Karl Sanft has been a member of 24 Hour Fitness since 1993, joining in his early 20s with the goal of exercising and socializing with friends. Like many young adults, he joined when he was just starting to seriously think about what he wanted to do with his life.
In a twist of fate, Sanft has landed where those musings originated. On June 2, 2022, he was officially named president and CEO of 24 Hour Fitness after serving as the brand’s COO for three years, and as a long-standing member for almost three decades.
“I’m working out in my 20s, thinking about what I want to do with my life, and I ended up being exactly where I would end up,” recalled Sanft. “There’s something pretty cool about that. I have experienced 24 Hour Fitness from the inside out, and I love the brand. The company has been a pillar within the industry, and I’m humbled and appreciative of all who built the brand before me.”
Sanft takes the helm of 24 Hour Fitness after a tumultuous two years in the fitness industry resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw clubs across the U.S. close for weeks to months. During that time, 24 Hour Fitness furloughed around 19,000 staff and went through multiple rounds of reopening and reclosing its gyms nationwide.
In June 2020, 24 Hour Fitness subsequently filed for relief under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code with plans to restructure. It exited on December 31, 2020, ultimately shedding around 150 locations and divesting much of the $1.4 billion in debt it had prior to filing for Chapter 11.
According to Sanft, the Chapter 11 process was tough, but it ultimately left the organization in a much better position today.
“Chapter 11 is like the best education you never wanted,” explained Sanft. “If you start at the highest level and you say, ‘The entity must survive,’ then we accomplished everything we needed to accomplish. But you also need to take a moment to just reflect and be human and say there was a lot of pain through that process. There was pain for team members who lost clubs in their communities. There were landlords and owners who were impacted. It was a difficult process — one where I’m ultimately respectful for everything that everybody went through and experienced.”
With Chapter 11 behind them, Sanft explained 24 Hour Fitness is focused on a number of initiatives that will help the brand continue on a healthy trajectory and set the company up for success in the coming years.
The first is a project called Elevate with the aim to invest in 24 Hour Fitness’ portfolio of 300 gyms across the U.S. through capital upgrades such as new equipment, functional fitness spaces, the reimagining of spaces to accommodate current fitness trends and more.
In addition, the company is transitioning many of its clubs from limited operations and back to 24/7 service — a benefit stemming from the brand’s origins in 1983. So far 107 clubs have transitioned, which impacts around 70% of the brand’s membership.
24 Hour Fitness has also instituted regional pricing that allows it to offer different pricing structures dependent upon where specific clubs are based. For example, previously a 24 Hour Fitness membership in California cost the same as one in Florida.
“We now have the ability to do regional pricing for a brand that shows up in 11 states across approximately 300 clubs, making us more agile and more competitive,” said Sanft. “This also allows us to think small. I think all small companies want to be big, but big companies have to go back and revisit small, because it teaches you and reminds you how you grew. And you probably didn’t grow through sameness and a set of rules that were less than flexible.”
This change coincides with 24 Hour Fitness’ re-evaluation of its compensation structure for employees. According to Sanft, the brand is offering more competitive wages and benefits to attract qualified employees.
“It’s more viable to work at 24 Hour Fitness now, so we attract a higher quality and more proficient team member who can pass on their knowledge to our members,” explained Sanft. “I want our company to matter to employees. That’s the kind of relationship we’re looking for, and it’s what the members are looking for. The members are looking for someone who cares they’re there and who will make a difference in their fitness journey. Once you get that higher degree of proficiency and engagement from the team member, of course compensation has to follow.”
Last but not least as part of its vision for the future, 24 Hour Fitness is also focused on meeting the evolving needs of members and creating a more frictionless experience for customers overall.
Sanft explained today’s consumers are much more attune to all four pillars of wellness — nutrition, exercise, recovery and sleep — whereas in the past, exercise may have been the main focus.
As a result, 24 Hour Fitness recently announced two new partnerships it feels speaks to this enhanced awareness. This includes a partnership with iCRYO to bring cryotherapy to select 24 Hour Fitness clubs; and Nutrishop to offer members high-quality nutritional supplements and other dietary support.
