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UNITING THE WORLD OF FITNESS
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Health Club Management

Health Club Management

features

David Barton

The New York gym guru tells Magali Robathan how working out saved his life, why filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy has been a positive move, and about opening his first gym with a bag full of cash

By Magali Robathan, Leisure Media | Published in Leisure Management 2012 issue 3
David Barton started his career as a personal trainer / PHOTO: Michelle Hood
David Barton started his career as a personal trainer/ PHOTO: Michelle Hood

David Barton grew up in Queens, New York and opened his first gym in Chelsea, New York in 1992. The fashionable, design-led club was an instant hit, attracting fans including Sandra Bernhard and designer Thierry Mugler with its tagline of ‘Look Better Naked’. It was followed by a second club in New York in 1995, and a third in Miami the same year. Further clubs followed in New York, Chicago, and Seattle, and celebrity clients included Renee Zellwegger, Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig. However, last year David Barton Gyms’ parent company, Club Ventures, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to restructure an estimated $65m of debt. The company emerged from Chapter 11 earlier this year, after teaming up with Meridien Sports Club in an operational partnership to open two new gyms in Los Angeles and one in Las Vegas this summer. Here, David Barton answers our questions about the highs and lows of his career so far.

How did you first get into health and fitness?
I stepped into my first gym when I was about 11. I went to this real hardcore basement gym with the boyfriend of one of my older sisters. It was this dank, sweaty basement; I could smell the iron rusting and muscles being ripped apart. It was just this incredible place; cops working out next to drug dealers. I fell in love with it and didn’t ever want to leave.

There was this camaraderie in the gym; it didn’t matter what you did on the outside, it was just a matter of how strong you were. It was an amazing sort of democracy, and a little counter-culture of people who were into lifting weights.

Going to the gym became very important to me. I was getting into quite a bit of trouble and I think working out really saved my life – that’s why it means so much to me today. It made me healthy and gave me focus and discipline. Working out is a real foundation for my way of life.

Tell us about opening your first gym. How did that come about?
I graduated from Cornell University and got a job as a personal trainer, which paid me very little. I realised that I wanted to figure out a way to spend my time in the gym, so I started my own personal training business. I became very successful as a personal trainer, worked all hours and saved all my money until I had a bag full of cash.

I thought that there was a market for an alternative to the gyms out there at the time. In the early 1990s, there were a lot of people with more taste than money. It wasn’t so much about a luxury product as something that people who had taste would respond to.

I pounded the pavements and called people and crashed parties and knocked on doors and did everything I could for years to try to get a location and raise money. In the end I saved most of the money myself through training people, got a couple of other people to kick in a few dollars and found somebody to rent me a space that he didn’t know what to do with.

With the little money I had, I built a gym. I couldn’t really afford contractors or architects so I did it all myself. I bought light fittings from stores that were going out of business in the neighbourhood and spray-painted them, I found ways to get exercise equipment cheaply. I slept on the floor of the gym while we were building it so that every penny could go into the business. I just wanted to get the doors open of that one gym. I did, and it was a huge success.

What did it offer?
My first gym, in Chelsea, New York, offered an alternative to the suburbanised, commercial health clubs around at the time. Working out was considered to be very uncool; I opened it up to the fashionistas and the people who didn’t like gyms but would go to one if it were cool and tasteful.

The design of gyms was really antiquated back then. I didn’t have money to build anything palatial – it was very pared down, very simple, but was actually very beautiful in its simplicity. The music was great and we had great staff. I hired the staff myself, I trained them and dressed them and made them look cool. They were people you’d want to hang out with. It was also the first gym I’d seen that had trainers who could really change your body.

When did you open the next gyms?
Three years later I opened a gym in Miami in the Delano hotel and another one on the Upper East Side in New York. Each market is different. The Miami club was really for the jet set [this later moved from the Delano hotel to the Gansevoort South]. The Chelsea gym really put me on the map. With the Upper East Side club I really wanted to build on the personal trainer business – attracting the Upper East Side clientele was quite a different proposition. I had more money to do that, so it really was another experiment in creating an environment that the neighbourhood would respond to.

