The highs, the lows and what’s next – a Q&A with co-founder and CEO Justin Ashley.
Q. What were you doing before you opened the first Fitness Playground gym in Surry Hills?
A. I’ve been in the fitness industry since I was 18 years old. I was originally a school teacher, a PE teacher, and prior to that I was a semi-professional soccer player, I then ended up working my way up to managing a Fitness First club. I thought, you know what, I want to try and do this myself.
Q. How did you come up with the Fitness Playground concept?
A. The idea for Fitness Playground was born out of frustration. We wanted to change the gym environment and experience. At gyms I’d worked in, there wasn’t a huge emphasis on the member experience and staff weren’t looked after. We first commenced a small bootcamp, that bootcamp became a small gym, and today we’ve got five clubs, 15,000 members and about 200 staff.
Q. You didn’t plan to open more than one gym, how did the second one come about?
A. I like to say our growth has been accidental. I’m a little bit like the people who can’t go to shoe shops because they walk out with a new pair of shoes, I’m like that with gyms. So when two local gyms were closing down – one in Newtown, one in Marrickville – we took the opportunities. It was only a year into our business, so we didn’t have any money, but we signed anyway and just found a way to make it work.
We renovated both gyms at the same time in only 28 days, with the help of friends and family, and before we knew it we had three gyms and 130 staff. Following that we opened up in Darwin. And then, only six months after Darwin, we opened The Bunker in Surry Hills.
Q. How many gyms do you want to open?
A. Money and growth has never been the focus. We want to open the best gyms, not the most gyms. We don’t have any plans to sell – I love this business and this industry, it’s what I know and love, and I will do it forever. So we are very comfortable with steady growth, providing that we get Better Everyday (which is one of our core values) and keep giving value to our staff and members.
Q. Tell us about your mission, to ‘Inspire Change’.
A. Through Fitness Playground, the first thing I wanted to change was employee success. On average, fitness professionals last six months in the industry, due to pretty poor education and a system that doesn’t set them up for success. Staff success and satisfaction has been my biggest focus for the last eight years.
Part two was member success. We know that, industry-wide, almost half of gym members don’t use their memberships at all – and even less get meaningful results. So we wanted to solve that, through innovation. And Inspire Change at an industry level, to become experts at creating change in our members’ lives.
While we haven’t mastered it (yet), there are so many powerful stories. Like, we’ve got a member, Rachel, who has cerebral palsy, who one of our coaches is teaching to walk. And Bob, who suffered from a stroke and was struggling to walk but had a goal to run the City2Surf. One of our coaches helped him get there and actually ran it with him. It’s incredible to see the impact we can have on people’s lives.
So our mission is to Inspire Change in people’s lives, firstly with our members, also with our staff, and in the industry as a whole. Where we’d really like to get to is to be able to have the fitness industry recognised as being at the forefront of preventative healthcare. Healthcare – not purely a gym where you go to look better.
Q. How did the pandemic impact the business?
A. COVID was one of my most difficult but rewarding times, both in business and in life. We lost our entire business overnight. But we had these 200 “Great Humans” who work with us and members who relied on us. So although the gyms were closed, we wanted to keep our staff working and our members moving. We did that by launching a bunch of things. We launched the Virtual Playground, which is like the Netflix of gyms. We built it in five days, and signed up 3,500 people into the platform in a few weeks.
We were also very focused on people’s mental health, so we launched a series called Lift Your Mood, which culminated in a live event in which 500 people from around Australia did a virtual fancy dress workout with us for charity that was televised.
We weren’t happy with the quality of fitness industry education, so we launched Fitness Playground Academy and have already educated and certified over 200 new fitness professionals.
Plus, we launched a new logo and website. So it was a big time for us, and it put us in the position we’re in today, which is a much stronger business with an even better culture.
Q. What do you see as the biggest markers of success of the Fitness Play gyms and brand?
A. We’ve won a lot of awards, but without question, making it into the Top 50 Places to Work in Australia list is the one I am most proud of. For us, that recognises all the effort we’ve put into employee satisfaction, staff education, training, culture, and living our mission, vision and values. We think of Fitness Playground as a people business, not a gym business.
Q. What do you think people love most about Fitness Playground gyms?
A. The connections and community. The facilities are beautiful and we take great pride in the environments we create, people are impressed to walk through the doors, but it isn’t what keeps them coming. What keeps them is that connection with our staff and other members, the community and culture.
Q. Would Justin Ashley from seven years ago be surprised if he could see where the brand is now?
A. Incredibly surprised. We really didn’t have any intention to have more than one gym. And I’m proud that we have grown in an organic way. We stay true to our culture of putting our people before profits. I interview every person that works for us, and we’ve maintained a small business and small boutique-gym feel.
Q. What’s happening next?
A. This year we’ve got some amazing projects. Our Academy is going to have its full first year, and we’ve just built a dedicated base for our students.
We’ve got our new Marrickville “Wellness Playground”, which launches at the end of June – we’ve expanded the existing gym to incorporate a wellness centre with studios, experiences and equipment (including reformer pilates and infrared saunas) that address health holistically.
And later this year, we’ve got our biggest location we’ve ever opened coming too – The Mothership. That will be 2,500m² with 70 staff, six group training areas and a $5 million fit-out. Plus the design is insane, there will be nothing like it anywhere in the world.
Q. You’re very busy but you still manage to focus on your fitness – what’s your advice to people for making time for the gym?
A. Always have an appointment. Whether that be a class, a PT session, or even if it’s just an appointment in your calendar – treat going to the gym like a meeting that you would never miss.
To learn more about the new Wellness Centre, click here.
Interested in studying with Fitness Playground Academy? Take part in our free Industry Insights event (Wednesday 16 June 2021) for people considering a career in fitness, find out more here.