Contours Express is one of the largest women’s fitness franchises in the world and had been listed for seven consecutive years in the Franchise 500 edition of the Entrepreneur Magazine. “The Better Idea In Women’s Gyms” as it is called was also one of the FLA award 2009 Franchisor of the Year finalists last year. Franchise Asia was briefed by Chong Wan Kit – Master Franchisee for Contours Express (Singapore & Malaysia Chapter) on how this fast growing women’s only fitness and weight loss franchise concept is changing lives of women all over the world.
Tell us about Contours Express and your business background
Contours Express has been a leader in international women’s fitness franchises dating back to 1998 and is one of the largest women’s fitness franchises in the world. Our fitness franchise opportunity started in USA, but we have sought to change the women’s fitness franchise concept across the world. Contours Express is now a major international franchise network with over 700 locations in 25 countries.
We bought the franchise rights for Singapore and Malaysia in 2006 and have been operating since 2004. I have around 15 years of experience in franchising and for the past four years have been the Master Franchisee for Contours Express, Singapore and Malaysia Chapter. Currently there are 12 Contours Express centres in Singapore and one in Malaysia, out of which, one is company owned and the rest are franchise clubs.
How is Contours Express different from other fitness centres and gyms?
Contours Express, is an all-women circuit training gym. Our concept focuses on efficient and convenient exercise for females, offering unlimited sessions of fast 29-minute circuit training programme that blends both strength-building and aerobic exercise, for a low monthly fee. In simple terms, circuit training is a fitness concept using a circuit routine alternating between aerobics/kickboxing moves and weight resistance stations. With personalised attention and training, members experience real results by tracking their progress with our trained staff. This ensures that members of every fitness level can strengthen, shape and tone all of their major muscle groups, while improving their cardiovascular health, in less than half hour.
Why did you choose Contours Express and the franchising model?
The main reason was that franchising can be replicated much faster. I had confidence in Contours Express for being the top two brands (among 200 different brands in the circuit training category) in the world and a successful franchisor of specialised women’s gyms – a billion-dollar fitness industry. Furthermore, the franchisor was also willing to adjust or modify their service to fit into our local context. Another advantage was that franchising allowed us, the operator to take charge of customer service & quality control aspects – among key elements to drive our business forward and differentiate from the rest.
More importantly, before taking up the business I often asked myself how will Contours Express stay competitive and maintain its lead in the women’s fitness and health industry in the future. The answer was found in the use of real weights for real (and better) results at our centres instead of less effective hydraulic equipment used in other women’s gyms.
What are some of the initial challenges faced by you as the Master Franchisee for Contours Express?
When we started Contours Express four years ago, not many Singaporeans were familiar with circuit training which was already very popular in USA. In fact there are almost 25,000 circuit training gyms for women in USA. Many were also taken aback the first time they saw our gym. Our small size gyms, averaging 1,200 sq. ft. to 1,500 sq. ft. was deemed too small by those who are used to seeing bigger sized gyms – what more to see one devoid of all the common facilities of a conventional gym, e.g., treadmills, swimming pool, sauna etc.
It was also a challenge for us to attract Singaporean women of all ages to exercise unlike their western counterparts who are more used to the idea. Many women over here had the wrong misconception that gym is all about pumping iron, building muscles and working out long hours to achieve the desired results. We spent extensively on advertising and PR campaigns, promotional activities to reeducate the women on our fitness concept. Lastly, our challenge was also in localising the marketing messages, sales process and operation procedure to fit into the Singapore and Malaysia market contexts.
Who are your typical Contours Express customers?
Contours Express draws mainly mature women who are out of shape, too shy or timid to join a conventional fitness centre – predominantly those who have not stepped into a gym or fitness centre before, or those who have stopped exercising for one reason or another. They are the ones who are quite comfortable walking in wearing their oldest T-shirts because they find Contours Express centres to be homely, friendly and cosy.
How do you choose the right Contours Express franchisee?
A master franchisee new to the business may sell to anyone who is willing to take up a franchise when desperate for success stories. The first person who comes along may not be the right candidate with the right mindset. This is a common mistake because if the one franchisee fails, you fail 100 percent. On the other hand, if you have 100 franchisees, and if any one of them fails, you only fail one percent. It is a hard decision to make, especially when the potential franchisee is eager to invest.
