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Interview: Taru Vähätalo

Pioneering Finnish operator GOGO celebrates its 30th anniversary in January 2020. Its co-founder speaks to Tom Walker about the family-owned company’s journey – and how the next generation is ready to pick up the baton

By Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Health Club Management 2019 issue 11
Taru Vähätalo / PHOTO: Jussi Tuominen/Mediameteli
Taru Vähätalo / PHOTO: Jussi Tuominen/Mediameteli
So there we were, still in our 20s, responsible for running what was Finland’s largest fitness club

When we opened our first full-service fitness club back in January 1990, the fitness sector was a very different beast from what it is today,” says Taru Vähätalo, co-founder of Finnish operator GOGO. “The market was dominated by small bodybuilding gyms aimed at men. These gyms were all about weights and resistance training – it was all rather ascetic.

It was into this environment that Vähätalo and her sister and co-founder, Päivi Aholaita-Mäenpää, launched a huge, first-of-its-kind premium facility, with squash courts and a large fitness element that focused on group exercise.

Located in Tampere – Finland’s ‘second city’, 180km north of capital Helsinki – the club housed the country’s largest group training space: an air-conditioned 350sq m (3,800sq ft) hall which could fit up to 100 people at a time. There was also a large gym floor, featuring a variety of CV stations – another first for the fledgling Finnish fitness sector.

Named GOGO Liikuntakeskus (which loosely translates as ‘centre for exercise’), the facility was a US-style operation in a small Finnish city with a simple ethos – to build a community around a dynamic programme of group classes. The influences were obvious: Aholaita-Mäenpää had studied in North America and, as a fitness enthusiast, had witnessed first hand the latest industry trends and had seen what worked.

Vähätalo says that being a pioneer in group fitness in a small country created its own challenges – as well as opportunities. “We saw a lot of bare feet and dance shoes among those taking part in classes back then, as well as other rather ‘creative’ types of exercise clothing,” she says, laughing.

“So much so, that every time my sister Päivi and I travelled abroad – especially to the US – we stuffed our suitcases full of training gear to bring back to the club. We would pick up everything we could – from workout trainers and tube socks to glittery sports tights – and people just loved it!”

FAMILY TRADITION
For the sisters, launching their own business was very much in the blood. Their father is Kalevi Aholaita, founder of the eponymous nationwide retail chain, which made “Aholaita” a household name in Finland.

It was thanks to their now late father’s connections in the 1980s that the two aspiring fitness entrepreneurs were given their first opportunity to go it alone.

“We had just graduated – I as a physiotherapist and Päivi as an occupational therapist,” Vähätalo recalls. “We were both working in our chosen fields and as part-time group exercise instructors, but had spoken about doing something together in fitness.

“By chance, one our father’s associates – Esa Nurmi – was looking to set up a large-scale sports centre with squash courts and gym facilities at a property he had secured. After talks, we convinced him that we should combine our strengths – Esa with his sports arena and us providing the group exercise classes and the fitness element.

“So there we were, both Päivi and I, still in our 20s, responsible for running what was Finland’s largest fitness club.”

CHALLENGING TIMES
The initial ownership structure of the 2,500sq m facility saw Nurmi – a property specialist – hold a 60 per cent stake, while the two sisters both held 20 per cent. That, however, was to change soon after launch.

“We got off to a great start,” Vähätalo says. “But after less than a year of running the club, a global recession hit the world markets, and this completely changed everything.”

The effect of the economic crisis was particularly bad in Finland, as it coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union – a major trading partner at the time. While other countries recovered relatively quickly, Finland sank into a depression. The unemployment rate climbed from 3.5 per cent to 18 per cent and the country experienced one of the worst economic crises in its history – worse even than the depression of the 1930s.

“We lost a lot of our corporate clients, who regularly booked out our squash courts, and also some of our gym members,” Vähätalo says. “But our group exercise classes remained popular.

