Community and staff engagement spell success for Vancouver-based LIVE WELL franchisee Kent Howie
By Gina Makkar
If exercise is the best medicine, LIVE WELL Exercise Clinic has just the right prescription.
Dubbed the “ultra-private gym for people with health concerns,” LIVE WELL was started by founders Sara Hodson and Tasha McRae. A team of highly trained exercise physiologists help members take control of their health by forming lasting exercise, lifestyle, and nutritional habits. They tackle chronic diseases by providing a fun, inclusive, and clinically supervised environment where members can work out and obtain positive health results. They’ve got everything it takes to live well.
From patron to partner
Vancouver-based franchisee, Kent Howie, is no stranger to health and wellness. He’s been active all his life, from working in tactical corrections to training in judo and rugby. When his diabetes specialist suggested LIVE WELL to optimize his fitness, he was immediately impressed and encouraged by the environment and signed up. “I can tell you now, testosterone is not the smart hormone. The way I’ve been trained is wrong. LIVE WELL really opened my eyes,” says Howie. “To actually make the change was powerful, and to see people come in, work at their level, and make small and consistent steps.”
At the time, Howie worked in labour relations for the provincial government. When he heard the brand was franchising, he jumped at the opportunity. He opened the North Vancouver clinic on April 1, 2019, and was working toward breaking even within six months when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The times, they are a-changin’
When Howie and his wife Cindy first opened their LIVE WELL clinic, Howie dove right in and got involved in all aspects of the business. He quickly realized that hiring, marketing, sales, and operations took up a large portion of each day. “Even when I did high-level stuff before, I partnered with someone that liked all the things I wasn’t good at. I love details in the moment. If there’s an emergency, I’m your guy. I get in there and just do it. But that doesn’t build a business.” To strike a better balance, Cindy took on more of the day-to-day operations, allowing Howie to focus on networking, sales, and marketing. “For me, that’s really my day every day.”
With the onset of COVID-19, Howie has also turned his focus to increasing member engagement by strengthening community partnerships and hosting events like Salsa for Seniors. “What’s important is to get members in the clinic, and not get caught up in the daily grind.” He’s also collaborating with professionals on initiatives like Q&A sessions and cross-blogging for additional exposure.
Howie also spends a portion of each day ensuring that employees remain engaged, an important aspect of staff retention. “Due to the nature of the part-time work they do, we want them to stay engaged. You never know which one will be a good candidate to become a clinic director when we’re ready to build a second location in Edgemont. You can’t just pull them out of the air, you grow them, so that’s another big part of what we do.”
Living in a COVID-19 world
The pandemic quickly changed how many companies do business. Within a week of shutting down, the LIVE WELL corporate team revamped their member portal to provide an experience that mimicked a session in clinic, complete with customized home workouts; warm-up, cardio, and cool-down videos; and the daily education and inspiration members were used to receiving each session.
Despite the online platform, members eagerly waited for in-person services to resume. “Not everyone likes online,” says Howie. “People like the sense of community and coming in to work with like-minded people.” When their doors reopened in June, the company added a third level of programing on Zoom, called LIVE WELL LIVEstreaming, so that members who were too scared to return to the clinic due to the virus could still participate. Post-pandemic, it will be an asset for people who have the sniffles or are vacationing.
In addressing social distancing requirements, the facility was already set up to provide each member with 100 sq ft of space per person. “We were already prepared, we just upped our game a bit.” To keep members safe and on track, the brand turned its focus to maintaining unparalleled clinical support while ensuring all equipment is disinfected at the end of each session. As sessions got bigger, staff set up individual stations with equipment for each member, and began serving smaller groups, adding sessions as needed.
Turning lemons into lemonade
Howie says the pandemic has unlocked new opportunities, and the franchise is working hard to gain visibility in the marketplace by elevating marketing efforts and making strong connections.
With the technology in place to allow members to participate in distanced programming, Howie also feels a smaller footprint of the clinic can be built to service areas like Squamish. “The opportunity right now is huge. Cardiac rehab units are shut down. There are things people might have done to manage their arthritis in a gym. Where do they go now? It’s a great time to take advantage of that opening in the marketplace. People need to be in a structured, supportive place to change habits, and that’s what we are about, changing behaviours.”
Building on the benefits
Howie was attracted to the concept and the brand for two main reasons: the support and the passion.
“When I did my research, I liked that they started the franchise, and then made adjustments based on what worked and what didn’t. That clicked for me.” He adds that the investment in resources and technology further reinforce the commitment of the franchise system.
In meeting with founder Sara Hodson and the rest of the team, the passion for the brand was an immediate draw. “When I looked Sara in the eyes, I knew it was a life’s work for her, and now it’s a life’s work for me.”
The pandemic hasn’t quelled Howie’s long-term goal of opening another clinic in North Vancouver. “The blue-sky plan is to have a smaller clinic in Squamish or North Island. I personally need to be able to plan that far ahead and have that excitement of a goal. What I can do right now is focus on the short-term by hitting my membership goals and taking the at-home program to Squamish, which is the next target.”
The muscle behind the success
Howie advises prospective franchisees to make sure they have their finances in place. “Know what you are getting into and be prepared to put money into it as a startup.”
He says franchisees should be willing to put in the time to be successful. “To me, it’s full time. Cindy and I probably put in 90 hours a week, and Cindy still works part-time as a sign language interpreter.” He also leverages volunteers, people who will champion the brand and help propel it forward. In navigating a new business, Howie says he’s learned to focus on what’s important – fostering existing relationships and bringing in new members.
Franchisees can come from a variety of backgrounds, like finance, coaching, and training. Though the logistics of running a business are important, Howie also notes that understanding the people within a community is paramount. “You need to live in that community somehow or some way,” he says.
Though making connections with establishments like local care homes won’t yield a larger membership, it does allow LIVE WELL to gain exposure and build a positive reputation and connection to the community. “The ability to find champions in the medical community is critical. One member of the team has to be able to go out and cultivate relationships.”
LIVE WELL offers something new and exciting, while challenging the status quo by bringing feel-good fitness to communities, and helping to change peoples lives. There’s something to be said about living well.