How would you describe the décor of your clubs? How important is their design?
I don’t think it’s so much about décor as about emotion. I’m trying to get an emotional response from members and trying to stimulate their imagination. I try to get them to really focus on how they can look at the end of the process [of getting fit]. I’m in the business of selling something a lot of people don’t really like. They don’t really want to exercise but they love the results they can get and they love the idea of having a new body.

When someone new comes in they tend to imagine how they will look on day two. We really try to get their imagination stimulated, to help them to think about how they will look three months down the line.

It’s a sexy environment in our gyms, it’s stimulating and it’s fun. It’s also comfortable and inviting – people want to stay there and hang out.

I’ve got to draw people in and make them have a good time while they are there and also make them really want to exercise. They should enjoy doing it and feel good about it. I want members to think about those changes to their body and their goals, what they want to look like and what they are trying to achieve from working out.

Why do people love your clubs?
It’s like going to a great party – my gyms have got great people, great surroundings, great music. You get high on endorphins, but instead of waking up with a hangover you wake up and look in the mirror and you look better naked. Who wouldn’t love that?

You went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year. Have you now emerged from this?
Yes, we emerged from Chapter 11 earlier this year after six months.

Why do you think you went into Chapter 11?
We were in part a victim of bad timing, expanding during a time when the economy was changing drastically. Chapter 11 was a difficult thing to go through, but we’ve come out with a much healthier business. It helped us to restructure. Luckily my members and investors stuck with me through the process, so in the end it was a very positive thing for us.

We teamed up with Meridien on the three new locations and we hope to do more with them. It’s been a great partnership so far. Right now, it’s just an operational partnership. Meridien is not a capital partner.

You've just opened a club in Las Vegas and are opening two more in LA this summer. What can we expect from the new clubs?

Our new club in Las Vegas is beautiful, people love it. Los Angeles is a great market for me. I’m a New Yorker but I’ve always dreamed of having gyms in LA – it’s where this whole workout thing started. The new clubs will be more of the same – I try to create gyms where people will feel sexy.

How have you funded the new clubs?
Through our investors, who have been with us right from the beginning. I don’t want to name them right now.

What are your plans over the next 12 months?
I’m looking for locations in Las Vegas, which I think is a great market and a great opportunity. I’m always looking in New York, but the real estate market here is a lot tougher than in LA.

We’re also looking in some secondary markets, including Chicago.

How many David Barton clubs would you like to open?
I think over the next couple of years we’ll get to 15 and see how it goes.

Would you ever think about opening gyms outside of the US?
I have got a lot of calls from real estate developers, investors and operators in other countries. Certainly it’s an exciting consideration and I’m open to it. I think there are a lot of places where the concept could do so well – it’s just about finding the right deal and the right opportunity. I definitely think it’s on the horizon.

How are you going to celebrate David Barton Gyms’ 20th anniversary?
I’m going to have a huge workout and then throw a big party in one of my gyms. We’re well known for great parties and this will be no exception.

What motivates you?
My son is 18. The other night I went to a dinner for parents of kids about to graduate. I see this next generation and I feel that what we do is so important. Fitness will hopefully save the ever-declining health of my country. Here food and inactivity is killing people. I’m really motivated to set the bar high and to make this business about quality and professionalism.

It’s not out of reach for anyone to be healthy, to feel good and to have the body they dream of having. Our trademark tagline is ‘look better naked’, and I’m not ashamed of how shallow that may sound. I really do believe that when somebody works out in my gym and feels good in their body they leave here and become a better lawyer or politician or artist or whatever their contribution to the world is. I’m motivated by trying to make an impact on my little corner of the world.

How would your friends describe you? And your critics?
My friends would describe me as someone who loves to have a good time. I love what I do, probably because most of the time I do what I love. My life is filled with things that I love; I love my business, I love being in the gym. I live a charmed life.

I don’t know what my critics say, because I don’t speak with them.