According to Beth Smits, the senior vice president of operations and services at 24 Hour Fitness, these offerings speak directly to a more holistic approach to member wellness.
“What’s pretty cool about Nutrishop, for example, is you can’t outrun a bad diet,” said Smits. “So let’s get experts who can talk to you about supplements, great eating habits or whatever it is that will help you feel balanced. But again, it also reinforces to the members it’s not just about coming into our clubs and doing movement. It’s about all the pillars.”
For 24 Hour Fitness, wellness also involves social connection, which the brand is speaking to through its Group X studio classes that provide a strong sense of community, inspiration and motivation — as well as its newly created small group training program MODUS. The latter offers members access to 20 group training sessions every week and a monthly Evolt 360 body composition scan to track progress.
“With MODUS what we’re really trying to do is bring fun back to fitness,” said Smits. “Why do you come and workout? Because it makes you feel really good, and you do it with people you really like. It’s all about those small groups of people doing really fun stuff together.”
The incorporation of a monthly Evolt body scan is significant as well, as Smits explained consumers are seeking feedback regarding if what they’re doing is actually working. In fact, the Nutrishop program boasts body scanning capabilities as well through InBody.
“We’re using Evolt and InBody scans so we can show the member they’re gaining results,” explained Smits. “And results can mean a lot of different things. It doesn’t have to be losing weight — it can also be getting stronger or building more muscle mass. Members want to know if the work they’re putting in — recovery work, mindfulness work, movement — is making an impact. It’s about setting goals and gamifying and measuring results, which makes members want to come back and be sticky to fitness.”
Meeting the needs of today’s member also involves removing friction points for customers — ensuring nothing stands in their way from creating and sustaining healthy habits inside and outside 24 Hour Fitness’ walls.
According to Debbie Fiorella, the chief technology and digital officer at 24 Hour Fitness, this is where technology comes into play. The brand is committed to investing and evaluating its back-end and consumer facing technologies to ensure it’s serving members.
A great example is the 24GO fitness app, which provides members with touch-free check-in, the ability to make class reservations, on-demand workouts and more. A unique feature of the app is the 24 Smart Start Plan, through which members input their goals and receive a customized fitness plan in return.
“The 24GO fitness app supports a frictionless experience in a number of ways, starting with onboarding,” explained Fiorella. “With the 24 Smart Start Plan, you go through a series of questions that are member data driven, so the output of the program is very much tailored to the member’s lifestyle, their membership goals and what they hope to achieve. It’s tailored toward their needs.”
For a big-box operator like 24 Hour Fitness with thousands of members, the 24GO fitness app and 24 Smart Start feature are a great way for the brand to ensure each and every customer is receiving guidance and connection.
“I call our app the digital companion or the connective tissue between our members and 24 Hour Fitness,” said Fiorella. “Everything from 24 Smart Start to the easy ways to check in provides our members a way to interact with us.”
Another important factor for technology at 24 Hour Fitness goes back to the four pillars of wellness — with the brand ensuring even within the digital space a holistic approach is taken.
“One of the other areas we’re really focused on is providing content on demand across all the modalities of fitness,” explained Fiorella. “For example, we have over 18 different on-demand programs in the mindfulness space. We also offer recovery programs, flexibility and stretching. Continuing to make sure the digital offerings provide capabilities and feature functionality across all the modalities of fitness is going to be really important. We know consumers are looking for that. And so, we will continue to focus there.”
Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanft and the team at 24 Hour Fitness feel confident the areas they’ve decided to focus on will lead to an even healthier future for the company and the industry as a whole.
“I think there’s a bit of a renaissance when it comes to fitness,” said Sanft. “There’s a nice tailwind for the industry. I believe if the industry focuses on safety, cleanliness and health, then we earn the right to grow our businesses as we move forward.”
Thinking back to his 20-year-old self just starting out as a member at 24 Hour Fitness, Sanft feels honored to take on the responsibility that comes with being president and CEO of such a storied brand.
“It’s really important for me to stress we are stewards of the brand, and in our time as stewards the business needs to move forward,” said Sanft. “I hope former stewards of the brand will look back on this time and be proud.”