The commercial fitness industry in Lebanon is witnessing a growth both in the number of gyms and in the variety of fitness options inspired by global trends. Executive profiled four different gyms to learn more about their unique business strategies and their take on the Lebanese market.
180 Degrees fitness and spa
Spread over 4,000 meter squares is Ashour Holding’s first venture into the health and fitness industry, following his other hospitality projects such as the Lancaster hotels and the restaurants in Verdun.
180 Degrees, which opened almost a year ago, is located on Unesco Street towards the beginning of the Jnah highway and is housed in the three floor underground warehouse of Ashour Holding’s Park Tower Building. According to Samar Hamdan, the project’s director, a fitness and spa center was one of the few concepts that would be successful in a such large underground space.
In addition to the gym itself, which has 18 cardiovascular machines, around 34 strength training ones, an indoor pool and two squash courts, the outlet also includes a health food cafeteria, a clothing store and a beauty and massage spa. “We want people to come to our center and be able to spend the day,” explains Hamdan.
“Clients still sign up for personal training because they see better and faster results, sometimes in only three months.”
Hamdan explains that they use 180 Degrees Fitness and Spa’s large space to its full advantage and have five studios for classes with plans to open a new studio in their garage that would have a capacity of 80 clients per class. Because of the number of studios, 180 Degrees is able to offer a variety of classes at the same time, often having four classes running simultaneously. “We offer Les Mills, Radical Fitness, Freestyle and yoga classes so everyone can find a class that suits them,” explains Hamadan.
Hamdan does not feel that having a large number of members in one class would deter from the experience and says that it is up to the trainer to make sure all members are doing the moves correctly. Because of the high energy classes offered and the vibrant decor, Hamdan says the gym attracts a lot of students from the neighbouring universities such as LAU and AUB. Membership fees vary between corporate, students, annual cash payment and semi annual payment but the average is $125 per month paid over a full year.
Hamdan says a lot of their members sign up for personal training although the instructors on the floor monitor all clients regardless of whether they took PT sessions or not, and change their programs on a bimonthly basis as they develop strength. “Clients still sign up for personal training because they see better and faster results, sometimes in only three months,” says Hamadan.
When they first opened the gym, Hamdan says the main challenge was promoting their name amidst the competition in the area. “We were able to distinguish ourselves with our consistent high quality service,” explains Hamadan.
Today, 180 Degrees has around a 1,000 members with plans to continue growing.
Just off the Rabieh highway is a physiotherapy and sports boutique center called Evolve which opened in 2012.
Its owner, Elias Azar, is a physiotherapist. After earning a Bachelor’s in Biology, Azar had hoped to become a chiropractor but was forced to change plans when the July 2006 war prevented him from continuing his education abroad.
Instead, Azar chose to major in physiotherapy at Lebanon’s Antonine University which had just launched the course in English. Alongside his studies, Azar, who had always practiced a wide variety of sports, was working part time as a trainer at one of the neighborhood gyms. “I was applying what I was learning at university; the late stage of physiotherapy is the strengthening and proprioceptive phase, or the early stage of sports,” explains Azar.
As Azar learnt more about the relationship between physiotherapy and working out, he began to relate his knowledge to his clients. Word of mouth from satisfied clients helped Azar expand his list of gym clients who were recovering from injury. “I started using the gym to strengthen and heal my patients and not just to get in shape and be fit,” enthuses Azar.
Following the completion of his physiotherapy degree and after a stint helping launch a 24-hour fitness center in Qatar, Azar chose to return to Beirut and launch his own business. “Like with any other business, one has to be a pioneer and develop a concept that is new to the market for it to be successful. Because there already exist a fair number of gyms in my area [Rabieh], my businesses wouldn’t have been competitive and physiotherapy alone would not have been enough. So instead, I opened a boutique gym inside the physiotherapy department, effectively combining the two concepts together. Those who were doing physio would continue in sports and regain their strength to the fullest and those who were doing sports alone would trust that they were doing so in a safe and well studied environment,” says Azar.
