Heather Thomas Shalabi, Founder of Flex Studio On: Creating A Blueprint For Hong Kong’s Fitness Market

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Since establishing Flex Studio in 2005, Heather Thomas Shalabi and her Co-Director Anna Serafinas Luk have grown the concept into one of Hong Kong’s premiere fitness destinations, attracting over 25,000 registered clients and generating a steady revenue growth of approximately 9% year-on-year.

A Pilates teacher for more than 15 years, Thomas Shalabi’s recognition of the benefits of Pilates, and her passion for the discipline can be felt throughout the brand’s cutting-edge fitness offerings. Her approach to healthy and holistic wellness has been key to the brand’s success.

With a newly launched FLEXtreme concept, encompassing cardio, strength and TRX fitness classes with state of the art equipment, and plans to expand the brand’s on-site wellness services, 2018 is expected to bring further business growth.

Elsewhere, Thomas Shalabi is keeping busy leading annual retreats, educational workshops and producing a regular column in Hong Kong’s Tatler.

Despite her busy schedule, here the businesswoman and wellness guru sits down with Welltodo to reveal how she built a cutting-edge fitness studio concept and created a ‘third space’ for consumers in the ‘big little city’ that is Hong Kong………

On taking a gamble…….

I realised that there weren’t any proper fitness studios, specifically Pilates-based, on HK’s southside and began to think that I could be a pioneer in Hong Kong’s fitness scene by taking advantage of both my business and training background.  

The real tipping point, however, was when I found my first studio location and calculated how many clients would walk through the door on opening day –– worst case scenario, the rent was so cheap that I could personally afford to pay it, even if nobody came.  

The larger pieces of Pilates apparatus had to be moved into the studio through the window (our space was on the second floor) because they couldn’t fit in the small stairwell. This attracted a lot of neighbourhood attention, and I distinctly remember a complete stranger running up to me and giving me a big hug, saying “FINALLY!”  I’ll never forget that moment, at which point I knew my gamble was going to pay off.

On maintaining the original mantra……

Our corporate philosophy has always been “to make each and every session a positive and productive experience for each and every client.”  

We definitely still operate under that mantra today, taking care to understand the needs of all our clients’ physical well-being. To that end, we’ve expanded our services to include physical therapy, pre and post-natal conditioning, Yamuna® Bally Rolling and Schroth Method workshops among other healing and restorative modalities, in order to fully serve our clients.  

We’ve also tried to integrate holistic wellness into the psyche of our clients, so the Flex experience doesn’t end after the session. We regularly host detox programs, retreats and workshops to teach folks how to live better off the mat, as well as on.

On the importance of building a team……

Fortunately, I found an amazing partner in Anna Serafinas Luk. No one can run a business alone, especially when the service offered requires your physical presence, i.e. teaching classes.

We’ve partnered successfully over our 14 years together because we’ve worked with an excellent solicitor who has helped us solidify our vision and respective roles into an ironclad, legal Partnership Agreement.  

I highly recommend spending the required money to draft a document which takes all partners’ needs into consideration, in order to avoid future disputes, miscommunications and any mismatch of expectations, as nobody can predict the future.  

Secondly, I was wise enough to set up MINDBODY right from the beginning, which runs both the back and front offices of the studio. A friend was looking for work, so I hired her as Studio Manager, and we sat for hours entering all of the studio data into MBO.  

Other than Anna and myself, my initial crew of instructors were all part-time so I could control overheads. HK is a big, little town, so I knew pretty much everyone in the industry, making it easy to find staff.  

Heather Thomas Shalabi, Founder of Flex Studio On: Creating A Blueprint For Hong Kong's Fitness Market

Image: Flex Studio

On the transformation of Hong Kong’s wellness market……..

The market is much more sophisticated now, and in general, HK has become much more fitness oriented. People take advantage of HK’s year-round beautiful weather, hiking, running, biking and swimming during all seasons.  We’ve thus tailored our language about Pilates to educate these folks on the benefits of adding a core “powerhouse” routine to their fitness regime to increase power and endurance and reduce injury.

