Franchisee Success StoriesSeptember/October 2022

The First Year: Working It Out

Orangetheory Fitness franchisees Stephen Wilk and Dave Cannon prove that you can still make gains while facing setbacks

By Suzanne Bowness

One of the best ways to get to know a brand is by being a customer first. Orangetheory Fitness franchisees Stephen Wilk and Dave Cannon took that a step further: they actually met at an Orangetheory gym in Surrey, B.C., where they worked out for about four-and-a-half years.

Both immediately appreciated the concept: daily, hourlong total-body workouts led by coaches who follow the same lesson plan globally. They also recognized how well a partnership could work with their combined working history. Cannon has experience in the sports marketing world, handling sales and marketing, while Wilk has operations experience in the automotive industry.

What they couldn’t foresee were the struggles the fitness industry would face in response to a global pandemic. If the pandemic was a test for business owners, they also passed. Despite multiple lockdowns and challenges, they’re still going strong two years later.

A prime location

Given Orangetheory’s popularity, with a presence in 27 countries since opening its doors in 2012, the partners had to wait for a location to become available. Eventually, they secured their site in Vancouver’s River District in May 2019. “When one of these Orangetheory locations became available, we looked at each other and said, ‘let’s jump on this,’” recalls Cannon.

Aside from the consistency of the workout, which features a 20-minute rotation of work on treadmills, rowing machines, and strength training throughout the hour, the franchisees also appreciated the brand’s growth and visibility, and the consistency of its workouts across the world. “Whether you’re in London, Shanghai, or Denmark, that’s the concept. So, there’s a huge community feel to it,” says Wilk.

Given that the fitness business is all about location, the duo says they got lucky. Orangetheory territories are based on population, and the River District is a prime residential and commercial community right on the waterfront. “We’re in a great area,” says Cannon. “There’s lots of residential, there’s great retailers around there. Number one, you always want to be close to a grocery store. We’ve got great retailers around us.” They worked with a real estate broker to find the right space for their studio and ended up choosing a 3,000-foot space at the base of a new 17-storey residential complex under construction.

“We signed our lease in December [2019] and didn’t take possession of our studio until October of 2020. So, we really got to see it from an empty cavity, through hiring the contractors, through all the suppliers and vendors, and then the build process,” says Wilk. Orangetheory supplied the construction team and Cannon and Wilk were very involved in the space layout.

At the same time, the franchisees also began their training, which starts at the Orangetheory head office in Boca Raton, Florida. Upon returning to Canada, they worked closely with staff based at the Canadian head office in Edmonton. From February to October 2020, they received weekly coaching from the national presales manager, who works with studios that are under construction. After opening their doors, they received instruction from the franchise business consultant, who provided 12 weeks of weekly calls with feedback on what they should expect throughout the opening process. They then transitioned to bi-weekly calls that focus on operations and marketing.

The franchise also provides training support online for both owners and staff through its Orangetheory University. “The training in Florida created a great base, and then, on an ongoing basis, and pivoting during this little pandemic, the Canadian office has been a great support as we navigate this unique storm,” says Cannon. Unfortunately, the pandemic was a big part of the story for Cannon and Wilk from day one.

Rolling with the punches

“Our first day of business, I can vividly remember: February 17, 2020,” says Wilk. “We had nine days to get our team together, and on February 29—it was a leap year—we had our first kickoff party with founding member rates available on a one-day-only basis. We had an unbelievable turnout. So, February 17 is when we first met the team, we trained for nine days, February 29 we had our kickoff party, and March 16 is when we closed our doors with the pandemic.”

The franchise remained closed until mid-June, came back in July, then went through the final three months of its sales process in a courtyard outside, where Cannon and Wilk played music, provided sample equipment for customers to try, and gave them a peek inside the studio. They followed up with a VIP party for new members, and an official grand opening on October 10. It appeared their shutdown woes were behind them until the pandemic led them to cease operations again, on November 7.

When they opened the second time, they were in their studio, but had to pivot. “We reopened, but under a different format, which is not what Orangetheory is—it’s group fitness training,” says Cannon. “People came in to use our equipment, but we weren’t allowed to instruct any of our classes. That really was challenging, because it’s not our model.”

But the new format remained the standard until June 2021, when they could reopen properly. “Since we’ve been back to our format, [we’re] gradually getting our members back who are comfortable loosening the restrictions, and [we’re] working on trying to retain our staff after coming and going throughout those different months.”

Today, the business is thriving despite the delays, with 15 staff members, including six coaches and nine sales associates, who mostly work part-time. Cannon and Wilk are appreciative of the tools and systems provided by head office, which help them concentrate on expanding their own business. “It just allows us to focus more on our business, on growing the membership and growing our staff, rather than putting operational things in place and building systems. Plus, they’re always tinkering with the systems and growing on that side,” says Wilk.

In terms of recommendations for potential franchisees, Wilk and Cannon agree their success has been dependent on taking the time to find a great location, and then paying attention to hiring. It’s also important to keep an eye on the numbers, watch expenses, and find strategies to drive revenue. “It’s a sales-driven business,” says Cannon. “You’re constantly looking at marketing and engaging new members, and the success is in retaining those members, in customer relationships.”

As a final piece of advice, Cannon and Wilk say that active ownership is key. “It’s not a business that you can do off the side of your desk,” says Cannon. “The most successful studios are the franchisees that are engaged, both in the studio and learning all the operational aspects.”

Wilk agrees. “I think our success as a studio comes from having boots on the ground. Dave and I were the ones that were out in the courtyard at the kickoff party, making friends and meeting members of the community,” he says.