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Health Club Management

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Interview: Barbara den Bak, High Studios

While the boutique fitness scene is booming in the US and UK, it remains in its infancy in the Netherlands. Regardless, the co-founder of High Studios has high hopes for the sector and tells Kate Cracknell that success rests on getting the model right

By Kate Cracknell, Health Club Management | Published in Health Club Management 2018 issue 2
den Bak founded a bootcamp brand prior to launching High Studios
den Bak founded a bootcamp brand prior to launching High Studios
We’ll be launching an international franchise programme in mid-2018. We have huge ambitions for this: we’re aiming for 50 locations

What’s your background?
I worked in a number of media and advertising agencies in Amsterdam before moving into the fitness industry. I’d toyed with the idea of becoming a PT for years because I really wanted to make a difference in people’s lives – and that certainly isn’t what the advertising world is about!

In 2008, I qualified as a personal trainer and in the same year launched my first fitness company. It was an outdoor fitness concept called The Bootcamp Club. I invested six years in that business, which was an amazing period. We got into that market early and the company grew tremendously, with new regional franchises and spin-offs. But after six years I needed a fresh, creative challenge, so I sold my stake in the company in 2014.

How did High Studios come about?
I’d been following the boutique fitness trend since 2013. It’s such a fascinating market and yet, to date, it really hasn’t established itself in the Netherlands – even though there are currently a lot of popular innovative fitness concepts in Amsterdam’s fitness scene.

After selling my Bootcamp company, I bumped into my current business partner Han Doorenbosch, who owns TrainMore and ClubSportive in the Netherlands. We saw an opportunity to fill the gap between the big budget operators and the smaller personal training businesses here in Holland. With this in mind, we teamed up to launch High Studios and we opened our first site in Amsterdam in March 2016.

What was the journey to that opening like?
People often underestimate the amount of work that goes into setting up a new brand. We spent almost two years developing and fine-tuning the concept before launching, and we faced a million obstacles along the way – we’re still facing obstacles every day, but in my opinion that’s what entrepreneurship is all about.

We wanted everything to be right, from the structure, product and location, to hiring the right people, our marketing, design and launch timing. And we’re still learning and adjusting our offering based on customer feedback. Listening to your customers is key.

What is High Studios all about?
High Studios offers a beats-driven, high-intensity strength and cardio experience, delivered within a 45-minute group personal training workout. All of the classes involve three stations – Technogym SKILLMILL treadmills, plyoboxes and free weights – with rounds of 45-second strength and cardio exercises.

Millennials are our overall target market, but we offer a variety of classes to make sure we appeal to different interest groups. Some classes – such as High Upper Body and High Lower Body – are focused on specific muscle groups. We also have a monthly HIGH HELL special (the toughest class ever!); a weekly Runner’s High class, with more interval training on the SKILLMILL for those who want to work on their running performance; and monthly live DJ workouts with vodka parties – it’s all about balance, right?!

High Studios is very experience-focused, so we’re constantly on the lookout for new classes, challenges and collaborations with like-minded brands to keep our customers engaged. We try to do something different every month to achieve this engagement.

How has High Studios grown since opening?
In addition to our original club in Amsterdam, we have three in-house High Studios situated within TrainMore sites in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Classes held in our boutiques and in-house studios have a maximum capacity of 36 and 24, respectively. We also offer private small group training for those who need more attention and/or specific training, such as marathon runners.

We’ve registered 6,000 users since we opened and average around 4,000 to 4,500 visits each month – excluding the numerous travelling expats we welcome.

Around fifty per cent of our members use High Studios exclusively, on a membership basis, with membership costing €90 (£79) a month for unlimited classes. The other half buys drop-in classes or packages on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Boutique fitness is a fairly new concept in our market and is taking its time to settle into Dutch lifestyles. However, we were cash flow positive after just three months and we’re still a startup. We’re still growing in terms of members, visits and turnover.

As boutique fitness is still a new concept in the Netherlands, how have you gone about selling the idea to your target market?
I’ve followed pretty much the same approach as I did with my previous company. Bootcamp fitness was brand new in the Netherlands when I launched The Bootcamp Club. I’ve found that if you offer a great product, pair it with the right marketing tailored to the right target group, and you remain open to feedback, it will eventually work. And of course, I’ve had to have a great team of people on board to execute the vision.

We’ve focused heavily on creating an experience that our members love: from a nicely designed studio with fresh towels available all day long, to high-tech kit, complimentary toiletries and fresh juices.

But most important of all are our staff, with their positive, can-do attitude. Passion is the secret of our success – the passion our employees bring to the table. Without this, we simply wouldn’t succeed, and finding the right staff has been our biggest challenge so far.

What is fitness culture currently like in the Netherlands?
We have a few great concepts in the Netherlands. TrainMore and Clubsportive were the first clubs in the Netherlands with in-house boutique studios, and they are really progressive and innovative. We also have a few great new boutique indoor cycling, yoga and Pilates concepts. That’s in addition to CrossFit-like brands that have developed a very strong community.
In Amsterdam, fitness is booming, from boutique brands to personal training, bootcamps, CrossFit and great running clubs, we have it all. Outside of Amsterdam, however, it’s a bit more traditional with big low budget operators still dominating the market.

What are your plans going forward?
In the immediate future, High Studio projects include the opening of our second standalone studio in Amsterdam by the end of March, as well as another in-house studio in the TrainMore facility in Haarlem.

We will also be launching an international franchise programme in mid-2018. We have huge ambitions for this: we’re aiming for 50 locations. These will all be standalone studios, operating exactly the same model as our own studios in the Netherlands; we will continue to operate all locations in the Netherlands, with the franchise programme used for overseas development. It’s going to be an exciting year!

High Studios was designed with a Millennial audience in mind, and offers a variety of class types to keep them engaged
High Studios was designed with a Millennial audience in mind, and offers a variety of class types to keep them engaged
High Studios was designed with a Millennial audience in mind, and offers a variety of class types to keep them engaged
High Studios was designed with a Millennial audience in mind, and offers a variety of class types to keep them engaged
The first High Studios site launched in Amsterdam in March 2016, offering classes and small group training
The first High Studios site launched in Amsterdam in March 2016, offering classes and small group training
den Bak worked in media and advertising before becoming a health and fitness entrepreneur
den Bak worked in media and advertising before becoming a health and fitness entrepreneur
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