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Start a Niche Gym

You don't have to be a fitness giant to start your own gym--just focus on a narrow niche to bring your business idea to life.

When Jane Silber decided to get help for her 9-year-old daughter's weight problem, she found that lots of gyms didn't allow children to come in and work out. Mindful of Centers for Disease Control findings that the percent-age of overweight children has tripled since 1980, Silber, 41, recognized a hot business opportunity. This past August, she opened Generation Now Fitness for tweens and teens in Chatsworth, California, equipping it with kid-size, fun-to-operate exercise equipment, a smoothie bar, a study room and other amenities. "I wish something like this was around when I was a kid," says Silber, a former restaurateur who projects $1 million in first-year sales.

The kid gym concept is a hot one--witness the exciting buildup to Karen Jashinsky's O2 MAX fitness club for Los Angeles teens, featuring workouts as well as an internet cafe and tutoring, in "Biz 101"--but other niche gyms are sizzling, too. "[The] business model focuses not on the general consumer, but on one demographic and then builds the club and all its services around that profile," says Kathleen Rollauer, senior manager of research for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association in Boston. "The prime example is Curves, which came on the scene because [it] recognized the barriers to women in a typical health club." Nifty after Fifty in Whittier, California, fills another niche, offering people over age 50 physical and mental exercise routines, a driving-skills program, physical therapy and social activities.

Getting Started
If you're thinking about starting a niche gym, get ready to break a sweat--and incorporate these startup tips into your routine:

  • Know your niche. Patrick Ferrell, 50, who started Overtime Fitness for teens in Mountain View, California, is the father of three teenagers, so he already knew their issues well. But if you're thinking of starting a gym for kids and don't have any of your own--or want some extra insight--you might want to volunteer as a sports coach, as Ferrell does. "I was really able to see the fitness degradation of these kids," Ferrell says. "Even the athletic kids aren't as healthy as they used to be."
  • Do your research. "You really can't do enough of it," says Ferrell. "You have to hone in on the key characteristics of your target demographic." His best sources of information have been theInternational Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, as well as fitness equipment vendors and fitness attorneys.
  • Offer amenities. In addition to fitness equipment, many niche gyms offer a number of other amenities and ancillary services specially targeted to their demographic. For instance, Overtime Fitness offers its teens classes on stress management, job interviews, test taking, SAT prep and even a hot sound system to make their favorite tunes reverberate from rock wall to rock wall.
  • Find the right location. Jane Silber, 41-year-old founder of Generation Now Fitness for tweens and teens in Chatsworth, California, hopes to expand her gym for tweens and teens to more locations--and recommends doing lots of demographic research for the new locations. For instance, she"s focusing on areas that have a high concentration of kids as well as high levels of childhood obesity.
  • Think of special promotions and partnerships geared to your niche.Silber offers a Saturday "date night" to parents, encouraging them to drop off their kids for a few hours and go out for dinner--and has partnered with area restaurants to offer a discount to the parents.
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