Andrea and Justin Shelby loved almost everything about their small, historic community in Baltimore, Md. They could walk everywhere, including to their favorite restaurants, bars, shops and the grocery store. The one destination they couldn’t walk to was the gym. But, they solved that problem when they decided to open a gym of their own in 2002.
Presented with an opportunity to purchase real estate in an undeveloped part of town, the Shelby’s jumped at the chance, and opened Federal Hill Fitness on January 1, 2002. “We were desperate for a gym in our own neighborhood,” said Andrea. “We figured that we were representative of the market in our own community, and if we wanted a club we could walk to, our neighbors would want it too.”
Unique in that Federal Hill Fitness is one of the only fitness centers in the immediate area, another unique aspect to the club is its look — the white brick of the building is offset by Federal Hill’s signature red color, and the inside layout is similar to that of a New York loft. The club prides itself on being a perfect combination of, “historic charm, Soho-style loft architecture, and state-of-the-art fitness.”
After opening, the first major issue the couple faced was how to market the club — Baltimore has specific rules in regards to how businesses can promote. “When we opened, we had to quickly learn about all the marketing constraints regarding getting our message out in a very restrictive town,” explained Andrea. “Guerrilla marketing is usually the best way to spread the word, as this was before social media became an option. We found out the hard way that fliers on cars or residential doorknobs, A-frame sidewalk signs and significant signage on the building were not allowed.”
Due to these restraints, the Shelby’s had to think outside the box in order to spread the word about Federal Hill Fitness. Being located in a bar-saturated part of town, Andrea and Justin traded club memberships for advertising space on the walls of bar bathrooms. In addition, advertising through t-shirts became a great strategy — they sponsored local summer festivals and gave Federal Hill Fitness t-shirts away to volunteers. “We put our logo on the back, so every time a volunteer would turn around, there was our logo,” said Andrea. “Every year we put out a different color and style — these have become somewhat of a collector’s item around town!”
According to Andrea, Federal Hill Fitness’ best strategy for success has been she and Justin’s involvement. “The most important thing we did after opening, was staying very close to the business,” said Andrea. “Being involved is the key to setting the vibe for the business. I think the worst thing any owner can do is turn the keys over to a manager or operator and walk away. You need to develop relationships with members and staff in order to build loyalty and establish your brand.”
In the end, a majority of Federal Hill Fitness’ success has stemmed from its connection to the area. “Our club is part of the community by much more than just being located within its boundaries,” said Andrea. “We actively participate in local festivals, events, and offer free classes to fitness-based groups that are not affiliated with the club, like the Federal Hill Runners and a mom’s fitness group called Stroller Strides. Even though we built the club on the fringe of the developed part of town, we are now in the very heart of it.”
After the success of Federal Hill Fitness, Andrea and Justin opened a second gym, MV Fitness, in January 2008. Federal Hill Fitness celebrated its 10-year anniversary this January.
By Rachel Zabonick