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UNITING THE WORLD OF FITNESS
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Health Club Management

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Interview: Olia Sardarova

An 80-page business plan, an innovative ‘two in one’ model, and a partnership with boxing world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. The founder of boutique boxing concept BXR talks to Kate Cracknell

By Kate Cracknell, Health Club Management | Published in Health Club Management 2019 issue 5
Olia Sardarova
Olia Sardarova
I wanted to create a gym that was good enough for Anthony Joshua – that was the benchmark

How would you describe the BXR concept?
BXR is the first high-end boxing gym in the world.

‘Boxing’ and ‘high-end’ don’t usually go together in the same sentence – when you think about boxing, you tend to think of a gritty space – but what I wanted to create was a facility where you could train like a champion.

Specifically, I wanted to create a gym that was good enough for Anthony Joshua. I’d met him partway through construction of BXR and he was keen to get involved in the business, so that was the benchmark that was always in the back of my mind. It had to be good enough for him.

What does ‘Train Like a Champion’ look like in practice?
Design-wise, BXR is a beautiful club that has won awards. Interior design is my personal passion and I worked with Bergman Interiors to design this gym as an aspirational home, with all the little details really thought through to make everyone feel welcome.

When you first come in to BXR, it looks like a hotel lobby. Then you turn the corner and there’s a massive Joe & the Juice lounge/café. It’s only after that, when you walk through all the corridors and get upstairs, that you finally understand you’re in the gym. The gym itself is quite dark – it’s grey and black and encourages you to train – but then you go into the ladies’ changing facilities, for example, and everything is light, white and feminine. Every area of the club has been designed to have its own wow factor.

But it goes far beyond appearances. In fact, the biggest fear I had pre-opening was that – with our location on Marylebone’s upmarket, trendy Chiltern Street – some magazine or other would question whether BXR could actually be a ‘real’ boxing gym. What I’ve done to mitigate that, and I was very strict with it, was only hire professional fighters to teach combat. All our guys are former champions or still fighting professionally.

Meanwhile, all our strength and conditioning coaches hold Masters degrees in sports science and nutrition. They get their buzz from coaching professional athletes, which in turn means the sort of members we attract are people who take their training and their nutrition seriously – and that includes professional athletes. In fact, in addition to boxers, we have professional footballers training at BXR too, as well as NBA and NFL players flying over and using our club. That’s great: I wanted to create an institution that was highly respected by athletes from all sports.

Tell us about the performance aspects
We’ve partnered with Centre for Health and Human Performance, the Harley Street clinic that looks after Team GB in the Olympics, to deliver services such as physiotherapy, osteopathy, acupuncture and massage; that’s how I came to meet Anthony Joshua.

Once our partnership was agreed, I wanted Anthony Joshua to be able to come here and train, so we have the best strength coaches, phenomenal boxing coaches and a raft of physiotherapists, acupuncturists and osteopaths who treat professional athletes. We have recovery facilities too: sauna, steam, an ice basin and we offer massage.

We also have great equipment, which we’ve cherry-picked rather than taking everything from one supplier. This includes a huge selection of Keiser Air, which is designed specifically for professional athletes and is great for rehab; we have Technogym cardio; we have Life Fitness and Hammer Strength for weights; and a professional-size boxing ring in the middle of the gym floor, with all the equipment facing in towards it.

What is Anthony Joshua’s role in the business?
He’s a stakeholder and has been instrumental in the success of the business by contributing his vision and advice along the way. He isn’t involved in the day-to-day operations, but I run most major decisions by him.

He’s a great match for the BXR brand: he’s extremely disciplined and a phenomenal athlete. Our tagline is ‘Train Like a Champion’, so I wanted to work with someone who embodies that. Someone who trains like a champion and who behaves like a champion in and out of the ring. Someone who truly deserves to be a champion.

Does Anthony Joshua do all his training at BXR?
No, he wouldn’t be allowed to do everything with us. He does his boxing training at his gym in Sheffield: he needs privacy for that. But he does come to BXR for his strength training with his strength and conditioning coach Jamie Reynolds.

What’s the profile of your ‘normal’ members?
We don’t have many people who come to BXR just for socialising or just to be seen inside. Our members tend to be very serious about their training and we’ve built a community of very like-minded people. Sometimes we have competitions on the gym floor, and our lectures – on nutrition, sports injuries and so on – are very well attended. Our members are interested to know more about how to train properly as part of their regime.

