When you founded Equinox, there was nothing like it. What were other gyms like, and how was your concept for Equinox different?
In those days, gyms were mostly frequented by bodybuilder types, so aesthetics were not their strong suit. Most gyms were plain white boxes with no character—low ceilings, mats on the floor, like something you’d find in a basement garage. There were some aerobic studios around at that time, and also dance studios. We were looking for a place where we would enjoy working out, doing all the things we loved to do—cardio, weights, classes—but with great music and a real vibe, like the kind you could find in the NYC dance clubs at that time. It was the late ’80s, early ’90s, and we wanted to create a gym where people would want to go after work and hang out with friends, so that’s just what we did. We made it hip, cool, with great music, aesthetic flair, and a real city vibe, and it was an immediate success. It didn’t hurt that we hired amazing staff, talented, friendly, very good looking, and we also had the best classes and personal training in the business.
Describe the stages of creating Equinox, from the idea to opening the doors of the first one.
We were lucky in that, each of us, the three siblings, brought our own unique skills to the table. My brother Danny was a money and investment guy, and he did the real estate. My brother Vito was a builder/designer with a pitch-perfect aesthetic and an incredible feel for how to fill a space. People were always amazed at how beautiful our clubs were and at the quality of the materials in the locker rooms. I was the programming and hiring guru. I made it my mission to find the absolutely best people, real superstars, or diamonds in the rough that we could develop into superstars. I spent much of my time those days going all over the city and sometimes outside the city to check out classes and modalities that I’d heard about. That’s why we were the first to have so many things in the club, from reiki and massage to dance cardio and indoor cycling. I was always seeking the new and the better. And because we believed that people wanted to get the most out of their time at the gym, we invested in personal training and created the Equinox Training Institute and Certification Program. It was the first of its kind, and it created a whole new standard for the industry. We really invested in our people, and gave them the creative leeway to do things differently. That boldness and creativity paid off and was big reason we were best in class in our industry and consistently voted the best fitness club in the city.
What was the first gym like?
Our first gym was on the Upper West Side on 76th street. In actual size, it was not one of our larger gyms, but it had an amazing, techno-industrial vibe, which was very chic in those days. I can remember some of the superstar instructors who started there.
What were early reactions like?
I have to tell you that every time we opened a gym, including the first one, our presales would sell out. I think for the first gym we had this tremendous energy that was really infectious. People loved seeing all the siblings, and believe me we were there every day, so they saw us and got to know us. The city was ready to embrace a new fitness concept, and they fell in love with us and made us very successful.
How would you describe the Equinox member in the club’s early days? How has the Equinox member changed?
I think the Equinox member has always been that person who cares about fitness and is willing to pay a little more for a premium experience. I think for many of our members going to the gym is an important part of their day, and even, you might say, their identity. And, of course, we’ve always had our share of celebrities, models, and business and tech leaders, because there is a strong social element to the clubs, especially our E clubs, and people like to meet and hang out with others in their industries. We had a recognizable brand—just look at how many movies feature people working out in our clubs or meeting in our juice bars. The Equinox brand is synonymous with excellence, and our members did, and still very much do, value that.
How has Equinox evolved since you started it?
Well it’s national, it’s international, and it has a strong online presence as well. But I think the fundamentals are still the same. The highest-quality experience, the best-trained staff, and superior results for our members. Those things haven’t changed.
As I said, we envisioned a place where we ourselves would love to work out, a place with a great vibe, great music, great facilities, and a sense of community. And that’s what we built. While I don’t remember quite thinking about quantifying the success back then, we knew right away we had hit on a winning formula. That was obvious from day one.
How did Equinox pave the way for other clubs?
I think we put a certain sexiness and fun back into the idea of fitness in those early days, and then, through our programming, we showed people that fitness was more than lifting weights or running on a treadmill. We emphasized programs that allowed our members to optimize their health in very critical ways. We had all kinds of weight-loss, coaching, nutrition, meditation, and mindfulness programs to help our members reach their goals. We were the first to add a spa and emphasize wellness practices, even though, at the time, people thought we were overreaching. In fact, I got a lot of blowback in those early days. But now those programs are everywhere and recognized as critically important to maintaining health and fitness. I doubt you’ll find a premium fitness club that doesn’t offer them. But we were the first.
What made Equinox’s business model successful?
It was always a membership model, of course, but early on we focused on personal training. We created something new in the industry, personal training standards and certifications, and you could choose from three different levels of training, depending on the type of expertise you required. It was a huge driver of our business, because clients could literally see the results happening in real time. Personal training became the foundation of our business, because real, sustainable results are the foundation of the fitness business. As I said, from that first club we were confident we would succeed.
What things didn’t work?
We tried some things that didn’t work. We tried an Equinox vitamin line and a few other offshoots that never really jelled. What we learned is that you have to stick to your core business and expand based on what you learn about your customer’s needs. And for the most part, we did just that.
With COVID in mind, what is the future of gyms?
I think that, for fitness clubs, as for everything, COVID represent challenges and opportunities. You have to be able to pivot. I can see a big business for clubs that can send trainers into people’s homes, or possibly go into companies and set up small fitness club off-sites for executives and staff with limited people and exposure, to keep the members safe. You see how Peloton, Mirror, and other online programming have blown up during the pandemic. There are always opportunities; you just have to stay open to new ideas and be flexible.
When did you decide to sell and why?
We really worked incredibly hard for many years, nonstop, and had built the business to a point where we became an attractive property for a buyout. The offer was too good to refuse, and it made us all very wealthy. I think we were also ready to move on and try some other things. It’s wonderful to build a company with your siblings, and I feel very fortunate I had the opportunity to do that. But it’s also great to be able to go out exploring for new opportunities on your own. We’ve all been able to do that in our own ways, and we are really very lucky we’ve had both types of opportunities.
What would you have done differently?
Hard to say. Maybe taken a few more days off and worked a little less than 100 hours a week during those early days. Honestly, I really have no regrets, so I guess the answer is nothing.
Are you an Equinox member now?
Of course! I’ll always be an Equinox member. I mean, what other club is there? Right now, during COVID, I’m not going to the gym. But I always work out—it’s a must for my mental and physical health. I’m a huge mountain bike fan. I ride the trails behind my house in Malibu with my husband. And I love to dance, so I take online dance classes. I also do lots of specialized movement to keep my spine in alignment. Right now, I’m also looking at some very exciting new concepts in home fitness.