Since opening the doors to his first gym a dozen years ago, David Barton has developed a cult following. As he continues to grow his brand in New York City and into Chicago, he sits on the steps of the old McBurney Y, a 100-year-old building that will soon house his third New York club, and talks about creating a successful experience and building a niche brand.
Pro: What makes David Barton Gyms a success in a tough market such as New York City?
Barton: To me it's about the experience. I remember the first gyms I belonged to where some guy cleared out a basement, put some weights in it and called it a gym. I loved those gyms because there was a real experience and a vibe to being there. That's the kind of feel I try to recreate in my gyms — updated, but with that energy. I keep trying to push forward. What I have done at this location (at the new club on the West Side of Manhattan) is different than eight years ago when I opened a club uptown. It comes down to really understanding the market. I built my club on the Upper East Side in the language of a 5th Avenue apartment so people would feel comfortable. It still has an edge and a twist to it but I wanted people to be able to go in and feel at home in the club by making it familiar. You have to think about it right down to the lighting, the music and the staff. They have to all fit. A gym is a multi-sensory experience and you have to keep all of it in mind when designing a space.
Pro: How did that experience begin?
Barton: What I set out to do initially in 1992 when there were a lot of chains and one-off bodybuilding chains was to update the business a little. We were still stuck in the 1980s and needed to move forward. I also wanted to start an alternative to the big chains. It has become sort of a counter-culture. We have become sort of an underground thing with a little bit of a subversive aspect to it right down to how I marketed it and whom I hired. There is a little bit of a cult following.
Pro: Talk a little about the cult status.
Barton: I don't sell to everybody, and I don't try to offer everything to everybody — I'll leave that to the big chains. What I do though is work my niche better than anybody can. My offerings are quantitatively fewer but qualitatively better than the competition. My training is the best, and we drive a lot of business there. One of my locations does $4 million in training alone.
Pro: That's a great personal training business. Is that due to marketing or something else?
Barton: It is a core value when someone comes in. We try to take them by the hand — whether they are going to train or not — and help them understand that there is a way to achieve their goals. I look at gyms as sales and marketing organizations. They make their money when they sell, not when they service someone. Our retention is very high and I think that is how we sell. If you can promise somebody something you can deliver, you are much better off in a year when it comes time to renew.
Pro: What is your retention rate?
Barton: We are in the 90-percent retention range. One of my gyms went six months without losing a single person that didn't move away or die. This is the town square, the living room, and it should be as comfortable as coming to my house for cocktails or dinner. Part of that is how we sell the member and part of that is to bend over backward to service the member.
Pro: What do you feel is the most important thing for a club to keep in mind today to be successful?
Barton: I think people deserve to have the body of their dreams. I'm a trainer and I got into this business to help people achieve their goals. As gym owners, we have to commit to helping people change their bodies. I think someone will have a better life if they come to my gym. They are going to be a better artist, better businessperson, a better everything because they feel healthy and happy.
Pro: What do you feel is a shortcoming in the industry today?
Barton: Everything is so cookie-cutter. It gets to be like Burger King…what makes the space special?
You have to think of this business as part entertainment. Details become part of the experience. You have to make the club a really rich part of somebody's life. I'm trying to fill a role in people's lives.
I don't know that [club owners] realize the role they have and try to build that experience. You have to provide a place that [members] like going to and are inspired by. You have to get their hearts beating before they get on the treadmill. I don't see much of that out there. What I see are clubs with primary colors, neon lights. What are people doing to really give people a place that they love going to workout?
Pro: As you have grown through the years, what has been the most challenging part?
Barton: I'm the only guy left without the name of a big corporation or private equity firm on my door. It's tough when you're a one-man band like I am. You know the financial world is going to be very unforgiving. I can't afford to make a mistake. I can have one success after another, but it would take one mistake to make it very hard to get financing. There isn't a large company to fall back on.
When I opened my first gym, I knocked on hundreds of doors to raise money. I was a trainer and got a couple of people to kick in a few dollars, but it was up to me to save money. But today when I knock on the bank and investor doors, it is still my name that is out there and they see my track record.
That first gym cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars to open — which I could never do again — and made $1 million in profit the first year. I have been lucky to have a very successful business model and been able to finance my projects based on that.