By Tyler Montgomery
The final evening of the event, the awards dinner, was a time that was special for the staff, as they had been nominated for several awards, highlighting the success of their franchises. As the night wound down, the staff was glowing with the excitement of the evening, as several of the locations had won awards.
The Lowells, their team and the rest of the franchisees sat in anticipation for the coveted Franchisee of the Year Award. As the announcement was made, the full-big screen came into view and the Franchisee of the Year went to … Lori and Jeremy Lowell.
For the Lowells, fitness has always been a way of life.
Lori was the first to find a career in the fitness industry. “I was a group fitness director for a gentleman named Pleasant Lewis,” she said. “He owned three clubs in the Washington, D.C metropolitan area, called Ironworks Gym.” Upon meeting Jeremy, a dentist, in the Woodbridge, Va. area, a conversation ensued in which Lewis decided to build a gym just around the corner from Jeremy’s office.
In the early 1990’s, Lewis sold one of his clubs to Kirk and John Galiani, who converted the club to a Gold’s Gym. In doing so, the Galianis watched their membership numbers increase substantially over a very short period of time.
“Pleasant started studying and decided he was going to turn all of his gyms into Gold’s Gyms from his private label,” Lori said. “Shortly after he decided to turn his clubs into Gold’s Gyms, he invited Jeremy and I to become partners in one of his clubs.”
Entering into the club business, Jeremy and Lori spent hours studying and developing strategies to advance their new venture.
Lori took her experience as a group fitness director and instructor and helped design new and innovative classes to engage members. In conjunction with being a club owner, in 1999 she became the National Group Fitness Director for Gold’s Gym International and served in that position for 10 years. Many of the classes she formed and the research she performed to develop a consistent group fitness model for all franchisees eventually spawning GGX — the Gold’s Gym branded group fitness title. GGX stands for Gold’s Group Exercise and has become a household acronym in all Gold’s Gyms.
Jeremy received a dental degree from Georgetown University. He had spent the majority of his life in competitive sports, which allowed him to ease into the fitness industry.
“The dentist I was working for, just after I graduated school, told me that he did aerobics with a group of people and he introduced me to the instructor through a friend,” Jeremy said. “Lori and I met first by phone and while we talked she invited me to try one of her group fitness classes. It was a bit more of a challenge than an invitation, and perhaps that was because of my arrogant attitude about how easy I perceived aerobics classes to be. A few days later, I experienced one of the toughest 90 minutes of any sport I had ever played. Two days later I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs.”
In 1996, after the two discovered their niche with Gold’s Gyms, that began with the partnership with Lewis, they were unstoppable.
Switching to Gold’s Gym proved to be profitable for Lewis and the Lowells. The couple split their time between running Jeremy’s dental practice and operating fitness clubs. After refining their skills, purchasing the Woodbridge club from Lewis, and opening a second highly profitable facility in Lorton, Va., they teamed with the late Eddie Dail and his partners on a club in Virginia and found room for expansion.
Several years later, Dail’s group presented the Lowells with opportunities in Wisconsin, where they now own three facilities and they have joined other groups that helped them expand further throughout Virginia. “We recently joined another very successful group in Sterling and Ashburn, Virginia,” Lori said. “We have already opened our group’s new location in Sterling and we are about to begin construction on our group’s new location in Ashburn.”
Early on in their career, expanding into different markets was difficult to fathom for the Lowells. However, with the assistance of their new team, especially with the help of individuals like their partner, Joe Harrison, and their administrative right hand, Michaela Del Core, they began to develop a solid partnership group. “Now, with our partner Sandy Hall, who is an expert in lease negotiation, construction and design, we have an amazing group that provides expertise from site selection all the way through to final operations,” Lori said.