Evolve does not have monthly membership fees and is a sessions only gym whereby one books an in-house personal trainer (PT) session ($50) or a physiotherapy session ($40) depending on the person’s needs.
At any given time there are a maximum of four clients at the premises, and Azar is always personally present to monitor and train, along with a few trainers and physiotherapists who assist him. Azar also sets up personalized programs according to the clients’ specific needs, including taking into consideration which type of sport they practice the most, the frequency with which they train and the results it has on their particular body composition. As such, he says his biggest challenge is the long hours he puts into providing this kind of attention. This is in addition to the fact that the gym physiotherapy combination is a relatively new concept in Lebanon, leaving him with no precedent to model after or learn from.
Among the services that Azar offers, both at the physio and gym sections, are corrective training for physical imbalance when overworking a group of muscles, posture exercises, functional and corrective training (such as when one hand is stronger than the other in the case of tennis players) and preventive training such as the prevention of osteoporosis in menopausal women.
Azar says his clients’ ages range between 12 and 90 years old and explains that he has many geriatric clients who are aware of the importance that sports has on maintaining joint flexibility and good circulation.
Because of the physiotherapy element of the gym, each machine in the outlet has been handpicked to be the safest possible with specifications made for those with injuries, such as inbuilt crutches on the sides of treadmills.
Azar is happy with the feedback he has received from clients and says he is keeping a busy schedule with physiotherapy clients staying on to continue sports and vice versa. Speaking of the fitness scene in Lebanon, Azar says, “People are becoming more aware of fitness and it has become part of their lifestyle. Even physiotherapy is becoming more of a need after an injury to help relieve the pain. People are beginning to understand that in order to prevent the injury from reoccurring or even occurring in the first place, they have to keep themselves fit by doing sports. It’s a cycle.”
Exhale, a classes and personal training fitness studio, opened in 2004 on the first floor of an apartment building towards the end of Bliss Street. Hania Bissat, Exhale’s owner, says that she and her then partner started Exhale upon their return to Beirut after having lived abroad because they felt the fitness scene in Beirut was lacking in certified trainers and general awareness of the importance of sports for a healthy life was missing.
From the start, recounts Bissat, she was interested in indoor cycling or spinning and introduced that to her studio. She started by becoming certified abroad as a spinning instructor and brought indoor cycling workshops to Beirut in order to certify Exhale’s instructors as well.
Bissat still hosts international workshops at Exhale and invites other gyms to certify their instructors as well. “Our main motto was to make everybody more aware about fitness in general and to make sure that everybody who works in Exhale as a trainer is certified in everything they do. Still, the more certified instructors there are, the better for the industry,” says Bissat.
Bissat believes certification is important because clients who come to Exhale are not paying a small amount. A single class costs $22, with discounts available if classes are bought in bulk over a predetermined time frame. Clients therefore expect professional service. “The whole environment and experience has to be professional and that is what I personally work on. Hopefully enough people will appreciate it to make it worthwhile,” explains Bissat.
Over time, Exhale’s client list grew considerably, with people coming from across the city for classes at the Bliss Street studio. When the Saudi Embassy relocated to the end of Bliss Street, it purchased the parking lot where Bissat’s clients used to park and created increased traffic issues in an already congested street. This made reaching Exhale difficult if one was not on foot or with a driver.
These factors, combined with Bissat’s long term desire to have a studio at street level instead of in a building, encouraged her to open a second Exhale in Saifi Village in May 2015. “I wanted to be in a central location where people coming from both Hamra and Downtown could reach easily, so I was limited with my choice. Since I know Saifi Village well and have a soft spot for it, I chose it. It’s more expensive than Bliss Street but the most expensive investment for me remains the equipment,” says Bissat.
