Despite all the restrictions put upon the fitness industry in the wake of COVID-19, UN1T, a strength and conditioning group training studio born out of London, is poised for rapid international expansion.
Having launched in 2017, the company has expanded from its roots in London Bridge to add franchises in Munich, Kuwait City and Doha in the Middle East.
Over the next six months, further sites in Vienna, Malta, Sydney, Dubai, Auckland, Texas and a second London studio in Holborn are set to follow. Founder and CEO Rob Smyth has secured a further four franchises during the pandemic, including one in Manchester and one in Singapore.
Prioritising performance over aesthetics, UN1T’s signature workouts are designed around three 12-week phases, focusing on hypertrophy, strength and power. “UN1T is shifting the obsession over body composition to performance,” says Smyth.
A former semi-professional rugby player, Smyth’s career in fitness began with a personal training business operating out of hotel gyms in his native Ireland. From there he set up an events company to host running events for up to 10,000 people, then used the capital raised from that enterprise, to set up F45 London Bridge, the first F45 franchise in Europe, in 2014.
Three years later Smyth opened UN1T’s first studio on Borough High Street. “My previous sporting career was team-based where you go out to war, to win together. UN1T follows that formula. It’s a competitive environment. People are working for each other. You can’t let your teammate down.”
Here Smyth reveals how UN1T’s die-hard community has enabled the business to expand while battling the constraints of the pandemic and outlines plans to take over the global fitness industry, one major city at a time.
On carving out a new niche in functional fitness…..
I opened up UN1T based on how I would train. I wanted to shift the obsession from aesthetics to performance. Our two biggest competitors are F45 and CrossFit.
F45 is one end of the spectrum. It’s more friendly. They lift lighter weights. It’s more functional fitness based. But after eight weeks, I think members want to look for more. On the other end is CrossFit. It’s very technical. You’re put under pressure doing Olympic lifts which can take years to master.
UN1T sits right in the middle. We’ve partnered with a world recognised strength and conditioning brand called Altis, which designs training plans for Olympians. They guide us with our programming so there’s a method behind every class. We welcome beginners but our members need to know their way around a dumbbell. We believe there’s a strong market in the middle.
On reaching the right members…..
I believe consumers are becoming more educated, especially in London. It’s not about how much you sweat, or fancy lights or heated towels. It’s about the programming and longevity of your lifestyle to training. People are now making fitness part of their weekly routine rather than just dipping in and out of it.
Tools like ClassPass are good but the ClassPass clientele that come in aren’t that committed. It’s like only half of their body is there. For me, people need to commit to a studio for 12 weeks. We’re not looking for 4,000-5,000 people like Fitness First or Virgin Active. We’re looking for 300-400 committed people.
Because of our scientific approach and the environment, we create for our members our retention rate is incredible. We know their names, we know what they’re lifting, when they last trained. We encourage our members to take a realistic, lifestyle approach to their training, not a regimented one. And as a result, UN1T is a very community-driven place.
On scaling the business…..
We’re all about quality over quantity. We’re not interested in opening up 50 sites in London or targeting smaller cities. Instead, we’re looking to open up eight to 10 in the biggest hubs around the world, cities with a minimum of half a million people. We don’t want locations to be fighting over the same market and consumers. We want studios to have more breathing space so territories need to be a lot bigger.
We offer a very straightforward franchise agreement with three simple payment structures. There is an initial fee of £30,000. An equipment pack that includes everything to run your business for £75,000. Then we have a franchise fee per month of £1,750. Compared with the other franchise options in fitness right now, we’re relatively new, so it’s a good time to come in early.
On the economic impact of COVID-19…..
The fitness industry – every industry – has been battered. But I think we’re yet to see its full impact. To put it bluntly, there’s going to be a lot of blood on the streets. Fitness businesses are going to go under.
London, especially, is a very flooded market. There are going to be a lot of businesses that are going to shut in the next 12 months. The businesses that are good and offer a good service and have a really strong customer base will stay alive but it’s going to be very difficult for commercial gyms because they don’t have a loyal fanbase.
Through lockdown we had 50 members continue paying their membership to support the staff. You would never get that at Virgin or Fitness First. Loyalty is what it’s really going to come down to.
On the road to recovery…..
Our revenue when we first reopened in the summer was down around 65% but we’ve increased 12-15% on a monthly basis which has been great. Now we’re in a position where we can’t take any more members on because we’re restricted to 50% capacity and classes are all full. So we need to get back to full capacity soon.
It’s been challenging, especially given we have studios in different countries with different regulations and support schemes. In Kuwait and Qatar there was no support at all. And I think it will be another year or two before we see the full negative impact of the pandemic for mental health, for diabetes, for heart disease, with people restricted to going to gyms or going outside.
However, I strongly believe when things get back to normal the economy will pick up and we’re going to see a boom. Global economic downturns bring opportunities and when gyms are able to get back to 100% capacity I have no doubt the industry is going to come back strong.
On resisting the surge in online fitness…..
When we closed our doors in April we offered online training and people loved it. It got them through the lockdown. But I’m not a huge fan of it. I don’t think online can offer a good enough service. The likes of Peloton and Mirror will help you maintain your fitness, they will make you feel good but will they make you stronger, will they make your performance better? Not really.
In saying that, we don’t want to be left behind. We’re going to produce 50 online classes between now and Christmas and offer them to our franchisees at no extra cost. That will help our brand tap into new markets in Europe, Asia, Australia and the US so it could be really powerful.
On building a market-leading brand…..
Currently, we have six franchises on ice because of COVID so we need to get them open over the next 12 months. After that, the long term goal is to grow UN1T and operate in every major city across the world. I want UN1T to be known as the best strength and conditioning group training facility in the world.
I believe we can get there with the growth strategy we’ve had to date. That’s all been with zero marketing. It’s just been word of mouth. We’ve opened in Dubai, Qatar, Munich, London,
Sydney, Texas and we’ve done zero marketing. Think of what we can do when we put a marketing procedure in place. It’s very exciting.