Prior to writing the first word of this article on TELOS Fitness Center in Dallas, Texas, I took the time to perform a Google search for every major fitness chain and their relativity to TELOS in the Dallas area. The single-location TELOS Fitness Center, within a 15-mile radius, has every major competitor the market could offer.
Since August 2003, when Brent Darden and his business partner Everett Aaberg joined to open the reinvented North Dallas Athletic Club as TELOS Fitness, they have had to differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd. Originally opened in 1980, North Dallas used racquet and court sports to differentiate itself, but the surrounding competition wasn’t as daunting.
Like many clubs that opened in the 1980s, North Dallas had failed to reform itself and stay up-to-date with the pack. Through its struggles in the 1990s, Aaberg found himself seeing an opportunity to make a purchase and rebuild a once dominating club location.
Aaberg, a long-time fitness expert, went to Darden as a consultant, but quickly realized he’d be more valuable as a partner. Darden, much like Aaberg, had spent his entire career in the fitness industry, working in clubs and consulting for fitness centers. The two of them put their minds together to create TELOS Fitness — a club focused on fitness with the aesthetics of an old-world appearance.
Introduction to Fitness
Growing up in Craig, Colo. fitness wasn’t something that Aaberg had heard much about. However, much like Darden, who grew up over 1,000 miles away in Plano, Texas, Aaberg discovered fitness through high school sports — mainly football.
“Sports were a big deal for me,” said Aaberg. “That was really my first experience in fitness.”
“I’d say my first foray into any kind of conditioning was in junior high,” said Darden. “I actually bought one of those old Joe Weider weight sets with the plastic weights on them. They used to have those Encyclopedia Britannica’s that people would go around and sell, and I had those stacked up on two sides to give me a little platform to work off of.” Darden’s dad eventually took notice of his hard work and built him a weight bench out of 2x4s, because they couldn’t afford to purchase a weight bench from the store.
“My older brother also had a plastic set of weights at our house,” said Aaberg. “Our school didn’t have weights until my junior year in high school. Before that, all they had was one of those universal station machines.
“I wasn’t very fast but I realized I was pretty strong, so I wrestled and played football. The first time I got on a bench press I could do almost 200 pounds, which I thought was pretty good. I ended up setting the state record, drug free, in Colorado, at 535 pounds. What I found I was good at, you sort of gravitate towards and are reinforced to do. My squats and dead lifts were never that good, but I was really good at bench press. That’s not really fitness, and isn’t even an exercise we teach, but it was early and how we got involved.” Aaberg’s football career eventually took him to college and on to NFL Europe where he played in Italy.
After football, Aaberg said he kept working out, but didn’t understand exercising just to stay healthy, so he got into bodybuilding. “Being short and lifting weights, I had a pretty good structure to start with, so I became Mr. Colorado in 1989 and 1990. Again, there’s no science behind that, just a bunch of volume in the gym and a bunch of exercises, but as an early personal trainer in an industry that was just getting kicked off, being a bodybuilder always helped when starting out with the personal training clientele.”
Darden had a similar career in football, but it ended just after he used his football scholarship to receive a degree from Baylor University between 1978-1982. “Here in the suburbs in Dallas, we probably had a few more facilities than other parts of the country because we were a metropolitan area,” said Darden. “We had some Bally’s and my mother was a member of one of those. I had been there to visit with her a couple of times.
“Actually, my first job in the business was when I was 19 years old at an independent club in a strip shopping center that was fitness only. It wasn’t part of a big chain, but some independent guys owned it and even though I was only 19, I was working the front desk and cleaning the club, but also out on the fitness floor showing people how to work out. I didn’t know what I was doing, but that’s what they hired me to do,” Darden laughed. “That was probably my first experience inside a club.”
Aaberg’s training experience was much different in the early 1990s than what trainers experience today. He said he was receiving 100 percent commission, something that would be unfathomable in today’s industry. “I started at this place called the Crank Fitness Center, because our high school didn’t have weights. If you wanted more in high school, you had to go somewhere else,” explained Aaberg. “I would work out in there and get to know the owner, who was a chiropractor. It was about a 25,000-square-foot club, a pretty good size. After high school, right after I graduated, I became the manager of the club.”
Fast Forward to TELOS
North Dallas Athletic Club was opened in the 1980s to follow the trend of racquet sports facilities emerging throughout the U.S. However, as trends evolved in the 1990s, North Dallas failed to stay competitive. Aaberg saw his dream emerge with the sale of the North Dallas facility in the early 2000’s.
Considering his involvement in the fitness industry for the majority of his life, Aaberg had become prepared to take control of his own facility, but he wanted some consultation — Darden was the consultation he sought out.
Darden came on initially to help Aaberg develop a plan for establishing a competitive fitness club that had major competition relatively close to the facility. Darden’s assistance was something that Aaberg felt he couldn’t pass up on, and asked him to come on as a co-owner — the two proceeded to open TELOS Fitness in August 2003.
“This is one of the great blessings in my life from a professional standpoint,” said Darden. “I’ve been able to live where I grew up and have some fabulous career opportunities. Partnering with Everett was sort of the natural next step in my career.”
Living in Boulder, Aaberg had become fascinated with the human body and started writing books about fitness and training. Although all of this was great from a training standpoint, he knew he needed someone on the business side. “As opportunities came to me, for ownership and management, I had watched enough trainers fail at trying to run a business, so when this opportunity came up and I had investors, I knew I had to get someone to really run it. I was fortunate enough to catch Brent between jobs, doing a lot of consulting. We’ve had a lot of success, because what I’ve experienced through training, he’s experienced the same level on the business side. It makes for a really good team.”
