Unhappy With The Franchise Model, One New York Owner Struck Out on His Own
Michael Hawksby’s first foray into the health and fitness industry began as the co-owner of a fitness franchise in New Jersey. Although he immediately liked the industry, the franchise model didn’t thrill him. “I felt the franchise was pigeon holed,” he recalled.
So Hawksby took what he had learned while working with the franchise, and when the opportunity arose, opened a club of his own with his good friend Bob D’Urso. ROK Fitness made its debut in January 2012 in East Rockaway, N.Y., near the South Shore of Long Island. According to Hawksby, the club is a one-of-a-kind facility — one unrestricted by what Hawksby perceived to be a franchise’s constraints.
Although ROK Fitness boasts many of the amenities of an everyday club or franchise, it’s the little touches that make the club really stand out from competitors. Front desk employees make personal phone calls to members every day, wishing them “happy birthdays” and personal “thank you” notes are sent to every new member who joins.
In addition, out-of-the-norm amenities include a revolving pedestal for indoor cycling instructors and “The CAGE,” a custom-built, multi-functional structure for small group training, boxing, TRX and more, that the ROK Fitness team designed themselves.
According to Hawksby, a higher price point (around $50 per month), allows his staff to provide customers with better service than they might receive at a lower-priced facility. “We built the club to have less members so that we know our members,” said Hawksby. “I feel that you get a lot of value here for our price point.”
Like many businesses in New York and New Jersey, ROK Fitness faced adversity at the hands of Hurricane Sandy, which severely damaged the club’s roof. “We were down for 28 days without electricity,” recalled Hawksby. “But we’re still here and we’re thriving now.”
To show appreciation for members who have been there since the beginning, and those that have recently joined, the club throws two parties a year — a summer barbeque and a holiday party — that present perfect opportunities for the club to bond as a whole.
At this year’s annual holiday party, the community atmosphere was exhibited when ROK Fitness presented Chris Levi, a veteran who lost his legs in the Iraq War, with the Action Trackchair, a $16,000 wheelchair. Members helped cover the cost with additional help from the Veterans Coalition of Nassau County. “We’re in the community, which is why the experience is more personal,” said Hawksby.
The efforts by Hawksby and his staff are part of an overall plan — to draw in prospects, and keep them as members. “We’re looking for retention,” said Hawksby. “[Big-box] clubs spend so much money trying to get new members, because they’re losing so many each month.”
By personalizing the club experience, boasting a higher-price point and being involved in the community, ROK Fitness has been able to largely avoid that problem. And in light of competition from major New York fitness clubs, Hawksby and D’Urso have founded a successful business formula near Long Island’s South Shore.
“We have a good name in the area,” said Hawksby. “When you have to create something from scratch, you put in a lot of time and money. To see it be successful, it’s a pretty good feeling.”
By Rachel Zabonick