fusion classes.

Rhythm cycling – that dancified style of cycling – is very popular in Asia, but thus far we’re steered clear of rapid tap-backs and too much hands-off stuff. Our classes are definitely rhythmic, set to the beat of the music, but the terrain brings together sprints, climbs, fast twitch and slow twitch to keep it interesting.

The way I describe it, if SoulCycle and RPM were to have a baby, it would be RIDE! You get the safety, the exercise science and the promise of results through our terrain, then you get the fun, the disco lights and the banging tracks as well. Layered on top of all of that, we empower each instructor to bring their personality to the class.

FIRE Fitness small group indoor cycling

You offer a lot of fusion classes too – why?

TMN: People have so little time these days; we felt it would be good to offer cardio, strength and flexibility all in the space of 45 minutes. We aren’t unique in doing this at a global level, but it is still unique in Malaysia.

We offer RIDE HIIT and RIDE YOGA, and really this has been driven by what we personally would want to do. I have a BODY BIKE at home, which is great, but I find I want to jump off after a while to do something else. So, our fusion classes bring together just 30 minutes of cycling followed by 15 minutes of HIIT or yoga.

We’re finding RIDE YOGA is bringing in people who don’t normally “do” yoga, too. It’s only 15 minutes of yoga, plus we feature some of the simpler moves and we don’t make it too spiritual. Some of the men doing the class tell me it’s their only yoga for the week, but the stretching means they aren’t sore the next day, so they’re ready to train again. They’re also reporting fewer injuries.

How is RIDE performing since COVID?

TMN: Our timetable offers the same number of RIDE classes as our other programmes, but if anything, RIDE is slightly outperforming the other disciplines at the moment. That’s because, even with the current social distancing, we’re able to offer more spaces in RIDE.

As I mentioned just now, RIDE is small group cycling in a huge studio, so there’s plenty of room to space the bikes out: we’ve only had to lose two bikes, meaning we still have 14 spots in every class. RIDE class formats also lend themselves to distancing: it’s easy to keep people safe on a bike, or in their own marked-out space on the floor in our fusion classes. All we’ve had to do is tweak the programming slightly.

RIDE 5 sporters

Any plans to further evolve your RIDE classes?

TMN: My personal philosophy is that you have to keep things moving on at least every six months. Our members are turning up, they’re getting results – we know we have a pretty good formula. But I’m constantly asking myself ‘could it be even better?’ Is there something more we could be doing to service our members? That’s the case across all our class modalities and studios, not just RIDE.

Looking at cycling specifically, though, we’re already up to RIDE 4.0, with enhancements over the years including more interaction, more team orientation, adjustments to the terrain, the addition of a more fun track. It’s still a 30-minute workout on the bike, but we continue to make little tweaks to the way we coach it.

Does FIRE offer at-home classes?

SF: During lockdown, to retain members, we offered a lot of online classes for free: Thailand recently ran its 1,000th online class and they’ve only been going since March. It’s mostly been Fitness First and Celebrity Fitness content so far, but we experimented with adding FIRE content and it was very popular.

The strategy now is this: for Fitness First and Celebrity Fitness, a low-cost, high-volume online model. Charging a nominal monthly fee of around US$6, you get on-demand access to our signature classes and a number of popular licensed classes.

Meanwhile, FIRE’s online model is a premium one. Launched in November, we charge per class and in return, you get a two-way experience with no more than 20 participants in each class and lots of personal interaction and feedback.

You’re now licensing FIRE Fitness. What work has underpinned this?

SF: We have no restrictions in terms of where we can take the FIRE Fitness brand, so we absolutely plan to go global with it.

At FIRE Station 4, we set out to prove the concept in a bigger model with more modules and it’s worked well. We’ve also explored class sizes to optimise unit economics, but without ever pushing things to the point of losing the small community feel.

We have no restrictions in terms of where we can take fire. we absolutely plan to go global.

But absolutely key has been the work we’ve done in bottling the essence of FIRE, then codifying it. We’ve spent a lot of time asking ‘what are the things we do every day that make us FIRE?’ It’s the values: work hard, play hard, for example. It’s the community vibe, the intimacy of the classes, the skillsets trainers need before they’re signed off to go live… These are the kind of things that matter when we scale, because they have to be done passionately and consistently.

This work will now allow us to scale hard and fast across borders without diluting the FIRE perfume to a point where you can’t smell it any more.

STRIDE studio

What’s on offer to potential licensees?

SF: We’ve developed an exceptional proposition for licensees, flexible in terms of the product offering, the footprint, the CapEx requirements. You can opt to build a single-studio or multi-studio FIRE Station, selecting from all the signature FIRE programmes to suit the demographics of your area. We’re also finalising a FIRE PT studio concept to help licensees optimise revenues.

we launch a new digital class every week for each fire programme, supporting our talent as we scale

This flexibility means it doesn’t have to be a capital city concept. In fact, particularly given the dramatic change in working patterns since COVID, I imagine quite a lot of our licensed sites will be suburban.

We wanted to ensure we had a competitive offer to appeal to as many prospective licensees as possible. The investment required therefore starts at just US$75,000, increasing from there based on the number of studios in your club: a premium, three-studio FIRE Station could cost up to US$350,000, for example, and upwards from there for additional studios. But if you want to start with a great product at a lower CapEx, you can economically launch a single-modality REVOLUTION studio – our signature HIIT circuit studio, launched at the end of 2019 and now offering heart rate monitoring as standard.

We also offer an extensive support package: a hugely supportive onboarding process for licensees, talent training through our tech platform, brand and marketing support and so on.


Tell us more about your tech platform.

SF: When building FIRE Station 4, we developed a proprietary tech platform for content hosting, facilitating trainers’ ability to build their classes using our extensive library. Initially used in REVOLUTION and now rolled out across all our FIRE programmes, the digital format allows members to follow the lead of an on-screen rockstar on TVs around the studio. All of this complements the efforts of our live, in-person trainers.

