My background is in computer science, working for the likes of Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan. So when I came to Mrs.Sporty and suddenly had to work with people, my world changed. It was a culture shock, but I loved feeling and seeing the impact you can have when you’re working directly with people,” says Valerie Bönström, now joint CEO of the women-only health club franchise.
“I was already sporty – I’d played field hockey extensively at university – and it gave me such happiness to see how I could pass that passion on to other people.”
She continues: “It was my husband Niclas who came up with the idea for Mrs.Sporty. He’d recognised that in Germany, women – especially those over 30 – weren’t being active, and there was nothing out there catering for them.
“So he approached Mark Mastrov [founder of 24 Hour Fitness and NeV in the US] with a view to addressing this, and the two of them scoured the world looking for a good concept. They landed on the model of a small club, 150–200sq m, local and easy to get to, with a friendly atmosphere and high levels of assistance – something that today is being called small group personal training – all built around a circuit training approach.
“At the heart of the Mrs.Sporty concept is a strong focus on setting and reaching goals. It’s not necessarily about losing weight – it’s about building muscle mass and making your body healthy, and with it your soul too.
“To achieve this, members must be educated, motivated and supported, so although at some times of the day you’ll go in and work out on your own, there are also ‘assisted times’ when an instructor gives hands-on personalised guidance to a maximum of 16 members per session.”
A passion is born
The first Mrs.Sporty club launched in 2004, with Bönström initially just helping out behind the scenes – a supportive wife rather than a business partner. So what was it that convinced her to join the company in an official capacity?
“I didn’t really want to work for Niclas’ business, or even alongside him. It’s always difficult when it’s someone you’re in a relationship with – it can still be difficult today. But a situation arose where he needed my help.
“The first club had opened but the team wasn’t quite gelling. Niclas is a real visionary, but at the time he didn’t speak great German – he’s Swedish and had only recently moved – and while he had a great idea and the backing of Mark, he needed someone to run the club and build the team. I agreed to help out for a couple of weeks.”
And that’s when she realised how much she loved being able to make a difference to people? “Yes, exactly. And then we started to work with a big sports medicine research company to really explore the best forms of training for our target group. I suddenly felt the passion to develop the best products, the best possible training for the women I was meeting in our club.
“Because it’s a wonderful community at Mrs.Sporty. You hear stories, you hear how members’ lives are going. Women of all ages come together – members are typically aged 49–55, but we have grandmothers aged 80 too. I’m 36 and I love going, and I take my 12-year-old daughter with me. The members all benefit from each other. It’s far more than just a fitness club.”
She continues: “Niclas had recognised that he needed help in running the business, so for a while we led it side-by-side. Then, in 2007 – by which time we’d started franchising and opened a couple of hundred clubs – we realised it was confusing for our now large team to work into two leaders, especially as he and I bring to the table very distinct sets of strengths and ways of looking at things.
“I therefore went to do an MBA between 2007 and 2009. I still worked for the business while I was studying, but only looking after international markets – Niclas looked after Germany. The plan had been that I would then leave the company in 2009.
“However, I came out of my MBA with lots of great ideas I wanted to implement, so the plans totally changed and I assumed full responsibility for the whole operational business of Mrs Sporty International. Niclas stepped into a strategic and financial role, working on investor relations and business development – creating our own membership software, for example, and developing new concepts to pilot.
“It allowed us to play to our respective strengths and follow our different areas of passion: Niclas experimenting with new things; me building teams, helping people develop, continuing to innovate within our product to ensure results for our members.”
The latest product innovation, PIXformance, has been a big one, transforming the Mrs.Sporty offering via the introduction of interactive screens – looking like human-height iPhones – that offer virtually coached functional training.
Bönström explains the rationale for this new development: “When you train with machines, it gets a bit boring for the body and even more importantly for the mind. People lose their motivation after a few years. They want progression and variation, to learn new things.
“We therefore wanted to offer functional training in our clubs, using body weight and small pieces of equipment like Swiss balls, medicine balls and dumbbells – but that presented a challenge. How to make sure, outside of the assisted times, that members were doing the exercises correctly – especially members like ours who are a bit older and not necessarily very sport-savvy? Even more importantly, how to make sure they were doing the best exercises for them to reach their goals, without them having to find the money for personal training?
“We decided to look for a digital solution that offered feedback and technique correction as well as personalisation and variety. PIXformance is that solution. You input your personal goals, do some tests, and then you stand in front of the screen and do your personalised workout – it recognises you via a QR code, tells you what to do next, corrects you if you’re doing something wrong, and tells you how well you’re performing.
“This allows for high quality individual training, but we also offer instructor-led PIXformance circuits where, even though you do your own routine moving from station to station, you get the motivation of working in a group.
