20 Jan 2021 World leisure: news, training & property
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Health Club Management
2014 issue 6

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Leisure Management -

Interview – Sean Thornton

The joint MD of 3-1-5 Health Clubs talks to Julie Cramer about creating an exclusive network of ‘X-Force family’ clubs

Julie Cramer
Thornton: “Good reputation in the community is key”
The 3-1-5 ‘super club’ offers 200 stations, including 56 X-Force pieces, and is also a show site for Star Trac CV equipment
The 3-1-5 ‘super club’ offers 200 stations, including 56 X-Force pieces, and is also a show site for Star Trac CV equipment
The 3-1-5 ‘super club’ offers 200 stations, including 56 X-Force pieces, and is also a show site for Star Trac CV equipment
After 20 years in the industry, Thornton remains committed to promoting ‘knowledge, service and professionalism’
Prior to launch, 3-1-5 took its concept ‘on tour’ around the local area, creating a buzz and generating 1,500 member sales
The pre-opening tour included outdoor Spin sessions

One gym workout a week comprising single sets of exercises: if someone told you that was all your members needed to do to build muscle mass and burn fat in a few short weeks or months, you might be more than a little sceptical. Yet these are the kinds of results that fitness entrepreneur Sean Thornton – owner of the 5,853sq m (63,000sq ft) ‘super club’ 3-1-5 in Lancaster – claims to be seeing with his members.

So what’s the secret of this success? Thornton immediately points to the X-Force equipment used at the club – a range of machines that offer negative strength training for different sets of muscles (see briefing, p33) – which he and business partner Ceri Smith have taken on in an exclusive partnership agreement with Mats Thulin, the Swedish inventor of the equipment.

“Ever since the 1970s, when the first cam resistance machines were invented as an alternative to barbells and dumbbells, trainers have understood that accentuating the negative motion in exercise maximises strength gains,” says Thornton. “To quote the late Arthur Jones – trainer to Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Mr Universe contests – it’s not about how much you can lift, it’s how much you can lower.”

He continues: “The results we’ve been experiencing since opening 3-1-5 in May 2013 have been phenomenal across all user groups. For example, one of our over-70s members managed to halve the amount of medication they were taking after working out on X-Force for just three weeks, while in the same period another senior was able to raise a bar behind their head for the first time in years, showing they were regaining a full range of motion.

“In the US, a controlled medical study by Dr Ellington Darden – which centred around using X-Force for weight loss – saw 50 volunteers use the equipment just once a week and abide by a simple calorie controlled diet. The average weight loss was 2.4 stone in just six weeks.”

The drawback for other clubs wanting to get in on the action is that 3-1-5 has the exclusive UK rights to X-Force: the only way for other operators to gain access to the equipment is by becoming an X-Force partner through a new licence programme launched last month. Even then, the programme will focus on independents rather than multi-site chains, giving compatible new start-ups, established fitness facilities and even small personal training studios the opportunity to offer and profit from X-Force’s results-driven programme.

Building a ‘super club’
The name 3-1-5 derives from the X-Force training concept, where the protocol is ‘lift for three, pause for one, lower for five’. Yet even though the machines will undoubtedly give 3-1-5 Lancaster the ‘X-factor’ in terms of training possibilities, for Thornton it’s really only half the story.

Thornton has been in the fitness industry since the 1990s, and even talking to him for just a few minutes it’s clear to see he has inexhaustible passion for the industry, as well as a great knowledge of his ‘craft’.

He started out in fitness and leisure management in four-star country hotels throughout the 90s, moving on to become national sales and marketing director for equipment supplier Star Trac in 2002. In November 2002, he founded the Eze Fitness gym chain with Smith, a small chain of clubs which they still run on an income share basis with two local authorities – three clubs in partnership with Castlereagh Borough Council in Belfast, and two clubs with Sefton Council on Merseyside.

While this created a comfortable lifestyle business for the pair, Thornton says they ultimately had far greater ambitions to take their knowledge of the industry – particularly relating to service standards, staff development and creating a true community hub – and combine it in one amazing club (although Thornton isn’t ruling out further sites) that would offer “the best of the best” in training and club culture.

3-1-5 is the culmination of these grand ambitions, and fulfils a longstanding ambition of both Thornton and Smith to return to their roots and open a ‘super club’ in their hometown of Lancaster.

It was perhaps serendipitous that the right, super-sized property presented itself at the right moment – a former Total Fitness gym that had been sold off from the portfolio to a private landlord. “At its height, it had been a successful £11m club development with over 4,500 members, but the industry changed and diversified and it became an operation that was no longer viable,” says Thornton.

“When we acquired the building in 2012, it had been totally asset-stripped and we needed to invest £3.3m in the site.” Of this total figure – and despite a much higher original asking price by the receivers – Thornton, Smith and Thulin eventually purchased the site for £1.25m.

Finance for 3-1-5 came from a mix of directors’ money, a commercial mortgage, and backing from various small investment groups. Thornton then personally managing an ambitious 14-week refurbishment programme, bringing it in on budget just before the scheduled opening date.

The club is now home to a 200-station gym, including four circuits (56 stations) of X-Force. Cardio equipment is provided by Star Trac, which has chosen 3-1-5 to be one of its showcase sites.

In addition, there are two exercise studios, a holistic studio, a 25m swimming pool, a 10x10m learner pool, a hydrotherapy pool for 40 people, a poolside functional training zone, sauna and steam facilities, a large café-bar and lounge, and meeting facilities.