What do you do for pleasure?
I’m a musician – I play the drums. I’ve played in a lot of punk rock bands, and right now I’m in a band called the Liquid Blonde, which plays electronic rock. They are great and I think they’re going to do really well.

I love hanging out with my son, while he will still hang out with me. I also love spending quality time with my schnauzer, Bippy.

What’s your favourite film and book?
I have to read so much about exercise science, just to keep up on it, as I still work a lot with the trainers. I read a lot on biochemistry, movement science, neuroscience and everything that relates to exercise. My all time favourite book is Crime and Punishment though. I’ve probably read it 20 times.

My favourite movie ever is Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s epic period piece. It’s really a film-making masterpiece – he used genuine antique costumes, and filmed the candlelit scenes without using any artificial light. It’s like a work of art.

What have been your highest and lowest points?
My highest point was opening up my first gym. I fought so hard for it. I started out without two pennies to rub together, and there I was opening up this gym, which was my dream. It was just the greatest business high.

As for the lowest point, I can’t think of one. Since opening my first gym, there have been a lot of struggles, but there’s never been anything that I didn’t think I could resolve. I’m a very positive person and I never get that down.

TIMELINE

David Barton - Gym openings

1992 - Chelsea, New York

1995 - Upper East Side, New York

1995 - South Beach, Miami

2005 - River North, Chicago

2009 - Bellevue, Seattle

2009 - Astor Place, New York

2012 - Tivoli Village, Las Vegas

2012 - West Hollywood, Los Angeles

2012 - Century City, Los Angeles

David Barton Miami South Beach has 42.000sq ft of fitness space / PHOTO: Dan Forer
David Barton Miami South Beach has 42.000sq ft of fitness space / PHOTO: Dan Forer
Barton is known for his flamboyance
Barton is known for his flamboyance
David Barton Chicago was the fourth club to open
David Barton Chicago was the fourth club to open
The David Barton Spa at the Perry hotel in Miami features 10 treatment rooms / PHOTO: Dan Forer
The David Barton Spa at the Perry hotel in Miami features 10 treatment rooms / PHOTO: Dan Forer
http://www.leisureopportunities.com/images/406818_498643.jpg
Magali Robathan talks to the New York gym guru about building a business from scratch and moving forward after Chapter 11 bankruptcy
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features

David Barton

The New York gym guru tells Magali Robathan how working out saved his life, why filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy has been a positive move, and about opening his first gym with a bag full of cash

By Magali Robathan, Leisure Media | Published in Leisure Management 2012 issue 3
David Barton started his career as a personal trainer / PHOTO: Michelle Hood
David Barton started his career as a personal trainer/ PHOTO: Michelle Hood

David Barton grew up in Queens, New York and opened his first gym in Chelsea, New York in 1992. The fashionable, design-led club was an instant hit, attracting fans including Sandra Bernhard and designer Thierry Mugler with its tagline of ‘Look Better Naked’. It was followed by a second club in New York in 1995, and a third in Miami the same year. Further clubs followed in New York, Chicago, and Seattle, and celebrity clients included Renee Zellwegger, Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig. However, last year David Barton Gyms’ parent company, Club Ventures, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to restructure an estimated $65m of debt. The company emerged from Chapter 11 earlier this year, after teaming up with Meridien Sports Club in an operational partnership to open two new gyms in Los Angeles and one in Las Vegas this summer. Here, David Barton answers our questions about the highs and lows of his career so far.

How did you first get into health and fitness?
I stepped into my first gym when I was about 11. I went to this real hardcore basement gym with the boyfriend of one of my older sisters. It was this dank, sweaty basement; I could smell the iron rusting and muscles being ripped apart. It was just this incredible place; cops working out next to drug dealers. I fell in love with it and didn’t ever want to leave.

There was this camaraderie in the gym; it didn’t matter what you did on the outside, it was just a matter of how strong you were. It was an amazing sort of democracy, and a little counter-culture of people who were into lifting weights.

Going to the gym became very important to me. I was getting into quite a bit of trouble and I think working out really saved my life – that’s why it means so much to me today. It made me healthy and gave me focus and discipline. Working out is a real foundation for my way of life.