We knew a tech platform would be a must-have tool to enable rapid scaling of the FIRE brand, both for consistency of the class experience and for instructor training: instructors can learn how to deliver the classes by studying the online content.

TMN: We launch a new digital class every week for each signature FIRE programme. You don’t have to use this content: if you have a rockstar instructor who doesn’t need it, all our classes can be run without the TV screens. But having the digitised content is a great way of supporting our talent as we scale.

I would never have predicted that digitising the classes would work, but it does, even for dance programmes like BARRE. Participants can see what to do even when they can’t see the instructor properly; coming soon, a split screen will give them a heads-up on the next movement or exercise too. Meanwhile, it takes the pressure off trainers from a choreography perspective. I developed FIRE’s BARRE programme, but even I now prefer to teach my classes with the digital class running on-screen. It means I don’t have to make up a whole new class myself every time.

The trainer can choose any class they like from the library, which of course will only grow over time, and they also use their own playlists which adds to the sense of a different class each time.

BARRE studio

How will you quality-control as FIRE grows?

SF: Our contract with licensees makes it clear that we will carry out virtual audits: watching classes remotely, watching trainers being signed off, doing facility walk-throughs. We have high standards that must be met.

But at the same time, ours is a ‘freedom within a framework’ approach. Licensees can add to the offering provided it doesn’t detract from the core product. For example, we’re just signing an agreement with a partner in the Middle East who wants to launch a five-studio club, including a PT studio, and has asked if they can also have a juice bar and a prayer room. We’re fine with that. There will always be nuances in local markets and you have to flex around these to get the best out of the sites.

There’s also an option for local rockstars to become strategic partners for FIRE, creating their own content which, having met our standards, is then shared via our tech platform. We’re very open to this, not least because it will give us content in a number of different languages.

STRIDE running

What are your growth plans?

SF: In the markets in which we already operate – Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – we will prioritise running our own FIRE locations. However, COVID has led us to take on a slightly different outlook now: if we find good strategic partners, we may be open to a network approach, isolating specific territories for licensees so we don’t overlap.

Beyond that, there’s certainly scope to do hundreds of clubs worldwide. At this stage, though, I’m not putting specific numbers or a timeframe on it. Coming out of COVID, it’s really going to be down to the economy – how much money people have to invest – and real estate. If I were a landlord, I would be cutting deals now rather than waiting for the market to recover and having empty properties for potentially months or even years. However, we’ll have to see what happens.

In the long run, though, we’re finding consumers are already spending more on their health, so we have a good deal of optimism around both of our licensed products: FIRE and GoFit.


Jon Davie

“In World Gym, we have the best of both worlds,” says Jon Davie who in 2006, along with his business partner Mike Nysten, acquired the Australian master franchise rights for the
US-based brand. “World Gym has a strong, global brand and a great brand story – that’s something we were very much looking for – but we were also given the autonomy to take that story, shape it for the Australian market and create a model that works here.”

He continues: “The World Gym story is a really nice one. It was founded by Joe Gold, who had previously created the male-dominated, body-building mecca that is Gold’s Gym. Having stepped away from that, he wanted to create something that was accessible to everyone. The result was World Gym.

“We liked that story and wanted to evolve it for the Australian market. We’ve kept the ‘Seriously fun fitness’ strapline, which is all about offering seriously good fitness opportunities that deliver results, all with a great sense of community and camaraderie. However, we’ve been able to design our own clubs and drive our own positioning.

“We’re keen to be family-friendly and to attract women. We build all our gyms to be non-intimidating for these audiences, and in our newest club our membership is 51 per cent female. Our marketing reflects this. Our view: the quality of our gyms will mean we attract the serious exercisers anyway, without skewing our marketing towards them.

“Because we do offer the best of the best at our gyms: the best equipment, a great
environment, excellent programming, group exercise timetables that typically offer 50–60 live classes a week plus virtual, studios that can each rival any equivalent boutique offering locally. With us, you get the best of everything you need in one place – everything you could want for your fitness regime – and all for around A$20 a week. Not only that, but we offer plenty of crèche and childcare facilities too, so your children can be looked after while you train, and wonderful social café spaces to enjoy with friends afterwards.”

world gym weightlifting
World Gym aims to create an environment where everyone can find their thing and enjoy their hour of fitness

our goal is to create an environment where everyone can find their thing and enjoy their hour of fitness.

Best in class

Davie adds: “We didn’t want to start going down the route some operators have done, whereby they’ve narrowed their offerings to appeal to very specific audiences. We offer everything from traditional group exercise to heavy lifting, because our goal is to create an environment where everyone can find their thing – where anyone can come in and enjoy their hour of fitness, whatever their chosen form of fitness might be.

“As a result, although our core target market is 17- to 38-year-olds, we also have younger members coming in – some of our gyms are located in schools, and teachers tell us the kids enjoy their PE lessons more when they take place in the gym environment – right up to those aged 80 and above who are looking to improve quality of life and stay mobile. We have women doing Olympic lifting; there’s roughly a 50/50 male/female split on our World Gym Athletics Foundation Levels 1–3, which teach technique to allow you to lift properly and avoid injury. We have men doing yoga to improve their flexibility; we do a lot of social media around ‘athletic yoga’, the importance of stretching for weight lifting and so on.

“But as I say, although ours is a big box model with all these different facets to the offering, the crucial difference in our gyms is that each and every aspect is designed to be the best in the market. We never do anything half-heartedly. Our functional CrossFit-style areas have bespoke World Gym Athletic programming and, we believe, rival the likes of Barry’s Bootcamp and F45; many of our yoga studios are kitted out to offer hot yoga; and our cycling studios draw on what we’ve seen during numerous visits to boutique studios in the States.”

world gym australia interior
In spite of its bodybuilding imagery, 51 per cent of World Gym Australia members are women

Cycling is thriving

He continues: “In our Burleigh club, for example, the cycling studio is designed like an auditorium. We have a curved room with three tiers of Body Bikes, a sloped roof, a raised pedestal for the instructor. We put a lot of detail into the mood lighting, the textures and design, the sound. We’re fanatical about this – about ensuring instructors don’t have to scream to make themselves heard and that everything blends well with the music.

