Introducing Chapel Fitness, the quirkiest gym around

Chloe Bell
By Chloë Bell, Content Journalist

It’s 2024 already, and to celebrate the exciting year ahead, Bionic will be hyping up a different small business sector each month. January is the month of gyms. 

Fitness goals account for 48% of New Year’s resolutions according to a recent study published by Forbes, so who better to chat to than Bionic business Chapel Health and Fitness?

The outside of Chapel Fitness still resembles an old church

Eager to uncover what makes a gym owner tick, we hit the treadmill with Tony Dandy, who runs the popular village gym in Thringstone, Leicestershire. He told us about his proudest achievements, biggest struggles and why he thinks fitness is important when maintaining good physical and mental health.

Introducing Chapel Health and Fitness Studio

"I’ve owned this particular business for 20 years now, well 22 actually” Tony says when asked to introduce his business “I used to own it with my ex-wife, but I’ve owned it myself for about 15 years now. We’re based in one of the little, tiny villages just outside Leicester itself.”

And what’s so special about Chapel Health and Fitness, you ask? The premises are quirky enough, an old church that Tony has worked hard to convert into a niche workout space, but the sense of community is something he’s immensely proud of too. But Chapel Health and Fitness isn’t just a gym, Tony offers a unique fitness regime for members, including outside classes, walks and hikes, no matter what your skill level is.

“We’re predominantly a gym. We diversify with classes, but we don’t hold them in the gym itself, we hire out other spaces to do the classes in. I also do a lot of outside stuff like mountain walks and climbs, as well as Bootcamp in the city centre.” He tells us.

And what about the actual premises? Does using an old church affect things like space for equipment? What about heating and cooling the area?

“It’s a cold building, especially in the mornings” Tony laughs “it takes some warming up in the winter and cooling down in the summer.”

“But I’ve been very lucky, especially with the heating this winter, I got a really good gas and electric deal back in 2021, so that’s fixed until 2025. I’m guessing once 2025 comes around, then it’ll go up, but for now, it’s not too bad.” He adds.

And what inspired Tony to set up a gym initially, was he always into fitness and was it a natural progression?

“When I first got out of the army, I used to box and teach boxing classes, but it just didn’t make enough money to be sustainable. So, I was looking for a premises to buy.”

He continues “I bought this place, which is an old church and I used to teach classes, but again, I wasn’t making enough money from just doing that. So, I started filling it with kit and doing PT sessions. Before I knew it, the business seemed so much more practical and profitable. I just needed to sustain staff and turn it into a fully-fledged gym from there.”

And were there any teething problems when he first started? Tony said many people warned him against setting up a gym in a rural area as it would be tough getting outside clients.

“When I first opened, so many people told me not to open a gym in a village, just because there’s not enough people. But I thought that as long as the people in the village came, then that would be good enough for me. I’m not interested in being Bannatyne.”

An aerial view of the Chapel Fitness gym floor

Testing times

Bionic wanted to find out what Tony’s biggest struggle so far had been. He thinks for a moment before answering.

“Probably cash flow.” He decides “When things go wrong, like a piece of kit breaks, you have to find the money to fix it and that can be hard.”

“And during Covid, for example, I had a mate who lost his whole gym and another who was very close to losing his. They lost an astronomical number of members. We lost a few, but most of mine kept paying throughout Covid and came straight back when we opened.” He says gratefully, before adding:

“We did do online classes, it was a testing time, it isn’t something I’d want to do again. We had running clubs where members would log in and be told when to sprint and when to slow down. That kind of thing.”

Covid hasn’t been the only roadblock for small business owners, the energy and cost of living crisis has meant that people are often looking for ways to scale down spending. Gym memberships, nights out at restaurants and salon treatments are often the first to go.

“I know so many other gym owners who have had to give up their gyms because of energy prices or the cost of renting the premises and wages too.” Says Tony “It’s harsh to lose something you’ve had for so long, through no fault of your own.”

What has been the main change Tony has noticed during the cost-of-living crisis?

“The one thing I’ve noticed is wages. It’s me and three others here, I took them on about three years ago and they were quite young, but as they’ve got older, the cost of employing them has gone up exponentially.”

So how does Tony motivate his staff through tough times like these? He says it’s about the individuals he takes on, they have to be a certain kind of person; self-motivated and passionate about fitness, like him.

“It’s about who you hire” Tony tells us “If I have to motivate a staff member, then this industry probably isn’t right for them. A lot of my staff are really into their fitness, and that motivates them itself. You’ve got to be self-motivated to work here.”