“Meanwhile Esa, our business partner, had other businesses that had begun to struggle as a result of the recession. Because of this, he wanted out of GOGO. In the end, we made a decision that I should buy him out and drive the business. It resulted in me having 85 per cent and Päivi retaining a 15 per cent stake.”

Becoming a majority owner during times of economic turbulence at the age of 35 carried a fair bit of risk, but also gave Vähätalo the chance to mould the company as she wished.

“With the help of Päivi, we set out to really focus on making our group exercise offer the best and most up to date in the country,” she says. “We travelled around the world looking for new ideas and concepts and brought many of them to Finland for the first time – concepts ranging from step classes to slide boards. Some were more successful than others, but through hard work we made it work.”

The strategy was successful and, encouraged by their success, the sisters began searching for a second location. Following a long search (“We wanted to make sure we had the right spot,” says Vähätalo) they found it in the heart of Tampere city centre, in the form of a 2,000sq m property.

GOGO City opened in 2004, housing two large group exercise studios – measuring 280sq m and 260sq m – and providing people with a busy schedule of classes, ranging from yoga, pilates and in-house concepts to a full selection of Les Mills programmes. Accompanied by large gym spaces, which were kitted out with premium gym equipment and an army of personal trainers, the second club proved to be just as successful as the first one.

Then, just as GOGO’s full-service concept – focused on group exercise – was proving to be a lucrative format, the sisters came across something that, again, drove them to innovate.

FITNESS ON A BUDGET
“In 2005 we traveled to Germany and came across McFit, which offered memberships at €19 a month and was growing at a fearsome speed,” Vähätalo reveals. “It somewhat spooked us. We realised that it would only be a matter of time until a budget operator would find its way to Finland.”

The pair decided that, rather than wait for a low-cost rival to appear, they should start planning their own affordable business model.

It took nearly three years until they found a suitable site for their first budget club – partly because Vähätalo and Aholaita-Mäenpää insisted on having at least 1,000sq m of floor space, considerably more than typical budget clubs.

The first 150-station GOGO Express opened in the Tampere district of Lielahti in 2008. Opening hours were set from 6.00am–10.00pm and the price point at €18 a month.

According to Vähätalo, the format was an immediate success. “GOGO Express was the first low-cost club in Finland,” she says.

“The reactions to the format were overwhelmingly positive. We even had people asking what the ‘catch’ was! They were suspicious of the €18 price-point and kept asking when the price would go up. They couldn’t believe that they had unlimited access to a gym for that price!”

The success of the Express concept led to further sites being launched in 2010 (also in Tampere) and 2011 (in the city of Jyväskylä). Today, the GOGO Express portfolio consists of 11 locations, with the latest club, situated in the coastal town of Pori, having recently opened in November 2019.

Vähätalo is confident that the concept will thrive even if the low-cost market becomes totally saturated. “I believe we simply have a better product,” she says.

“Our Express sites are large, between 1,200sq m and 2,000sq m and stacked with premium equipment. It has a feel of a “proper club” and you’ll always be training on great kit and never have to wait for your turn.

“It’s all part of our strategy of treating our Express sites as destination fitness clubs, to which people will travel from further afield. We have even made a point of offering free parking at each club, which is an important thing for our members,” she explains

THE NEXT GENERATION
When it comes to future plans for the brand, Vähätalo says that the company is constantly in discussions over potential new sites – for both the Express and the full service GOGO models. A major target for Vähätalo remains the capital city Helsinki, where talks are currently ongoing for at least two sites.

“We did originally plan to have 20 sites by 2020 – but as we are currently at 14 locations, that is now looking unlikely,” she adds

The biggest plans for the future, however, centre on the future ownership of the company. Since its launch in 1990, GOGO has always been family-owned. Though there have been plenty of offers and opportunities for Vähätalo to sell the brand over the years, she has always resisted these offers.

While she is now preparing herself for relinquishing control, the status of GOGO as being family-owned, however, will not change. That’s because the new owners are her three daughters – Vuokko, Varpu and Vilja.