“But we’re always looking to improve every experience in our clubs, and I can quite see how the studios in the clubs we open next year will be even better, including large screens at the front to run virtual classes. We find virtual to be a great addition across the board of group exercise, but with indoor cycling specifically it adds a new, immersive dimension to the experience.

“So, we’ll push our cycling studios to the next level, and the next, as standards and expectations continue to rise across the sector. We’ll develop more programming and styles of class to complement the classes we already have – RPM and SPRINT, freestyle, DJ nights and marathons – and we’ll add more virtual classes. We’ll find new ways to create a great atmosphere. We’ll build on the sense of club-in-club, potentially creating dedicated areas for cycling-only lockers that will be ready with people’s cleats, towels and water when they arrive.

indoor cycling classes

a while ago people were saying indoor cycling would die out, but if anything, it’s getting more important.

“Across all our clubs, cycling is already our most popular class: we typically offer 10–12 live classes a week and we have some members who come to us just for this. We invite feedback through social media that then shapes our timetables: what do you want more of and when do you want it – what day and what time? That often leads to more cycling, or scheduling cycling to be followed immediately afterwards by yoga.

“You know, a while ago people were saying indoor cycling would die out, but our experience is that, if anything, it’s getting more important. We just need to keep evolving to meet consumer demands. Honestly, if I only had space in a club to build one studio – general group exercise or cycling – I’d opt for cycling.”

Big box vs boutique

So, with rumours that SoulCycle is eyeing up Australia after a successful entry into the UK, what does Davie think of the pending threat from the boutiques?

Interestingly, he views the situation not as ‘boutiques versus big box’, but as ‘boutiques + low-cost versus big box’ – and for the Australian market at least, he remains confident in the World Gym model. “Rents and staff costs are so high in Australia that it’s hard to make a real success of the low-cost model,” he explains. “Neither is there the density of population, outside of areas like the Sydney CBD, that boutiques generally need to succeed. So, where in the US people are paying US$10 a month for their gym and US$25+ per class at a boutique on top of this, I don’t think this will happen as easily in Australia.

“Our view is therefore that, provided we can create experiences in our clubs that rival the boutiques, we will likely retain our members.”

But while Davie may not see boutiques as a model suited for roll-out across Australia, there is another model he does see as a strong contender, and that’s the satellite club – the smaller footprint model designed to sit between big box clubs.

“We’re just in the process of taking our World Gym Athletic brand and creating a spin-off satellite model,” he explains. “We’ve already been creating separate areas for this functional training offering within our clubs, to create a club-in-club feel, but our first fully standalone World Gym Athletic studio will open on the Gold Coast later this year. It will be a 400sq m site offering the best functional classes you can do, but for A$30 a week you will also be able to access the nearby World Gym clubs. That’s great value for the members.

Our first fully standalone world gym athletic studio will open on the gold coast later this year.

“It’s an interesting model for potential franchisees too, as it’s obviously a lower cost of entry: lower rent and all you really need is functional equipment – free weights and so on. Plus we’ve spent a lot of time creating really great programming. I can envisage this appealing to personal trainers who want to take the next step and own their own training space. We hope to open four or five of these studios over the next 12–18 months.”

world gym athletes
World Gym Athletics teaches technique, to allow you to lift properly and avoid injury

Shared success

Meanwhile, plans are to open between seven and 10 World Gyms a year over the next few years – and Davie admits he is “still pinching” himself at the idea they will soon reach 50 sites.

“Our original plan was simply to be gym owners ourselves, with a club in Sydney for Mike and a club on the Gold Coast for me,” he explains. “It was only when Joe Gold suggested we take the franchise that we even considered that option, and in the first five years we only opened three clubs. But it soon sped up as people began to recognise the brand and we got more and more interest from developers, real estate firms and potential franchisees.

“We’re now opening between five and seven clubs a year, have reached 30 clubs in total and will be opening a further eight by April 2020 – and that’s without even really touching on the big markets of Melbourne and Sydney, where we currently have only one and three clubs respectively. Those cities will be our next focus.

“But as we grow, we will stick by our pledge not to over-develop: we don’t want any of our clubs to cannibalise each other. So, for example, in Queensland, which has a population of around 3.4 million people, we now have 14 clubs and I’d say we’re done there. We don’t ever want to have a club that fails. “Neither do we push every growth opportunity: for every franchisee we take on, there are probably 20 or 30 we don’t. We take our time finding great sites and we always offer them to existing franchisees first. More and more of our franchisees are now opening second and third clubs, and that’s very rewarding for us: their willingness to re-invest in World Gym is proof the model works.

“In the end, Mike and I are first and foremost gym owners – I now have three World Gyms of my own, and between all the company directors we own nine – and we always say that we won’t let anyone open a club unless we would open it ourselves. We want every single one of our franchisees to be successful. That, for us, is the measure of our own success.”

JJ Sweeney

From elite trainer to co-founder of Celebrity Fitness to founder of new health club brand Paradigm, JJ Sweeney tells Kate Cracknell about his journey through fitness, and how his experiences have led to the creation of his perfect club

You were one of the co-founders of Celebrity Fitness in Asia. What was your journey up to that point?

I was always interested in fitness. When I was younger, back in Ireland where I grew up, I would take part in amateur cycling races at the weekend, cycling 150 or 200 miles.

After doing a diploma in sports science, I spent five years in New Zealand, training top athletes including Annelise Coberger, who won silver in the slalom in the 1992 Winter Olympics. I left New Zealand in 1994 and spent five years in Japan, managing Hilton Hotels’ health clubs across the country, followed by a stint in Taiwan working with California Fitness.

That’s where I met John Franklin, who along with Mike Anderson and my wife Miho were the three other co-founders of Celebrity Fitness, which we launched in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2003.

