AFT Interviews: Ryan Hogan, CEO of Les Mills Asia Pacific is on a mission to make the planet fitter and healthier
How? Learn more about the amazing Les Mills success story, a brand powered by 140,000 accredited instructors delivering group workouts to over 7 million people all over the world each week.
AFT Podcasts presents The Move 8, Move It, Move AID Podcast, giving insight into the hearts and minds of everyday people who use rhythm and movement as therapy to live well and be happy. Co-hosts Jasmine Low & Nikki Yeo created the Move8 Fitness Movement in 2018, and have been perfecting the eight pillar method towards living well.
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Hot off the press! LES MILLS LIVE heads to Melbourne in August 2022.
In this episode, we meet Ryan Hogan, CEO of Les Mills Asia Pacific who is pursuing a mission for a fitter, healthier planet! Originally from Canada, Ryan has been spearheading the fitness industry for the last two decades and one of his best known work is at FILEX - THE largest leading Fitness Education Event. He oversees Les Mills in over 14 countries from Canberra, Australia to Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Maldives, Guam and Papua New Guinea.
An Olympian and Commonwealth Games athlete by the name of Les Mills set up a gym in Auckland, New Zealand 50 years ago in 1968. It took 30 years of gym building, an innovative pre-choreographed barbell workout known as BODYPUMP® and the vision of an entrepreneur named Bill Robertson from Canberra to revolutionise the fitness industry with BODYPUMP® making it the world’s most famous group exercise class. Then came Les Mills Asia Pacific and Les Mills International, and today, a business that licenses 20 different programs to over 21,000 clubs in over 110 countries with over 140,000 accredited Instructors delivering group workouts to over 7 million people each week.
1:40 (AFT-Jasmine): WOW! How did you guys get to 140,000 instructors?
(LMAP-Ryan): It's been a long journey. It was a concept in the mid 1990s that exploded around the world that included a lot of hard work, a lot of people hitting the roads, waving the flag, doing a lot of hard yards.
2:15 (AFT-Jasmine): You spent a substantial part of your career in the business of fitness. How did that happen and what drove your passion in fitness?
(LMAP-Ryan): My whole career has been in the fitness industry. I have been a gym member since I was very young. I fell into a gym where I grew up, I joined group fitness, at the time in the 80s and 90s, and called it Aerobic Dance. I come from a family where music was a part of our lives and there was something about the rhythmic nature of exercising to music and being in a large group, so it really gelled with me. So from there, from being a very annoying and challenging participant to becoming an instructor while I was in business school. I'm very fortunate and grateful for the journey that it's been and I've always been in fitness.
I grew up in Mexico and gym membership was quite affordable yet it was something the middle and upper class did, not dissimilar to other countries. Mexicans are really into their sport - soccer or football. So fitness was a new thing in the mid 90s, but as the middle class grew, as disposable income grew, not dissimilar to Southeast Asia, so did activities like fitness at gyms.
4:57 (AFT-Jasmine) I understand your mum is an academic and you moved from the UK to Mexico. How did Mexico shape you?
Mum teaches English as a second language. She's an English professor and that's how we ended up in Mexico. Both of us were born and bred in Toronto, Canada and mum took a post in Mexico 30 years ago and she's still there! It's a wonderful place, full of wonderful people, great food and culture!
5:25 (AFT-Jasmine) There's a city, Oaxaca where its Mayor came up with a law and banned kids under the age of 18 from buying sugary drinks.
(LMAP-Ryan) Mexicans, other than people from the United States, are some of the highest consumers of the soft drink in the world. They drink it by the gallon (litre), but that's a great initiative because it's a massive contributor to obesity and unhealthy habits.
6:00 (AFT-Jasmine) In those Spanish speaking countries like Mexico, music is such a core in their cultures. When designing the Move8 Fitness Movement, we were inspired by a video called FOLI, about the Malinke tribe in Africa. A gentleman in the video says, "there can be no movement without rhythm". When you think of Les Mills programs, it's all about dance, music, it's fun and social.. it's not even exercise. Tell us how you've grown this brand in this lateral way.
