Aspria: Still setting the pace and raising the bar

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Aspria CEO Brian Morris has steered the Aspria ship through some pretty choppy waters over the last few years, but like all good ship’s captains he’s constantly got his eye on the horizon and how to finesse and develop the Aspria brand, focusing on making it bigger and better than ever, Together met with him to find out more.

In March 2000 a small revolution took place in Belgium’s world of health and fitness. I remember it well, I was a member of a gym that claimed “world-class” leadership at the time, but word got out that there was a newcomer in town and that it was going to be a game changer. Over twenty years and one pandemic later Aspria is still setting the pace and raising the bar. Catherine Feore met with Aspria CEO Brian Morris to find out about what makes Aspria unique, how it survived the pandemic and what’s next.

We’ve reached the other side of the pandemic, many businesses, especially fitness and leisure ones struggled to survive. How has Aspria come back and have you been changed by the experience?

Yes, it was a very dramatic time and led to the closure of all the clubs across Europe. We restructured the business and the team to reflect what was going on. I told my team on Friday night, we have come through a major event, a force majeure and then when we came out of it there was a war. I think the last global event of this scale was the Second World War. 

It’s been the most extraordinary period of my life and I’m sure many people’s lives, but I think it’s certainly taught us some lessons; we know that we shouldn’t take our health for granted. We’ve been very happy with the way the business has bounced back and the level of interest from members has been strong, especially across Brussels. 

With the conflict in Ukraine we’ve seen a massive increase in the cost of living, utility costs went through the roof and are roughly 300% what they were in 2019. I think that’s teaching us to be careful with energy consumption. 

“I think we’re very well placed for the kind of seismic shift we’re seeing in the way that people live their lives”

So we’ve taken two big lessons: We have an increased awareness of our health and also what we consume, by way of energy and almost anything else. It’s made us think, but I think we’re very well placed for the kind of seismic shift we’re seeing in the way that people live their lives. 

How do you deal with the growing energy costs?

Even before current events we have been working towards net zero. We have many junior members and we have to think about future generations, not just our own. We’ve had combined heat and power for many years, and at the Royal la Rasante club we added solar panels years ago, but we’re trying to become greener and greener. We want to do a lot more responsible investment. That also helps with the rise of utility prices.

“I think the idea of fitness for fitness sake is outdated […] being fit is such a narrow definition of health”

Aspria refers a lot less to straightforward fitness these days and talks more about a holistic approach to wellbeing. Is this a sea change?

Completely, I think the idea of fitness for fitness sake is outdated. Today, we think as much about mental health as about physical health, how we feel about ourselves. Being fit is such a narrow definition of health. For me it’s always been a bigger picture and I think that is ever more evident now. It’s been reinforced by what we’ve been going through over the last three years.

Does that differentiate you from other clubs? There has been a proliferation of gyms, do you consider them to be competitors?

I don’t think they’re a bad business. I think some of the fitness providers are great. I like what they do. I’m very respectful of what they do. They have a product, which is more focused on physical fitness. 

We offer an unparalleled programme for group exercise, with an enormous diversity of classes. Apart from fitness-related classes there is meditation, different schools of yoga and even some very fun dance classes. We enjoy sharing our expertise and we enjoy doing it in the clubs with the enough room, we have the most spacious clubs in Europe. This is really important for me, people shouldn’t feel that they are crammed in – especially when it comes to the locker room. 

“We have continued our investment in Brussels and Belgium generally. And we are in an expansive mode right now”

I think we’ve got the best team in Europe. In Brussels, we’ve got the unique position of having three and potentially a fourth club. We have continued our investment in Brussels and Belgium generally. And we are in an expansive mode right now. I’ve got a fantastic team of nearly 500 people across Europe, who I’m very, very proud of.

We are a bit more expensive than other clubs, but I would argue that we present a great price value proposition. We aren’t aiming at the lowest price, we’re aiming for the greatest value. We want our members to have a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

You’ve referred to other clubs, where else has Aspria taken root?

We are in Germany in four locations, and we are in Italy in two locations with a third one in development. We also have eleven partner clubs around the world that partner with us, so our members can use these clubs; they can be found in Washington and New York in the US, throughout India, as well as in the Far East in Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong.

So you can use your Belgian membership in any of these places?

Yes, it’s one of the ways we deliver great value for our members. Likewise the three clubs in Brussels all have something different to offer. The original Arts-Loi club on rue de l’Industrie, is easily accessible for those working in and around the European quarter, the Louise club – which is adult only – is situated in the Steigenberger Wiltcher hotel and the Royal la Rasante club is situated in the Woluwe area and is more family oriented with 40,000 square metres of land. Because of their location, they are easily accessible to all Brussels residents and perfect for those members who take up the ‘Multi-club’ membership that gives them the best of all worlds, unlimited access to all three clubs.

We also have co-working spaces. The Louise club even offers members access to a board room. We’ve been developing co-working spaces for years, it wasn’t a new innovation for us. We just enhanced these in the last year. We love that members can work from our clubs and five minutes later they can be enjoying the swimming pool.

Finally, what is your exercise routine like? 

My personal exercise routine is a reasonable work-out or swim around 4 or 5 days per week mostly in the mornings.  It wakes me up and prepares me for the day ahead. I feel more alive after my sessions and better able to deal with the excitements and challenges of the day ahead.  I always try to use one of our clubs each time I visit a city where we are represented, it allows me to see how our members use their club and see if there are improvements we can make that I can feed back to our teams.  Work is my passion after all!