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Ep. 15 - Josh Leve - AFS: The #1 Fitness Industry Association for Studio Owners and Event You MUST Join

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If you think your fitness career or business is endangered because of COVID-19 (or if you aren’t sure you want to stay in the fitness industry), you’re not alone. Most fitness professionals and studio owners are feeling tons of pressure right now.

And while the virus might be out of your control, you still have the power to decide how to protect and grow your fitness business. In this podcast episode, Association of Fitness Studios Founder & CEO Josh Leve discusses why now is the time to stay connected with the right people and resources–and the importance of remembering your WHY–the reason you started your fitness business in the first place.

In this episode, you’ll learn…

  1. How Josh grew up in the fitness industry and started his own fitness association to support entrepreneurial fitness professionals … trainers in Big Box gyms who were ready to take the next step and go out on their own.
  2. The shared vision and mission that NPE and AFS have. AFS is focused on providing the community where you can connect with fitness professionals like yourself.
  3. How crucial it is for the fitness professionals and business owners to stay plugged into the information and research the AFS provides.
  4. Two tiers of AFS memberships and how each can benefit advancing your business
  5. The SUCCEED! virtual event. There are 30 sessions that are relevant on the latest trends and challenges in the fitness industry. Also, there are real-time online discussion forums to connect with fitness professionals who are on the same boat as you.
  6. How AFS is bringing the community together through COVID-19, so fitness business owners know that they’re not the only one who’s on the edge of shutting down their business and that there’s a way to survive this together!
  7. Why it is so important right now to remember your WHY–the reason you decided to start your career in the fitness industry. 
  8. And much more…
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Podcast Transcript

Sean Greeley: All right. Hey guys, welcome back, Sean Greeley here and excited to be here with Josh Leve, founder and CEO of the Association of Fitness Studios. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Josh for some time now and just super impressed with the mission purpose in the work that AFS, AFS for short, we call AFS the Association of Fitness Studios, is doing to support studio owners not just in the US but really around the world. And I was excited to get Josh on the show today to talk a little bit about that, have you guys hear his story and background and really why every studio owner, if you’re listening to this now, needs to become a member and be a part of what AFS is doing. So Josh, thanks for being here today.

Josh Leve: Thank you for having me, Sean. It’s good to be here.

Sean Greeley: Awesome. And Josh, in addition to being an incredible entrepreneur is also a dad of a couple kids and stays very busy with family life and we’re going to talk a little bit about kind of all those things for our audience a little bit today. But let’s start with just kind of the basics. So if you, in your own words Josh, tell everybody about what is AFS, why does it exist and the history of how it got started.

Josh Leve: Yeah, great question Sean. So as any entrepreneur will tell when you first get into business, you’re crazy, right? But you see that there’s a need that needs to be filled and ultimately you had the audacity to think that you know how to fill it, right? And so for us, for me really in particular, that need was something that kind of grew out of just my family’s history and as I was growing up, I was very fortunate to really have grown up in the fitness industry. Both my grandfather and my father started fitness associations. So my grandfather started something called the National Court Clubs Association, the NCCA, way back in the ’70s and ’80s when racquetball clubs and tennis clubs were the big thing. And then little company called URSA came along and they developed kind of a new niche.

Josh Leve: That’s when health clubs were really starting to grow. And they needed a governing body to really get a good handle on this new trend, which everybody knew was to be fitness. And so you’re talking the 80s and 90s to the early 2000s when big box clubs were where the big thing. Going back to, oh my gosh, Jane Fonda workout tapes and stuff like that. So fortunately my father got into that business and was hired by John McCarthy who was the director of URSA at the time and my father was one of the founding employees of URSA at the time. And John asked him, “Hey, I think it’d be great if we had a trade show.” Or my father asked John, “Hey, where’s your trade show in Johnson? We don’t have one. Do you want to build me one?” And so his claim to fame in my father is creating the URSA trade show in which he did for almost 30 years and ran that with URSA.

