Introducing Gravity Fitness, the community gym with heart
Bionic spoke to Mik Povall, who owns Gravity Fitness with his sister Karla. We discovered how he keeps the Wirral-based gym ticking over, adapted to change over the years and how they've been making changes to lower energy consumption amidst price hikes.
“We’re a local community gym and next year I celebrate 30 years in the industry. I know I don't look that old but I genuinely am!" Jokes Mik with a grin when we ask him to introduce his business.
"I started off working in Village Hotels, which was owned by The De Vere Group, I was effectively a cleaner but within three or four weeks I got on really well with the manager, so he gave me a chance at learning to be a gym assistant and I loved it. Three months later, I started an NVQ. Six years later I was the manager of the leisure club and eight years later I was cluster development manager for De Vere."
Referring to the Gravity premises, Mik said "My sister took on this place thirteen years later, which at the time was called Owen's Health and Fitness. She asked if I fancied going into business with her. So, I've been here for twelve years now."
Making the switch to being a business owner
Bionic was interested to find out how it felt flitting from a relatively secure paid job to owning a business - was it a leap of faith or was Mik 100% confident in the step?
"It felt like the most natural transition, full stop." says Mik "I never felt that it was a worry to take on because my heart is in the business. I feel like I've grown up in the industry anyway, so I was supremely confident that it was right for me."
And how has Gravity grown over the years?
“We’ve got about 1,000 members now." Says Mik "When I first took over, we had around 300 or 400 members.”
Mik and Karla have worked really hard to build the gym’s following and increase loyalty. Mik values the support of his members and thinks of the gym as a family unit; with an ultimate passion for fitness in common. But what about the demographic, does Mik notice a specific age range using Gravity?
“We see a huge age range,” He tells us “From sixteen to our oldest customer who is 91 years old and still here daily.”
He adds “But it’s a different generation now. For example, we don’t have a huge number of customers aged 20-26. We get them coming in until they’re about 20, then they drop off and we’ll lose them.” Mik explains “But then they’ll come back when they’re 28-32 and stay with us.”
Mik also notes that the last few years have allowed him to branch out and see what fitness approach works best for his members because every client has different needs.
“It’s a 50/50 spilt of male and female members" he tells us "and although our classes are popular, we’ve expanded so it’s not just about them anymore. Back in the day, we were known to be a very class-oriented gym, but Covid gave us a good opportunity to turn the place inside out, knock walls down, extend and think about what else we could offer.”
Feeling the effects of Covid
Covid was certainly a massive obstacle for many small businesses. A few years down the line, some are still recovering and have now been hit by another financial blow; the cost of living crisis. But what has been the biggest struggle Mik has faced to date?
“I think just keeping the doors open during Covid was our biggest struggle, luckily, we have some amazing customers who stuck by us.” Mik tells us. “Other gyms were hiring equipment out and keeping open that way, but we just didn’t have enough kit to do that. So, we tried to do weight classes outside in the car park, body weight exercises and challenges, things like that. We also did online classes where we’d go live to 60-80 people.”
“My team worked on an online programme, whilst I stayed here and painted and decorated the gym.” He finishes.
Gyms really struggled during Covid as revenue directly depends on members coming to a premises to work out. Personal trainers having face to face contact with customers is a huge part of running a fitness business, so how did Mik feel when gyms were forced to close?
“It felt like the end of the world.” He answers, reminiscing “I remember that Friday we were clock watching and keeping up with the news on the TV, we were just waiting to see what would happen and if we’d have to close.”
He continues “When the news broke that evening, I’d just had my last client and a few team members were in. We just looked at each other like ‘that’s it’. It was worrying, I thought ‘what are we going to do with the gym? With the members?’ It was really quite scary.”
Energy saving measures
But ever positive, Mik adapted and used the lockdowns to completely revamp, then Gravity opened again as soon as they were able to. During this time, Mik also looked into the premises’ energy consumption and planned ways to lower it.
“As a business owner, you’re always looking to save energy and money.” He tells us “I actually made all our lighting LED during lockdown, lighting this place alone was quite significant so that in itself dropped our energy bills.”
He added “In terms of heating, we basically have none!” He laughs “We had 17 radiators that we got rid of and there’s just one left in my sister’s office which she refuses to get rid of. In terms of energy, we’d already halved it during Covid, so when the energy crisis hit, it took us back to the level we were at before, which isn’t great but at least we weren’t losing money.”