What was the model at Celebrity Fitness?

When we set out, there were no other health club brands in the market. We really were
starting from zero. But we latched on to what people wanted – which in Asia was energy and entertainment – and we came up wit
h a concept people had never seen before. It was Hard Rock Café meets Grand Hyatt Hotels meets Las Vegas. We wanted to take the best of all of those places, those distinct sectors, and put them into a fitness company. We wanted to create a place that felt like going on vacation for all those members who had spent the day in an office. That was the dream.

We had very cool, design-led clubs. We did lots of events and we had incredible group exercise. Our cycling studio, for example, started off as a darkened room, but it also had a fluorescent dome in the ceiling and lights in the floor, and as these lit up – combined with the great instructor and music – there was such an energy in the room. I used to love instructing myself, seeing people’s reactions as the class went on.

What were the key milestones for the brand?

Having launched the first club in 2003, we opened 16 clubs in the space of four years. At the end of 2007, we were acquired by Kuala Lumpur-based Navas Capital, who were very keen to see the brand expand.

We subsequently moved into India and Turkey, but things didn’t go our way there, so ultimately those clubs were sold off. We regrouped and instead focused our growth on the markets we were already in: Indonesia, where we grew to around 37 clubs in 12 cities; and Malaysia, predominantly Kuala Lumpur, where we got up to about 22 clubs. We also opened five clubs in Singapore.

But then things changed again in June 2017, when Celebrity Fitness merged with Fitness First Asia. The Singapore clubs were rebranded as Fitness First and a few clubs were closed in Indonesia. I only stayed with the business for six months following the merger.

What were your key learnings from your time at Celebrity Fitness?

The brand started out being really cool, really design-led, but as it grew to multiple sites in multiple countries that character was toned down. We had new people in the senior management team – that’s inevitable when you expand beyond a certain point – and in the process, the dream we had had as co-founders became somewhat diluted. There seemed to be less creativity. It felt like a number of different concepts and visions were being pushed together and I didn’t feel it worked.

So, while I wouldn’t change a thing about what we did as co-founders, my key learning would definitely be not to expand as fast as we did. It would be to spend more time building really strong foundations, training and developing staff and not pushing them into management roles before they were ready.

As new clubs opnened, they didn’t ‘copy and paste’ as i woud have liked. that impacts the member experience.

I recognise that, if we hadn’t grown fast, another brand would have come in and seized that opportunity, but it did feel a bit out of control at times. As new clubs opened, they didn’t ‘copy and paste’ in the way I would have liked them to, and of course that impacts the member experience.

paradigm club

You’ve now founded a new health club brand: Paradigm. Please tell us more.

Paradigm opened in Jakarta in February 2019 and what we’ve created is a genuinely new and unique concept. I honestly believe, if it were to open in New York, London, Tokyo, it would be THE place to go. I spent a year and a half planning it, unable to sleep for thinking through all the detail. I’ve done everything exactly as I wanted to.

Design-wise, when you walk in, the reception and lounge are like a six-star hotel. The changing rooms are stunning, with wooden floors and marbled bathrooms. The gym is raw and functional – a powerful contrast to the reception area. And then there are the studios, which have a real wow factor: we have a beautiful cycling studio; a 300sq m group exercise studio with space for 120 people in a dance class; and an intimate mind-body studio with space for maximum of 16 people. And then the whole club is surrounded by floor to ceiling windows, so you almost feel as though you’re outdoors – the views are incredible.

We’ve also chosen to be in the first LEED Platinum building in Indonesia, where everything has to be energy-saving and environment-friendly, to the point of them checking any materials we wanted to use in the build.

paradigm is all about mind, body and spirit. a lot of operators talk about this, but few actually do it. we do.

Equally important at Paradigm is our holistic ethos: we’re all about mind, body and spirit. A lot of operators talk about this, but I believe few actually do it. We do.

One great example is our Soundbath class, which we run every day at lunchtime to help people de-stress and recharge. We’re located in Jakarta’s CBD (central business district), surrounded by offices, so there’s huge demand for this service. You don’t even have to change into gym kit. You just go into the mind-body studio, lay down on comfortable blankets, put on an eye pillow and we play special healing music that creates vibrations through your body. You start to see colours: you’ll see yellow if you’re in a creative state, blue if you’re in a dreamlike state… It’s a wonderful class.

We also run other mind-body classes such as yoga, mobility, barefoot, meditation, SMR (self-myofascial release). We’re finding a lot of people are joining us just for these, and even those who are into their weights and high-intensity work are loving the scope we offer for active recovery too. The way I explain it, exercise is important, but ‘inner-cise’ is just as important.

when i left celebrity fitness, people wanted to follow me. i hand-picked those i considered to be true superstars.

We have around 90 group classes a week and we encourage everyone to take part; around 70 per cent of our members do. It helps, of course, that we have exceptional instructors. When I left Celebrity Fitness, a lot of people wanted to follow me, but you can’t take everyone. I hand-picked the best of the best – the people I considered to be true superstars.

zumba at paradigm
At Paradigm, you don’t just hear the music – you feel it

Tell us a bit more about the fitness spaces at Paradigm.

The gym floor is split into five zones. The first is Fast Track, which does host some live classes as well as DJ nights two or three times a week, but its primary offering is virtual classes, which you can do on the hour, every hour. We create this virtual content ourselves.

The rest of the gym space is very raw, with no traditional strength equipment – it’s all about standing up, about movement. There’s a Free Weights zone, a Cardio zone, a Kettlebell zone and a Calisthenics zone. This Calisthenics zone features the sort of equipment you’d often find on a beach, with bars and Olympic rings and so on, but we decided to bring it indoors. We have 7m-high ceilings, so we have the space to do aerial stuff, and in fact we’ve combined this with a climbing wall and peg boards that go up 5 metres.

We also worked with Life Fitness to create the first four-pillar cable machine in the world, which is nicknamed The Beast and which sits alongside equipment like power racks, benches, free weights, the Nautilus glute drive… and lots of open space.