As a master franchisee, we have a seven-step candidate evaluation process. It’s a detailed procedure but in short, we assess a candidate on their interest on the product service, their passion for the business, etc. As much as we can, we avoid those who want to hold on to their full time employment, because from experience we know that their centres would not last long due to their misplaced objectives. At Contours Express, we are keen to establish a foundation to strengthen the network. We want our franchisees to be enthusiastic about their business, so they don’t lose faith and fold easily when faced with a competitor. We want our franchisees to have the confidence to take down the competition instead.
Another important factor to remember is that a franchise candidate should conduct prior due diligence themselves. It should not come to a point where we are accused of not disclosing important points to them. It’s extremely crucial that the franchisee thoroughly investigate the business before embarking on it. Franchisee should also be aware that the main revenue stream of a strong franchise model is based on ongoing royalty instead of initial franchise fees. Both franchisor and franchisee should set the right expectation of their roles and responsibilities from the very beginning. Another major misconception held by many franchisees is that everything will be taken care by the master franchisee or franchisor once payment of the franchise fees is done. This is far from the truth. It is vital that franchisees are taught to fish (knowledge transfer) rather than having franchisor or master franchisee fish for them.
What makes a successful Contours Express franchisee?
Essentially it boils down to the operator’s passion and commitment. They have to put in the time and effort to make their business successful. For instance, an operator who is holding a full time career cannot expect positive outcomes for investing only a few hours in the business. In fact, I am very reluctant to go for a investor who is getting into the business purely for profit. If this takes place, customer service and quality control are bound to take a back seat, the very principles that had placed Contours Express among the tops franchise names worldwide.
It is interesting to note that many of our franchisees are first and foremost attracted to Contours Express from a consumer’s perspective. Many of them are customers first before turning franchisees later as their belief in the business grows. Many of them are inspired to enrich and change someone’s life rather than solely build this business for monetary gains. The joy of watching someone transform from a low self-esteem, with very little eye contact, and extremely unhappy person to someone who walks in smiling, head held high, talking with new friends, and finally feeling good about themselves within weeks is beyond compare. Many franchisees have formed lasting relationships with their members.
How long does it normally take for franchisees to recoup their initial investment?
Although not all operators are alike, all our franchisees have been cash positive within the first three months of operation. They usually can recover their investment by end of the first year. Two of our franchise clubs have even opened second outlets after only a year of operation.
Why should one consider Contours Express as a potential franchise business of the future?
Simply put, Contours Express has been listed for seven consecutive years in the Franchise 500 edition of the Entrepreneur Magazine. As a franchise programme, it provides the opportunity to participate in one of the hottest business trends around – women and health. The market potential is extremely huge and untapped. Research shows that this underserved segment is generally well educated working women with higher health awareness who are more committed to stay in a health and fitness programme longer to achieve their fitness goals. With Singapore property rental rate among the highest in the region, the small space requirement to operate a Contours Express is another major appeal.
Many fitness centres or gyms allow their members to utilise their membership at their various branches. Does Contours Express allow their members the same flexibility?
Typically we find our members prefer to go to a centre nearest their home or work place. Rarely do our members change centres as convenience is a prime consideration. It doesn’t make sense for them to travel to a far away centre for a half hour workout. However in the event they have to use different centres, for example when they change jobs, we allow them to transfer their membership permanently to their preferred centre. In the rare occasion when a member wants to use multiple centres, for example during weekdays and weekends, the member can still have unlimited sessions at their primary centres but is charged a nominal per entry fee by the relevant club without the need to transfer their membership.
In last year’s FLAward 2009 organised by the Franchising & Licensing Association Singapore, Contours Express was among the Franchisor of the Year finalists. What does this mean to you as a franchisor?
To be truthful, we did not aspire to win the award in the first place. Our main goal was to continuously evolve the revenue stream and profitability for our franchisees. However we are extremely proud of the recognition and increased awareness that the FLA awards has given us.
What is the expansion plan for Contours Express in the coming year?
We plan to open at least four new clubs in Singapore and two new clubs in Malaysia and be known as “The Better Idea in Women’s Gyms”- the highly preferred neighbourhood gym that empowers women.