Workshop Gymnasium – The Future of Spa?


The folks at Workshop Gymnasium are on to something. And it may well be the future of hotel spas.

Last week at the Spa China Summit in Sanya, I saw a presentation from Lee Mullins, the founder of Workshop. To be honest, I was only really half listening at the start because here was a guy talking about his gym business. I figured he’d be showing some great pictures of some of the latest and greatest, super-cool, fancy smancy fitness equipment. Nice. But I’ve seen it all before. Such was my ignorance – and probably, if I was being completely honest, my arrogance too.

But as Lee got into the swing of his presentation, I started to see something different here. This was a business that evolved from Lee’s passion of being a personal trainer. This wasn’t just a simple story of a guy opening a gym. What it really was, at least the way I heard it, was a story of a guy who had managed to create a unique niche brand in what is essentially a commodity industry.

The Fitness Commodity

It may seem a bit off to refer to the Fitness Industry as a commodity. After all, this is a business that creates a personal program for every client, right? Right. But the customization really only happens within a fairly rigid set of guidelines. You may be doing less Leg Curl sets per week than your training buddy, but you’re still both doing Leg Curls.

The process for on-boarding a new client is very much the same. You come in for an initial consultation to discuss your fitness goals, then you do a basic fitness test to determine your current levels. From there, your program is created, you get your Workout Diary / Card  (or the equivalent electronic version of it) and you’re good to go. Most gyms will probably leave you to it at that stage, at least until your membership is getting close to expiring.

And that’s pretty much how it looks across the industry. Gyms, much like spas in many ways, tend to all look, feel and operate the same way. That’s why I refer to it as a commodity business.

The Unknown 80%

As I’ve mentioned before, the hotel spa of tomorrow will look very different from the spa of today. I believe only around 20% of what we know today as spa will remain. The other 80% will be different. Exactly what it will be, I’m not sure. It will need to be something that provides some meaningful functional benefits to its clients. My guess is this 80% will vary considerably from market to market, hotel to hotel and spa to spa. The ‘same same, but different’ reality we see in hotel spas today will simply not be a sustainable business model in the spa of tomorrow.

This is why Lee’s Workshop brand really caught my eye.

Imagine if the new Workshop of Tomorrow was a place where 80% of the products and services on offer were designed to help you live a healthy and well life. That’s a real functional benefit. Now, add in 20% of what we see today in spas – massage, facial, beauty treatments, etc. That could indeed be the Future of Hotel Spas.

Scaling the Unscalable

After Lee’s presentation, we had a chance to catch up and chat a bit more about his business and his brand. What struck me was the personal touch that Workshop has. They have some very high profile and high net worth individuals. These people are used to getting what they want – whenever they want it. Lee proudly tells the story of one of their high-profile clients being a bit sick and his wife and business partner Adena whipping up some soup and personally delivering it to their client’s home. This is, of course, a great example of a brand that goes the extra mile for their clients. But I see it as more than that. I see it as a perfect example of why Workshop has succeeded in a crowded, commodity space. And perhaps more than that, I see it as the key to Workshop growing into a leading global lifestyle brand. Scaling the Unscalable.

Systems and Processes

Today, Workshop is relatively small. They have just a few gyms open to date, with a few more in the pipeline. But already, Lee and Adena are facing the dilemma of growing whilst staying true to their original vision and mission and no losing the uniqueness that got them here in the first place. It’s a common dilemma. But for a brand that has real personalization at its core, it’s crucial.

It won’t be easy, but it is achievable.

The key is, to the extent that it does not compromise the client experience and client connection to the brand, to have systems and processes in place. Take the guess work out of it. Remove the need for the business to re-learn the same lesson, over and over again. Any time a new situation arises, document the flow. What caused it? How you learned of it? How you attacked the problem? What was the thought process that lead to the proposed solution? Was it a good solution? Was it the best solution? If not, what other solutions may have been better? What were the incidental impacts of the solution?

The beautiful thing about a business which is as bespoke (though I do hate that word!) as Workshop, is that each client creates a unique puzzle that needs to be solved. Whilst that puzzle may be totally unique to them, the lesson learned in solving their puzzle will apply to many other situations. This is why tight systems and process are critical if the business is to scale.

Uniqueness Conundrum

When it comes to luxury hotel brands such as those who Workshop currently partners with, they all want something different to their competitors. Whether it’s the gym or the spa or the soaps and shampoos in the guest bathrooms, these hotels want something unique to them. Why? Well, because they too are in a commodity business. Sure, they may well be a super-duper luxury hotel product. But as I discussed in Episode 208 of Trent365!, luxury in and of itself, is not a USP.

But whilst these brands want to offer something unique, it also has to have a reasonable level of brand awareness amongst their guests. And therein lies the conundrum. The product or service needs to be widely enough available that it is known, yet not so widely available that it loses its lusture to the high-end clientele of these hotels.

Workshop – A Lifestyle Brand

There is no doubt that any brands that can help their customers and clients achieve a higher state of health and wellness, have a real opportunity to create meaningful lifestyle brands. Workshop is uniquely positioned to be able to do just that. Health and Wellness is something we need to live and breathe every day. It is not something that we go a 2 week retreat for.

Workshop has already been able to create a unique brand in a commodity market. If they can now find a way to grow that business to a meaningful scale, whilst staying true to their truly bespoke offering, the world is their oyster.

These are exciting times in the world of Workshop Gymnasium. I’m really looking forward to watching this story unfold.