While foot traffic and membership sales have rebounded for many brick-and-mortar health clubs, the recovery hasn’t been even.
We caught up with Brian Vahaly, CEO of YouFit Gyms, to discuss the brand’s resurgence after COVID-19 closures forced it into bankruptcy. Brian also details the evolving in-person gym experience, and how YouFit is leveraging the rise of pickleball to attract new members.
Can you introduce yourself and YouFit Gyms?
Brian Vahaly: My primary background is tennis. I started playing at a very young age and began playing professionally in 2001, retiring in 2007 after seven years on the pro circuit. Once I stepped off the court, I moved into private equity before finding my way into the fitness space as CFO of [solidcore] in 2017.
In 2021, I transitioned to where I am today as the CEO of YouFit Gyms, a national chain of 79 fitness clubs with a strong concentration in Florida. Our gyms offer a premium fitness experience at an accessible price with memberships starting at $9.99 and individual personal training sessions costing as little as $35 per session.
YouFit offers everything from Olympic weightlifting platforms and cardio equipment to small-group personal training, high-energy fitness classes, customized nutrition advice from registered dietitians, and virtual fitness classes.
What sets YouFit apart from other similar gym concepts?
BV: In my time, we have been focused on giving our members access to concepts that they would normally spend hundreds of dollars a month on.
We started with the launch of HIIT+, our personalized, small-group training program. It was well received, so we continued to explore how we could differentiate our offering from other gyms while also bringing back the sense of community that was lost during COVID.
With this in mind, we decided to launch pickleball in our group fitness studios. Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport right now and offers a great way for both seniors and young people to get more exercise. To introduce members to the game, we’ve been offering pickleball clinics and even had our first tournament to raise money for cancer research.
What’s your plan for continuing to grow the business?
BV: Our current focus is on revamping many of our existing locations by investing in new equipment, expanding our pickleball and babysitting services, and putting more behind our group fitness programs. As we continue to improve the footprint we have throughout 2023, we’ll also be looking to 2024 for new growth opportunities.
How did the pandemic impact YouFit? Is it back to business as usual or are there lingering effects?
BV: As you may know, the pandemic pushed YouFit into bankruptcy. When we reopened with new investors and leadership (including myself), we made some changes based on the evolving industry.
For example, in viewing the total experience of a member along their wellness journey, we decided to add more amenities that could be used virtually. That said, the real focus has been driving our community back together with events, our YouFit Lifts program, pickleball, and expanded group fitness and small group training offerings.
We’ve also found that our members need nutritional support in order to succeed. So, we partnered with EatLove, a leading personalized nutritional platform. EatLove helps our members with meal planning, food tracking, and recipes that limit food waste.
This partnership has made YouFit Gyms the first and only gym chain to offer such a high level of nutritional guidance as a part of its low-cost membership.
Moving forward, we’ll continue talking to the members we lost and show them how we have evolved.
There’s a growing belief that the industry is shifting toward omnichannel or hybrid fitness. What’s your take?
BV: We do understand that in order to be successful, we need to serve our members where they are and when they need it. So, we still offer YouFit On Demand and virtual nutrition support.
However, we are also committed to bringing the local community together. Within our gyms, it has become common to see complete strangers joining together for a pickleball game — all laughing while competing and making new friends.
I love popping into a YouFit and seeing the camaraderie that comes from a group of people playing together. You just can’t get that at home.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
BV: What we haven’t talked about are the challenges of managing and evolving our staff virtually — especially while working our way out of bankruptcy.
To meet those challenges, my virtual door is always open so that everyone has a voice at the table. And even with our staff spread across the nation, we’ve found collaborating has only helped us grow. It can be challenging, but everyone has adapted to the new landscape and continues to work seamlessly as a cohesive team.