Josh Leve: And then of course I come along and I’ve worked in big box clubs, I’ve consulted with fitness studios. It’s just in my nature and then ultimately probably around 2010, I just got this idea as I was talking to some people in the industry, people I trust and of course my father to say, “Why isn’t there any credible association that’s focused on what URSA does for big boxes, but for these fitness studios that are popping up all over the country, all over the world?” And this is before Orange Theory, this is before Soul Cycle, this is before any of that happened. And he goes, “That’s a great idea. What do you think about starting something like that?” And now he wasn’t involved with AFS in the beginning. At the beginning it was me and I had a business partner at the time and we got a lot of good support from major companies in the industry.

Josh Leve: And we started this little association and it just kind of, as we all know with what happened with the fitness studio boom in the industry, it just really took off. And so as a potential investor once told me who I reconnected with a couple of years ago said, “Hey Josh, I’ve been watching you and my goodness,” he’s like, “you had the foresight to really be able to look at this industry and see where it was going and kudos to you.” And I had said to him, “I wish I could say that.” As any entrepreneur does, you have a vision, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. But ultimately, we did find a niche and we had been able to kind of withstand the growth and do what we can to really support all those entrepreneurial fitness professionals out there that had trained in big box clubs or studios or gyms that ultimately are ready to kind of take that next step as Sean, you know all too well.

Sean Greeley: Yeah. And I should mention, I love your dad. It’s great when we get on calls together and those who don’t know your dad Chuck, he’s a legend. If you get to meet him at an event, go say hi, introduce yourself. He’s got just great stories and he’s living the dream and in Newport Beach there, so we’re very happy for him. So let’s talk about really AFS, how it’s grown. You started as just a small association. You’ve grown to have significant membership now, have a couple of tiers of membership as well as really last year was your first big annual conference and it’s growing, which we’re going to talk to in a little bit, but let’s just really talk about what is the purpose of membership and what does someone get and why should they become a member?

Josh Leve: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think it’s important to note with those that are part of Sean’s group, NPE and AFS, we both do a lot of the same. We both have business education for fitness studios and gyms and fitness businesses, if you will. I think the difference that’s important for people to know is our approach to it is really geared for community elements. So for us, we’re really focused not only on meetups within the association, but also we’re very focused on the research part of what we do as an association. Our goal is to put very relevant, credible industry data into the hands of not only our members, but the industry as a whole to gain an understanding of kind of where the trends are happening in the market so that our members and those that purchase the research reports can get kind of a step ahead of the competition to know kind of where their business is going.

Josh Leve: Now, of course, nobody could’ve predicted what we’re dealing with right now, but at the same point our membership is very focused on the community aspect of members helping members. We do have a mentorship program. We do a lot of different round table meetup groups. We also have a ton of opportunities within the association for our members to connect with each other behind the scenes. And then of course, what associations are known for in particular is really just their events. A lot of times when you think of other major associations in the fitness industry, whether you’re talking URSA, you’re talking , you don’t necessarily think of their websites and logging in, but you think of their major events.

Josh Leve: Now of course both of those organizations have a ton of benefits for their members and of course all of ours, the full list can be found in our website, afsfitness.com, but really the transition over the last 18 months to 24 months for us has really been a focus on bringing our community together because you can really just learn so much more and adapt and if you need to pivot your business when you can connect with speakers and other attendees in person at the event. So yeah, Sean, to your point, our first major event was last April and then our second event, we’ll talk about here in a little bit.

Sean Greeley: Yeah, that’s fantastic. And look, I want to make sure I go on record for endorsing AFS. I am just so impressed with the work that the association produces and the research, the benchmark reports and more. I mean the amount of education and information you’re offering, everyone is just phenomenal and the quality of it is phenomenal. Every NP member should really be a member of AFS bar none. And because you are taking benchmark data from across the industry, you’re combining that from the businesses you work with, from the industries and suppliers and trades and commercial partners and you’re pulling that all together to really publish some great information throughout the year, which people can use to have insights into where their trends are heading in the industry overall, where consumer’s heading, where business is heading and how to stay on the forefront of that.

Sean Greeley: If you did nothing else then sign up for AFS just to get those reports when they come out throughout the year, that is tremendous value you provide, tremendous to every member. If you don’t have that information in your hands, you’re at a loss really as a business owner for someone else who does. So you have to get plugged into AFS and I’m continually impressed by the quality of that content you guys prepare, that you share with everybody. So, that’s huge and you also do a tremendous job of bringing suppliers together.

