The fitness industry is “broken.” It’s a model that we shouldn’t “believe in anymore.” The mainstream operators, which drove its growth, “aren’t focused at all on the customer experience… It’s an outdated model: you’re locked into expensive direct debits; meanwhile, many don’t even offer towels for free.”

That’s certainly one way to launch a brand new fitness venture – 1Rebel – which has gobbled up national press inches and generated excited social media buzz.

It has been co-founded by James Balfour, son of one of the founding fathers of the fitness industry Mike Balfour of Fitness First fame, Cambridge law graduate Giles Dean and the effervescent industry legend Kevin Yates.

Self-styled on disruptive start-ups like Air BnB and Uber that have transformed the hospitality and taxi industries respectively, 1Rebel is the latest boutique fitness offering on the scene.

It has come hot on the heels (or wheels) of BoomCycle, Psycle and the run-away success of Barry’s Bootcamp, brought over from Hollywood with its legion of celebrity fans. Barry’s is already so bursting at the seams that a second site in London has opened to ease the load on their flagship Euston location.

Anyone that keeps an eye on my social media feed will see that I’m a paid up fan of them all.

Together these operators offer targeted services meeting very specific needs. Combined they have led some analysts to proclaim the end of the “big-box” full service gyms that have been the basis of the sector’s growth over the past 30 years. Fuelled by “inventory aggregators” such as Class Pass, such “boutique” operators have grown to constitute 21% of the US private market and the new operators on the scene want to do the same in the UK.

This ruffled some feathers. “It’s like a corner shop opening up and getting a feature in The Telegraph to declare the death of John Lewis” is how one senior level executive at a “to remain unnamed” major international fitness operator described the promotional soundbites to me.

Nonetheless, the media reports have been uniformly glowing. The 1Rebel offer has gone down well. GQ has proclaimed it the “King of Gyms.” Punters can chose between the “Ride” class for group cycling, including regular live music to fuel the burn, or the “Reshape” circuits based class full of high intensity insanity. The facilities and additional extras have an emphasis on luxury whilst the fresh cold towels on return to the changing room after a beasting certainly go down a treat. Themed sessions have started to emerge, trying to hook into the cultural preferences of their young audience. The Ride class has been set to the varied beats of hip-hop, garage and live bands and has even seen the return of legendary spin instructor Kevin Yates for a Freddy Mercury themed party.

A single class can cost as much as a month’s membership at what have been – arguably – the real disruptive forces in the sector, the low cost high value budget gym operators who have set off a fire under the feet of the operators in the middle of the market. In an interview with Health Club Management, Balfour was unperturbed and dismissive of the need for tie-in contracts, deals or special offers; “people will either like it and buy into it or they won’t”.

Reality bites. With over 100 class spaces to fill in up to seven slots per day, and a rate card based on £17 – £40 per session, the business model is full of potential. Yet filling those spaces is going to be just as hard as it is anywhere. With an enormous sense of cool, there’s no doubt that London’s fit and beautiful will be intrigued and come rushing for their initial heavily discounted session. The challenge will be converting them into regulars reaching (deep) into their wallets. The eagle eyed will already see tempting offers already starting to make their way into 1Rebels marketing plan as a result.

Despite the proclamations of the Rebels, the site faces the same challenges as any. Building a brand reputation that resonates with a sufficiently broad audience; having a product or service that meets the needs, desires and aspirations of that group; and, convincing them to stay loyal, keep motivated and part with their cash to keep the show on the road. 1Rebel has provocatively urged London’s gym users to “open up their relationships” and “cheat” on their gyms by popping in for some casual flex. What’s to say that the more promiscuous consumer will remain loyal once they do? Do leopards change their spots or will we see the new Rebels heading for the next cool thing in town come summer rather than the dark confines of the basement level Reshape studio?

As a converted Rebel, I can certainly atone for the sheer fun of the concept for those inclined to train themselves into the ground in a 45 minute class. Nonetheless, my view is that our sector needs diversity to thrive and grow. If any one single operator believes they’re the future, they are misrepresenting or perhaps misunderstanding the scale of what this sector has become. We should welcome innovation, wishing it the best of luck in tackling the challenges we face, but not at the expense of maligning the bedrock of our success to date. It’s not worth the column inches or the scrutiny.

I recently chaired a panel on this very topic at the ukactive FLAME Conference where I was joined, amongst others, by leading operators including Boom Cycle, Pure Gym, 1Life and Oxygen Freejumping. We also had contributions from the floor from Virgin Active. What was clear was that the new market entrants are having a disruptive effect, with established operators looking at their options, making sure there is value in their propositions and, in the words of Neil King from 1Life, “thinking about how many small boxes we can fit inside our big box.” Competition is what any sector needs to thrive and I look forward to seeing how it pans out.

ukactive CEO