“We started talking about passing on the company to the three daughters about five years ago now,” Vähätalo reveals. “We just wanted to make absolutely sure that it was something they all wanted to do and that they had a real passion for the business.

“We had to ensure that they would have the commitment and support from their own individual families too. Running a business this size comes with a lot of responsibility – so you can’t just shut your phones and go on a holiday!

“But they’ve been great – all three wanted to take it on and keep GOGO in the family, which obviously makes my husband and I very proud.”

Each daughter now owns 11 per cent of the company and all are employed across different areas of the business. Vähätalo has retained a majority stake of 52 per cent – for now – while her sister Päivi still holds 15 per cent.

“The plan is to gradually pass the ownership to the trio,” Vähätalo reveals.

She adds that while there might be a changing of the guard ahead, it certainly doesn’t mean the end of innovation for GOGO.

“One of our big dreams is to establish a GOGO Sports Club, which would include everything we have at our full-service health clubs, but also house tennis and padel courts and a swimming pool – a type of sports campus,” she says.

“So that might well be one for the next generation to work on!”

GOGO

Founded: January 1990

Portfolio: 3 full service clubs, all in Tampere 11 GOGO Express affordable fitness sites across five cities

Revenues (in 2018): GOGO Express: €4.6m

Full-service clubs: €3.7m

Number of Staff: More than 100

GOGO was Finland’s first full service fitness club when it opened in 1990
GOGO was Finland’s first full service fitness club when it opened in 1990
Co-founder and current CEO Taru Vähätalo (centre) with two of her three daughters Varpu (left) and Vuokko (right)
Co-founder and current CEO Taru Vähätalo (centre) with two of her three daughters Varpu (left) and Vuokko (right)
The GOGO brand has built up a loyal following during 
its lifetime
The GOGO brand has built up a loyal following during its lifetime
The brand has always placed a central focus on group exercise
The brand has always placed a central focus on group exercise
The brand has always placed a central focus on group exercise
The brand has always placed a central focus on group exercise
GOGO has always been a family-run business
GOGO has always been a family-run business
GOGO has always been a family-run business; co-founded by sisters Päivi and Taru
GOGO has always been a family-run business; co-founded by sisters Päivi and Taru
GOGO has always been a family-run business; soon to be handed over to Taru’s daughter Vuokko
GOGO has always been a family-run business; soon to be handed over to Taru’s daughter Vuokko
GOGO has always been a family-run business; soon to be handed over to Taru’s daughter Vilja
GOGO has always been a family-run business; soon to be handed over to Taru’s daughter Vilja
Taru and Päivi were always passionate about following global fitness trends and bringing them to their clubs in Finland
Taru and Päivi were always passionate about following global fitness trends and bringing them to their clubs in Finland
After seeing the success of McFit, the sisters decided to launch their own budget offering: GOGO Express
After seeing the success of McFit, the sisters decided to launch their own budget offering: GOGO Express
The family hopes to one day open a GOGO Sports Club, which would include a full-service health club plus tennis courts and a pool
The family hopes to one day open a GOGO Sports Club, which would include a full-service health club plus tennis courts and a pool
http://www.leisureopportunities.com/images/imagesX/206098_374244.jpg
The co-founder of Finland’s pioneering fitness brand GOGO tells us about the company’s journey, from its beginnings as the country’s first full-service fitness club...
Taru Vahatalo, GOGO, McFit,Taru Vähätalo,GOGO, McFit,
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features

Interview: Taru Vähätalo

Pioneering Finnish operator GOGO celebrates its 30th anniversary in January 2020. Its co-founder speaks to Tom Walker about the family-owned company’s journey – and how the next generation is ready to pick up the baton

By Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Health Club Management 2019 issue 11
Taru Vähätalo / PHOTO: Jussi Tuominen/Mediameteli
Taru Vähätalo / PHOTO: Jussi Tuominen/Mediameteli
So there we were, still in our 20s, responsible for running what was Finland’s largest fitness club

When we opened our first full-service fitness club back in January 1990, the fitness sector was a very different beast from what it is today,” says Taru Vähätalo, co-founder of Finnish operator GOGO. “The market was dominated by small bodybuilding gyms aimed at men. These gyms were all about weights and resistance training – it was all rather ascetic.

