Martin Darby, CEO of Celebrity Fitness, tells us how the brand’s unique approach to exercise has allowed it to dominate south-east Asia...
Even the fittest and most dedicated gym-goer is bound to admit that working out sometimes feels like a repetitious chore. While some fitness centres – often few and far between – make an effort to include more exciting classes and programmes, none can boast such an eclectic and engaging selection – and on a mainstream scale, no less – than Celebrity Fitness.
Celebrity Fitness was registered in Indonesia in 2003 by John Franklin, John Joseph Sweeney, and the late Mike Duane Anderson, a trio which previously worked for another popular Asian fitness brand, California Fitness. They had approached their own boss asking if he would consider expanding to Indonesia; he declined, and so Franklin, Sweeney, and Anderson decided to strike out alone, creating an entertainment-style fitness centre developed with Indonesian characteristics in mind.
The company has since expanded to 62 locations across Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and soon the Philippines, swiftly overtaking Fitness First to become the number one local fitness chain. In 2010, a Brit named Martin Darby became CEO, and has spent the past seven years guiding and shaping that development.
“It’s a truly unique brand,” he says. "It’s hard to describe without experiencing it, but it’s an eclectic mix of sound and light; it’s very much a studio-based concept including disco lighting and popular music, with an Asian bias towards K-pop. We have a Mask Dance class that’s like a Venetian ball, the Insanity programme which is a bit punky, the Seduce which is more of a sexy Latino dance, alongside more mainstream popular classes. It is very much a dress-up, immersive, community-driven and exciting fitness centre which is less about the hard work that’s normally associated with exercise.”
Some of the other unusual and wonderful features of Celebrity Fitness include a drumming-for-fitness class called Drums Alive, fun boot camp, Floating Yoga which allows 360 degree yoga, a hardcore cycling programme for time-poor members called Race 30, a dance academy, virtual classes enabling trainers to run their programmes remotely, and many, many others.
It sounds like a dream for those of us who find gym environments uncomfortable and intimidating, but according to Darby, Celebrity Fitness isn’t so much filling a gap in the Asian market – it is the market.
“There’s a concept in London which is not dissimilar, but there, it’s niche,” he explains. “Out here Celebrity Fitness is a mass market brand, whereas brands that are more globally famous like Virgin Active, are the more niche players. One of the reasons for our popularity is that Indonesia is a country that’s 97 percent Muslim, so the places people in the UK may go to meet friends such as going to bars and clubs are not as popular. An interactive fitness centre fills that void.”
Another reason for the brand’s appeal is the ever-changing roster of activities available that ensures continued interest from members and staff alike. Celebrity Fitness has formed relationships with inventors in the United States, with whom the company will work on a piece of equipment and commit to buying a number of the end product in exchange for at least six months of exclusivity. By that time, Celebrity Fitness will know whether the item works and is popular thanks to member feedback.
“Every quarter our members ask the same question: ‘what’s next?’,” says Darby. “We survey them, have regular social media contact with them, and of course talk to our instructors and personal trainers. We have to search the world for new ideas, particularly in the US where we regularly visit, but really, this business is like fashion: nobody truly knows what’s next.
“The key for a brand like Celebrity Fitness is keeping it fresh. That’s a full-time commitment. It’s about exclusivity, fun, constant change, being nimble, and keeping that interest going. That’s why people come back.”
Celebrity Fitness puts as much effort into keeping its staff happy as the members, with a reward system called STAR – Spirit, Talent, Attentiveness, and Respect – which has recently been refreshed and renamed STAR FISH to include more specific customer service elements. It allows them to earn badges, adding value to their job role and ensuring they also enjoy the experience as much as the customer.
The business takes its influence even further outside of the gym, by teaming up with charitable organisations and awareness-raising movements and using its mainstream influence for good.
“In Malaysia we do a lot with FIT Malaysia, which is a government initiative that’s concerned with obesity and diet,” Darby explains. “We also work with The Kidney Foundation, AIDS awareness, and particularly breast cancer awareness because we’re very female-orientated. Our members can be 60-80 percent female, so we have a campaign called #powertothegirls which raises awareness as well as female empowerment. That is especially exciting in countries where female empowerment still isn’t that common a concept.
“Hashtag campaigns are becoming so big here; Facebook is huge in south-east Asia, with Instagram and other such platforms gaining popularity. While some gyms don’t allow phones, we encourage people to share their experiences and selfies – which we call Selfits – which is great marketing coming from confident people who are proud that they attend the gym. In the early days, Celebrity Fitness was so named because celebrities used our gyms; now, it’s because everybody wants to be a celebrity, and with how huge social media is over here, you can be a celebrity.”
Now, Celebrity Fitness’s main priority is expanding into second tier cities, thus stretching the power of the brand but still managing to maintain interest and excitement in smaller environments. This offers the company’s international experience to people who have never seen anything like it. It has also recently announced a merger with Fitness First Asia, furthering its reach: “Now the combined company has full Asian rights,” Darby concludes, “so we’ll be looking towards China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea – there’s lots of potential growth as the middle class grows here, continuing to open up opportunities. It’ll be a mixture of finding the right new market that both brands can go into, and building on what we have.”