The Judgment-free Gym

Planet Fitness

Planet Fitness was founded in 1992 “for the everyday person,’” says McCall Gosselin, Director of Public Relations. The company’s foundational goal was to produce a space where anybody would feel welcome, no matter what their level of fitness.

“The company was launched to create a fitness centre with ‘no gymtimidation’ – not intimidating people at the gym,” Ms. Gosselin explains. “We are all about making them feel comfortable and making them realize that fitness can be part of their life.”

The concept behind Planet Fitness was a bold departure from the way the fitness industry had always operated. “The fitness industry was really founded for people who are fitness fanatics or body builders, the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the world – not for the everyday person,” Ms. Gosselin points out. “The top barrier to joining a gym is feeling intimidated. That is really how Planet Fitness was born; it was founded as a place for your everyday person, for the 85 percent of the population that describes themselves as either first time or occasional gym users – not the people that are going five, six times a week, taking classes, and running six miles a day.”

This “non-intimidating, judgement free environment” has been the key to Planet Fitness’ success. “That is really what sets us apart from everyone else,” Ms. Gosselin insists. “[Other gyms] can’t replicate the environment, and that environment is what really drives people to Planet Fitness.” The company has even invented the “lunk alarm” to enforce its innovative judgement free zone. These brightly colored alarms are on the wall of every club, ready for any staff member to ring when they observe any intimidating behavior. “If people are not abiding by our non-intimidating policy, or judging others, or doing things that tend to make most people in the gym uncomfortable, the staff will sound the lunk alarm to remind people that that behavior isn’t allowed at Planet Fitness,” Ms. Gosselin explains. “It is a fun and unique way that we preserve our environment.”

Planet Fitness also breaks the mold when it comes to prices. Membership prices are unbelievably low; they start at just $10.00 a month. Or, for $19.99 a month, members can enjoy a few extras such as massage chairs and tanning, as well as access to any Planet Fitness club in the country and free access for a guest. The company also tries to make the sign up – and sign out – process as painless as possible. “We like to say that we make it easy for people to join, and we make it easy for people to cancel,” Ms. Gosselin explains. “The health club industry has a reputation of [requiring] long term commitments and expensive enrolment fees. We really do everything completely opposite of our competitors.”

Remarkably, these two flat rates of either $10.00 or $19.99 a month is all that a member will ever be expected to pay. There are no hidden fees or strings attached. “It goes back to the judgment free zone,” says Ms. Gosselin. “We find that one way to really intimidate members is to try to upsell them with expensive training packages, so we have eliminated that.”

What’s more, Planet Fitness actually provides some extras for free to keep members motivated and having fun. For instance, the company hands out free pizza the first Monday of every month and free bagels the first Tuesday of every month; in fact, the company gives away a whopping 3 million slices of pizza each year. Ms. Gosselin admits that “a lot of people would think we are crazy for doing so. But we want to remind members that we are all everyday people and we believe in rewarding yourself and treating yourself for a good workout and a job well done.” It is gestures like these that make Planet Fitness what it is. “We are different. You would never walk into other clubs and see that. We are a fun brand and we make people realize that fitness can be part of their life, [without having to be] their entire life.”

While Planet Fitness doesn’t have the high prices seen at most other clubs, it does have the same high quality equipment. And, with many Planet Fitness facilities measuring over 20,000 square feet in size, there is plenty of room for all the equipment members prefer. What Planet Fitness doesn’t have are the extra gimmicks that are standard at higher priced gyms. “We don’t offer classes. We don’t offer daycare. We don’t have pools. We don’t have juice bars or spa services,” Ms. Gosselin explains. “We really boiled the business down to the things that our target customers – that first time or occasional gym user – want, which is mostly cardio and strength equipment. They want to get in and out really quickly; they want to go about their day.”

The Planet Fitness business model diverges so much from the standard health club model that few insiders believed the innovative startup could survive. “When we were first founded, a lot of people in the industry wrote us off,” Ms. Gosselin recalls. “They said we can’t be successful with no daycare, no classes, no pools, no juice bars, no heavy free weights – all of the things that the other gyms were offering.” Planet Fitness quickly proved all these naysayers wrong, however. In fact, the bold company revolutionized the entire industry.

“We let the other guys fight for the 15 percent of the population that goes to the gym multiple times a week and we went after that other 85 percent.” The strategy worked remarkably well. Since 2002, the company has grown from just four clubs to today’s total of 769 clubs, tripling its number of locations in the past five years alone. Planet Fitness also just broke the 5 million member mark, which represents about 10 percent of the gym going population in the U.S.

Planet Fitness began franchising in 2002, which has helped the company maintain its impressive growth. The company’s streamlined operating model is ideal for franchising because franchisees don’t have to deal with the complications that most other fitness clubs face. “They are not maintaining pools or juice bars or spa services. They are not paying for people to run the daycare. They are not paying for multiple personal trainers.” In fact, franchising has been so successful that more than 90 percent of the new Planet Fitness clubs that opened last year were opened by existing franchisees. “That is really encouraging,” Ms. Gosselin points out. “It shows their confidence and commitment in the brand. It shows that they are doing well, that they are profitable and successful and that they want to continue to invest in Planet Fitness.”

The company’s growth has also enjoyed a boost since it purchased by private equity group TSG Consumer Partners in November 2012. The new owners have focused not only on launching additional locations, but on strengthening the support that the corporation can provide franchisees. “Just in the last 15 months we’ve seen really exciting growth in our corporate headquarters,” Ms. Gosselin reports. “Prior to that we had about 45 employees to support 600 plus clubs, and now we have well over 100 corporate employees.” TSG’s leadership has been a real boon to the company overall, Ms. Gosselin adds. “They’ve really helped us to invest in the business and support our future growth and [launch] new clubs. They’ve been a tremendous partner to us. It’s been a really exciting 15 months since they’ve come on board.”

This growth is bound to continue in the future. “I think that more and more people want to make fitness a part of their life, and Planet Fitness is a great place for them,” Ms. Gosselin summarizes. “It is affordable for everyone. It is a place where they can get in and out quickly and not have to spend money on amenities like a pool or a juice bar or spa services – things that typically intimidate people.” This unique business model has been a surprise hit, and will continue to change the way things are done in the fitness industry. “We have been growing strategically but aggressively over the last five plus years. More and more people are joining our clubs. The future is extremely bright for Planet Fitness.”

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