It was into this environment that Vähätalo and her sister and co-founder, Päivi Aholaita-Mäenpää, launched a huge, first-of-its-kind premium facility, with squash courts and a large fitness element that focused on group exercise.

Located in Tampere – Finland’s ‘second city’, 180km north of capital Helsinki – the club housed the country’s largest group training space: an air-conditioned 350sq m (3,800sq ft) hall which could fit up to 100 people at a time. There was also a large gym floor, featuring a variety of CV stations – another first for the fledgling Finnish fitness sector.

Named GOGO Liikuntakeskus (which loosely translates as ‘centre for exercise’), the facility was a US-style operation in a small Finnish city with a simple ethos – to build a community around a dynamic programme of group classes. The influences were obvious: Aholaita-Mäenpää had studied in North America and, as a fitness enthusiast, had witnessed first hand the latest industry trends and had seen what worked.

Vähätalo says that being a pioneer in group fitness in a small country created its own challenges – as well as opportunities. “We saw a lot of bare feet and dance shoes among those taking part in classes back then, as well as other rather ‘creative’ types of exercise clothing,” she says, laughing.

“So much so, that every time my sister Päivi and I travelled abroad – especially to the US – we stuffed our suitcases full of training gear to bring back to the club. We would pick up everything we could – from workout trainers and tube socks to glittery sports tights – and people just loved it!”

FAMILY TRADITION
For the sisters, launching their own business was very much in the blood. Their father is Kalevi Aholaita, founder of the eponymous nationwide retail chain, which made “Aholaita” a household name in Finland.

It was thanks to their now late father’s connections in the 1980s that the two aspiring fitness entrepreneurs were given their first opportunity to go it alone.

“We had just graduated – I as a physiotherapist and Päivi as an occupational therapist,” Vähätalo recalls. “We were both working in our chosen fields and as part-time group exercise instructors, but had spoken about doing something together in fitness.

“By chance, one our father’s associates – Esa Nurmi – was looking to set up a large-scale sports centre with squash courts and gym facilities at a property he had secured. After talks, we convinced him that we should combine our strengths – Esa with his sports arena and us providing the group exercise classes and the fitness element.

“So there we were, both Päivi and I, still in our 20s, responsible for running what was Finland’s largest fitness club.”

CHALLENGING TIMES
The initial ownership structure of the 2,500sq m facility saw Nurmi – a property specialist – hold a 60 per cent stake, while the two sisters both held 20 per cent. That, however, was to change soon after launch.

“We got off to a great start,” Vähätalo says. “But after less than a year of running the club, a global recession hit the world markets, and this completely changed everything.”

The effect of the economic crisis was particularly bad in Finland, as it coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union – a major trading partner at the time. While other countries recovered relatively quickly, Finland sank into a depression. The unemployment rate climbed from 3.5 per cent to 18 per cent and the country experienced one of the worst economic crises in its history – worse even than the depression of the 1930s.

“We lost a lot of our corporate clients, who regularly booked out our squash courts, and also some of our gym members,” Vähätalo says. “But our group exercise classes remained popular.

“Meanwhile Esa, our business partner, had other businesses that had begun to struggle as a result of the recession. Because of this, he wanted out of GOGO. In the end, we made a decision that I should buy him out and drive the business. It resulted in me having 85 per cent and Päivi retaining a 15 per cent stake.”

Becoming a majority owner during times of economic turbulence at the age of 35 carried a fair bit of risk, but also gave Vähätalo the chance to mould the company as she wished.

“With the help of Päivi, we set out to really focus on making our group exercise offer the best and most up to date in the country,” she says. “We travelled around the world looking for new ideas and concepts and brought many of them to Finland for the first time – concepts ranging from step classes to slide boards. Some were more successful than others, but through hard work we made it work.”