Early on the team had to set itself apart from the competition with major brands already established in Dallas. “It was all about aesthetics — looking better, trying to be as beautiful as you could be,” explained Darden. “That’s the driving force in sports, and everyone that came to the club was after that. I think that mindset is still prevalent, however, I think there are a lot of people that join our club looking for health and wellness. And, although people want to look and feel better, the spectrum is a lot broader as far as what they’re after.”
The goal for TELOS has been to bring an experience to its customers. “Those that are truly memorable engage all the senses,” said Darden. “It’s not just one thing. It’s the sight, your sound, your smell, your touch. As I try to counsel people over the years on this topic, every club has a culture, and you can either create that culture in a purposeful way to tell your club’s story and justify your value proposition; or you can just kind of let it happen and evolve over time. Either way, that customer has an experience whether you planned it for them, or not.
“I think putting thought into the design from both the form and function standpoint was critical. When I talk about form, I talk about how it looks, the finishes you pick, the kind of colors you choose to make sure it all works together, and at the same time it needs to be functional. Whatever your priorities are — one of our biggest priorities here is our personal training expertise that we offer — so it should support those services and your value propositions, and of course match customers’ needs, be efficient and effective.”
Darden continued to explain that in some of the consulting he does now, he believes that when a potential member walks into the club, they should be able to look around before they ever pick up a brochure, and see what the priorities of the club are, just by how they allocate different services, the use of space and equipment.
“We did a good job doing the renovation the first time around, and we’ve accomplished some good things,” explained Darden. “But, the consumer demands are ever evolving and you can’t stay still, so we always have to look at how we can use our space better, how can we make it more effective, how can we make sure it stays current and matches what the changing needs of the customer are.”
In the redesign of North Dallas Athletic Club to become TELOS Fitness, Darden and Aaberg had to decide how they wanted to focus the club. Did they want to be a recreation club, or did they want to focus entirely on fitness? Many might see a bridge in supporting both, but the team at TELOS found that by focusing on one major function of the facility, they could better suit their clientele.
“We got rid of the squash courts, we got rid of the racquetball courts, we got rid of the basketball courts, and we repurposed all of those spaces into fitness spaces for Pilates, yoga, cycling, Group X, chiropractic spaces, therapy spaces, personal training spaces, small group training spaces — all very fitness oriented things,” said Darden. “At the same time, we tried to maintain this warm and inviting atmosphere that is sort of spa-like in its ambiance.”
“It has come down to, we need a space for a sort of function,” explained Aaberg. “I know why and how we can use the space, and Brent can create that space out of thin air — build it, or transform something into it, but make it like it was designed to be here from the start. It’s really neat to have that, because not only are we getting the function out of it, but something that really flows with the rest of the building.”
TELOS Fitness desired for members and potential members to be able to understand the direction of the club from the moment they entered the front door. “At least an aesthetic and quality standpoint is noticed from the first impression,” explained Darden. “When you walk in the door of our club, or any club, you’re making a valued judgment immediately. Whatever yousee at that point sets the stage for everything you see thereafter.
“I think you have to allocate your resources and make sure your entry and first impression is great. The second, the locker room, there is a lot of latitude for things to look either really poorly or really well, compared to other spaces. Here, for example, in the men’s locker room, we have some theater seats in front of a bunch of TVs so that members can relax in recliners. We have a big flat screen in the wet area in front of the whirlpool so that they can be watching ESPN there. We’ve got huge, probably double the typical size shower stalls for the men — including 16-inch rain showerheads above. In the women’s we did something pretty unique — they have stone sinks, private whirl tubs that are Victorian in design so that they don’t have to share a hot tub among women.”
TELOS also presents its Coliseum that highlights the club’s signature space used for personal training. It provides an old-world application with columns and high ceilings. “It’s really our signature space,” Darden said. “It’s the biggest space in the club and it supports our number one service, which is personal training. It’s very unique, and it matches our theme, which goes back to our logo of TELOS, a Greek theme.”
Within the studios, the team has attempted to create a club within a club. “If you go up to our yoga studio, there are wood floors, bamboo ceilings, silk sconces — promotes that mind-body mentality,” said Darden.
“You can walk over a little bridge to get over to the mind-body area,” continued Aaberg. “From my side, I was only interested in getting the fitness side in, but we both agreed to get out the basketball court and use it as our main training area, but we did not raise probably enough money. We did not realize how bad off this club was financially. So, when we decided to make the next decision, which was to do the foyer, I was going, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me. Who really cares about that?’ I just had to trust [Brent].”
The trust simply radiated from the two partners. They both believed the other understood 100 percent what needed to be done to create the greatest club for their members. Aaberg, with seven books written about the human body and training, and Darden with experience in running all different styles of clubs from every aspect, from the front desk to the back office; the two individuals have created a space that has become unlike anything any competitor could fathom in their market.
TELOS Fitness truly is in a world all its own. It has garnered competition from major fitness chains that capture the attention from potential members all around the world. TELOS Fitness has made its mark clear to all competitors with a slew of local and national awards, including 2008 Business of the Year by the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce and the Dallas Business Journal, the Greater Dallas Business Award, considered one of the Best Places to Work by the Dallas Business Journal, Top Fitness Centers in Dallas, 2008 Nova 7 Award for “Best Fitness Prescription & Assessment” for the TELOS Spartan Training Program and the 2008 Nova 7 Award for “Best Management, Marketing & Sales Initiative” for the Member Experience Manager. Additionally, both Aaberg and Darden have separately been awarded. Aaberg has been named a Top 100 Trainer in America by Men’s Journal, and Darden was named the 1998 Club Manager of the Year by IHRSA. By sticking to fitness and an aesthetic appeal, that has only been present at the TELOS location, the team has made a place for itself within the pack.
By Tyler Montgomery