Yoga chain reaches out to US partner

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am

HK entrepreneur exports slick vision of wellness

Exports and Hong Kong are synonymous. But selling 'wellness' is something new for the city, though it may be the start of something big.

Hong Kong's Pure Yoga chief executive Colin Grant has just announced a US$5 million-plus partnership investment with high-end US-based Equinox Fitness to roll out the Pure Yoga brand in New York, with Los Angeles to follow. Equinox said it was attracted to Pure Yoga because a concept that 'suited its yoga plans didn't exist in the US'.

But how did a local brand that only started in 2002 sell itself to a country that is years ahead of Hong Kong, especially when it comes to teacher training. And what is it that made the concept so attractive?

Mr Grant said that before he started Pure Yoga, there were no other studios in Hong Kong that offered what he wanted. There were a smattering of weekly classes offered in gyms, and there were local studios run by yogis, as opposed to businessmen. They offered regular classes but didn't offer the same facilities as high-end gyms. Gyms, meanwhile, were not focusing on yoga.

Along came Mr Grant - a former Hong Kong Davis Cup tennis player who had a new-found affinity for yoga - and financial support from business partner Bruce Rockowitz, president of Li & Fung. The result was the idea of creating a large, yoga-only studio that had all the trappings of an exclusive fitness club, minus the thumping techno-beat.

Pure's 10,000 sq ft studio in Central came with black marble shower rooms, lockers, a social meeting area, contemporary minimalist interior design and youthful, zen-like instructors.

The initial Central studio was also launched at a time when a rising global fascination with holistic approaches to health was evident. Add to the mix the continuing rise of an affluent population seeking more meaning to their lives, and the practice of yoga was ready to be popularised. Pure marketed itself to upscale customers with slogans such as 'look good naked'.

With no competitor of this size in the city, Pure opened other studios and its Pure Fitness chain as well. Equinox - which is solely focused on exercise and fitness now - has taken notice.

'We identified the need for a broader approach to yoga in the US, in particular in New York, and we have partnered with the premier yoga source - Pure - to create an entirely new yoga programme for the United States,' says Melanie Lyons, vice-president of business development for Equinox in New York.

Steve Clinefelter, president of the Asian arm of the 24-Hour Fitness group - which also owns California Fitness and the fledgling mYoga studios in Mong Kok and soon in Causeway Bay - said US groups were looking to Asia because what had been created here was unique.

The mYoga studios, and others, have come on the scene after Pure. Both claim to have the largest spaces. They differ in that mYoga offers yoga and other group exercise classes.

'Asia is a hotbed for yoga,' Mr Clinefelter said. It seemed to be based on the female preference for yoga here, he added. 'We looked into class preferences and realised yoga was in demand in Asia.'

He said the lack of outdoor space for exercise in Hong Kong - and research showing their female members were looking for more class-based variety - meant that 24-hour Fitness 'wanted to play the game, too'.

Pure's Mr Grant puts his group's growth down to simply having the means and the inclination.

Mr Grant has lived in Hong Kong from the age of 10 and started the Movieland chain of DVD rental stores. He got the idea for a yoga-only studio group in Hong Kong after trying out a yoga class in Whistler, Canada, while on holiday.

It was raining, so golf was out. Mr Grant was encouraged to go to the yoga class by a fellow traveller. 'I came back to Hong Kong and I genuinely missed yoga,' he said. 'I went back to Whistler again and ended up doing more yoga than golf.'

Mr Grant said that after talking to Mr Rockowitz, the plan was put into motion. There are now five Pure Yoga studios in Hong Kong, two in Singapore and one in Taipei. The mainland is also coming, although he declined to elaborate on his plans.

'Today, wellness has grown to US$500 billion and it's still just getting started, offering even greater entrepreneurial opportunities,' said economist and author of The Next Millionaires, Paul Zane Pilzer, in his book on the subject.

'The wellness industry will be the next major force in business on the planet, reaching US$1 trillion by the year 2012,' Pilzer said.

Of course, expansion in the health and fitness sector doesn't come without risk or controversy. As the recent collapse of Taiwan's Alexander Fitness chain shows, aggressive over-expansion can be a disaster. Alexander's opened on the mainland but sold its holdings there last year.

There's also criticism about commercialisation of the practice. Bikram Choudhury, who invented a yoga style that involves a series of self-styled poses done in heated rooms, has become very rich very quickly by licensing his operation. He is not always popular with traditionalists who eschew the idea of materialistic gain from yoga.

There was a Bikram studio in Hong Kong until last year, but it suddenly closed and became Planet Yoga with no warning to members or even teachers, with small-claims suits following. Yoga's popularity means mYoga is also looking to the US and is already in talks with its parent company for an mYoga concept there. Mr Clinefelter, however, admits that with expansion, there is always 'the unknown', as each marketplace is different. 'You better do your homework,' he said.