The strategy was successful and, encouraged by their success, the sisters began searching for a second location. Following a long search (“We wanted to make sure we had the right spot,” says Vähätalo) they found it in the heart of Tampere city centre, in the form of a 2,000sq m property.

GOGO City opened in 2004, housing two large group exercise studios – measuring 280sq m and 260sq m – and providing people with a busy schedule of classes, ranging from yoga, pilates and in-house concepts to a full selection of Les Mills programmes. Accompanied by large gym spaces, which were kitted out with premium gym equipment and an army of personal trainers, the second club proved to be just as successful as the first one.

Then, just as GOGO’s full-service concept – focused on group exercise – was proving to be a lucrative format, the sisters came across something that, again, drove them to innovate.

FITNESS ON A BUDGET
“In 2005 we traveled to Germany and came across McFit, which offered memberships at €19 a month and was growing at a fearsome speed,” Vähätalo reveals. “It somewhat spooked us. We realised that it would only be a matter of time until a budget operator would find its way to Finland.”

The pair decided that, rather than wait for a low-cost rival to appear, they should start planning their own affordable business model.

It took nearly three years until they found a suitable site for their first budget club – partly because Vähätalo and Aholaita-Mäenpää insisted on having at least 1,000sq m of floor space, considerably more than typical budget clubs.

The first 150-station GOGO Express opened in the Tampere district of Lielahti in 2008. Opening hours were set from 6.00am–10.00pm and the price point at €18 a month.

According to Vähätalo, the format was an immediate success. “GOGO Express was the first low-cost club in Finland,” she says.

“The reactions to the format were overwhelmingly positive. We even had people asking what the ‘catch’ was! They were suspicious of the €18 price-point and kept asking when the price would go up. They couldn’t believe that they had unlimited access to a gym for that price!”

The success of the Express concept led to further sites being launched in 2010 (also in Tampere) and 2011 (in the city of Jyväskylä). Today, the GOGO Express portfolio consists of 11 locations, with the latest club, situated in the coastal town of Pori, having recently opened in November 2019.

Vähätalo is confident that the concept will thrive even if the low-cost market becomes totally saturated. “I believe we simply have a better product,” she says.

“Our Express sites are large, between 1,200sq m and 2,000sq m and stacked with premium equipment. It has a feel of a “proper club” and you’ll always be training on great kit and never have to wait for your turn.

“It’s all part of our strategy of treating our Express sites as destination fitness clubs, to which people will travel from further afield. We have even made a point of offering free parking at each club, which is an important thing for our members,” she explains

THE NEXT GENERATION
When it comes to future plans for the brand, Vähätalo says that the company is constantly in discussions over potential new sites – for both the Express and the full service GOGO models. A major target for Vähätalo remains the capital city Helsinki, where talks are currently ongoing for at least two sites.

“We did originally plan to have 20 sites by 2020 – but as we are currently at 14 locations, that is now looking unlikely,” she adds

The biggest plans for the future, however, centre on the future ownership of the company. Since its launch in 1990, GOGO has always been family-owned. Though there have been plenty of offers and opportunities for Vähätalo to sell the brand over the years, she has always resisted these offers.

While she is now preparing herself for relinquishing control, the status of GOGO as being family-owned, however, will not change. That’s because the new owners are her three daughters – Vuokko, Varpu and Vilja.

“We started talking about passing on the company to the three daughters about five years ago now,” Vähätalo reveals. “We just wanted to make absolutely sure that it was something they all wanted to do and that they had a real passion for the business.

“We had to ensure that they would have the commitment and support from their own individual families too. Running a business this size comes with a lot of responsibility – so you can’t just shut your phones and go on a holiday!

“But they’ve been great – all three wanted to take it on and keep GOGO in the family, which obviously makes my husband and I very proud.”

Each daughter now owns 11 per cent of the company and all are employed across different areas of the business. Vähätalo has retained a majority stake of 52 per cent – for now – while her sister Päivi still holds 15 per cent.

