FitCommerce: So, How did you get started in the health club business in the first place?
Rande LaDue: I opened my first club in upstate NY in 1980, I managed and owned clubs in various parts of the country. Then I got on the other side of the desk and went to work for Joe Weider of Weider Health & Fitness selling to sporting goods stores.
I always kept my eye on the health club side.
FC: What were your observations of the club strategy at that time?
RL: I saw all of the clubs competing for the same demographics. Back in the late seventies, the chains were running the commercials with the washboard stomachs, and the tight leotards, all going after the same 'already fit person'.
In the eighties, the health clubs were the singles bars.
You have the bigger health club chains in the country going after less than 20% of the U.S. population.
FC: What got you started with hydraulic exercise machines?
RL: I got approached by a headhunter looking to place people in a medical company, Henley Health Care that had just bought HydraFitness and they were using that equipment to develop a hydraulic circuit that they called PACE.
They were going after the deconditioned market and seniors. I figured it's the 80/20 rule.
Rande LaDue in his office chatting with FitCommerce.com. He has decades of experience in the fitness business plus he was a pioneer with hydraulic circuit machines.
This was during the mid-eighties when there was much talk about the 'aging of America'. Articles were written about the 'Graying of America' and how there were more people turning 50 every day than being born every day.
FC: So, what clinched it for you to join Henley Health Care?
RL: So, I figured this is the right place at the right time. Hydraulic resistance is non-threatening, there's no peer pressure, nobody can see how much weight you can or cannot lift. The nature of hydraulics is that there is no eccentric resistance, so there's very little muscle soreness. And, it was very conducive to a social atmosphere.
I witnessed the program in action at a club in Houston, I saw the ladies just having a ball. But I still wasn't convinced until I did a workout myself. It was the best workout I ever had in my life. It was total body, total strength and cardio… it was just awesome.
This was much more cardio than I was accustomed to using a Nautilus workout, it was just awesome. So, I joined the Henley as their Director of Sales for the fitness division.
FC: What were you early duties?
RL: We went to trade shows trying to market this new concept as a program to attract 'new' members to health clubs.
Although we did well, it wasn't until our Texas sales rep, Gary Heavin, started Curves for Women. It was the very first women's club using the PACE hydraulic resistance.
Gary went his separate way and started using his own static cylinder instead of the PACE adjustable cylinder.
I saw my own opportunities as well. I left Henley and moved back to California, and I became the exclusive distributor for PACE.
FC: How did those early days go for you when you were on your own?
RL: I was marketing PACE myself to health clubs as a new group exercise program. I was competing against other group programs for the same real estate, like spinning and aerobics.
When Curves took off, people took notice. The health club industry were incredulous to the whole idea of women's clubs in strip malls, of 1,000 ft² being successful. When Curves reached 500 clubs, my phone starting ringing off the hook.
I was now getting calls, not from established health clubs, but from independent people wanting to open their own women's health clubs but didn't want to get locked into a franchise. My sales jumped to 1-2 circuits per day, and at it's peak hit 5-6 circuits a day.
So, my market totally shifted away from the traditional health clubs to this emerging market of express gyms.
FC: What did this new, unforeseen, market mean to your business?
RL: I now had to develop a marketing package for these people who have never been in business before. We had to develop a training package on such basics as lead boxes, guest passes, and so on. So, we develop a complete package and we did well.
FC: Does the independent women's express gym operator look different than the typical franchise express gym operator?
RL: The franchisors have been touting the story of strong brand awareness and of the strong support and help when they need it. I've heard stories that that's not so true.
We've sold the PACE equipment to many existing franchise owners that have opened up women's clubs in other non-competing towns, they find out it's not rocket science to run these clubs. They virtually almost run themselves, they kick themselves for paying the high franchise fees for 10 years.
They bought into the franchise because they were promised all the tools to work with. With circuit training, it's so user-friendly, the members run themselves.
However, because the independents have not been in the fitness business, they want the marketing tools and the training, that's why we developed our packages. Our job is to give our customers the tools and the training, their job is to use them.
Those clubs that don't use the tools, like lead boxes or buddy guest passes are generally the ones that fall behind goal. Generally speaking the same marketing tools that have worked for the big clubs for years will also work for the independents. For instance, your best source of new members is your existing membership base. Getting referrals is your cheapest source of new members - give those buddy guest passes.
FC: Now that there are so many express gyms out there, have the major health clubs taken notice?
RL: Now that the express gyms have saturated the country and squeezed the big clubs, the bigger clubs are now calling to investigate getting circuits to compete against the women's franchise clubs.
The big clubs were previously just fighting price wars against each other for the exiting fit market. But they were feeling the pressure to attract the people who are out of shape, seniors, ladies, the new entry members.
Many of the larger clubs are opening up satellite facilities in strip malls and using them as a feeder system into the large clubs.
Rande LaDue was involved in the early days of PACE and eventually became its exclusive distributor.
FC: Wow, so they're using satellites, what about an in-house circuit, wouldn't that work?
RL: If you go into a standard national chain, you'll see their express circuits are comprised of weight stack equipment that was borrowed from the weight room.
It has the same obstacles that the other weight stack machines had for the deconditioned person -- it's intimidating.
They have to figure out how to use the machine, what is the seat setting, how much weight? But they're not using those machines as a 'circuit', that is go quickly from machine to machine. They're doing the whole set, rest, set, rest, and missing the point of an express workout.
So, although it's offered in some clubs, it's missing the objective. The better alternative is to build independent express gyms.
FC: With the satellite feeder system, is there a concept of graduating to a multi-purpose health club?
RL: Yes the more progressive clubs are offering a transition. For a small transfer fee they get the women that have reached their goals in the express gym into the 'mother club'. They can get involved with personal training, use the cardio equipment, and aerobics classes.
Some of the same hydraulic equipment will be in the mother club to aid in the transition. It seems to be successful.
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