Interestingly, around 35–40 per cent of our members don’t do any boxing with us: they come in for other forms of training such as strength training. That’s great, but it’s also a challenge when it comes to marketing. Boxing is the core of our brand, but the other services we offer are key to retaining members and we can’t forget about them. Not everybody wants to do boxing every day.

My target market are the young but affluent residents of Marylebone, St John’s Wood and Hampstead. Young, because fitness has become a really big part of young people’s lives; the bulk of our membership are in the 18-to-45-year-old bracket. Affluent, because this is a premium area. Rents are high and we have to charge a certain price to deliver the service we want to deliver.

What do you charge?
We charge £180 a month for membership of the gym, with an option of paying upfront for the year in return for a small discount.

That gives members access to the gym floor, including all our gym floor combat classes: boxing and kickboxing. We host four of these classes every day – predominantly in the mornings and evenings – but sometimes at lunchtime as well.

Members pay extra for one-to-one training and this generates a significant revenue stream for us – almost as much as membership revenue – with up to 20 per cent of our members purchasing PT packages on a regular basis.

Our members are busy people who, when they come to see us in between their work meetings, want to be pushed. That’s an easier goal to achieve with a trainer than training by themselves.

They also pay extra for Sweat by BXR, which is essentially a second business that is operating under the same roof as the BXR gym.

Tell us more about Sweat by BXR
Located in our basement, this is our pay-to-train group exercise offering comprising three concept studios. Each studio holds a maximum of 20 people, so the trainers can really pay attention to each person.

As with our gym, Sweat by BXR been designed with the view that it has to be good enough for Anthony Joshua. An athlete like him has to do three types of training: cardio, where he’d normally go for a run in the park; strength, which he does at BXR with Jamie Reynolds; and boxing skills. Our three studios have been designed around this structure.

In our studio, we run Climb to the Beat classes on our 20 Versaclimbers – the first Versa classes in Europe. It’s low impact, so great for your knees, but still a tough, full-body workout. We know we need to ease people into it, so our introductory package offers three climbs for £30. The marketing reads: “Climb one, we know it’s unique; climb two, you find your feet; climb three, let’s climb to the beat!” After that, they’re hooked. It’s our most over-sold class.

The second studio is all about boxing skills, using punch bags and body weight. The classes have been designed by professional fighters and focus heavily on developing skills, rather than just punching for fitness.

Finally there’s our strength studio, where we run strength and conditioning classes but also things like yoga, pilates, barre, stretching. Once again, these classes pay a lot of attention to form. We’ve recently launched a class called ‘Form and Focus’, for example, which has become super popular. Not only do you get to work out the exact muscles you want to focus on that day, but you also get a wealth of knowledge that then allows you to confidently train alone, getting the results you want without getting injured.

What’s the price structure for Sweat by BXR?
If you buy just one class, it’s probably one of the most highly priced in London at £30 per class. But the moment you start buying packages – four, 12, 25 and unlimited classes – we become the cheapest in London, going as low as £6 a class. You can then mix and match from the 100+ classes on offer across the three studios every week.

So, this is our pay-to-train concept, and it’s inside the gym but separated: if you’re a BXR member, you’ll need to pay extra for Sweat by BXR classes; if you only buy these class packages, you won’t have access to the BXR gym floor.

I was heavily criticised for this model at first. However, I believe it makes sense to bring in new faces. Our gym floor is just 4,500sq ft and we break even at 800 members; we’d never be able to fill all the classes just from the BXR membership base, especially as data shows very little overlap between those who like to work out in a gym and those who like to do group exercise.

It’s also a fact that the BXR membership base is slightly skewed towards men, whereas our classes bring in more women. Having the female-orientated Sweat by BXR sit alongside the male-dominated boxing concept, and then bringing everyone together in the same shared lounge space – it creates a wonderful and well-balanced set-up. It really works.

It works from a capacity perspective too. Our goal is to achieve a minimum of 60 per cent occupancy in every class; we could go lower to break even, but we believe classes should be full to be fun and vibrant. And we’re achieving that: none of our Sweat by BXR classes are less than 65 per cent occupied, with Climb to the Beat averaging over 90 per cent occupancy.

