A fitness craze from down under has taken the world by storm. And the franchise now has its sights set on making gains in the UK market
With smoothie-bowl-serving organic cafes on almost every corner and a seemingly endless parade of activewear-clad gym bunnies, Sydney is arguably the health and fitness capital of the world. So it’s no surprise that F45 Training, a global fitness franchise, was founded in the city back in 2013. Rob Deutsch, a former equities trader and the brains behind the operation, has always been into working out but looking at the fitness options on the market, he could see there was a clear gap that nobody seemed to be filling. “You’ve got people spending maybe $20 a week on a gym membership but getting no innovation or motivation, so they inevitably stop going,” he says. “On the other end of the spectrum, some people were paying up to $80 for one-on-one personal training sessions. I wanted to create something that combined the two in a fun environment.”
Deutsch devised a programme that would act as a third way between a gym membership and a personal-training package: group sessions led by fitness instructors that came at a price point nestled between the budget and premium ends of the scale. Classes are based on the principles of HIIT – or high-intensity interval training. Instructors guide people through a series of high-octane, 45-second exercises with short breaks in between to help you catch your breath. The focus is on doing functional exercises – hence the F in F45 – which means you’re engaging multiple muscle groups at the same time. Classes last 45 minutes, after which you’ll leave a hot, sweaty mess and, as its website promises, “gasping for air”.
The timing couldn’t have been better for a concept like F45 to land: after years of slogging away on treadmills and peddling aimlessly on exercise bikes, people are increasingly turning to short but effective workouts like HIIT training. But is the franchisor afraid that F45 will go the way of fitness fads of days gone by? “A lot of the elements we use, like bodyweight exercises, plyometrics and weight training, have been around for years and because we don’t rely on just one type of exercise, there’s no danger of people getting bored,” he says.
The franchise is also designed to constantly surprise people with inventive new workouts: there are over 3,000 exercises and every three months 250 new ones are added, along with fresh equipment. So whatever day you pop into a class, you’ll be doing a totally new sequence. “If something’s trending in the fitness industry, we incorporate it, which keeps us relevant and helps people stay interested,” Deutsch says. And he’s betting that this commitment to preventing workouts from becoming stale and predictable is what will set it apart from established competitors like CrossFit and Orangetheory.
As for the business model, a forward-thinking Deutsch designed it to be franchise-friendly from the outset. “I could see that there was a global demand for what we were doing so it was only a matter of time before we expanded in Australia and beyond,” he says. This meant that very early on, he worked out how to systemise the formula and develop a training programme that was comprehensive and easy to roll out on a large scale. “We knew that once franchisees started joining we couldn’t be everywhere at once so we’ve made huge investments in processes and tech,” he says. “This means the business is scaleable and replicable across borders.” For example, new franchisees take part in an intense, five-day induction to learn every aspect of the business, from marketing to using its customer relationship management software. And it doesn’t end there: they can log into an intranet – referred to internally as The Playbook – to access detailed training videos and exercise instructions, which helps instructors and franchisees deliver a consistent service.
With the business in a franchise-ready state, the first franchisee came on board in 2014. They were joined by 375 more in the space of three years as the concept took off across the country, becoming a seemingly unstoppable fitness movement. “We were the fastest-growing franchise rollout in Australian history,” says Deutsch.
And the franchisor largely chalks this lightning-fast growth spurt up to having a strong social-media community and the positive word of mouth created by franchisees, many of whom have a background in personal training and work hard to build their networks. “Social media’s been so important,” Deutsch says. “Most people pay ambassadors to promote their brand but our franchisees are some of the country’s best athletes and they’ve helped spread the word organically.” Each franchised location has its own social-media channels, where trainers post snaps from sessions and happy clients share their inspiring before and after selfies. The fact that models, celebrities and social-media stars have also been vocal about their love for the franchise hasn’t hurt either: for example Neighbours actress Olympia Valance credits her figure to its workouts. “These influencers are seeing results after training with us, which has helped us earn people’s trust,” says Deutsch.
Before long, the buzz had travelled beyond Australia and, after getting an enquiry from a fitness instructor in Ohio keen to join the family, F45’s first overseas franchisee came on board in November 2015. This was soon followed by a launch in the US and an entry into a further 24 territories across Asia, the Middle East, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, South America and Europe. “Our global push has happened really quickly and it’s been the result of a combination of responding to opportunities but also proactively going after some markets that hold strategic importance,” says Deutsch. This international mushrooming of F45 studios has happened at a staggeringly fast pace and looks set to continue as the franchisor focuses on making further inroads in places like Asia, which he describes as an “immature but fast-growing market”.
As for the franchise’s foray into the UK, this didn’t happen until mid-2015, when a London-based personal trainer who’d experienced F45 while on holiday in Australia got in touch. “He had a feeling that it would do well in London because people are busy; they want to smash out a short workout and then be done,” says Deutsch. More franchised sites at Tottenham Court Road and Kingston followed. The newest addition to the family is a studio in Farringdon, with a further two sites at Chelsea Bridge and Hammersmith set to open later this year.
So far, the focus has been on courting time-poor but goal-oriented urbanites in London but the franchisor believes the UK as a whole is ready to embrace the F45 way. “Britain’s going through a health revolution right now,” he says. “I lived in the UK in my early 20s and it wasn’t a super healthy culture but in the last few years, I’ve noticed how many more organic stores there are and there’s this appetite to be healthier and invest in fitness.” He’s right: booze Britain appears to be on the decline – at least among the younger generation – and there were a record nine million gym memberships taken out in the UK in 2016, according to the UK Fitness Industry Report.
And regardless of the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s economic climate, Deutsch has big plans for the future of the franchise in this country. Not only does he see a huge opportunity for the franchise in the capital but he intends to bring the total number of UK sites to 50 within a year. “London alone has a massive population and we could quite comfortably have 100 franchises and still have room to grow,” he says. “The only roadblock we’ve experienced has been property: we have no trouble finding franchisees but securing sites has been challenging.” But with a property agent on board and plans to venture outside the capital into places like Brighton, Bournemouth, Birmingham and Manchester, we’ve got a feeling that there’s not much that could slow the franchisor down.