Having already developed a reputation for her indoor cycling classes at Bliss, Bissat decided to go all out in Saifi, doubling the number of bikes to 30 and offering twenty one weekly classes instead of just three. Bissat even worked with an American consultant who had designed the interior of around 80 indoor cycling studios to get everything from the backdrop details and positioning of the bikes to the lighting and the music just right. “It’s a new concept in Lebanon to be so specialized but I wanted to try something new and I love being specialized because specializing in one trend means you stay on top of the industry and provide the best service,” explains Bissat.
Bissat has been pleasantly surprised by the response the new Saifi studio has had so far, especially considering the summer months are usually slow when it comes to sports. But Exhale was kept busy with expats who had previously done indoor cycling in similar studios abroad and were happy to see it take root in Lebanon. “We were able to achieve results but my real test will be from September to December,” says Bissat adding that four of Exhale Saifi’s classes have waiting lists because of their good timing or the instructor’s popularity.
Exhale has a wide range of clients of all ages and genders. “Most of them have traveled abroad and know what a big deal cycling is. There is something about indoor cycling, in the energy and the music, which is addictive,” enthuses Bissat.
Exhale also offers personal training sessions at the studio, with prices ranging from $55 to $65. Bissat claims they are doing well as clients today enjoy the one-on-one attention, particularly when it comes to fitness.
Maya Nassar’s Start Living Right App
By now, the story of Maya Nassar, Lebanon’s first fitness bodybuilding and bikini competition champion, is relatively well known. As she recounts it, Nassar used to be overweight and felt insecure so she decided to take matters into her own hands and embark on a fitness journey based on her own extensive research on clean diets and weight loss programs. So she set out a personalised program which included both nutritional changes and working out six times a week under the supervision of a personal trainer. “I am proud that I did it myself and no one helped me. I was fascinated with the subject and addicted to the results of feeling good, having energy and confidence and losing weight on a weekly basis,” enthuses Nassar.
In three short months, Nassar had lost more weight than she’d originally planned to. Without wanting to stop there, Nassar challenged herself further by signing up to take part in a female body building competition. “I thought of trying it for the challenge and for the preparation training it would involve, not necessarily to win. Just being on the stage with the other girls would be like winning for me,” says Nassar, explaining that since female bodybuilders are rare in Lebanon, she had to train alone and had no one to share her experiences with.
While training for the competition and even on her initial fitness journey, Nassar, who was always passionate about writing, recorded her experiences on her personal Facebook page. Towards the end of July 2013, she realized the positive feedback and fitness questions she had been getting from her friends online and decided to launch a fitness website called Start Living Right which would motivate and inspire those thinking of launching their own health and fitness programs. “There are a lot of scams regarding diet and fitness so I wanted to be very honest and provide simple, unbiased information for people. I don’t have advertising and I am not trying to sell anything so I am not impartial,” explains Nassar.
Nassar says the website did really well because a lot of users were writing to her saying that she had inspired them in their fitness journeys. The website now has 8,000 unique visitors. Because of the website’s positive performance, Nassar decided to launch a mobile application with the same features of the website, including the calorie counter and the motivational articles but with a few additions such as the animated workouts divided into the body’s muscle groups.
The application has 15,000 downloads so far and Nassar says she and her developers are working on a few more additions. 70 percent of Nassar’s online clients are women, mainly from Lebanon and the Middle East, but she says she also has users from England, Russia, India and Turkey. The website and applications are slightly geared towards the Middle East in that the calorie counter includes food items which are common to this part of the world and not usually found in international calorie counter applications.
Nassar has no structured marketing but says that what has helped her gain exposure was being officially endorsed by the Lebanese Ministry of Sports to represent Lebanon in female bodybuilding competitions, garnering her a lot of media attention. “I wanted to do this to counter the stereotype of female bodybuilders as being very muscular and unfeminine which is not necessarily true,” explains Nassar.