Tell us about opening your first gym. How did that come about?
I graduated from Cornell University and got a job as a personal trainer, which paid me very little. I realised that I wanted to figure out a way to spend my time in the gym, so I started my own personal training business. I became very successful as a personal trainer, worked all hours and saved all my money until I had a bag full of cash.

I thought that there was a market for an alternative to the gyms out there at the time. In the early 1990s, there were a lot of people with more taste than money. It wasn’t so much about a luxury product as something that people who had taste would respond to.

I pounded the pavements and called people and crashed parties and knocked on doors and did everything I could for years to try to get a location and raise money. In the end I saved most of the money myself through training people, got a couple of other people to kick in a few dollars and found somebody to rent me a space that he didn’t know what to do with.

With the little money I had, I built a gym. I couldn’t really afford contractors or architects so I did it all myself. I bought light fittings from stores that were going out of business in the neighbourhood and spray-painted them, I found ways to get exercise equipment cheaply. I slept on the floor of the gym while we were building it so that every penny could go into the business. I just wanted to get the doors open of that one gym. I did, and it was a huge success.

What did it offer?
My first gym, in Chelsea, New York, offered an alternative to the suburbanised, commercial health clubs around at the time. Working out was considered to be very uncool; I opened it up to the fashionistas and the people who didn’t like gyms but would go to one if it were cool and tasteful.

The design of gyms was really antiquated back then. I didn’t have money to build anything palatial – it was very pared down, very simple, but was actually very beautiful in its simplicity. The music was great and we had great staff. I hired the staff myself, I trained them and dressed them and made them look cool. They were people you’d want to hang out with. It was also the first gym I’d seen that had trainers who could really change your body.

When did you open the next gyms?
Three years later I opened a gym in Miami in the Delano hotel and another one on the Upper East Side in New York. Each market is different. The Miami club was really for the jet set [this later moved from the Delano hotel to the Gansevoort South]. The Chelsea gym really put me on the map. With the Upper East Side club I really wanted to build on the personal trainer business – attracting the Upper East Side clientele was quite a different proposition. I had more money to do that, so it really was another experiment in creating an environment that the neighbourhood would respond to.

How would you describe the décor of your clubs? How important is their design?
I don’t think it’s so much about décor as about emotion. I’m trying to get an emotional response from members and trying to stimulate their imagination. I try to get them to really focus on how they can look at the end of the process [of getting fit]. I’m in the business of selling something a lot of people don’t really like. They don’t really want to exercise but they love the results they can get and they love the idea of having a new body.

When someone new comes in they tend to imagine how they will look on day two. We really try to get their imagination stimulated, to help them to think about how they will look three months down the line.

It’s a sexy environment in our gyms, it’s stimulating and it’s fun. It’s also comfortable and inviting – people want to stay there and hang out.

I’ve got to draw people in and make them have a good time while they are there and also make them really want to exercise. They should enjoy doing it and feel good about it. I want members to think about those changes to their body and their goals, what they want to look like and what they are trying to achieve from working out.

Why do people love your clubs?
It’s like going to a great party – my gyms have got great people, great surroundings, great music. You get high on endorphins, but instead of waking up with a hangover you wake up and look in the mirror and you look better naked. Who wouldn’t love that?

You went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year. Have you now emerged from this?
Yes, we emerged from Chapter 11 earlier this year after six months.

Why do you think you went into Chapter 11?
We were in part a victim of bad timing, expanding during a time when the economy was changing drastically. Chapter 11 was a difficult thing to go through, but we’ve come out with a much healthier business. It helped us to restructure. Luckily my members and investors stuck with me through the process, so in the end it was a very positive thing for us.

We teamed up with Meridien on the three new locations and we hope to do more with them. It’s been a great partnership so far. Right now, it’s just an operational partnership. Meridien is not a capital partner.

You've just opened a club in Las Vegas and are opening two more in LA this summer. What can we expect from the new clubs?

