#17: Ally Davidson, Co-founder & Co-CEO of Camp Gladiator

On this week’s show, Joe Vennare spoke with Ally Davidson — the co-founder and co-CEO of Camp Gladiator.

Ally and Camp Gladiator have used technology to scale to 4,000 locations nationwide with 1,000 trainers and 100,000 members. If you’re not familiar, Camp Gladiator hosts bootcamp-style classes at under-utilized outdoor spaces like parks, parking lots, and sports fields.

Given all the hype around digital and connected fitness, I was excited to have Ally on the show to provide a different perspective on building community and increasing access in the fitness space.

Check out an overview of the conversation below or listen to the entire episode for more.

What is Camp Gladiator?

AD: It’s outdoor group fitness, similar to bootcamp-style workouts. Currently, we have around 4,000 locations nationwide, with nealy 1,000 trainers, and some 100,000 “campers”, or participants. It’s a fun, challenging, positive environment designed for all fitness levels.

How did you get started?

AD: It’s a funny story. In 2008, on my wedding day, my sister told me about a tryout for the show American Gladiators happening nearby. Long story short, I tried out and had just enough time to get back and walk down the aisle. The day we got back from our honeymoon, we got the call saying they wanted me on the show.

Fortunately, I won the grand championship, a little bit of money, and the publicity that came with it — which helped us launch the business. At the time, we didn’t know we were going to launch a business, but I felt a calling to do something with the opportunity. So, we came up with this idea to open our own outdoor fitness program, based on my background in sports and fitness.

How did you get participants?

AD: Being the American Gladiator champion definitely helped get momentum at first. But, no matter what, you have to get out there, pound the pavement, and hustle to get people to show up. It was a lot of me just getting out in the community, networking, talking to people and personally inviting them out to camp. 

We launched with 40 campers the first month. They fell in love with the program and invited their friends the next month, and I was continuously marketing what we were doing. The following month we had 60 campers, then 80 the next month, and 120 the next. 

Ever since then, we’ve just been super blessed that people really loved the experience, and it’s continued to grow over the last 11 years.

How did you know the model was scalable? 

AD: We experienced the ridiculous amount of work it takes to run a business — handling payments, customer service, marketing and sales, and of course, leading the workouts. 

Early on, we recognized most trainers either aren’t equipped or gifted at doing all the backend work. We started thinking of a concept where we take care of the business side for trainers, and create a platform where they can focus on their strengths – leading camps, local marketing and sales, building community relationships.

We knew if we were going to expand, we had to have more trainers and build up the brand of the company. Instead of making it about me, we had to make it about the Camp Gladiator brand, platform, and overall experience.

What are the keys to growth?

AD: The biggest key is having the right people. We have to have the absolute best trainers. 

From there, we have to provide a service that goes above and beyond. It has to create an exceptional experience for our campers. We have to have these high quality pieces in place to be able to grow the right way — that’s how people fall in love with our trainers, the program, and the experience so things keep growing.

When we expand into a market, leaders from the trainer side of the business apply for the opportunity to open a new market with us. These “elite leaders” are leaders in their home market who help us expand new markets by recruiting and onboarding trainers. 

They teach the spirit and programming of Camp Gladiator, while making sure we have the right people who are in alignment with our values.

How do you select trainers?

AD: The trainers are Camp Gladiator’s secret sauce. Selecting trainers is the most important thing we do. We really get to know our trainers before we offer them contracts to come on board — it’s how we ensure quality workouts, create the culture, and build the experience we want.  

To become a partner trainer, or a location operator, you start as an affiliate trainer. We get to know them over a long period of time as they co-lead sessions at camps. From there, they come to Austin for a three day academy to learn all aspects of the business. Then, there’s a final audition.

At the end of that process, if it’s a good fit, we offer them a partner trainer contract, where they’re able to open locations with us as an operator, working on a percentage of the profit from their location. 

What role does technology play at the company?

AD: We’re basically a tech-enabled platform for our trainers. Essentially, our trainers run their entire business from an iPad at camp — they always have a direct point of sale with them for camp sign ups, selling gear, selling programs, etc. Campers also have an app for check ins, which feeds into our loyalty program. 

We’re currently building new tools on the backend to support our trainers. This year, we’re focusing on building infrastructure connecting trainers to their campers.

There’s a variety of things our tech team is constantly building to help us create an amazing platform and make life a lot easier for the trainer. The technology we have is something the trainers couldn’t build or have if they were to run their own Mom-and-Pop bootcamp, or to do things on their own.

How separates Camp Gladiator from the competition?

AD:  There are a lot of different fitness options out there, but we make it all about community – community has a sticky factor to it. We believe if somebody is plugged into a community and has a great experience working out with people they know and a trainer who supports them, they’re going to be more successful and more likely to come back.

We program our workouts to make sure the community presence is felt with each camper, but we also make it an experience. Convenience is another huge factor. We make sure there are enough locations and camp times throughout the day to make it easy.

How big can this get? 

AD: We believe this can become the largest, or one of the largest, fitness companies in the world because we’re building an infrastructure to scale. 

We’re proving we can go to multiple cities — we’re in 17 major cities across the US right now. Most exciting, our flagship market in Dallas, Texas is showing the potential for going deep within a market. We’ve got 50,000 campers there at about 2,000 locations.

We want to have deep market penetration with a lot of trainers to ultimately become the main staple of fitness in that city.

We believe people everywhere need the positive impact that Camp Gladiator brings, and we’re very motivated to continue to grow and expand.

**Note: Ally’s answers have been edited for brevity and cohesion. 

About Ally Davidson:

Ally Davidson, the co-founder and co-CEO of Camp Gladiator, has a passion for fitness and creating a one-of-a-kind, life-changing experiences for both campers and trainers. Ally was a collegiate athlete and graduated with an honors degree in exercise physiology and sports science from Texas State University. After becoming Grand Champion on the NBC TV show American Gladiators in 2007, she used the unique opportunity as a platform to launch Camp Gladiator. Ally was the first CG Trainer and grew the team from one trainer to over 1000 certified partner trainers nationwide. She has impacted more than 350,000 lives to date. In 2016, she was awarded EY Entrepreneur of the Year and won “Fittest CEO” in 2016 and 2017 in Austin Fit Magazine.

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