Sean Greeley: You have the amount of free education that you guys offer behind your paid portal is incredible from experts that are coming in there from all kinds of different companies and categories of companies that are sharing really their best information with your audience for free. It’s remarkable. So I want to encourage everybody to become a member, check it out and I know you offer a couple of tiers of membership, which are evolving but share with everybody just real quickly. What does it cost to be a member and what are the options to be a member for AFS?

Josh Leve: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I want to piggy back on something you just said, which I think is really important when you talk about the education that’s available and Sean, again, you know this so well, there are so many educators in our space, in the fitness business space that are just doing things for the right reasons. I mean that don’t ask for anything back as far as revenue or monetization, that are just simply lending a voice, lending an ear, being able to be an educator with nothing in return. I mean it really does blow my mind and that’s something, one of the biggest takeaways I got when we did some education when we tacked it on to other events back in the day was when we would do our sessions, people in the audience would just flat out tell this is what’s worked for me and I would love for this to work for you.

Josh Leve: It’s a very different environment of the businesses that we’re working on. It’s like this environment of really oversharing but in a good way because they feel like they’re up against the world because they’re an independent operator, whether they’re have a brick and mortar location or something else. So this community of sharing is something that we really identified at the beginning and tried to figure out a way to bring that to the masses in a virtual way through the association right now, aside from the event.

Josh Leve: So yeah, as far as your question is about the tiers, you know we have two tiers of membership right now. We have really the AFS membership, which pretty much includes everything, all the access to our webinars, the ability to get a mentor, the ability to jump on small round table groups with other members, the ability to get our research reports, the ability just to take in all the education that we have to offer. And then our other membership is really for those that want all those things but also want to attend our in person event or our major annual event that we have. This year it’s going to be online, but there’s that option as well. And so the other membership, something that includes a free ticket and prices range from about $250 a year up to $500 a year.

Sean Greeley: Yeah, so I point that out because for the return investment of one or two clients, your whole year of membership is paid for. It’s a no brainer investment. Just go sign up. If you’re not a member, just go sign up. I encourage everyone to do so that’s listening to this, certainly from our community. And to be clear, so AFS provides tremendous education for resources and community elements to your talk sharing. And that is different from NPE, what we do is really provide the very specific business strategies and planning and coaching to entrepreneurs to execute to grow their business, but we work hand in hand really and we share customers and we expect to continue to do that together as we’re working to empower and serve fitness entrepreneurs across the world and growing as studio owners.

Sean Greeley: And our values are very aligned. At NPE, we always talk about sharing your genius with others and that is what you guys represent in all that you’re talking about the sharing that goes on at AFS, which is incredible. So thank you for that. And I want to now jump to talking about the event. So last year you kicked off your first major conference after building the association for a few years. We’ve now got a lot of members. We have our first conference and really it’s a time when NPE has scaled back from our large conferences. We focused on other sides of our business and we’re excited to be partnering with AFS to support your event and your events really as we talked about doing some work together here in the years ahead that are being put onto support everybody. So last year, tremendous success. You are now the world’s largest event for independent studio owners that exists today.

Sean Greeley: So whether you’re in the US or you’re in another country listening to this, this is something you want to get to and be a part of, if you can get to the event. Let’s talk about this. So last year was a huge event. This year was on track to be an even bigger event, but you we had this little thing called COVID-19 that showed up that has derailed the plans for the live event, which I was excited to be a part of and be attending here soon. But you’ve pivoted and now are announcing here, I think this week really this whole event is going online with free access to really everybody. You guys are giving back in a big way to support our industry. And I’d love for you to just talk a little further about that.

Josh Leve: Yeah, so man, anybody that has thrown events and had to reschedule an event with about a month out, it’s not fun. And Sean, you’ve been there before with the events yourself. So yeah, last year’s event, huge success, several hundred people there. This event, we were going to have our second annual convention, gosh it was going to be April 30th to May 3rd in just a couple weeks and we were trending to blow last year’s numbers out of the water. And then about six weeks pre-event is typically when you see your numbers start to really ramp up because everybody waits to the last minute, which is totally understandable and things just died and everybody in the event business is thinking the same thing. When is this going to be over? And so we quickly had to make a decision and it was very evident and this is before any of the lockdowns and quarantines and stuff happened, that things weren’t going to get better.