Does Mik think LED is the way forward for small businesses, does it really make a difference and is it worth investing in?
“Absolutely, if you haven’t already done it, then do it.” He advises “Yeah, it’s an initial outlay, but you save so much money in the long run. We had around 400 bulbs which were 20 watts each, the new ones are about 4 watts. So, it’s a huge energy saving.”
Spurred on, Mik has gone even further, looking at every area of his business to ensure he’s saving as much energy as possible.
“Even the security in our car park is movement-based.” He says “It’s hard to adapt at first. Because we’re a 24-hour gym, we need the security even when I’m not on site. We’re manned from 4.30am to 9.30pm but then I’m checking the camera constantly at home outside of those times. It’s just about trust really.”
Keeping ahead of the competition
And what about the 24-hour approach? Did Mik feel the pressure to stay open as other high street gyms did the same?
“Yeah, we had to keep up. We should have done it earlier as it’s been successful for us. But it was very much a ‘move or stand still’ situation. To compete with the bigger chain gyms, we had to go with what everyone else was doing.”
And if Mik could pick one thing, what’s the best aspect of running Gravity? Is it the community he's built? Is it the members? Or is it positively influencing people to take care of their physical and mental health? Mik says it’s a mixture of the above, but it’s the staff and the members that really make Gravity special.
“The diverse amount of people we get coming in is the best part. We get people from all walks of life, you know, ex-doctors, ex-nurses, teachers.” He says, before going on. “But you feel safe in this gym, it’s not competition led, I mean, yes, we’ve got competitive athletes and bodybuilders, but they’re respectful and can have a joke. There’s no additional pressure and everyone is welcome here.”
“Training at Gravity is very much a lifestyle and health decision. And that gives us an edge.” He says.
But how does Mik cultivate this friendly atmosphere?
"Getting to know clients and customers" He answers after a pause "Get to know names and faces, but also why they're here. Maybe they have a wedding, want to lose weight, or maybe it's just for general health and wellbeing reasons. It's their journey, the coach should buy into the client's journey, not the other way round."
Mik thinks this is why Gravity is so accessible. The team make a huge effort to be welcoming and take away the daunting feeling that stop many from making the most out of a gym membership.
"The first step is the toughest" Says Mik "and because we're a smaller, family gym, I think that entices people. If they go to bigger gyms, they know it's going to be busier."
He adds “But there's a vibe at Gravity, the classes are great and there’s nothing better than being in on a Tuesday night for example. Jen can have 20 or 30 people in a class, I'll turn round, and the benches are full, people are working out the music is going.” He smiles.
“It gives you that little punch to train. The hardest part is getting through the door if you do that then you’ll train. Gravity is very vibey, it picks you up if you’ve had a bad day at work.”
Exercise has long been proven to improve physical and mental wellbeing. But why does Mik personally think it’s important to hit the gym or fit some form of exercise into our busy schedules?
“It’s a lifestyle thing, people work out to maintain their bodies. It’s become normal behaviour to go to the gym.” He tells us.
No pain, no gain
And what about moving forward, does Mik have any advice for other microbusiness owners? Any dumbbells of wisdom he’d like to share as support?
“I’d say as a gym owner it’s sometimes about ignoring trends. You see a new gym pop up, a new class or a new piece of equipment and nine times out of ten it’s still doing the same thing, it might be shiner or newer, but a dumbbell is a dumbbell in every gym. The reality is ensuring your training methods are good enough to support your client base not changing your equipment or classes every time a new one comes out.”
He continues “I’m happy with who we are, I’m confident with who we are. And I think that’s our selling point. Not every bar or café are the same, some stay close to trends, some change. We’re loyal, in some respects like a local pub. People know us.” He says.
So, with this in mind, how does Mik approach Gravity’s marketing strategy?
“Social media will always bring footfall” He says after thinking “but word of mouth is more important. Members talk about you, you team, your establishment. And the ones who are happy do more to sell your business than anything else.”
But he says that moving with the times is important and he, like every business owner, tries to embrace social media as that is often how new members become aware of the brand. Knowing your business inside out helps with this.
“Market yourself, know your place. What are you good at? Because you have to shout louder than anything else about that.” Mik says “Get that research in first, see your competitors and what’s good about them. Then just have a crack at it, what’s the worst than can happen? If you fail at least, you can say you tried!”
Watch the full interview below or over on the Bionic YouTube channel.