Initially, HK saw the rise of the big, all-service “gym” with Pure Yoga and Fitness opening, however in the last five years, there’s been an obvious rise in boutique fitness, in which studios only offer one type of service. These operations are not necessarily upscale, however, and typically operate based on trends, often hiring instructors without much depth in their training backgrounds.

Read More: The Hong Kong Report: Wellness Trends, Growth and Market Opportunities

On healthy competition…….

Flex has remained competitive by exploiting the bandwidth in-between the large-scale gyms and boutique studios.  

We are an aspirational brand with state of the art facilities (our shower/changing rooms feel like a spa), but offer a variety of services to “check” all the fitness boxes for both men and women.  There are enough classes on offer throughout the day in each of our studios to afford a wide range of choice for our clients, yet class sizes are kept relatively intimate (ranging from 8 people in Allegro to about 25 in a yoga class) so all clients receive individual attention, and our front desk teams know all clients by name.

On scaling the concept………

We have our eye on specific markets. We’re developing a model for two studio formats: a full Flex Studio with three complete studio rooms including a fully equipped Pilates room, and another model that will house only group studios, to be situated in “secondary” markets.  

When I first opened Flex, initially I had the idea that I was creating a studio modelled on examples I’d experienced in Los Angeles, New York and London, but now Flex has matured into its own blueprint.  

We’ve had many clients move away from HK and report back that they can’t find their “Flex” at home. I think the Asian hospitality and physical plant design Flex is all about, combined with the high level of class instruction and class mix is hard to beat in any global market.  

It’s always been my objective to make Flex a “third” space – people have home, work and…Flex ––  a place of community, not just a workout. This is intentional because when a space resonates, one is more likely to take that ethos home.

As I mentioned previously, Flex is a lifestyle, not just something you do on the mat for 60 minutes and then leave it behind. It permeates your approach to healthy living habits.

Heather Thomas Shalabi, Founder of Flex Studio On: Creating A Blueprint For Hong Kong's Fitness Market

Image: Flex Studio

On Shared market challenges………

Definitely finding affordable, suitable real estate. It’s no secret that HK rentals are ridiculously expensive, but I’ve never wanted the rent to become such an albatross for the business that no one enjoys what they do because of the ever-present stress it poses.

The second biggest challenge is staffing. We literally scan the globe for the best instructors in all the disciplines that we offer and we invest extensively in in-house training. It can take up to a year to get an instructor up to the level of instruction Flex demands.  

On adjusting to big challenges and learning from them……..

When Flex was five months old I learned I was pregnant with twins. Absorbing this news was definitely a challenge, but ultimately I needed to believe in what I say to all my clients – “things happen for a reason – embrace it.” I had to put my faith in those words and run with it.  

On a more mundane note, I guess my biggest “mistakes” have happened when I’ve hired instructors from overseas without meeting them in person.

A great instructor is happy and well balanced, both professionally and personally and I believe in a holistic live-work approach, in that it’s impossible to separate the two. Now I always make a point to have prospective instructors visit HK to be sure they can really envision themselves living here before I hire them and sponsor their visa. Pretty much every candidate who applies to work at Flex has the requisite certification, their personal happiness, however, can’t be underestimated.

On future focuses………

In March we expanded our Central Studio and will open a second floor, enabling us to expand our private studio in Central as well as our Allegro studio. We’re also focusing on our FLEXtreme programme.  

We’re also going to start offering online video options and expanding our on-site wellness services. In addition, I’m currently working on bringing a globally recognised Pilates training program to Flex so we can groom instructors in-house from scratch.

On challenging consumer perceptions……..

In Asia, we see a lot of thin people who don’t exercise because they are thin. They don’t understand that exercise isn’t just a weight-management tool.

Fitness should be understood as a miracle drug for preventing premature ageing, warding off disease and improving cognitive ability and fertility – to name just a few of its of benefits.  Fitness can turn back the body clock; it’s the best anti-aging tool that exists.

And, compared to the expense society spends on surgeries, doctor’s visits, medicine, cosmetic treatments, et al, it’s so cheap, with no side effects. A fabulous body is the added benefit, but not the reason to exercise. I hope Flex educates people to look at exercise as a non-negotiable prescription for health and to teach them strategies to be strong, pain-free natural movers for life.   

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