“Our demographic studies are pretty comprehensive and there is a tremendous gut feeling involved in where to open new clubs,” Jeremy said. “Working together with all of our partners, each of us bring to the table different fortes and we all keep our eyes on a different aspect of the pie. We only had clubs in Virginia for about 14 years, and knew that market extremely well. Wisconsin was foreign to us, but our partners gave us tremendous insight into those areas as well.”
Overcoming a Long History
The Lowells weren’t blind to the history of Gold’s Gym. While very proud of the Gold’s Gym heritage, founded on bodybuilding, as time has progressed, the Lowells feel they have helped make the brand more approachable in the communities they serve.
“Dealing with the stigma of Gold’s Gym has been one of the more difficult challenges,” Lori said. “Unless you are exercising in a Gold’s Gym, the first thought that comes to mind for many is muscle or bodybuilder. Many people seeking fitness state that they have to get in shape before they join a Gold’s Gym.”
Lori said that only 2 percent of their members are bodybuilders. She feels that to help overcome that stigma, it is imperative that the owners and employees become a vital part of the community and spread the message that their gyms service all kinds.
It has been important to Lori to let the public know that their clubs serve all individuals. She has made herself and her team so visible in the communities they serve that they have become synonymous with positive fitness.
In conjunction with community service presented by their Gold’s Gyms, Lori has utilized the power of word and her local media.
“We write many articles and send them out to as many editors as we can,” Lori said. “When they need something, they will have us on file and they’ll reach out to us. It’s all about keeping our fresh ideas newsworthy and helping keep our name in the potential member’s mind.”
The Gold’s Gym Lingo
Most major corporations have developed some type of language to convey certain protocol or ideas to their employees. The Lowells have attempted to do this with the Gold’s Gym brand as a way to communicate within the greater Gold’s Gym Franchise circle, and to assist with their ‘employee buy-in.’”
With the assistance of former Gold’s Gym Franchisee Association President Blair McHaney, the Lowells have embraced the concept of a member experience manual that is a training manual for their staff. “Of course, we have policy and procedure manuals, but the Member Experience Manual takes it a step further by providing terms, missions and values as well as communication tactics for our employees to learn, that will ensure an outstanding member experience,” Lori said. “We begin by identifying who our audience is. We use the term‘Seekers,’ who are people searching for how fitness fits into their lives.”
Some people within their clubs are considered “Believers.” Those are the people that already know how fitness plays a role in their life and are devoted to their routine.
Once the club has “Believers,” they are transformed into “Loyal Life Long Fans” or “LLF.”
“The whole Member Experience or ME that has been developed has become our company’s language,” Lori explained. “There are many franchisees that are using it. This year at the Gold’s Gym Convention we rolled out the communication, the Member Experience Manual, and many of our proactive franchisees have jumped on board.”
The inner language of Gold’s Gym has considerably helped employees embrace the overall image.
Developing a language that can be shared throughout the company is one step to increase employee “buy-in.” “Beginning with the interview process and making employees feel like they have a purpose from the start; moving through the training piece, and continual education are all critical,” Jeremy added.
“It’s a constant orchestra of training and up skilling,” Lori said. “Fitness, and being a part of fitness is an evolution, not only for members but for employees as well.”
Developing the Employee Buy-In
“It’s really hard because we don’t have a lot of standards in our industry,” Lori explained. “It’s not like there is a degree in fitness club operation. We’ve had to create the training pieces that develop fantastic employees.”
The Lowells begin with the interview process. They use PeopleAnswers.com to help them generate great questions and weed out people that may not be appropriate employees.
“We get a lot of people who apply for jobs, and we have a detailed interview process,” Jeremy said. “PeopleAnswers.com developed an online-interview process that has been specifically designed for Gold’s Gym. We begin with PeopleAnswers and when we feel that we have a good candidate, we take the interview process further with a live interview and the initial information we receive allows us to have a good understanding of the candidate prior to us sitting down with them.
“We have had many employees stay with us long term and employee ‘buy-in’ is significant in order for us to retain a strong staff,” Lori said. “We know that consistency and employee longevity is key to our success. We work hard on the employee experience, training and up skilling.”