Josh Leve: And so we ensured that our communication was strategic and was on point to everybody that was involved with our in person event, from our event planner, to the hotel, to the attendees, to the sponsors, to the exhibitors, everybody. We were anticipating over 60 exhibitors and gosh, we were going to be under a thousand people I think, just under it. So we had a lot to coordinate and ultimately we made the decision once we had the dates secure for 2021, same date, Succeed in person is going to be April or I think it’s May 1st to May 3rd, same dates in 2021 but we made the decision to quickly take the event that was going to be in Southern California this year and make it a virtual event. And that has opened up so many new opportunities, not only for the attendees who were going to show up that we’re going to provide them for free access and anybody that wants to show up there is going to be an option to access the sessions for free.

Josh Leve: But it’s also provided me the opportunity to really get an understanding of what our members and what our audience is going through right now because two months ago I wasn’t well versed in all the different streaming options and virtual training and content producing and monetization of your business online. I mean it was something I knew of but wasn’t very well educated in. And so once we positioned us as an online really virtual event, it’s opened up the opportunity for us to put out the word to tons and tons, thousands upon thousands of different fitness professionals through our relationships in the industry through and of course NPE and other publications and major certifying organizations where we’re now taking an event that was going to have just under a thousand people in person to something that could be thousands of people now. That really provides us the ability to get over 30 sessions, 60 minute long sessions with Q&A out to the masses, 30 sessions over two days.

Josh Leve: It’s a lot of content to bring in with a virtual goody bag from different offers, with the ability to really just engage with others that are in the same boat as you with realtime online discussion forums and sessions that are just going to be very relevant on everything that’s going on in the fitness industry right now. Especially if you’re a studio owner or a gym owner an independent contractor, just trying to figure out how to pay the bills. If you’re a trainer working in a health club or YMCA or JCC, I mean there’s going to be 30 sessions that are going to cover absolutely every topic that you will need to withstand what’s happening right now, not only in the fitness industry, but of course in the world.

Sean Greeley: Yeah. Let’s talk a little further about that. So obviously I’m excited to be a part of the I’ll be speaking as well. And we’re promoting the event. We’re excited to be a part of it. And I think it’s a pivotal time for studio owners who are really questioning, “Can I still do this? My business model that worked a month ago is dead in the water. It doesn’t work. What do I need to do to stay alive? Do I want to stay alive? Do I want to still do this thing and then what are the steps I need to take to do so?” And I know that’s going to be part of what we’re going to be unpacking, spending time on. It’s certainly in my session and all the speakers over there with all the components that fit into pivoting for the fitness industry right now. But what would be some of the messages you’d have to say to studio owners that are listening to this right now?

Josh Leve: Oh, it’s such a good question. I think any studio owner is in the exact same boat of any business owner right now. It’s tough times and we don’t have to skirt around that. I mean these are, these are difficult times for anybody. And it’s funny, it’s not funny, but it’s one of those things, Sean, when we were first talking, we’ve talked a lot recently, every week it’s something different and so a couple of weeks ago it was kind of those, those feelings of oh my gosh, I’m in shock. What do you mean my business is shut down? I haven’t shut down my business in 10 years, 15 years, whatever it may be, and now my doors are closed.

Josh Leve: So it’s really been this progression of shocked, denial, acceptance, all of the stages of grief that you go through to ultimately get to this point right now where I hope those listening in have been able to figure out through NPE’s coaching and through the resources you can get, of course through AFS and elsewhere what you needed to do to get from point A to point B. Point A, you were operating your own fitness studio or gym to point B, I now have to transition everything online.

Josh Leve: And our goal with not only the event, but what we do is to tell everybody out there that you’re not alone. If you’re going through this, really hundreds of thousands are going through this and so our job is to bring everybody together to share those best practices, to get an understanding through what we do. I mean really we look at AFS as almost a conduit to all the things that are happening in the industry. We bring everybody together and that’s what you get when you go to a trade show or a convention is you get to walk the floor and you get to see all these different companies and engage with different people and different vendors and understand what works best for your business.