Nassar’s journey in fitness does not stop here; the young health and fitness leader has plans to open her own gym soon. “My advantage is that I have a lot of followers, on both my website and application. Many of them contact me wanting to work with me but I don’t have a physical location to help them. I plan to drive traffic from my website and application to my gym when it finally opens and use this as a physical location where I’ll be able to help the people I’ve been thus far helping online.”
It is clear that Nassar’s heart really is in it. “For me, it’s more about passion than work. It’s something I enjoy doing,” she concludes.
When Alex Nazarian, CEO of U Energy gym, first moved to Dubai, UAE, he was disappointed by all the large franchise gyms available there which cater to the masses and lack personalized attention, as opposed to smaller gyms which tend to have a more unique feel.
Seeing this prompted Nazarian to launch U Energy gym in Dubai in 2012. Although he says he had no previous experience with the fitness business, working instead in his family’s textile manufacturing business, his passion for sports and his lifelong ambition of setting up his own business encouraged him to take this decision.
In August 2013, Nazarian brought U Energy to Beirut. He chose Downtown as the location since it is primarily a business area and he felt at home in such an environment after his experience with U Energy Dubai at the Dubai International Financial Center. The second U Energy opened in Bliss Street around early May 2015, attracting a lot of professors and doctors as clients in addition to university students from AUB and LAU. Nazarian plans to open a U-Energy gym in Hazmieh and another in Antelias as he believes there is still room for growth of the fitness industry in Lebanon.
Nazarian describes his clientele as trendy, fit and young, between the ages of 21 and 50. These are all factors he keeps in mind when choosing locations for his gyms.
Membership fees in U Energy vary between corporate, student and regular memberships but fall within a rough average of $140 per month if the client commits to an annual package. Personal trainers cost $45 to $50 per session. While the fee is not as low compared to other gyms, Nazarian sees his gym as “boutique”, catering to a small number with classes of up to 16 students as opposed to others which pack theirs with around 50 students, allowing for more personalized attention. “I consider myself a boutique health club. Our price range is at the medium end so we are not looking for the masses. I aim for an average of 600 members at the gyms that I open and we are pretty close to reaching that number in Downtown,” explains Nazarian.
The personalization concept extends to developing classes unique to U Energy gym instead of importing workouts from abroad. “Most gyms in Lebanon follow the Les Mills approach of body pumping and body combat where the Les Mills Company sends standardized choreography, steps and music which the trainers here have to apply to the dot. We, instead, much prefer to cater and develop our workouts based on our clients’ needs,” explains Nazarian.
Among the biggest challenges Nazarian faced was finding qualified trainers. He explains that although both the Antonine University and the Lebanese University offer a Physical Education degree, he believes that it’s not enough to simply qualify to be a trainer, preferring to train his staff in-house. “We give research workshops twice a week for all our trainers to better themselves because ultimately, personal trainers are like doctors in that they deal with your body and therefore must be sure not to hurt you and make a problem worse,” says Nazarian.
In parallel to U Energy, Nazarian has also developed a new concept called Go by U Energy. This is strictly personal training, where the customer books sessions with a PT, with one small studio where one class called Go is given. Nazarian describes Go as “the ultimate high intensity class: a combination of everything you need to get toned and fit.”
The first Go by U Energy has already opened in Gemmayzeh and Nazarian plans to open a few more if the concept takes off. “It’s much smaller so you can find smaller locations with good rent prices and actually open more of these. People want this because they want personal trainers or smaller classes as I can tell from my clients at U Energy,” explains Nazarian.
Nazarian acknowledges that Lebanon has a long way to go before reaching global fitness trends and blames this on a lack of education. “Lebanese have the backdated idea of fitness being mainly about bodybuilding, but abroad it’s completely changed and is more about functional training. Today more and more people want to be fit and healthy, and this is a good thing because it will get people more educated about fitness,” says Nazarian adding that the recent surge in gyms in Lebanon is a positive sign and that he welcomes the competition as it pushes him to better himself and ultimately better serve the clients and the industry.