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The 'Target of gyms' is expanding rapidly

Daniel Roberts

Getting in better physical shape is the most popular New Year’s resolution among American adults, which means that the first week of January is one of the biggest weeks of the year for foot traffic at gyms. Of course, fitness trends have changed in recent years, with the rise of specialized boutique-style workouts like cycling classes, barre studios, CrossFit, and more.

But the standard, all-in-one gym is far from dead, and Blink Fitness, the low-cost subsidiary from Equinox Fitness, just opened its 50th location. It has expanded quickly since launching in 2013, and now boasts more than 300,000 members.

The secret? Low fees, and no frills—but without sacrificing the experience. Blink doesn’t provide towels, or classes, or much of anything for free. Greatist.com called it the “anti-amenity gym.” Instead, Blink bets that people looking for an affordable place to work out don’t care about the amenities—and it’s been largely right.

Blink started franchising its gyms last year, and it aims to expand to 300 locations by 2020.

Yahoo Finance sat down with Blink president Todd Magazine to get the secret to Blink’s fast success—and we tried out a Blink gym to put the model to the test.

The interview

Equinox, known for its luxury and its monthly fees of more than $150, launched Blink in 2013 with the aim of offering an Equinox-like experience at a lower cost—much, much lower. Blink offers three monthly price tiers: $15, $20, and $25.

The idea came from the 2008 downturn, says Magazine, a former Pfizer exec who became Blink’s chief last year. He reports to the CEO of Equinox Fitness, which is owned by The Related Companies, a privately held New York real estate group that also owns cycling chain SoulCycle.

“If you think back to when the economy was sputtering in the late 2000s, a lot of folks were trading down from the mid-price gyms,” Magazine says. “And folks at Equinox were looking at that and said, “Maybe there’s an opportunity to bring the magic of Equinox to a different concept in the value space.'”

The concept, Magazine says, isn’t unlike Target. “Walmart and Target, they basically sell the same products, but there’s something different about walking into a Target, it has that department store feel,” he says. “We’re doing that in our segment. Most gyms in the $10 to $15 price point, they’re dirty, they’re not friendly. They feel like $15 gyms. You walk into our gym, and if you didn’t know the price, you’d think you were walking into a $30, $40, $50 gym.”

Blink has lower overhead, thanks to strategic cuts. Blink gyms don’t provide members with a towel. (New York Sports Club does.) Blink gyms don’t have saunas or steam rooms. Blink gyms don’t offer classes (or have studios at all).

All of these are “things that people generally wouldn’t even notice,” Magazine argues. “And people are willing to bring their own towel.”

It even extends to paper: Blink gyms use almost none. Strategic geography is also part of the savings approach. “A lot of our locations might not be in prime real estate on the retail thoroughfare.,” Magazine says. “We’re able to do some things that generally don’t affect the member experience, but we’re able to save that money and make our prices very reasonable.”

If that paints an uninviting picture, Blink’s aim is the opposite: remove perks, but focus on service and cleanliness. “It’s customer service, it’s the way we keep it clean, it’s the design, it’s the way we space the equipment,” Magazine says. “In other places, equipment isn’t working, and it’s crowded, and people are sitting behind the desk playing on their phone—they’re just not trained as well.” Magazine hesitates to name the “other places,” but Blink’s main competitors are Planet Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness.

Blink also stresses an inclusive environment for all body types. Last year, it captured headlines for its new ad campaign featuring friendly illustrations of different gym types—far from the sexed-up ads Equinox uses. AdAge called the Blink ad campaign “refreshing.”

Blink Fitness marketing from 2016
Blink Fitness marketing from 2016

To be sure, if group classes at a gym are your thing, Blink isn’t what you want. But many people now take classes at a combination of different single-purpose businesses: spinning, yoga or pilates, boxing, and boot camps.

Some have posited this specialized-workout trend could pose a long-term threat to the plain old gym. But Magazine says that if anything, it’s a boon to Blink, because anyone who likes those classes, which tend to be expensive, is likely to want a cheaper gym.

“They come to us for all the basics,” he says. “The great part about our price point is you can be a member of Blink but still go to a boutique if you want to, and you can have the best of both worlds. So we can survive in almost any one of those environments.”

The review

Even without the amenities, does Blink offer the “department store feel” that Magazine claims? I went to the Blink Fitness near my Brooklyn neighborhood for the free trial workout that any potential new member can get.

The staff at the front desk was extremely peppy, the space was clean and colorful, and the machines were brand new. In the weight area, there were far more racks of weights, and more benches, than at my current gym (which happens to be across the street), where my biggest frustration is waiting around for a bench. There are scores of treadmills, each one with a big TV floating in front of it, while my gym has five treadmills, many with broken TVs.

The lack of towels annoyed me. I’m used to bringing nothing to the gym but myself, and it would be an adjustment to remember to bring a towel from home every time. On that first workout at Blink, I noticed that many people didn’t have towels with them as they lifted, and I wondered if it was because many had forgotten one. And most of them looked like they needed a towel. When you lift weights, you sweat, and you drip sweat; you need a towel.

But at $15 a month—less than half my current gym membership cost—making a mental note to bring my own towel amounts to a pretty small inconvenience. Other than the towels, there was nothing missing from Blink that I could think of or want.

At half the cost of my current gym, and with nicer machines (and more of them), Blink is appealing. It wouldn’t be right for everyone—if I went to a gym every day, and if going to a gym were my main method of working out, I might want to spring for a more full-service place. But as a person who also likes to run outside, and occasionally cycle—in other words, the exact type of person Blink is catering to—$15 is just my speed.

I’m just going to have to teach myself to remember my own towel.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Sportsbook is our sports business video series.

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