“We ran some pilots where we introduced PIXformance alongside our traditional hydraulic circuits and the member feedback was fantastic: Mrs.Sporty’s Net Promoter Score was already 58, but now with PIXformance it’s 72. We’re finding our trainers are happier too, because it frees them up to spend time focusing on just one person if need be, without feeling they’ve left the other members to their own devices.”
She continues: “We’re 100 per cent convinced PIXformance is the future, so all new Mrs.Sporty clubs will be PIXformance only – we already have over 30 such clubs in Germany, Italy and Austria. Franchisees at our 550 existing clubs can also switch to PIXformance if they wish, whether now or at the next refurb, although we won’t insist on this – that really isn’t our culture.
“We’ll keep introducing new exercises to the system too, so members never get bored – we’re working on a kettlebell programme now, for example.
“We’re also able to accurately track results. We regularly measure members’ fat and muscle mass on Tanita scales and we log all this data in the PIXformance system. That means we can now centrally track the weight loss progress of hundreds of thousands of women. I think that’s significant: I don’t want to say anything out of turn, but I think it’s fair to say that not many operators have a clue how their members are really doing.
“I suppose this is the computer scientist coming out in me, but I find it very strange working in a world where there’s so little customer data and insight. PIXformance lets us monitor everything, right down to how well members are doing their exercises. We’re really just starting out on all this, but for example we’ll use the data to identify which exercises are most effective, so we can continually refine and improve our programming.
“We should be able to spot trends across our clubs too, so we can take best practice learnings from franchisees who are doing particularly well.”
Such has been the success of PIXformance that Bönström has already begun to reach beyond health clubs and into the complementary field of healthcare.
“I visited four or five hospitals last week which either already had PIXformance installed or who bought it on my visit. We’re seeing a lot of demand from physiotherapy clinics too,” she says.
“I’m intrigued to see how the relationship between fitness and the medical sector evolves over the coming years, because it’s going to be key as the population continues to age and strain is placed on healthcare and pension systems. People are going to have to start taking more responsibility for their own health.
“It’s very hard to transfer people out of therapy and into real life though. The therapy phase – whether paid for by government or the individual – tends to be too short, so people come back into mainstream life and they’re still not really ready to be active by themselves.
“The nice thing with PIXformance is that physios can use it with their patients, and then those patients can come into the real world and use it at our clubs, still doing the same programme their physio has prescribed and getting guidance from our trainers.
“We can eventually help them progress into new exercises, but they start off by coming out of therapy and straight into doing something familiar. That makes them far less likely to give up than if they were left to exercise on their own at home. They’re instantly on a path towards an active and healthy life.”
Reaching new markets
And it isn’t just new sectors Mrs.Sporty is targeting. The operator – which currently has clubs in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Poland, as well as a small number in Russia and the Czech Republic – also has bold plans in terms of expansion into new international markets.
“We initially grew very fast, especially between 2008 and 2012,” says Bönström. “Then we stood back a bit, investing in our product and deciding if we wanted to take on the world – and yes, we do!
“We want to grow much bigger than we already are today, and I firmly believe that we have an even better concept to roll out now than we had 10 years ago. I’m fully expecting to at least see the same growth again that we had a few years ago.”
She continues: “We’re looking at rolling out in the United States right now, and the potential in that market is huge. If we reach capacity in Germany, that will mean approximately 600–700 clubs. In the US, we believe we could have 1,000 clubs. We’ve already piloted PIXformance there and we think the appetite for growth will be even stronger and faster than in other markets.
“Meanwhile I think we could easily have 300–400 clubs in Italy, and Spain is on the radar too.
“I’d love to go to the UK, but location costs are always so high and that’s a barrier for our model. However, with our new price point – PIXformance clubs cost €59 a month, as opposed to the average €45 in non-PIXformance clubs – there’s a good chance.”
Creating a community
So what advice would Bönström offer other fitness operators who would like to emulate Mrs.Sporty’s sense of in-club community?
“A lot of fitness clubs say that they have a sense of community, and OK, someone says ‘hello’ when you go in and there’s a trainer walking around, maybe having a chat with a few members – but it all depends so much on the individual trainer,” she says.
“At Mrs.Sporty, we don’t leave interpretation of the role of trainer to the individual – we’re very clear what we expect from them. Community isn’t about chit-chatting or just saying hello. We believe that, in the world of sport, if you’re successful as a team – if your success comes from working together – then you create trust and community.
“Our trainers really get to know our members. They motivate them and coach them on their food and diet, they do check-up sessions every four to six weeks to see how they’re progressing. And when members trust their trainer and get results with them, they bring their friends – and a whole community is built.”
Bönström concludes: “In our clubs we offer teaching, assistance, community – it’s a whole experience, a place you can go to feel good. That’s something you can’t get working out at home and you can’t get with an app. It’s a different need we’re meeting.”