Why we’ve rebelled against everything the traditional gym model stands for

Giles Dean and James Balfour are the co-founders of 1Rebel, a no-contract, ‘pay-as-you-train’ group training boutique based in the heart of London. 1Rebel has cultivated an incredibly strong brand and a large contingent of brand advocates, and in September they will be opening their second location in Broadgate, London. Prior to starting 1Rebel, Giles and James founded Jatomi Fitness, a chain of fitness clubs with locations in seven countries across Eastern Europe, Turkey and Asia.


You say you’re building destinations, not just gyms, what do you mean by that?

A gym can mean a lot of different things to different people. What we’re not is a place where you’re left to your own devices. We’re a destination in so far as we’re a place where you come and cannot but get results. That’s because our structure is instructor-led, and you’re constantly pushed to give 100%.

The other element is that we’re a destination in terms of the actual facility, and making it a fantastic place to be. We spend a lot of time on the design and flow, and making this an optimal place for our customers, not only to get fit but to hang out and socialise with their friends and other customers.

Fitness clubs often say they’re destinations and that they’re social. Based on their model, that’s just counterintuitive. If you’re a member at Fitness First, you can’t just bring your friend along unless he’s a member, whereas in the boutique studio space you can because it’s pay as you go. It’s totally social and becomes more of a destination, and that’s why we have people travelling from all over London to come here, not just to get results, but to get results with their friends.

That also enables us to bring in other concepts and other people that our customers can identify with and relate to so that we can do specific events our customers enjoy.


How are you impacting/disrupting the gym sector?

The model that’s existed for a long time is the membership model where you sell people contracts and lock them in. The name 1Rebel has actually come from the DNA of what we stand for. We’ve been involved in the fitness industry all our lives and what we want to do is rebel against everything we’ve done before and what the industry has done before.

By locking people into 12 month contracts you start selling contracts, not a product. We want to flip that round so that the onus is the customer and things are on their terms, so our responsibility is to be best in class in everything we offer so that those customers come back.

Moreover we need to use the correct terms to identify who is doing what in the space. The word ‘boutique’ is too loosely bound about in the industry. In the hotel industry a boutique hotel would typically be a small intimate 5 star hotel. We tend to use the word boutique for studios that are small but don’t actually offer 5 star standards. I think 1Rebel does meet that requirement, so we’ve not only disrupted the entire industry, we’ve also started to own the concept of being truly unique in the studio space.


How important has your online presence been for building the business?

Online is used for building a community of people that want to be at this destination and identify with the fact that we’re a boutique, therefore it’s fundamental for maintaining our community. I wouldn’t say it’s built our business, but certainly compliments it. We use it as a communication tool to further enhance the community.

For 1Rebel, online represents the brand that you get when you come into the club. Most fitness clubs have very generic websites (and clubs!). What you get online is exactly what you get offline; and that follows on with our social media activity. Where you can see things changing is if you look at our Instagram or Twitter, and look at not what we’re doing but what customers are doing compared to Fitness First and LA fitness, the difference is absolutely huge.

What we’ve done with our branding and our offer is create brand advocates. You don’t get people telling all of their friends that they’ve become a member of Fitness First, but you do have people saying: “I go to 1Rebel, come with me.” There’s honesty that we offer. Lots of other clubs use fake, muscular models on their sites, whereas we blend the online with offline, which has really helped us build this community of brand advocates.


Can you talk a bit about how music plays a part at your gyms?

Going back to the concept of community, our customers are engaged and enjoy lots of different things – including health, fitness, music and fashion. It’s fundamental that we’re meeting their expectations on each of these touch points. We place a lot of emphasis on curating bespoke, often not yet released music for our customers to listen to, not only when they work out, but also when they hang out at 1Rebel.

Most commercial fitness clubs buy into a server that is based somewhere else. The brief is often to get music that is non-controversial, played at quite a soft volume, and no one really hears it. Our view is that music changes and you have to be at the forefront of change. Because we’re not trying to turn it down, we need to make sure it’s good!


How will you cope with competition from brands like Psycle?

We welcome competition. Our fight is for the customer – what does a customer want? We built this business on the premise that nobody wants to sign a 12 month contract anymore; the fitness clubs want that, the customers don’t. Fitness clubs don’t actually get people fit, they sell them access. We want to put it on the customer’s terms.

We don’t mind there being more boutique studios. In fact, we want them to thrive because we know the industry is in demand. We want to take the fight to the big box operators who have probably been on this journey far too long.

That’s where we see ourselves taking market share. There is plenty of space for hundreds of boutique studios, and we want that to happen, because customers get the best results with group training in this sort of format, and it’s more economical than using personal trainers or memberships they don’t use.

One of the key mistakes big box gyms make is to race to open loads of clubs. We always race to put our customers first. We’ve been shortlisted for European Design Awards and GQ Magazine labeled us ‘King of Gyms’. Making sure we are labelled ‘King of Gyms’ next year and being in design magazines is more important to us than opening clubs quickly. We’ve got to keep the integrity of this brand.


What do you think are the biggest barriers to entry for new players?

Expertise and standards. You need a certain level of expertise – just because you eat food doesn’t mean you should own a restaurant. A similar thing applies to the fitness industry. What the boutiques do, and hopefully what 1Rebel are doing, is pushing the standard up. If you wanted to enter this market, you’ve got to deliver what you say you’ll deliver. Look not just at the fitness experience, but the ancillary experience – the changing rooms, the reception and the customer service. It’s not as simple as putting four walls up and calling yourself a studio.

It’s definitely a property game, in addition to operating and having an attractive brand that people want to be a part of. I wouldn’t want to underplay the importance of property. If you have a concept, brand and product that does all of the things 1Rebel does, landlords start crying out for you. I don’t mean that in an arrogant sense, but we’ve been here for just over a year and have contracted here with this Landlord, 50m from the Gherkin, and have now contracted with British Land for our second site at Broadgate. Quite frankly we haven’t been short of offers in London or abroad. Like our customers, landlords have warmed to the concept and seen the value that it brings to their asset. The difference in mindset is recognising that we are a retailer, not a fitness membership club.


Posted in Gyms & Clubs, Interviews, The Fitness Network.