(LMAP-Ryan) I've been with Les Mills for three years but I've been involved as an instructor for a long time teaching body pump groups.
Philip Mills, who is very central in the creation of the Les Mills family will talk about music being really central in what we do. We're pretty obsessed about music, and the equality of music. Our licensing team in New Zealand, we've moved towards creating our own music and employing recording artists. We're now the largest employer of recording artists in New Zealand because of what we need to produce to be able to distribute around the world. Our obsession with quality and the refinement of every single piece is a big part of what's driven our success.
It must stem down to the DNA of the Olympian, doesn't it? We understand Mr. Les Mills holds the record for discus for 40 years?!
(LMAP-Ryan) You'd have to! If you're performing at that level, you've got to be obsessed with quality.
8:20 (AFT-Nikki): You’ve been in the business of fitness, driving membership sales, engagement and upskilling of fitness coaches. Recently, Les Mills has taken Virtual Fitness even further with the new app Les Mills PLUS. What are your thoughts on group fitness in the Metaverse?
(LMAP-Ryan) A good question, so bear with me. I think digital fitness, we're sitting here at the end of 2021 after two years of dealing with Covid and we know that in the pre-Covid-19 world, people were exercising at home, people's patterns were changing. It was no longer that the gym was the be-all and end-all for where you would consume your exercise. As people were more time poor, especially in larger cities, digital democratises everything and becomes accessible to everyone for everyone who had access to the Internet and to digital devices and fitness was a part of that. In the last six to seven years, there has been a huge explosion of digital fitness. At-home-fitness is not a new phenomenon. Anyone who was around in the 80s, would remember your parents plugging in the VHS video in the lounge room and doing some step aerobics (Jack Lalaine or Jane Fonda). But of course digital brought it front and centre, and democratised fitness at home. As it relates to us at Les Mills, a few years ago we thought this was something we looked at, we've been in the business of distributing our product, our content through the health clubs for 20 odd years but we were looking at how we could grow, to help our club partners go beyond the four walls and go wider and in line with our global mission to get more people 'For a Fitter Planet', filling up the gyms and getting more people more active. So we started investing in the Les Mills On Demand, which is now called Les Mills PLUS which is a consumer-facing app and Covid-19 just exploded! Digital is here to stay.
We ran a consumer behaviour survey in May 2021 and we surveyed over 12,000 fitness consumers around the world asked what are your habits going to be like post-pandemic. Majority said, I definitely miss being around my friends, being in the gym, I miss group workouts. But I'm used to, and enjoy the convenience of working out from home. They overwhelmingly said they'd spend 60% of their time working in the gym and 40% working on it on their own. So it's here to stay and the technology will grow in leaps and bounds. At the moment we're engaging through an app, or the TV, watching and engaging. The next step would be virtual reality, augmented reality between the third place between work and home. I think we're only getting started.
If you look outside the Les Mills environment, Apple, Amazon, Google... Google bought Fitbit, Apple's mission is around health and making the world healthier, so there's lots of interesting times ahead. Very disruptive times for those of us in the traditional space, but lots of opportunities as well.
12:27 (AFT-Jasmine) With this huge meta universe coming ahead, what is Les Mills really all about?
(LMAP-Ryan) We're for a Fitter Planet. How we contribute towards a fitter planet is by creating life changing group fitness experiences. We're obsessed about the quality of our classes, we're obsessed about the quality of our instructors that deliver at them and we really really believe in the power of exercising in groups.
Given my background even pre-Les Mills, exercising in groups is what changed my life. In the Les Mills world, we have this term we call groupness. I mean it's not a real word, but the power of groupness is the stickiness of being in a group, it's the accountability of being in a group, of turning up to a class with your friends, the connection you have with the instructor on stage who's super prepared to deliver a rock star experience, it's the lift of energy that you get from being around others.