Sound is really important to us. Throughout the whole gym floor space, we have 16 sub-woofers. It means you don’t just hear the music – you feel it. It feels like the music is really pumping, but without having to crank up the volume to a point where you can’t hear each other speak.

Then we have our studios. The largest one has a 6m x 3.5m LED screen at the front, on which we project imagery and video to enhance each class and create an immersive environment. Our cycle studio is a really cool space too, with fantastic lighting, a 3m x 3.5m LED screen showing MyRide video footage from around the world, and an exceptional sound system – it has two sub-woofers of its own, just in the studio, so you feel the music but can still hear the instructor very clearly.

The way we describe it: as a 2,000sq m site, Paradigm is a big-box boutique.

Tell us a bit more about your cycling classes.

I’m not a huge fan of all these ‘party on a bike’ classes. Yes, it’s fun and the music might inspire you, but my view is that you get better results if you’re really focused on what you’re doing, if you’re really aware of your body.

I therefore like to teach indoor cycling as if it were road cycling. I like to teach people how to climb and race in the right way, how to engage their whole body: legs, core, upper body. I like to focus on the movement, on technique. Because if you do all this, you’ll burn more calories and get better results.

That’s our approach at Paradigm. We use ICG’s Coach by Colour system for all our classes, where you train in colour-coded zones: we currently offer a 50-minute Colours class and a 30-minute Performance class, and I’m working on two more formats which we’ll launch soon.

Performance is about 25 per cent harder than Colours – you’ll cycle about 12km in the 30 minutes, compared to about 17km in 50 minutes in Colours. In each class, the structure is set – the order of the coloured zones you go through, culminating in a team competition at the end – but the instructor is free to do his or her own choreography. The colour zones are all we dictate.

Interestingly, where at Celebrity Fitness the cycling was all about motivation and
excitement – the instructors really had to be performers – at Paradigm the member
mindset is proving to be different. The members are very focused and are more interested in the data, in their results, in the instructor getting them through a good workout and helping them stay focused. It’s perhaps down to our location in the CBD, which means we have a lot of competitive high-fliers among our members – we have over 30 CEOs, for example – but they’re more interested in getting results than in being entertained.

luxury fashion brand indoor cycling
Paradigm’s cycling fans are, says Sweeney, focused on data

You refer to Paradigm as a luxury fashion brand. What do you mean by this?

When people get into fitness, over time their body changes shape – but the way they feel also changes. The way they act, their attitude, their self-confidence, the clothes they choose… their whole body language changes. That’s why I see fitness as fashion. We help people fall in love not only with fitness, but also with themselves and with fashion.

By offering all of that within a unique, premium space, we’re also finding others are seeing us as a fashion brand. We’re collaborating not only by the usual sportswear brands, but with the likes of Calvin Klein, Estée Lauder, Guess. For example, Calvin Klein recently organised an event for 300 people at Paradigm, as well as a pop-up store in front of the club. People are seeing us as a fashion brand and we’ve gone viral.

How has Paradigm performed so far, and what are your expansion plans?

It’s going very well so far. We’re currently at 900 members [as at October 2019] and I’d like to get to 1,600, but break-even would be around 1,100. Membership costs around US$80 a month, up to US$350 to include 10 PT sessions. That makes our price point twice as much as Celebrity Fitness, for example, so we don’t need to have thousands of members.

Going forward, I only want to open three or four Paradigms in total, all in Jakarta. I want to keep it exclusive, to create a tight-knit community, to keep standards really high. I want it to be a place where members spend time, and where I can take the time to be on the gym floor engaging with them, teaching them new techniques to help them get results.

I’m therefore not in a hurry to open our second club. The space has to be perfect. We want the high ceilings and the windows. I’ve looked at a few places but they weren’t right – but interestingly, I’m now finding myself being approached by developers who are actively asking me what they want so they can build it for me.

What we will definitely do in 2020 is launch the Indonesian Fitness Academy. I’m concerned by all the influencers on social media who are persuading people to follow them and their advice, but without it being based on any real knowledge or certification – nothing more than their own personal experience. Everyone’s needs are different; to get the best results, you need expert advice and a personalised training approach.

influencers on social media are persuading people to follow them, but without any real knowledge or certification.

We already spend a lot of time educating both members and our staff to address the
misconceptions they’ve picked up from social media, but I now want to do even more to ensure instructors have an in-depth understanding of the human body, and of how to train different types of people.

It is only by doing this – by helping members get results – that we can really get them to fall in love with fitness.

Colin Grant

How would you describe The Pure Group?

The Pure Group is a premium lifestyle brand whose vision is to inspire and help people to lead healthier, happier lives.

Our health club brand is Pure Fitness: large, premium clubs with a full offering across the board of programming, facilities and member experience. We’re very happy with the big box model. People aren’t one-dimensional, and the size of our facilities gives us the space we need to meet all expectations when it comes to wellbeing. It allows us to create a true 360° offering and gives us the flexibility to innovate and adapt to new trends.

It was eight years ago, for example, that we first introduced a large, turfed functional training area into one of our Pure Fitness clubs in Singapore; five years ago that we brought gymnastics to the gym floor in Hong Kong; 10 years ago that we started incorporating large lounge areas to promote a sense of community. We’re constantly looking to break down barriers, innovate, try new things. We try to look ahead and anticipate customer needs.

And Pure Fitness is just one part of our Group. Meanwhile, Pure Yoga – which, as a standalone offering, was in itself quite innovative when we first launched in Hong Kong in 2002 – offers every style of yoga, as well as meditation.

We have in-house nutritionists in Hong Kong and are expanding the team in Singapore and Shanghai too; alongside our healthy-eating nood food brand, this is an area we will continue to develop and grow. For example, we’re currently looking at options for home delivery of meals, in combination with personal training.

We’ve also brought in a sleep specialist recently and are already looking to recruit a second. Sleep is critical to wellbeing, but today sleep is where nutrition was 10 years ago: in a few years’ time, the invaluable contribution it makes to our health won’t even be questioned, but at the moment people are only just starting to really pay attention to it. I’m very excited about this field – it’s going to be a big one for us.

