RIYADH: One year ago, the idea would have been unthinkable: Michelle Kuehn, founder of Dubai’s Real Boxing Only (RBO), in her Al-Quoz office fielding questions about franchising the gym dedicated solely to the noble art.
That she can even talk about it after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic nearly devastated the business she started in 2018 is a testament to the resilience of her and her staff. And, above all, people’s desire to re-embrace exercise, and embrace boxing, during a year like no other.
For Kuehn, the response after the lockdown was lifted and many restrictions eased would eventually exceed all expectations, but for business owners such as her, it was a situation they had never experienced before.
She said: “I wouldn’t say it was back to normal at all, especially in June 2020. Although we were allowed 50 percent capacity, we were probably only running at 30 percent. We found that a lot of people, although keen to go out, were afraid to go to the gym, being around others was definitely at the back of their minds.”
At first, the customers came back slowly, dipping their toes into uncharted waters, but their welcome return would not be, on its own, enough to ameliorate the financial hit that RBO had taken.
“The good news is we have a lot of loyal customers, so they were here first day, ready with their masks on. We had a lot of restrictions, so we had to redo the entire gym to make everything two meters apart which meant taking out boxing bags, moving treadmills. Class capacity was so small. By the end of June, I almost considered closing because we weren’t going to make it if we continued like that,” Kuehn added.
“Then I decided that was just not going to happen. So, we worked really hard from July to September, and in October I had a consultant come in and talk about the best ways to approach growth at a time that you can’t really grow because you can’t have that many people in your gym.
“So, I doubled down on classes. Instead of having one at 6.30, one at 7.30, I’d run three at 6.30. They were spaced out, smaller classes but at least I was running the same amount of people in the gym as I would have in one class normally before.”
With many customers losing their jobs or put on unpaid leave, and others facing uncertain futures, RBO had frozen memberships during lockdown and into July 2020. To attract new members, Kuehn’s team went on what she called a “discount spree.”
She said: “The only thing I could do was focus on new business, so I did a sales and marketing drive with my team, and we focused on just getting new business in. Luckily by September you could see people were happy to be out again, and they were feeling more confident because by October, November we broke records. That continued all the way into the new year, that’s when I decided to look at an extension.”
Kuehn noted that people had flocked back to the gym for health reasons.
“I definitely think health was on top of their minds and doing something fun. Having been stuck in the house for five months, no one wanted to feel overweight and just start jogging again. Boxing’s fun, everything about training here is fun. But it’s high fitness, these people were sweating off weight and they were feeling fitter than they ever felt. And that in itself is addictive, they were telling their friends and I had so many referrals coming in.”
Getting people to pay, or commit to long-term memberships, remained a challenge.
“We had to be serious and hit numbers. I also trained the other side of the team, the ones that interact with clients. I wrote all the class programs, I worked with coaches to make sure that there was some consistency, uniformity and when people came, they were spoken to well, they were treated well, there was no judgement. The coaches were encouraging and some of the best coaches in the city work here, they’re boxers that we brought from around the world,” she added.
Redeveloping the business in the circumstances reignited Kuehn’s interest in growing RBO, though eventually not in the way she had initially intended.
“Expanding was something I was looking at in 2019, toward the end of the year, I was starting to consider options for expanding. We get a lot of questions from Abu Dhabi, from Deira, asking if we have branches, all over the Emirates really. But I wasn’t convinced on whether to expand or franchise.
“I was leaning toward expanding but then when we were shut down during COVID, I realized the risk I was at. If I had five gyms like this, I would have closed probably four because the overheads would have been too much for one company to support. So, that kind of answered my question.”
Having decided that franchising was lower risk than expanding, Kuehn and her team had to make sure that the business could be duplicated, with new staff trained to ensure the same quality of service would be on offer.
It was, ironically, the original RBO’s expansion into an abandoned warehouse next door that helped solidify the franchise model.
“We set a target for March 1, for how many members I needed to have to be able to afford the new extension, and we hit that by January,” she said.
“I had to rush into the new extension which is 4,000 square feet. We went from 6,000 to 10,000. In the last 12 months we’ve grown 206 percent. With growth come larger challenges; now I have a much bigger team, a lot more clients, a lot more expectations to uphold, which has helped me write my franchise model.
“Every mistake we make, I change it, and I write that into the franchise model. For the last 12 months I’ve been creating the operating manual for my franchise, everything is systemized.”
With extra space, the number of classes doubled to 360 a month; higher staff salaries had to be met while ensuring RBO still had some of the most competitive rates in the city.
With business considerably more secure than a year ago, Kuehn is now in a position to negotiate her first franchise of RBO.
“Abu Dhabi will have one, but not until next year, and then I would consider a second, smaller franchise in the UAE, maybe in Dubai as well,” she added.
“And the UK next year is my target. Should the UAE and the UK go well, you want the franchise to sell itself. You don’t need me and my numbers, they can go and speak to any franchisee. As long as that goes well, Saudi and Oman I’ve considered as targets as well.”