Swabek’s Highland Fitness is located on one of the most eclectic and famous streets in Louisville, Ky. — Bardstown Road. Flanked by small boutiques, locally-owned restaurants, unique shops and multiple bars, Craig Swabek, the owner of Swabek’s Highland Fitness, opened the club in July of 2008 to fill a need he saw as a resident of the community.
“Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood is very similar to Lincoln Park in Chicago, just smaller,” said Swabek. “It is very diverse with parks, restaurants, shopping, bars, residential areas — but very few fitness centers. As a resident of this area I saw a need and filled it. I studied niche, boutique gyms in Chicago and New York and looked for the perfect building for about a year before I leased my location.”
A sign outside of Highland Fitness said, “Sweat is fat crying.” As people walk down the street and pass the club, some stop to take pictures with the eye-catching, memorable posters. Due to the busy nature of the street, the signs work as an intriguing aspect for prospects, and bring members into Highland Fitness. Swabek came up with the idea himself, and many of the slogans are thought of in-house. Some of the sayings are turned into t-shirts to continually support brand awareness, and members love it. “One of our slogans said, ‘look good naked,’” said Swabek. “Even our older members buy the ‘look good naked,’ t-shirts. The signs and slogans build brand awareness to the club.”
The quirkiness and boldness of the sayings fit well on Bardstown Road, a street where the norm is more out of place than the odd. Highland Fitness’ uniqueness, combined with its accessible location, has allowed the club to appeal to residents of the surrounding community — according to Swabek, about 98 percent of Highland Fitness’ members live within a mile radius of the club.
However, business wasn’t always running smoothly for Swabek. A month after opening, the country hit the recession. To keep his new business afloat, Swabek worked hard to keep his overhead low, renegotiated for lower rent, focused on personal training and worked 80 hours a week himself. He also catered to the customer. “I learned the name of each member, greeted them by name, turned the TV to their favorite channel and adjusted the music to the clientele as it changed during the day,” said Swabek.
In the end, it was Swabek’s investment in the customer and the surrounding community that got Highland Fitness through the recession. “We feel each person who comes to inquire about our gym isn’t a $49, one-month client, we feel [they’re] a potential $5,000, 10-year investor to our club,” said Swabek. The investment shows — almost 50 percent of current members were brought in by member referrals, who were pleased by the service they received. “Getting members recruiting through word of mouth has been the biggest thing.”
One sign outside of Swabek’s Highland Fitness said, “Do it Together.” That particular sign exemplified Highland Fitness’ attitude — that they’re not just a gym, but also part of the local community. According to Swabek, the key to the club’s success has been the connection it has made with its members. “[I] get to know my members,” said Swabek. “I ask them all the time about reaching new members and what they like and dislike about the gym.” As a result, after only four years in business, Highland Fitness fits well on a street with some businesses that are a decade old.
By Rachel Zabonick