In fact, our sleep specialist and our nutritionists are already looking to work together to develop programmes which, combined with special yoga classes and personal training, will offer members a holistic package to improve the quality of their sleep.

Across our Group, then, we aim to have all the elements in place to help people live healthier, happier lives, delivering it all at a premium level and with great customer service.

How have you kept your cycling offering competitive as the boutiques have emerged?

Around 26 per cent of our gym members take part in group exercise. Of those, around 20 per cent do group cycling, so it’s an important element of what we offer.

Back in 2015, we launched the world’s first 270° Les Mills TRIP studio – the immersive cycling experience [read more here] – at one of our clubs in Hong Kong. That’s done incredibly well, to the point that we now put it in wherever we have the opportunity: we’ve already done similar installations in Singapore, as well as two clubs in Shanghai.

In fact, we’re still the only operator in the world to have 270° screens – there are four in the world and we have all of them. But I absolutely believe it’s worth the investment: with the screen all around you, you’re totally immersed in the experience. People love it: most of our TRIP classes have waitlists and it’s attracting even those who wouldn’t normally be drawn to cycling. We also offer it as part of the membership – there’s no extra charge for TRIP classes.

We’re experimenting with cycling studio design at our new club in Singapore too, with a tiered atrium-style layout, best-in-class sound system and far more scope to add interesting lighting effects. We then have the option to replicate and retrofit this into our other cycling studios.

Another new initiative is a collaboration with Technogym at our newest club, One Taikoo Place in Hong Kong, which opened in August of this year. Every one of our clubs has a different feel, a different personality, and at One Taikoo Place we’ve brought gamification to the gym floor. We’ve created a gym floor zone – equipped with Skillbikes, Skillmills and Skillrows – where we run competitive virtual triathlons: cycling, running and rowing. It’s created a real buzz, with some great member feedback already.

we have to act small, human-sized, ensuring that every member is looked after

How important is technology to delivering the experience members want nowadays?

It’s one aspect, certainly, but not the only one. At The Pure Group, we talk about being hi-tech and hi-touch: personal interaction is key, especially at the premium end of the market.

In the case of indoor cycling specifically, you have to bear in mind that – while innovations such as the TRIP bring new people to the discipline, and while great lighting for example will engage people – there are some hardcore cyclists who just want to get on a bike and go… and it will be these people who will still be with you in 10 years’ time. The trick is to cater for both groups without being gimmicky or short term, understanding that what really keeps people coming is the quality of the instructor. You need instructors who love what they do.

We do bring in technology where we feel it will enhance the member experience. We launched our Innovation Lab a couple of years ago, where we test new products in our clubs. It gives our members a chance to try out the latest innovations, provides great feedback for the supplier, and allows us to trial the latest products before we commit.

We’ve also built our own software – it’s been a three-year project – which we’re calling Pure 360. It’s our own club management system that’s integrated with both a member app and a staff app. This will further enhance in-club interaction as well as providing personalised support out of the club. If you book a yoga class in the club, for example, mypureyoga.com – our online virtual class platform, which will also be integrated into Pure 360 – will
recommend complementary, online classes run by the same instructor. 

But equally, there’s some evidence of tech fatigue nowadays: many people like to come to the gym to escape their screens for a while. So, what matters are our staff: 90 per cent of our staff are customer-facing and they’re there to provide the personal contact – across the 25,000 visits to our clubs every day – that will keep bringing those members back.

They also lie at the heart of our community, which even outside of our clubs goes far beyond the online realm. We run events, we organise wellness retreats, we form tribes – Latino Familia, the Handstand Clan and so on – who are all united by a particular interest.

pure group indoor cycling

in selected locations in-club boutiques will offer Hiit, cardio, functional and boxing

The way I always explain it, our size can be an advantage and a disadvantage. The key is to not act big. We have to act small, human-sized, ensuring that every member is looked after so well they feel like they’re the only person in the club.

To what extent have you embraced the
at-home fitness market?

We obviously have mypureyoga.com, and our app will allow us to provide members with at-home workouts and support. But, while we have of course noted the growth of Peloton and the at-home market generally, at this stage we aren’t venturing into our own hardware. It’s still very early days in this field, and hard to know who’s really doing it well.

We also have more than enough to keep us busy in our existing business. We only have 36 clubs – of which 34 are operated by us – so there’s plenty more growth opportunity for our club model. 

While we would never open new locations for the sake of it – they will always have to be great locations and a great space, allowing us to create a fantastic club – I expect to open a dozen more clubs in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and Beijing over the next 12 to 18 months. We’re certainly finding that landlords are now actively looking to bring wellbeing brands into their developments above, for example, the big retail brands.

Any other new innovations at The Pure Group?

We’re seeing a trend towards the creation of boutique studios inside big box gyms, and we’re currently exploring options to develop something similar for our own clubs. We’ll be looking to launch this new concept in selected locations in Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai.

These in-club boutiques will offer a mix of disciplines – HIIT, cardio, functional, boxing – with a range of programmes on offer. These will be both adaptations of our own small group training concepts, as well as hand-picked pre-choreographed sessions.

Would you consider opening standalone
boutique studios?

We’ve considered it for a long time, contemplating what we might do that would complement our big boxes, but in the end you can’t be all things to all men. 

There’s also the question of where we are in the boutique lifecycle. I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess, but if even the big brands like Flywheel are closing sites… perhaps we’re better off staying focused on our big box model. While I don’t like to play it safe, and will always experiment with new ideas, I certainly don’t feel compelled to jump in and do something just because
everyone else is.

It’s also the case that you get a much better deal on a lease if you want 30,000sq ft versus 4,000sq ft. That makes the small box model a particularly hard one to crack, especially in Asia where rents are already among the highest in the world. Even our Pure Yoga locations – although they have the feel, the energy and the community of boutiques – measure 15,000–20,000sq ft.