Our new club in Las Vegas is beautiful, people love it. Los Angeles is a great market for me. I’m a New Yorker but I’ve always dreamed of having gyms in LA – it’s where this whole workout thing started. The new clubs will be more of the same – I try to create gyms where people will feel sexy.

How have you funded the new clubs?
Through our investors, who have been with us right from the beginning. I don’t want to name them right now.

What are your plans over the next 12 months?
I’m looking for locations in Las Vegas, which I think is a great market and a great opportunity. I’m always looking in New York, but the real estate market here is a lot tougher than in LA.

We’re also looking in some secondary markets, including Chicago.

How many David Barton clubs would you like to open?
I think over the next couple of years we’ll get to 15 and see how it goes.

Would you ever think about opening gyms outside of the US?
I have got a lot of calls from real estate developers, investors and operators in other countries. Certainly it’s an exciting consideration and I’m open to it. I think there are a lot of places where the concept could do so well – it’s just about finding the right deal and the right opportunity. I definitely think it’s on the horizon.

How are you going to celebrate David Barton Gyms’ 20th anniversary?
I’m going to have a huge workout and then throw a big party in one of my gyms. We’re well known for great parties and this will be no exception.

What motivates you?
My son is 18. The other night I went to a dinner for parents of kids about to graduate. I see this next generation and I feel that what we do is so important. Fitness will hopefully save the ever-declining health of my country. Here food and inactivity is killing people. I’m really motivated to set the bar high and to make this business about quality and professionalism.

It’s not out of reach for anyone to be healthy, to feel good and to have the body they dream of having. Our trademark tagline is ‘look better naked’, and I’m not ashamed of how shallow that may sound. I really do believe that when somebody works out in my gym and feels good in their body they leave here and become a better lawyer or politician or artist or whatever their contribution to the world is. I’m motivated by trying to make an impact on my little corner of the world.

How would your friends describe you? And your critics?
My friends would describe me as someone who loves to have a good time. I love what I do, probably because most of the time I do what I love. My life is filled with things that I love; I love my business, I love being in the gym. I live a charmed life.

I don’t know what my critics say, because I don’t speak with them.

What do you do for pleasure?
I’m a musician – I play the drums. I’ve played in a lot of punk rock bands, and right now I’m in a band called the Liquid Blonde, which plays electronic rock. They are great and I think they’re going to do really well.

I love hanging out with my son, while he will still hang out with me. I also love spending quality time with my schnauzer, Bippy.

What’s your favourite film and book?
I have to read so much about exercise science, just to keep up on it, as I still work a lot with the trainers. I read a lot on biochemistry, movement science, neuroscience and everything that relates to exercise. My all time favourite book is Crime and Punishment though. I’ve probably read it 20 times.

My favourite movie ever is Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s epic period piece. It’s really a film-making masterpiece – he used genuine antique costumes, and filmed the candlelit scenes without using any artificial light. It’s like a work of art.

What have been your highest and lowest points?
My highest point was opening up my first gym. I fought so hard for it. I started out without two pennies to rub together, and there I was opening up this gym, which was my dream. It was just the greatest business high.

As for the lowest point, I can’t think of one. Since opening my first gym, there have been a lot of struggles, but there’s never been anything that I didn’t think I could resolve. I’m a very positive person and I never get that down.

