Friday, November 7, 2008

A Gym for the Rest of Us

“In the 2004 film ‘Dodgeball,’ Vince Vaughn leads the lovable losers from his ‘Average Joe's’ gym to victory over the muscle-bound hulks from Ben Stiller's fearsome ‘Globo Gym.’ And now such drama is playing itself out in the real-life fitness market. Once again, a low-cost, low-pressure health club is scoring impressive victories for itself and for those of us who prefer our physical self-improvement to be more average than agonizing. In fact, the growth of the Planet Fitness chain recently inspired a high-powered Wall Street banker to take on the Vince Vaughn role. By last spring, Kevin Fagan knew that it was time to leave Wall Street. After a successful 14-year career in corporate finance, he no longer looked forward to going to work in the morning. He kept thinking of a chance meeting a few years earlier, when a friend introduced him to Planet Fitness founder Mike Grondahl. The low-key Planet Fitness gyms, billed as ‘judgment-free zones,’ aren't staffed by the kind of hyperactive trainer that Mr. Stiller plays. Mr. Stiller's character appears in a TV ad and announces: ‘At Globo Gym, we understand that ugliness and fatness are genetic disorders, much like baldness or necrophilia, and it's only your fault if you don't hate yourself enough to do something about it.’ In contrast, the real-life Planet Fitness is designed to be a place where people with normal body shapes can feel comfortable while shedding extra pounds. Grunting is discouraged and most locations feature few free weights, so this is not the place for hard-core bodybuilders. Some locations do not even feature a bench press, but all have machines devoted to cardiovascular health. As Mr. Fagan started his ‘due diligence’ to see if he might want to become a franchisee, he visited several gyms in the chain. Mr. Fagan is not exactly a Wall Street fat cat: He was a football lineman at Harvard and stays in shape. Members of the staff suggested that he might want to look at other clubs with more opportunities for the serious weight lifter. Far from being turned off, Mr. Fagan thought the chain was rightly focused on its ‘appealing demographic.’ As time went on, he increasingly liked the concept of low-pressure, modest-expectation fitness, not just because it catered to average folks but because it was a low-cost alternative in a struggling economy. Basic memberships run as low as $10 per month in many areas. Mr. Fagan simply wants to create a comfortable environment. Will he be organizing club members into a dodgeball team? ‘If there's a demand, we will make it happen,’ he says.”

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