Bahram Akradi, CEO of Life Time Fitness, says members of his gyms aren't looking for a smelly room of equipment for sweating out calories. They want a resort-style experience where they can also get a massage at the spa, eat dinner at the cafe and catch up on emails in the lounge.
And they're willing to pay for the exclusivity.
Akradi is bringing the concept to Tampa in a 55,000-square-foot club opening April 10 at International Plaza, in the lower level of a former furniture store. Life Time Athletic will be the second in Florida for the publicly traded chain, which operates 110 gyms under the Life Time Fitness and Life Time Athletic brands and had $1.2 billion in revenue last year.
Founded 21 years ago in Minnesota, Life Time isn't a cookie-cutter gym for the masses. Individual gym memberships cost about $140 a month, with no contract, and there isn't a pool. Everything else — from personal trainers to facials and pedicures at the spa — is a la carte.
The club expects to cap membership at about 2,500 to ensure personalized attention. Translation: No one will ever have to wait for a machine.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Akradi spoke about surviving in a competitive industry and being the best. The 52-year-old plans to be at Tampa's grand opening leading an hour-long class he invented that is known for wearing out people half his age.
What makes Life Time different than other gyms?
When I looked at the Tampa market, there was nobody offering product at a high level for the customers who want a better product. To that point, there was no one even offering product at the middle level. We truly deliver the same experience to people who are used to a Four Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton. For that, the market is wide open.
How do you compete with YouFit, LA Fitness and other less expensive gyms?
We don't. How does the Four Seasons compete with the Hampton Inn? They don't.
Who is your target audience?
People who are passionate about what they do. If you're a yogi and you're looking for the best yoga place with the best teachers and best programs, you come to us. If you're just interested in dropping into any place with yoga, you go to a club that charges $20 a month. Our customers are more sophisticated, more affluent. They have experienced the best, and that's what they're looking for.
How do you convince people that they should join Life Time versus a club that costs $100 less a month?
We don't have to convince them. When the club opens and you experience the quality of the service, the quality of the product, the quality of the facility and how you are treated, you either want it or you don't want it. There's nothing wrong with the business model of Youfit or LA Fitness. It's just different.
How tied to the economy is your business?
It's a modest fluctuation but not a dramatic fluctuation. It's a much more muted response than people think. I don't think it dramatically affects the club up or down. If you look at our performance as a company even after 2008 and 2009, we grew in revenue.
The most important thing is when people lose their job, they usually have a lot of time. They're looking for something to do and because they're not working, they have 40 hours a week extra to kill. Our club becomes like a resort. You can get a bite to eat, work on your computer, take a class, get a spa treatment. The club loses some people because they lost their job, but it gains some people because they lost their job. It's not like buying a Rolls-Royce, where it's such a big amount of money. Here it's $140 a month. This is a business where people can afford the luxury, but they may not be able to afford other luxuries.
The other Life Time club in Florida, in Boca Raton, opened in 2006. Why has it taken so long to open another location in the state?
Florida is tough. We're constantly looking for sites to do more clubs, and I'm working in a number of markets, looking at properties. But it's a tough market because the demographic population shifts pretty quickly, which means you have neighborhoods that are really nice for several blocks and then all of a sudden things are not so homogeneously laid out. That makes it challenging for our larger-format boxes to get enough of the right demographics to make them work.
What are your expectations for the Tampa location?
We don't need to make money on the club when we open the doors. What we basically do is take care of our customers and our employees and, eventually, people want to be part of that energy, that culture. I have similar-sized clubs to this one that sometimes take a year or two to make money, sometimes three. But eventually they make a lot of money. The reason is that the customer who comes and experiences it doesn't ever want to leave.
Susan Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter @susan_thurston.