Opportunists, it seems, have grabbed a hold of the obesity epidemic as an opportunity to cash in on a fat financial future for themselves. The success of Curves, which grew in 10 years to 8,000 franchised clubs, and the media attention given to the obesity problem around the world has spurred a flurry of franchised express and 24/7 clubs during the past few years. I'm a supporter of capitalism, so the idea of taking a good idea and running with it has an appeal to me, especially since I'm certain that some of these franchised clubs were created for the noble purpose of bringing the unfit into the fit fold. However, as with any good idea, success and less noble intents can get the best of good people and an industry.
When I first started writing about the fitness industry about six years ago, the problem I foresaw with the express clubs was the possibility that members would burn out and plateau without the ability to move on to new forms of exercise or higher resistance on strength equipment. I did not foresee that the problem might actually be in the franchising of these clubs. After all, World Gym and Gold's Gym International had been franchising and licensing for years. But some (no, not all) of the newer franchisors seem more interested in franchising and growing quickly than in developing a good model for the success of their franchisees and their franchisees' members. They often are growing too quickly to support their franchisees properly.
That desire for quick growth has led some franchisors to choose unqualified people as franchisees — people with insufficient financial backing and business experience to open and operate their clubs. Instead, they recruit franchisees using terms like “no previous business experience needed.” This phrase has hooked more than one person who wanted to run their own business but didn't have the experience to do so. The franchisors make it seem like running a small club is easy. Most of the small club owners reading this can attest that even a small club takes a lot of work.
I heard from several franchisees after last month's cover story on franchised express clubs and the problems some of them face. I also checked out the http://www.franbest.com/fitness/?page_id=32. Web site where a large number of upset franchisees have posted their stories. You could chalk up some of the comments to people who just didn't follow the franchisor's operating plans and paid the price, but I would guess that that doesn't explain most of the bad experiences these people describe.
Does that mean that franchising in our industry should go the way of the dinosaurs? Not at all. Franchising is still a good way for people to grow their companies. Done right, franchising is an opportunity for people with a fitness and business background to start up their own business knowing that their franchisor is there to guide and support them as needed.
Franchising has a big future in our business, but only if franchisors focus on the right reasons for growth and curb their greed and macho desire to claim the title as the biggest and the fastest growing franchise out there.