Part of enhancing the employee experience included this convention. The Lowells made the Gold’s Gym Convention the company retreat for this year. “We wanted our employees to see the excitement, meet other owners, and other employees, and help them see what we see,” Lori said.
At the convention, the Lowell’s clubs were nominated and received several awards throughout the night. “It was great to see our employees eyes light up with respect as the separate clubs brought home some awards.”
Gold’s Gym Franchisee of the Year Award
The situation couldn’t have been more perfect. The team leaders of the Lowell’s staff were on-hand in one of the most exciting cities in America and the Lowells had just received the Franchisee of the Year Award.
It was a time that they would never forget. Their clubs ranging from Wisconsin to Virginia finally had been recognized for over a decade of hard work.
“It wasn’t anything we were expecting,” Lori said. “We had heard all year that we were doing a great job and were encouraged to keep it up, but with all the esteemed fellow franchisees that are so deserving of this award, it was an honor and very humbling.”
“It’s all about the member experience and focusing on what’s occurring in the club. What does the experience feel like for the potential member and the existing member,” Lori said. “You have to focus and think about that all the time.”
Programming has been the one thing that sets the Lowell’s clubs apart from many others in their areas. Lori has positioned herself to identify what aspects of fitness attract her members.
“We stand out because we are willing to recognize what’s missing and we aren’t afraid to make changes to make things better,” Lori explained. “Programming is a big part of that focus.
Making sure our members are well versed in what our club has to offer makes us stand out from other clubs in our areas. Continually enhancing the Group Fitness Experience for our members and giving our instructors the tools to become better, recognizing our staff’s amazing talent and effort is essential to our success. The crossover that occurs with personal training and group fitness allows our members to see the benefits of both departments. We work hard to ensure that it occurs daily in our gyms.”
Coming from a different angle, Jeremy’s experience in dentistry added another dimension.
“While the dental business is a negative demand business, where patients search for me primarily when things are bothering them, the fitness business is quite the opposite. However, member retention is nowhere near patient retention and that is something we strive to improve by providing outstanding customer service.”
Jeremy has learned that simple explanations and honesty in work ethic are key to creating trust and retention. “Dentistry requires superior customer service and we just can’t take things for granted,” Jeremy said. “We have taken this knowledge and applied it to our positive demand business, fitness, and it has allowed us to really make a difference.”
“We will continue to create the best possible fitness experience for all populations,” Lori said.“We are going to continue to immerse ourselves in our clubs to not only understand what members want, but what they need. Further, we need to continue to identify the motivating factors that are involved to keep our members coming back for more. “We know that outstanding member experiences from fun equipment and club layout, to great personal training, and world class group fitness classes that impress our members is where it’s at,” Lori said. “We just have to keep working harder at it to make members feel that they are missing out if they don’t show up.” Staying proactive in this process will allow us to grow with our businesses and assist the industry in discovering how fitness clubs can become the leaders in taking our populations to a healthier lifestyle.
“Fitness has a tremendous amount of room to expand and there are so many potential members that have yet to step foot inside a fitness club or even buy into the idea of exercise,” Jeremy continued. “We need to capture these people. If for no other reason but to improve the health of our country. It is critically important that we align ourselves with the health care and insurance industries and continue to push forward legislation so that fitness is seen as a true benefit. It is up to all of us to move this initiative forward.”
It is these types of thoughts and plans of action that are assisting in branding Gold’s Gym as a top fitness chain globally. Club owners like the Lowells are stepping outside of the box and thinking of new ways to help boost the industry and make it stronger in the future. “With the fantastic and bright franchisees that exist in the Gold’s Gym chain, this brand is unstoppable,” the Lowells said. “We are proud to be a part of the Gold’s Gym brand and just love working with our fellow franchisees; it’s a great family.” -CS