What are your expansion plans?
BXR on Chiltern Street is our headquarters. It’s where the brand is nurtured, where the community is built, where we hold our beautiful celebrity events. It’s a great place to spend time and meet like-minded people.

But it’s the Sweat by BXR concept that we’ll roll out, starting with London. I’d like to have at least five Sweat by BXR studios over the next three to four years.

I’m also very interested to explore opening new locations beyond London, not least because Anthony Joshua is involved in the business. He’s an absolute legend all over the UK – and actually, the further north you get, the more of a legend he is – so having his support will make expanding into places like Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle very interesting. The pay-to-train market is still in its infancy in those cities, but that’s changing rapidly. Barry’s Bootcamp opened in Manchester at the beginning of this year, for example, and it will be interesting to see how they perform.

I’m very open to international ventures too, but I find every market very different. If we do an international venture at some point, it will, therefore, be with local partners. I’ve had a lot of interest from the Middle East – Dubai and Qatar, for example. Israel is also an interesting market, with a young population who train a lot and look after themselves. However, I’m not rushing until it’s right.

Olia Sardarova: The journey to BXR
Sardarova did the business plan for BXR as part of her MBA

I was born in Russia, but my parents sent me to boarding school in the UK at the age of 15 and I fell in love with the country. I went on to study economics at LSE – economics was always a huge passion for me – and from there went straight into banking, right in the middle of the crisis in 2009, landing a job at Merrill Lynch.

I then moved on to launch a start-up, Yoo Moo Frozen Yogurts, in 2010. It was all about British cows, British milk, British quality, and was aimed at health-conscious mothers who wanted their children to have less sugar.

We sold the company in 2015. I’d had two children myself by that point, but I was still very much looking for the next opportunity. I love fitness and was training hard myself, and when I went to the States with my husband, I saw how massive boxing had become.

I did some research and found that boxing actually originated in the UK: the rules of boxing were written in the UK and the first ever recorded match took place here as well. I came up with the idea of a powerful boxing brand, born and bred here in England.

At the same time as this thought process was going on, I did an MBA at Imperial College. At the end of the two-years, you have to do a dissertation, which is normally an academic research piece. However, I spoke to them, telling them I had a real business idea – that I felt there was a niche in the market for the world’s first high-end boxing gym brand – and asking if I could write a business plan instead of research piece. They agreed.

What this allowed me to do was put together the most in-depth business plan you can imagine: an 80-page plan that allowed me to really study the market and get it right. With no kind of fitness background myself, I believe that was hugely beneficial.

I then found an incredible space in Marylebone, London, to build my gym; that was the only area I wanted, as the demographics are perfect.

Halfway through construction, I met Anthony Joshua. This was just before the big fight that made him a superstar. He loved what I had in mind and decided to be a part of it.

Sardarova on life outside work
Olia Sardarova

Favourite workout
Strength workouts dedicated to isolated, targeted muscle groups – for example, our ‘Form and Focus’ class at Sweat by BXR

Favourite holiday destination
Exotic islands – I love a major change of scenery!

Favourite book:
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Favourite film
Inception by Christopher Nolan

Favourite app
Anything that simplifies my life, like parking apps and the BXR booking app

The person you’d most like to meet
Queen Rania of Jordan

The best piece of advice
This great piece of advice came from my Dad: ‘Don’t do anything that’s driven by a temporary emotion and that could change the course of your life forever’

What you’d like to be remembered for
Creating the first high-end boxing gym brand in the world, and with it making people’s lives better and healthier

Superstar boxer Anthony Joshua is a backer of BXR
Superstar boxer Anthony Joshua is a backer of BXR
Danish operator Joe & The Juice has an outlet within BXR
Danish operator Joe & The Juice has an outlet within BXR
Sardarova says ‘best of breed’ kit was chosen for each part of the club
Sardarova says ‘best of breed’ kit was chosen for each part of the club
BXR attracts both men and women to train and has a strong PT programme
BXR attracts both men and women to train and has a strong PT programme
Sardarova worked with Bergman Interiors to create the look and feel for all areas of the club
Sardarova worked with Bergman Interiors to create the look and feel for all areas of the club
http://www.leisureopportunities.com/images/imagesX/644213_995779.jpg
The founder of London-based luxury boxing gym BXR discusses her journey to creating a facility that would be good enough for world heavyweight boxing champion and investor Anthony Joshua
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