What do you believe is the future of
indoor cycling?

It will certainly continue to be a big part of the gym experience, but I do believe – all innovation aside – that what will ultimately keep drawing people back won’t be lighting or sound systems or décor. It will be better and better instructors.

People will all but ignore the surroundings if they have an instructor they really connect with. That isn’t unique to cycling of course, but it is something to keep in mind, and the reason why staff training is always at the top of our investment priorities.

pure fitness club

About the pure group

Founded in 2002 and headquartered in Hong Kong, The Pure Group is Asia’s leading premium lifestyle brand that includes Pure Yoga, MyPureYoga.com, Pure Fitness, Pure Nutrition, Pure Apparel and nood food. Pure Group has locations in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and New York – the latter a licence agreement with Equinox.

As at August 2019, the Group catered for over 80,000 customers across 36 sites. Most are either Pure Yoga or Pure Fitness, but one site – Hong Kong’s The Pulse – offers both Pure Fitness and Pure Yoga in one location.

The Group’s 22 Pure Yoga clubs are located in Hong Kong (12), Singapore (four), Shanghai (three), New York (two) and Beijing (one). Meanwhile, of the 15 Pure Fitness locations, 10 are in Hong Kong, with three in Singapore and two in Shanghai. 

Matthew Allison

You were previously president of EMI Music in Asia. How did you come to develop Space Cycle?
I was in the music industry in my 30s and it was a high-pressure environment: I looked after 18 markets, so I’d be travelling to three or four countries in a week, overseeing almost 40 different companies and thousands of employees.

I used to run as a form of stress release, but it was taking its toll on my knees. I knew I needed to look at my health in a new and different way, so I started to do yoga.

My idea at that point was to do something entrepreneurial in the world of wellbeing for the next phase of my career – but in fact, in 2002, I retired briefly, moving to Hawaii for a couple of years. During that time, I really flipped my lifestyle around to focus on wellness.

I then returned to Asia with the aim of opening a chain of top yoga studios in Taiwan and developing the next generation of yoga teachers in the Chinese market. The result was Space Yoga – the first brand within the Space Concepts family – with the first studio opening in Taipei in 2005.



How has the business evolved since then?
We now have seven studios in Taiwan and China, including one – our fourth in China – that we’re opening as we speak.

Our studios are now all multi-modality, with yoga, barre, cycling, dance and HIIT all sitting under the Space Concepts umbrella; Space Cycle launched in Taiwan in June 2015 and China in June 2016.

What unites all of these disciplines is our over-arching ambition to be an entertainment lifestyle brand that’s focused around fitness – one that’s driven by music and live classes. This is encapsulated in our slogan: ‘Moved by Music’.

Tell us more about the role of music in your studios…
When I first founded Space Yoga, in spite of my background in music, I hadn’t really focused on the link between music and exercise. That changed about four and a half years ago when I started working out in some of the boutiques that were coming into the market.

I found the experience at these boutiques far more spiritual and social – and with it more motivating – than training at normal gyms. In part that was down to the instructors, but it was also down to the way they used music. I found it stayed with me for days afterwards, especially the tracks from the peaks of the workout when I was pushing myself really hard. I think it’s the vulnerability in you at that moment that makes you particularly receptive to the sensory experience of music.

Asia Cycling

I therefore decided to expand our group exercise model with music at the heart of things; our studios are now a place where music and lifestyle meet fitness. We have a music curation department, DJs, live events, influencer and celebrity playlists… And those playlists are not only used in our studios, but can also be download from the leading online streaming services – QQ Music in China and KKBox in Taiwan – which further extends the reach of our brand.

We also aim to introduce people to new music all the time. The repertoire of what we listen to can often be quite limited; we work out what we like by about college age and then we stop exploring new artists. But music is so powerful – it can change your mood in a moment – and we want to encourage people to keep finding new inspiration. So we use our playlists to expose people to new music in much the same way as radio stations used to do. We showcase music in the context of health and wellness.

Once our customers find an instructor they respect, they’re open to that instructor introducing them to new music through their workout playlists – and this, in turn, enhances their experience with us.

This is a whole new way of reaching the millennial market, where the social aspect is the glue and the music is our means to communicate with them.

Tell us more about your celebrity playlists…
Our instructors are themselves often influencers – we work with them to build strong social media profiles – so people are keen to download their playlists, and we regularly work with
celebrities too.

For example, if a band has released a new album, we might link up with their record label to hold an event at Space Cycle. We’ll play their music, have exclusive rights to some video footage, we’ll have signed merchandise, and the record label will promote it to the fans. We might then film the event and post it on fan sites, and we’ll make the playlist available on our partner digital music services, so we become a downstream partner for the launch. It’s a new generation of online-to-offline model and it brings a whole new audience into our studios.

space cycle interieur

We also work with most of the entertainment companies in China to host their fan-based events: we did the main launches last year for Arianna Grande, OneRepublic, Maroon 5, the Fast & Furious 8 soundtrack… We had Linkin Park come into the studio through our partnership with Mercedes and create a playlist for us. And we take our experiences out of the clubs too: we partnered with Storm Music Festival, for example. It’s important that our brand isn’t only experienced in our studios.

We also have connections in the sports world – the likes of Nike and Lululemon – so we’ve had some of the top Chinese sports stars, such as tennis star Li Na, in our studios to host events. We had Apple CEO Tim Cook visit Space as part of the global Apple Watch launch, to promote its new features. And we have Daniel Wu Yan-Zu, who stars in the American TV series Into the Badlands, as one of our investors.

So we work with a huge number of celebrities: we’ve done 300+ celebrity events since we first launched Space Cycle. People see it as
the perfect space to showcase their own
creative endeavours.

You mention Space Cycle specifically in the context of these events. Why is that?
Indoor cycling is the closest you can get to a live concert experience. With the instructor up on stage it’s all about performance, it’s participatory, it’s focused on music, there’s a buzz in the studio with around 50 bikes.