TIMELINE

David Barton - Gym openings

1992 - Chelsea, New York

1995 - Upper East Side, New York

1995 - South Beach, Miami

2005 - River North, Chicago

2009 - Bellevue, Seattle

2009 - Astor Place, New York

2012 - Tivoli Village, Las Vegas

2012 - West Hollywood, Los Angeles

2012 - Century City, Los Angeles

David Barton Miami South Beach has 42.000sq ft of fitness space / PHOTO: Dan Forer
David Barton Miami South Beach has 42.000sq ft of fitness space / PHOTO: Dan Forer
Barton is known for his flamboyance
Barton is known for his flamboyance
David Barton Chicago was the fourth club to open
David Barton Chicago was the fourth club to open
The David Barton Spa at the Perry hotel in Miami features 10 treatment rooms / PHOTO: Dan Forer
The David Barton Spa at the Perry hotel in Miami features 10 treatment rooms / PHOTO: Dan Forer
http://www.leisureopportunities.com/images/406818_498643.jpg
Magali Robathan talks to the New York gym guru about building a business from scratch and moving forward after Chapter 11 bankruptcy
Latest News
Thrive Global, the wellness and behaviour change tech firm founded by Arianna Huffington, has acquired ...
Latest News
Regular exercise is highly beneficial for all patients with cardiovascular disease regardless of age. A ...
Latest News
London-based project management outfit LXA has designed a 2,000sq ft (186sq m) boxing gym close ...
Latest News
The number of UK adults classed as physically active has increased by 1 million in ...
Latest News
Australian health club operator Viva Leisure has acquired eight Healthworks Fitness Centres in the state ...
Latest News
The physical activity economy is now a US$828bn (€752bn, £655bn) market – and its value ...
Latest News
UK-based architects Invisible Studio, founded by Piers Taylor, have designed a 150sq m (1,600sq ft) ...
Latest News
Boutique fitness operator The Foundry, which offers free and subsidised classes for those on state ...
Latest News
Real estate developers are increasingly looking to tap into the "great opportunities" being offered by ...
Latest News
The outgoing chief medical officer, professor Dame Sally Davies, has called for urgent action across ...
Latest News
A health and wellbeing club which combines exercise and physical activity classes with mental and ...
Job search
POST YOUR JOB
Featured supplier news
Featured supplier: Does your fitness studio contain the cure to 21st-century living?
What’s the secret ingredient that makes a live group fitness experience so powerful? And how can clubs unlock it?
Featured supplier news
Featured supplier: The secrets to designing a stand-out fitness studio
The design and construction of a group fitness or exercise studio can have a big impact on the success of your gym.
Opinion
promotion
As an industry, we still underestimate the power of a truly varied fitness regime - and the growing appetite for it, especially among emerging customer segments.
Opinion: Collaboration vs aggregation - what’s the difference?
An ever-increasing number of Brits are engaging in sporting events, setting themselves goals and looking to increase their fitness levels....
Opinion: Dr Crionna Tobin on nutritional training for PTs and fitness experts
Company profiles
Company profile: Keiser UK Ltd
Keiser began its history of visionary sports science leadership over 40 years ago, rejecting the ...
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Company profile: Xponential Fitness LLC
Xponential Fitness is the world’s leading franchisor of boutique fitness studios, with a portfolio of ...
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Whole body cryotherapy
Zimmer MedizinSysteme GmbH / icelab: Whole body cryotherapy
Skincare
Comfort Zone - Davines S.p.A: Skincare
Wearable technology solutions
MyZone: Wearable technology solutions
Direct debit solutions
Debit Finance Collections: Direct debit solutions
Management software
Fisikal: Management software
Lockers/interior design
Crown Sports Lockers: Lockers/interior design
Hydrotherapy / spa fragrances
Kemitron GmbH: Hydrotherapy / spa fragrances
Audio visual
Hutchison Technologies: Audio visual
Exercise equipment
Eleiko Sport AB: Exercise equipment
Trade associations
International SPA Association - iSPA: Trade associations
Property & Tenders
Kirklees Active Leisure
Property & Tenders
Diary dates
15-18 Oct 2019
Gran Via Exhibition Centre, Barcelona, Spain
Diary dates
28-30 Oct 2019
Hotel Royal Savoy, Lausanne, Switzerland
Diary dates
30-31 Oct 2019
NEC, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Diary dates
05-08 Nov 2019
Koelnmesse, Cologne, Germany
Diary dates
21-22 Nov 2019
JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort, Aventura,
Diary dates
29 Nov 2019
The King’s Fund, London, United Kingdom
Diary dates
29-30 Jan 2020
Holiday Inn San Francisco-Golden Gateway, San Francisco, United States
Diary dates
23-25 Mar 2020
Hilton, Barcelona, Spain
Diary dates
10-27 Jun 2020
tbc, Pinggu, China
Diary dates
17-18 Jun 2020
ExCeL London, London, United Kingdom
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