Service and professionalism
Thornton admits the club represents a huge leap from Eze Fitness, and he, Smith and their close-knit team have been working 24/7 to ensure success.

Promotion for 3-1-5 started months before launch, including taking the concept ‘on tour’. Thornton explains: “We chose 20 iconic locations around Morecambe and Lancaster – one was beside the Eric Morecambe statue at sunset – and set up a high energy event with 20 Spinner bikes to help create the vibe of 3-1-5. Local media got involved and we did a lot of promotion with great shareable content on Facebook to create a viral effect.”

As a result of this and other initiatives, 1,500 memberships were sold pre-opening; eight months later, the club was 46 per cent above target with 4,500 members paying £45–£60 a month.

While 3-1-5 comes 20 years into his industry journey, you get the feeling that Thornton is just getting started. He says his driving forces are offering superior service, with staff who have been heavily invested in, and serving the community by creating a ‘third place’ where everyone wants to spend time.

“Health and fitness is about physical and psychological wellbeing, but it’s about the spiritual and social too. What we’ve created is escapism for people outside of their work and home life – an unintimidating environment that encourages peer-bonding and interaction between people from all walks of life. Loneliness is one of the biggest killers of the over-60s.”

At 3-1-5 there’s a friendly ‘meeter and greeter’ at reception at all times, as well as four staff to deal with member requirements. Exercise areas have deliberately been kept to the first floor mezzanine, leaving the ground floor as a buzzing social space.

There’s a large lounge seating 60 people with free wifi, while the café-bar hosts regular theme nights. Particular attention has been paid to lighting, both to zone the area and to create ambience. But lighting apart, Thornton is a believer in keeping technology to a minimum in the gym space to promote more interaction. He says: “We only have six TVs in the gym. In fact, we didn’t get round to wiring them up to the cardio theatre for the first seven months and not a single person complained!”

Future developments
With his mega-club up and running, Thornton is continuing to focus on making his facility and staff the best they can be. He recruits high-calibre individuals – one is Glenn Robinson, who just won the first Commonwealth Gold medal for England in water polo – and continues to invest in them.

Being a true community hub is also key, with Thornton focused as much on the club’s role outside the facility as within its four walls. For example, he’s planning school-based kickabout sessions to tie in with this month’s World Cup, in partnership with local football clubs and radio stations, while old CV kit is given away to local facilities such as village halls and boxing clubs. “It’s not just about sales. It’s about getting a good reputation in the community,” he says.

Another ongoing focus is improving data capture, which is currently where Thornton feels the fitness industry badly falls down. “Our sector doesn’t have enough respect or credibility at the moment. We have six million members, but where’s the data? If all ukactive members documented all the amazing results and life-changing experiences they’re producing in their clubs, this would change the industry and ensure it gets the government support it deserves.

“At 3-1-5, we document a member’s entire journey, from initial goals when they first meet us to their progression three, six, nine months down the line and beyond. We’ve identified the ideal measurements and checkpoints to to give us the best possible analysis of their journey.”

He continues: “We have a vital role to play in the community. It’s about changing lives and behaviours and continuing to motivate members, not only for the present but 10, 20 and 30 years into the future. People plan for their retirement and worry about being financially secure, but they never plan for the most important thing of all – their health.”

Exclusive network
Thornton’s other future focus will be the licence scheme, although expansion plan are not aggressive – the emphasis is on quality not quantity, with hopes to create around five new partnerships each year. For a monthly fee, partners will receive X-Force equipment and all the training and marketing support required to create a successful business.

Thornton says: “It’s a highly designed product with limited production capacity [Thulin owns the manufacturing base in Sweden], so X-Force will only ever be a niche product, and we will carefully choose the sites we work with.

“Although it’s a licence programme, our partners will receive support rather than interference. But of course they’ll have access to X-Force’s equipment and will feel like our club in terms of priorities: a focus on service, knowledge and expertise; using technology for results rather than distraction; and being a true club for the community.”

For now, 3-1-5 is on a mission to improve the health of Lancaster locals. But in spite of his cautious expansion plans, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Thornton’s enthusiasm for the industry mushroom into something far greater – and potentially even global – in the years to come.

The X-Force factor

So how does X-Force work? Thornton explains: “With conventional resistance machines, when you push out 100kg you get back 100kg. With X-Force, when you push out 100kg (the positive phase), the weight stack moves through a 45-degree angle. At the top of the lift, the stack reverts to the vertical and automatically adds 40 per cent to the load, so the user is lowering 140kg in the negative phase.

“The muscle is 70 per cent stronger in the negative phase when compared to the positive, so we could add 70 per cent more load to the lowering phase. But to stay within safe parameters and ensure anyone can use X-Force machines, we’re sticking to a 40 per cent load gain.”

Since its launch in 2012, there are now facilities offering the trademarked X-Force concept in 14 different countries, including the US, Australia and Switzerland.
Established US facilities are seeing some impressive results. The Gainesville Health & Fitness Club – the club at the centre of what was voted the healthiest community in the US – currently has 500 people on a waiting list for the 3-1-5 Weight Management Programme centred around X-Force.

Meanwhile the Mainline Health & Fitness club in Pennsylvania, operated by industry veteran Roger Schwab, has generated an uplift of US$1.7m in PT revenue through its X-Force PT Room alone.

Originally published in Health Club Management 2014 issue 6

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