Like all of us, I've been through quite a few lockdowns during these Covid times. I've got a pretty good home setup so I trained through it because exercise was a part of my life but lockdown wasn't going to stop that. I do the same workout at home but I found that my heart rate monitor showed I worked 30% harder when working in a group with colleagues at the studio than when being at home. And that's the power of a group! It's the collective lift of being around people who are working out with you with an instructor. The power of rising tides.
Another analogy I can make is the difference between listening to music on Spotify and when listening to that same song performed live in a concert, performed in front of a live audience, it's the power of rising tides, that's the power of groupness.
15:00 (AFT-Jasmine): It's like how we came up with Move8, the eight is an idea where you need eight people in your circle to encourage each other to move.
I come from a family where we have a history of Type 2 Diabetes. I was pre-diabetic but since starting these podcasts, I have managed to reverse my pre-diabetes. So this is what we wish to share with these podcasts.
What Les Mills is trying to do across Southeast Asia, including in Guam, Maldives.. It's a really amazing thing. So if I'm a fitness instructor and I'm interested in joining Les Mills, how do I do that?
(LMAP-Ryan) We've trained over 140,000 active instructors over the world, and hundreds of thousands of instructors over 25 years, we've been pretty good at the system we've created. If you're in Southeast Asia or Australia, it's a three-day process broken up over a couple of months. Do some pre-work, you'll get your programme materials whether it's body pump or body combat or whatever you wish to so and learn them beforehand, then two-days of immersion where you get taught the basics of what's required in delivering a world class experience. After those two-days, you go out and work with an instructor mentor at your local health club, and you start shadowing where you are on stage standing behind the instructor, mimicking the movements without teaching, then eventually you start team teaching, where you share the class, where your mentor will give you feedback. Eight weeks later, you turn up on day three, where you then present (teach) a couple of songs to your peers several times and after day three if you've met the criteria and passed the assessments, you start teaching. It's not easy! We're known for the training not being easy at all. It's a physically demanding training, because you need to be a physical role model if you're going to be an instructor with the brand. We have very strict criteria and it's even possible to fail. But we pride ourselves in the criteria you'll need to meet and beyond training, there's constant upskilling. Our programmes get updated every quarter and our instructors will need to upskill every quarter by learning the new releases.
This is how we maintain our obsession with quality. We've done 120-130 releases every three months and we've not stopped even during Covid. We have to update every quarter and we have to make sure that we have the latest moves and the latest music, and we've not stopped even during Covid. We made sure we found a way to make it work even during strict lockdowns. Our content globally is produced in Auckland, New Zealand where our recording studio is located. This obsession with quality is really a part of who we are.
19:50 (AFT-Jasmine) How does a gym owner sign on to a Les Mills partnership?
When you partner with Les Mills, we'll come in and license the products and classes, and we add value by supporting you with managing your group fitness timetable. Often health clubs are small to medium sized businesses and have a number of different challenges and group fitness is one of them. We really partner with the clubs and bring value. The group fitness real estate and health club should be the most profitable piece of real estate within the health club because of the number of people you can turn around.
21:00 (AFT-Nikki): Do tell us even more about the Les Mills mission, "For a Fitter Planet".
(LMAP-Ryan) There's this book by Simon Sinek, "Start with Why", great businesses start with why and what a more awesome why than For a Fitter Planet. It's really about everything that we do. We believe in the power of fitness to really transform the planet, to transform the way we live and our health. Fitness is one element of health, it's what you eat, your sleep, it's about creating a Fitter Planet. We believe through the quality of our group fitness classes, whether it's in-club or it's at-home through the Les Mills PLUS app, we can really contribute to a healthier and fitter planet. It's this obsession we have about keeping moving forward.
22:20 (AFT-Jasmine) In Singapore and Malaysia, we are familiar with brands like Class Pass, K-Fit, Guava Pass etc. What do you think about opportunities like these for the consumer, and on the flip-side, for the business?