This is really my motivation: I want people to feel as though they’ve been transported into a concert. We have technology in the studios to control the music and the lighting, and there’s no distortion of sound. It’s a full entertainment experience at a higher level than anything I’ve seen in any other boutique studio around the world.

But crucially, our focus on music doesn’t come at the expense of our fitness programming: it’s important to us that we teach at the highest level. To this end, all our instructors are trained by us – but they do then have a fair amount of freedom in their choreography. We want to give them a chance to rise to the occasion.

space cycle live
Space Cycle wants riders to feel they’ve been transported into a live concert

What’s happening in the Chinese fitness market generally?
The penetration rate is currently low, but the market is growing very quickly. People in the larger cities are becoming more focused on
preventative health and are increasingly willing to spend a portion of their income on that – our classes cost around US$22–25 in China and just under US$20 in Taiwan.

This is also a society in which people are very driven by the desire to share their experiences on social media. Indeed, China is so connected online that its ability to share and grow trends – something that’s powerfully connected to
millennial social media behaviour – means it will go through this cycle at a much faster rate than most countries.

We’re already seeing huge growth of the fitness sector in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities – Tier 1 being those with between 10 and 30 million people, so Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Chengdu, and then with Tier 2 as well you get up to about 20 cities.

We’re currently seeing the massive scaling of mass market models similar to Anytime Fitness and 24Hour Fitness. These will grow first, rolling out across second, third, fourth tier cities. But after that we’ll see online fitness and the boutiques come to the fore, with consolidation of the big boxes giving way to more segmentation of the market, just as we’ve seen in markets like the US.

I expect all of this segmentation to happen within 24–36 months: China will catch up faster than any other developed society in the history of boutique fitness.

What are your expansion plans?
We recently secured US$15m in funding, in an investment round led by Chinese internet giant Alibaba, and now plan to open 50 new studios in China and Taiwan over the next five years. We’ll focus on the Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities in China, as well as Taipei.

We’ll be opening different sizes of studio depending on the location – 1,300–1,500sq m flagships, 600–800sq m hubs and 200–400sq m ‘spokes’ – and some might not have all modalities, but all will be multi-modality rather than single discipline.


We’re also working with GOCO Hospitality to extend the appeal of the destination spa model, adding a new dimension to the urban wellness centres it’s looking to develop by incorporating ‘Moved by Music’ studios.

Finally, we’re keen to expand into other markets outside of China and Taiwan via strategic partnerships. We’re open to new ways of doing this, but essentially, we’re looking for local partners with the scale to execute our model. They will then be able to plug in to a lot of what we do already: the design, music, celebrity connections, instructor training and so on can come from us. So, we’re open to approaches from prospective partners who want to work with us to bring Space Concepts to their market.

If you look forward five years, where do you see the business?
We’ll continue to explore new modalities, we’ll open new locations and we’ll focus on expanding our presence via online platforms and content. But ultimately, we want to remain highly innovative, reinforcing our role as a lifestyle influencer and not a fitness studio. We want to be another outlet to showcase music and entertainment and creativity, and we’ll keep looking at how we do this without sacrificing the science behind the fitness.

Our mission is to redefine millennial fitness in highly populated urban areas, creating a new social lifestyle around fitness that doesn’t fully exist today.

Boutique cycle

Boutique cycling in Australia will no doubt follow a similar trend to that of North America, Europe and now in the Middle East, delivering fitness experiences in much the same specialized yet very individualized way as many of the great brands that have already been established in those markets such as Peloton, Soul Cycle & Cycle Bar.

Three examples of boutique indoor cycling

Australia is both the Earth’s smallest continent and the world’s largest island. The breadth of this land can be captured by three prime examples of how boutique indoor cycling is being done: The CUBE in Brisbane on the east coast; Studio360Cycle in the central south coast’s Adelaide; and Flyrider Republic in Perth on the west coast. That’s 4000km from east to west, yet all very Australian.

All three have their own take on what indoor cycling can be in their market. All are quite different in their approach when it comes to the programing offered. Yet all are underpinned by an identical passion of an owner and staff who believe in what they are doing.

Technology also claims its place in all three centers, though each does it differently.


The CUBE invested in SPIVY software with its 3D visualization system that places riders on a virtual road, with a big focus on delivering inclusive, cycling-inspired classes with a mix of freestyle and Les Mills workouts.

Studio360Cycle in Adelaide has developed its own cycling app, and its cycles have small tablets attached which allow the instructors to coach participants through ranges of cadence and levels of resistance – all done with amazing music booming out from a very high-end sound system. The tiered, circular studio is a first and if the success of the early days is anything to go by, it will not be the last.

Flyrider Republic in Perth has a blend of Freestyle cycle classes of 30-, 45-, 60- and even 90-minute duration. Its technology is capable of everything from simple heart rate tracking through to cycling as an animated competitor within a cycling race. The studio also pairs cycling with boxing to create something truly unique, and a real challenge for those looking to mix things up: you spend time on the bike before dismounting to go toe-to-toe with a wall-mounted punching buddy.

big box fitness indoor cycling

What it takes

Owners of boutiques cycle studios come frommany backgrounds, from former workers from within the ‘big box’ fitness centers – who have left that crazy hustle and bustle in order to, as they see it, do it better than could possibly be done – to ex-corporates looking to use their business expertise and fitness passion to create more than just a job.

But the success of the boutiques is not only down to these inspired owners, who with vision and drive created these businesses from a blank piece of paper. It’s also down to up-to-date instructors who act as amazing role models,
delivering great workouts that offer so much for so many; and to excellent front desk staff, who as the first point of contact can make or break an experience for a customer.

As boutique cycling continues to grow in Australia, the range of what is offered to customers will continue to evolve, with amazingly shaped studios featuring incredible lighting, cinema quality sound, engaging technologies and first-class instructors playing skin-tingling music – all resulting in a workout that will make us all sweat while also making us smile. It will be exciting to see what happens next Down Under….

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