Friday, November 21, 2008

The Fitness Pioneer

“The latest Madonna song is pounding through the speakers at California Wow Xperience as hundreds of young bodies shake and shimmy. On the walls of the cavernous Ho Chi Minh City space, flat screens feature the Fashion TV channel as a style guide. A disco or nightclub? No, it's the newest arm of Asia's pathbreaking gym impresario. Eric Mark Levine, the creator of California Wow, calls it the place ‘to see and to be seen.’ Bridging exercise and entertainment was the concept Levine used to start his first fitness spot in Hong Kong 12 years ago. His latest incarnation has opened two spots in the former Saigon this year. All told, 143,000 people work out at centers under Levine's brands in Asia today--a figure he says is growing 40% a year. A publicly traded piece of it in Thailand reported revenues of $25 million and scant profits of $148,000 for the first six months of 2008. Modern workout clubs can be found across big Asian cities today--not just California Wow, but others such as Fitness First, True Fitness and Celebrity Fitness. They're now part of the urban middle-class experience, though still less so than in the U.S. Levine, born in Canada 53 years ago, founded his first fitness centers there but saw the payoff from their mainstream appeal in California in the early 1990s. There he helped build a chain that was sold in 1995 to Mark Mastrov's 24 Hour Fitness. This established a pattern in which Levine, now a resident of Thailand, lays tracks for the 50-year-old San Franciscan, with whom he often partners. Mastrov returns the favor: ‘Eric is opening up clubs in Asia more than anyone. He is the pioneer in Asia.’ First there was California Fitness in Hong Kong. ‘I saw a lot of people so well dressed, brand-name conscious, and there was no major fitness center except those in the five-star hotels. I thought: 'This is the place I want to start!'’ California Fitness had opened three other spots in Hong Kong and Singapore and was headed to other venues when it, too, was sold to Mastrov's company. Levine took his burly body and infectious ‘Wow!’ chatter on to Bangkok. In 2001 he started again with California Wow, this time with Mastrov as a partner from the start. The fitness club business is notoriously volatile and California Wow is not immune. A foray early on into Seoul was sold to a Korean company, which then folded. Even health brands can be churned by their owners. But Levine is pumped to expand Cali Wow (as it's familiarly called) farther into Southeast Asia and beyond into India and the Middle East within a year. For those who prefer a more zenlike experience, his centers already include Planet Yoga areas that offer a sweaty ambience called ‘hot yoga,’ which is said to especially focus the mind. It also seems to have drawn a lawsuit from Bikram Yoga, a yoga outfit out of Los Angeles whose founding yogi--Bikram Choudhury--alleges Levine & Co. breached an agreement and then infringed on his copyright. The case is due for trial soon. Neither that nor the bad karma of a looming recession in much of Asia daunts California Wow. In fact, partner Mastrov says, people tend to go to the gym more when there is a business slowdown.”

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