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Leisure Management
2012 issue 3

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Leisure Management - Hilary Gilbert


Hilary Gilbert

American Hilary Gilbert started indoor cycling to help stay trim for a career in modelling. A decade on, her frustration with existing indoor cycling offerings in the UK has driven her to set up Boom! Cycle in London’s Shoreditch. She talks to Rhianon Howells

Rhianon Howells
Hilary Gilbert
Classes include the 30 minute Express Lunch class, Hip Hop Cycle, Latin Cycle and the Two Hour Ride
Boom! Cycle uses Schwinn AC Sport bikes
Heather Frankham and business partner Robert Rowland
Creative agency The Outdoor Collective, which specialises in street art, created graffiti murals for the gym
Customers can choose where they want to be in the studio when they book

What’s your professional background?
I grew up in Kentucky, middle America, and started modelling when I was 15, doing small-time advertising campaigns and catalogue work. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college in 2001 – I studied biology at Northern Kentucky University – that I was scouted by a New York modelling agency. So I moved up there, and that’s where it all started.

How did you enjoy modelling?
It was awesome and scary and fun and everything you imagine it would be. I lived and worked in all the big markets: New York, London, Paris and LA. But coming from middle America, having to be sample size [a UK 8-10] was always going to be a challenge… you know what American portion sizes are like! So that’s when I became really serious about fitness. I’d played sports from a young age, but I didn’t have three hours spare to play sports anymore, and I needed something more efficient.

What was your first experience of indoor cycling?
It was 2001, the year I moved to New York. I went to the Reebok Gym on the Upper East Side, saw this class and decided to check it out. I wasn’t very good my first time, I didn’t have the right shoes, but I felt like I was dancing on a bike; like I was in a nightclub! I had a lot of fun and the time passed very quickly. I also loved how efficient it was… I needed to be fit and this was the easiest way to get it done.

When and where did you get the inspiration for Boom! Cycle?
When I first came to London for work in 2004. At that time there were only a few gyms offering indoor cycling, and the classes on offer weren’t like the ones I was used to in the States; to begin with, the bikes didn’t have any clips on their pedals. And the couple of good classes I did manage to find weren’t convenient to get to. I remember thinking, ‘This is crazy – I should start my own indoor cycling gym.’ But at the time I was so busy with modelling there was no way I could stay in one place long enough to start a business.

What made you change your mind?
Love! I decided to stay in the UK permanently when I met my boyfriend [the entrepreneur Robert Rowland, who is also Gilbert’s business partner]. After making that decision I was like, ‘OK, now I really might be able to sink my teeth into something’. So that’s when I started looking into visas and gathering information for a business plan.

How would you sum up the Boom! Cycle offer?
It’s a very effective and entertaining indoor cycling workout, which we offer at great value for money with the freedom of pay-per-class pricing. We want to be a business that appeals to the masses, so we offer a range of classes, from technical cycling to fun workouts, such as Latin Cycle, Disco Cycle and Hip Hop Cycle. We also offer something called Body Boom, which incorporates weights into the workout – that’s one of our most popular classes.

Why did you opt for a pay-per-session model?
Because people don’t want to be tied down; if they’re travelling and can’t go to the gym for a month, they don’t want to pay for it. We also wanted to make it easier for people who already had a gym membership to supplement that rather than having to take out another.

What sets Boom! Cycle apart?
Other than the pay-per-session model, I think it’s the fact that we concentrate on this one single activity and put all our energy into doing it excellently – from the instruction to getting the lighting and room temperature right and making sure the speakers are facing the right way. We also really focus on tailoring the experience to the individual. For example, we’ve created a bespoke booking system, which allows each rider to choose exactly where they want to sit in the studio. We also hire out indoor cycling shoes for £1, so if someone doesn’t want to buy specialist shoes or doesn’t feel like bringing them they can still have the full experience.

What kit do you use?
That’s another thing that sets us apart. We’ve got Schwinn AC Sport bikes, which only one other gym in central London has. Loads of our clients have told us that they’re the best indoor cycling bikes they’ve ever been on and the most like a road bike. But the coolest thing about them is that while the resistance on most indoor bikes comes from brake pads, these bikes use magnets, which don’t wear down as easily. We also have Schwinn’s MPower consoles, which allow the rider to monitor things like cadence [the speed at which the pedals are turning], heart rate and lap time. If people are really serious, they can record the workout on a USB stick, put it into their computer and look at the readings in an Excel spreadsheet.

The Shoreditch site opened on 17 October 2011. How challenging was it to get off the ground?
It was tough at times, but we just decided we were going to do whatever it took. There were a few things that went wrong with the build, and getting the word out in the first few months was also quite tricky, as we’re a destination location – we’re not on a high street, so not that many people walk by. But we have an awesome PR company that got us really good press in pretty much every publication we could have wanted, and we did things like Groupon and Living Social to raise awareness. The hardest thing was probably our whole lives being flipped upside down; every day through the build and the launch we would be here from 6am until 1 or 2 in the morning.

How did you decide on the design?
The interior was realised by the architect Thomas Rowland of Tomorrow Land. We wanted to create the look of an old inner-city boxing gym: a place where people go to work out and where there’s a sense of camaraderie. We also worked with a really cool group of local artists called the Outside Collective, who did our graffiti murals.

Where did you find your instructors?
I asked around, and anyone I heard was good I went to see. I acted like I wanted to join every gym in the city, just so I could get in and take people’s classes! We have professional cyclists and international fitness presenters… our instructors are awesome.

How much has been invested and how did you raise the money?
Total investment for the Shoreditch site was upwards of £130,000, which we raised through friends and associates. There are four other investors as well as Robert and myself.

What have been the highest and lowest points?
The lowest point was probably coming back in January after our first December, which is a low point for every health club, and thinking, ‘Oh dear God, I hope it doesn’t stay like this!’ The highest point was also in January, after we had two pieces of press come out in Stylist magazine and Vogue. After that the phone wouldn’t stop ringing and our classes were sold out for the first time.

What are your ambitions for the business?
We want to continue to grow the studio and get as many classes on the schedule and as many great clients as we can, then the next goal is to get a second studio open; we’re not sure exactly where yet, but it will be somewhere in London. Longer term, we want to roll out this little slice of fitness heaven to all the major cities in the UK and possibly move into Europe – but that’s going to be years away!

Who do you admire in business and why?
My boyfriend and business partner Robert Rowland – he’s on a never-ending quest for knowledge. And our friend Scott Ruddman, the founder of venture capital firm Nectar Capital, who has been helping us, and who is also an investor in the business.

Who do you do in your leisure time?
As well as indoor cycling I also do a bit of running and have signed up for a few races this year. I also like restaurants with really good food, enjoying wine, watching films, sleeping…

What’s your favourite book and film?
My favourite film is American Beauty. My favourite book is The Count of Monte Cristo – I just love the story!

How would you describe your philosophy on life?
When in doubt, go for it anyway – don’t let fear hold you back.

About Boom! Cycle
The first Boom! Cycle site in Shoreditch, London, includes a studio with 39 bikes plus an instructor bike; male and female showers, changing rooms and lockers; and a reception area. A one-off class costs £14 (or £7 for the first class); a package of five sessions is £55 (£11 per class); a package of 10 is £100 (£10 per class); and a package of 20 is £180 (£9 per class). Around 60 per cent of users are women and 40 per cent men and the age range is 20-65.

Originally published in Leisure Management 2012 issue 3

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