You had a career in the music industry before entering the health and fitness industry. Why did you leave?
I spent much of my youth working in my parents’ fitness club. Clubs were pretty boring in those days, so after graduating from University (UCLA on a track scholarship) I was looking for a change of scene. I started managing my brother-in-law’s band when they were trying to make their mark in the US. Needless to say, the rock n’ roll business is pretty unhealthy and I soon got tired of spending late nights in smoky bars. However, the year I spent in the music industry taught me a lot about entertainment and engagement – and this contributed to our approach to group fitness.
Why are you so passionate about Les Mills? What do you love most about leading the company?
I love the fact that I work in such a positive industry that is full of people who are committed to doing good things. I love that Les Mills is part of this positivity, trying to make fitness motivating for people and supporting them to live healthy, sustainable lives.
From your view, what have been Les Mills’ biggest evolutions?
For me there have been three major highlights.
The first was back in 1980 when, together with my wife Jackie (a medical doctor and former international gymnast), we launched our first fitness classes. We created a cool boutique studio in central Auckland and pulled together a team of dancers, actors and athletes to front the workouts – the classes were soon packed and we had people queuing for 50 yards up the street.
The second highlight has to be the creation and growth of BODYPUMP™, which was first launched in 1990. Over the years the program exceeded our wildest expectations. In January this year we celebrated the 100th release with a global event that engaged millions of fans.
The third highlight has been the launch of our first IMMERSIVE FITNESS™ class, THE TRIP™, which was developed by our son, Les Jnr and his friend Adam Lazarus. I believe that Immersive Fitness is set to be much more than a simple exercise trend; that immersive exercise experiences will transform fitness.
What’s great about Les Mills as a fitness company — what are its strengths?
Part of the strength of Les Mills lies in the incredibly detailed design and development process behind the programming.
Every quarter our program directors listen to 2000+ songs for each of our 20 classes to find the perfect 10-12 tracks. We then license these from the hundreds of record companies we deal with. We test a range of scientifically-backed choreography and then trial the workouts 40-50 times before final sign-off. We hand-pick top instructors from around the world to present the new workouts and using elaborate production and camera crews, we film masterclasses for each new release.
But more important I think, is the passion of the 135,000 instructor who teach our classes. The instructor training system has also been meticulously designed over the past 37 years. There is an initial and advanced training and certification process, and when instructors receive the masterclass footage of new releases they get the music and choreography along with ongoing education and research. Hundreds of quarterly workshops are held all over the globe giving instructors the chance to learn the new classes, and find out about the latest training techniques alongside other fitness professionals. But in the end I think it comes down to purpose as much as process.
What are Les Mills’ core values? What is its mission? How does this impact how you operate?
One Tribe, Be Brave and Change The World – these core values drive us to keep innovating and improving in our effort to create what we call “life-changing fitness experiences”.
Our mission is to create A Fitter Planet, which means bringing health, community and magic to people's lives, but also encouraging people to live in a way that is environmentally sound. Jackie and I wrote a book ten years ago, Fighting Globesity, about the intersection between individual health and that of the planet. We’ve put a lot of our time and money into supporting environmental causes. Aside from wanting to protect the future for our four grandchildren, we believe that climate change is the greatest medium term threat to business.
In your opinion, why is Les Mills a company club owners/operators should partner with? What advantages do you provide?
I have seen it in clubs across the globe, a successful group exercise system will transform a club's performance. A single great GX instructor will attract and retain hundreds of members over time – with a great team you can bring in thousands. We help clubs to build those.
It’s the same with programming and GX management. When clubs implement our systems as directed, the results are transformative.
What’s on the horizon for Les Mills over the next few years? What should club owners/operators be paying attention to?
For us it’s a combination of constantly improving our core programs and developing new ones, like the abovementioned IMMERSIVE FITNESS and a suite of three new programs (yoga, meditation and barre) that we have been piloting and will release this year.
These and other recent programs like our current best-selling HIIT series (LES MILLS GRIT™ Strength, LES MILLS GRIT Cardio, LES MILLS GRIT Plyo and LES MILLS SPRINT) are designed to help clubs compete effectively with the boutique studios, while also attracting a new generation of Millennial and Gen Z members.
How do you think the fitness industry is evolving? What trends are you seeing? How should clubs respond?
Millennials are a crucial battleground market – Nielsen says they make up more than half of regular exercisers doing gym-type activities. The arrival of the huge Gen Z market, currently 8-23 years old, increases the incentive for traditional clubs to evolve.
If we look at some of the evolutionary options:
- Switching to a low cost model has become more difficult in most parts of the world as the big players in that space offer more and more for less.
- Moving up into the high end market is out of reach to most, with the price of entry often exceeding $10 million (Midtown will open a $75M club in Chicago later this year!).
- Boutiques are really starting to hurt the midmarket, luring their passionate group X members away with experiential spaces, cool brands and a new generation of highly paid instructors. But the fact is, it’s no easier to make a profit with this model than with a traditional club.
So how does a traditional, midmarket club play to win in this environment?
I believe bringing elements of the boutique experience inside the club is the best route. They are the destination of choice for the large number of Millennials and Gen Zers prepared to pay more than budget rates. With a few tweaks to your facility and your marketing, you can get a good share of this market without breaking the bank.
You have equipment spaces that micros can’t match – you can put more modern, functional equipment into them and jazz your cardio areas up with multi-screen mosaics playing music video and adventure sports. (Prices on screen technology are plummeting, which is also changing the game with virtual classes. Being able to come in at off-peak times of day and workout with the world’s best instructors on a nine-screen mosaic is creating a revolution in member experience at increasing numbers of clubs.)
A good young architect or decorator can create experiential boutique studios inside your club and a cool young advertising agency can tell your story in a way that will appeal to under-35 exercisers. I love 24HR Fitness’ “Boutique classes without the boutique prices”. Finally, you can take a leaf out of the boutique book by paying GX instructors more. We’ve existed on the generosity of near-volunteer labor in this area for decades. Now the boutiques are stealing our best and bringing in a new generation of rockstars by paying better wages. We can create win-win scenarios by paying based on attendance (with minimums and peak vs off-peak formulas) and we can either charge extra for classes or build bigger studios.
Les Mills has clear research showing that with studios of over 1,800ft2 (170m2), GX becomes the most profitable activity in the club and the economics improve with every increment past that. Our own most successful clubs in New Zealand have main studios of 4,000-8,000ft2 (375-750m2) and cycle studios with 50+ bikes.
For more insights into how you can play to win in this challenging environment get in touch.
Watch: Phillip talks to Max Barth fro Body Life at FIBO. In the full interview Phillip talks about the latest developments and challenges he's faced as the Managing Director of Les Mills International and as a Club Owner of the Les Mills New Zealand club chains.