“The plan is to gradually pass the ownership to the trio,” Vähätalo reveals.

She adds that while there might be a changing of the guard ahead, it certainly doesn’t mean the end of innovation for GOGO.

“One of our big dreams is to establish a GOGO Sports Club, which would include everything we have at our full-service health clubs, but also house tennis and padel courts and a swimming pool – a type of sports campus,” she says.

“So that might well be one for the next generation to work on!”

GOGO

Founded: January 1990

Portfolio: 3 full service clubs, all in Tampere 11 GOGO Express affordable fitness sites across five cities

Revenues (in 2018): GOGO Express: €4.6m

Full-service clubs: €3.7m

Number of Staff: More than 100

GOGO was Finland’s first full service fitness club when it opened in 1990
GOGO was Finland’s first full service fitness club when it opened in 1990
Co-founder and current CEO Taru Vähätalo (centre) with two of her three daughters Varpu (left) and Vuokko (right)
Co-founder and current CEO Taru Vähätalo (centre) with two of her three daughters Varpu (left) and Vuokko (right)
The GOGO brand has built up a loyal following during 
its lifetime
The GOGO brand has built up a loyal following during its lifetime
The brand has always placed a central focus on group exercise
The brand has always placed a central focus on group exercise
The brand has always placed a central focus on group exercise
The brand has always placed a central focus on group exercise
GOGO has always been a family-run business
GOGO has always been a family-run business
GOGO has always been a family-run business; co-founded by sisters Päivi and Taru
GOGO has always been a family-run business; co-founded by sisters Päivi and Taru
GOGO has always been a family-run business; soon to be handed over to Taru’s daughter Vuokko
GOGO has always been a family-run business; soon to be handed over to Taru’s daughter Vuokko
GOGO has always been a family-run business; soon to be handed over to Taru’s daughter Vilja
GOGO has always been a family-run business; soon to be handed over to Taru’s daughter Vilja
Taru and Päivi were always passionate about following global fitness trends and bringing them to their clubs in Finland
Taru and Päivi were always passionate about following global fitness trends and bringing them to their clubs in Finland
After seeing the success of McFit, the sisters decided to launch their own budget offering: GOGO Express
After seeing the success of McFit, the sisters decided to launch their own budget offering: GOGO Express
The family hopes to one day open a GOGO Sports Club, which would include a full-service health club plus tennis courts and a pool
The family hopes to one day open a GOGO Sports Club, which would include a full-service health club plus tennis courts and a pool
http://www.leisureopportunities.com/images/imagesX/206098_374244.jpg
The co-founder of Finland’s pioneering fitness brand GOGO tells us about the company’s journey, from its beginnings as the country’s first full-service fitness club...
Taru Vahatalo, GOGO, McFit,Taru Vähätalo,GOGO, McFit,
Latest News
Thousands of UK leisure and fitness facilities could close permanently, as operators struggle to deal ...
Latest News
Martin Long, CEO of DW Fitness First, has called on the government to speed up ...
Latest News
Duncan Bannatyne, CEO of Bannatyne Group, which runs spas, health clubs and hotels, says the ...
Latest News
Technogym has announced a new initiative designed to find the stars of the future. The ...
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Nearly two thirds (64 per cent) of the world’s health and fitness clubs are currently ...
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Although the facts may seem less relevant now due to the coroavirus pandemic, new numbers ...
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Fitness professionals should use the coronavirus-induced lockdown – where possible – to enhance their knowledge ...
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Featured supplier: Aberdeen Sports Village puts digital connectivity at its core
The newly refurbished Aberdeen Sports Village (ASV) has undergone a £500,000 overhaul to enable it to offer a stronger user experience with digital connectivity at its core.
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Incorpore and MoveGB have entered into a landmark partnership, combining the UK’s largest provider of corporate gym memberships with the nation’s biggest network of classes.
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Opinion: Overcome membership attrition with this surprising new industry trend: the modern training gym
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Founded in 1983, Technogym is a world-leading international supplier of technology and design-driven products and ...
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