(LMAP-Ryan) These are aggregators, and for consumers, it's great for choice. It gave consumers more opportunities to try different workouts. It was great on the other side for the facilities, the studios and clubs as it was great to access more people and get more people through their doors. It was great for smaller studios who were struggling to get more people into their gyms. Ultimately it was about democratising access to fitness. If these brands were getting more people more active, that's a good thing.
27:50 (AFT-Jasmine): Do you think the business models of gyms will be changing in future?
(LMAP-Ryan) The recent research we did in May 2021 showed an overwhelming response to, "I want to exercise with others, I want to be in groups, I want to be around others". That was the no. 1 reason why I'd like to get out. I don't believe gyms will change that drastically, other than they need to embrace digital. It's been traditionally a bricks and mortar kind of business, you get a membership, we want you come to the gym as often as you can because that increases stickiness and you'll stay for longer, but we know that after two-years of learning how to exercise at home, some of us have become quite good at that, so the gyms, the health clubs need to learn about how to become the distribution channels for that, and compete with the likes of Apple, Google etc. Apple doesn't want to get you into the gym. Apple wants to get you healthy and sell you watches and phones.
The health club or gym can really be that centre. It could be that third place. You've got home, work and the third place, where in many countries the third place would be the pub. The gym could be that third place. If consumers are consuming fitness digitally, then the gyms will need to see how they can be a part of that and how they can provide an amazing experience in the gyms and also at home, then their members won't need to go elsewhere.
I don't think the business model will change that much but how you deliver on the promise that will change.
In the research, which countries are the most active when it comes to fitness?
(LMAP-Ryan) No surprises, it was Australia, New Zealand, United States, United Kingdom and Western Europe, and it had nothing to do with culture but the maturity of the fitness industry. If you were to look at the percentage of the population in Asian countries who are members of gyms, it's very low. However, if you were to look at urban participation in big cities like Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Jakarta, it's much higher. The potential to grow is to move out from the urban centres into the country.
27:50 (AFT-Jasmine) Is there an annual convention that Les Mills runs?
(LMAP-Ryan) Pre-Covid, yes, we have done them. We have a big, big, big community of instructors and trainers in Europe and a massive community in North America - the biggest fitness market in the world. We used to get together somewhere in Europe where we could make lots of noise! The last one we did was at a resort in Southern Europe. It was fantastic!
We've also gone digital with online conferences and events but we're really looking at producing Les Mills Live, where we bring the brand alive to the community. It runs a couple of days, with the programs created by instructors in New Zealand. The last Les Mills Live was at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore with over 2000 instructors. We ran body combat with over 1200 people in the class in a BIG room with lots of screens and a BIG stage. It's about groupness, and how exercising with just a few colleagues in a room, now picture that with 1200 people. It's a wonderful experience! Those big gatherings are a real part of the stickiness of our brand, and we really look forward to doing it again.
32:00 (AFT-Jasmine): Why do you think Australians and New Zealanders are just so good at fitness programs?
(LMAP-Ryan) Antipodeans, i.e. Australian and New Zealand have a BIG sporting culture ingrained from when you're a child, you're throwing a ball or kicking a ball, you're running or swimming, you're in a pool or diving. Sports on the TV, you go to the footie with your father, your mates, male or female, it's such an ingrained part of culture and the concept of being fit and healthy is ingrained in culture. That I think is different from the rest of the world.
Thank you for joining us on another episode of the Move it, Move 8, Move AID Podcast. Subscribe on your preferred podcast platform. See you next time and remember, why just be fit when you can be fit for good. Is there someone you could journey with? Walk with? Take a drive with?
Thanks to Ryan, Analee and the team at Les Mills Asia Pacific for making this interview happen.
AFT Podcasts is co-hosted, produced and edited by Jasmine Low & Nikki Yeo. This transcript has been edited for brevity.
Recorded live in December 2021 at Sydney Podcast Studios in St. Leonards, Australia.
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