Tony continues “The hardest part is staff keeping on top of their own gym workouts rather than clients and their classes. But we’re a good little bunch.”

And what is it about keeping fit that Tony thinks is so important?  He considers before linking his answer back to his own experiences.

“Exercise always makes me feel better when I’m doing it and after I’ve done it - especially the day after. Also, I like having things to look forward to, I do competitions still.”

He adds “But it’s not always getting fitter or stronger, it’s just about not living life sat on the sofa. I’m 52 years old now and it's about making sure I can still do everything I want to do in life, I’m still quite mobile, quite fit.”

“I’ve got members who come to the gym and do classes, and they’re in their 60s and 70s. They come to the classes or do big, long walks with me. Because I host a boot camp too, I do a lot of climbing and mountain walks. We’re doing coast to coast, which is 200 miles, there’s ten of us doing it.”

He continues “But you can’t do those sorts of things if you don’t have your health and fitness. You can’t do certain things in life, and you’d miss out on so much in my opinion.”

Out of interest, Bionic asked the age of Tony's eldest gym member.  

“The oldest member I’ve got in the gym is 86!” He tells us proudly “he comes to the gym most days. He’s an ex-county England runner, he used to be a PE teacher too, so he’s always been very fit and now he wants to be one of the best orienteers in the country in the over 80s category.”

The gym floor packed with high tech equipment

Hitting goals 20 years on

Does Tony ever feel pressure to keep up with high-street gyms? Does he feel as though he needs to stay open 24 hours or keep an eye on fitness trends?

“To be honest, I’ve always just done my own thing.” He says, “I genuinely aim to market towards people I want coming into my gym, I find it quite easy because they’re similar to myself.”

And what has his proudest moment been so far?

“I guess being around for 20 years” He says “especially when I first started, chucking money into it and stuff, but I’d say continuously seeing people join us and change their lives is an achievement.”

“I’m also proud that I do a lot in the community, I’m chairman of the community centre, we put a lot of money from the gym back into the local community and I get involved.”

And what about the future? Does Tony have big plans to expand or hire more staff?

“I want to be out of the gym more” Tony tells us “I want more hours taking people on walks and climbing mountains, the hardest part is getting more staff in to look after the gym. Once I’ve got them in place, then I can start doing more stuff outside.”

“We were going to do a fitness holiday in Tenerife this year, but we’ll probably do it next year now. I’ve done something similar before as one of the instructors, members get themselves there and it’s a week of fitness education, we have a day in the middle which is like a social day. It’s something we’re looking at.” He shares.

And what is the main form of marketing for Tony? He says it’s a mix.

“It’s word of mouth in the village for the gym itself, for the outdoor stuff its social media, because we do that in the city centre, in Victoria Park.”

He says social media is so important though and it really helps spread awareness about the gym and the multitude of fitness services he offers.

“The personal trainers help because they make videos in the gym, we have a couple of PTs who aren’t staff and they just pay to train clients in the gym, so that helps because every time they post a video, they tag us. They’ve got quite a good following already.”

What advice would Tony give to someone else just starting up a business?

“I’d say know your business, I knew fitness because I’d always been interested in it, but I knew nothing about running a gym. Figure out how everything works, otherwise you’ll be wasting money buying equipment that no one uses. I wasted so much money at the start.” He explains.

How does Tony decide which gym equipment to splash out on, now that he’s become more familiar with how to run a business?

“I test everything out myself.” He tells us “Before I buy something, I go somewhere and see how it works. You have to consider your clients, I might try out a piece of kit and really like it, but then I have to think half of our members are over 60, so maybe that won’t work for them.”
And if Tony could go back to the start of his business journey, would he do anything differently? He says yes, with a laugh.

“Yeah. Probably. I’ve made a few mistakes, I’ve spent money on things that didn’t work for us, like sunbeds for example, I don’t agree with them, so I’ve got something in my gym that I can’t stand!”

He adds: “But I would have put more emphasis on the gym itself, at the start I was focusing more on the boxing side of things because that’s what I was interested in.”

“It took me a while to get over my love of a particular thing and ensure the gym was accessible to everyone. I used to say 'we’re a boxing gym', so I’d turn down a lot of equipment because it wasn’t boxing-related. But actually, we’re a gym. Now we only have two boxing bags, when before we had about 20.”

You can check out Chapel Health and Fitness via Facebook or Instagram.