Josh Leve: So for all those listening out there, I would tell you, don’t give up without a doubt. Nothing ever comes easy and as I tell people, if being an entrepreneur was easy, everybody would do it right? But it’s not, it’s not easy. And this is one of those times in which you really have to dig deep and understand that there are resources out there for you that are only there to ensure your success. And those are business coaching platforms that can be either associations like AFS and their online events like the one that we’re having in a couple of weeks.

Sean Greeley: Awesome, I’m so glad you said that. I just want to echo that and just add kind of things that I’ve been sharing with everybody on a lot of the calls we’ve been having, conversations we’re involved in is, number one, just to remember the purpose of why you started the business and your passion for this industry and why you want to do this thing and really get grounded and recommit to that purpose because your purpose is going to keep you on fire on the good days and on the bad days. And we have to really remember that on the bad days. But it’s the reason why you do what you do, reconnect with your why, which will fuel you and drive you. And then second, is just to get a cracking on falling love with your customer, yet again all over again. Understand them, understand their needs, understand their goals, their challenges, and quickly innovate and evolve in how you meet the need.

Sean Greeley: If you’re meeting the need of a market and you’re delivering value to the market and they’re paying for that value, that’s called a scalable business concept that you can grow and all the rest of it, your margins, your pricing, your sales and marketing and all that you can figure, your cost structure, how you renegotiate vendors and your lease and all that stuff can be figured out. The core of all of this that makes this thing work is number one, your passion and purpose and number two, giving value to the market that will pay for that value. When you can do those two things, you have a business that will grow and we can figure everything else out, but reconnect to that core and get connected to AFS. Get connected to NPE to figure out all the other pieces that you need because we’re here for you. We have those resources for you. So thank you so much for sharing that message for others who I know really need to hear it right now.

Josh Leve: Yeah, no, and you’re exactly right too, Sean. I mean, I think the most important thing in a time of crisis, if you show to everything that you said, if you show your members that you’re there for them hundredfold, whatever it may be, they are going to always remember that because again, they’re in the same boat. I mean they lost the place, they lost the connection to you in a physical sense. They are looking to you to continue that relationship. So if you’ve been able to pivot and you’ve been able to really meet the demand of what they’re looking for and create new ways to generate revenue throughout this time, they’re never going to forget that. That is an opportunity for you to grow or to scale your business now and in the future and nobody knows what the new normal is going to look like when things start opening up. But there’s a lot of opportunity right now and so the clients won’t forget it if you’ve made that positive connection.

Sean Greeley: There is, and in many ways there’s more need for what we do now more than ever because people need fitness for physical health, for mental health, for being at their strongest and the best with their health that’s going to support them and all the road ahead, whether things get better or they get worse, we still need to look after ourselves now more than ever. So look, I want to encourage everybody to get yourself registered for AFS. The event website is succeedwithafs.com so, succeedwithafs.com, get hooked in, make sure sign up for my session, I’ll be there. I look forward to meeting all of you that attend and so many other speakers are going to be there connect with a lot of resources and support that’s going to be there for you to again, navigate the evolution of your model.

Sean Greeley: And that’s really what we’re doing. The motto of which we used to operate with is it’s the engine’s broken and the car is pulled off to the side of the road and you can sit there and complain about it or you got to fix the engine and get back in the race. And the great news is this race is going on a long time. So don’t feel like you missed the boat. Just fix the engine and get back in the race. And the sooner we do that and we can pick up speed, we’re going to be in a good position. So, and you’re way ahead of everybody else whose just given up and gone home. So keep working one step at a time, one week at a time and we’re here to support you through that.

Sean Greeley: So I think that’s the main message we want to share today. We’re so excited about the event. We’re excited to be part of it. This will go out and the event will be just a couple weeks away. So really short time to get yourself booked in and then block the time on the weekend to attend wherever you are in the world’s, if it’s different time zones for you. No worries. Just book in, get yourself there. But what else can we wrap up with Josh? What do you want to share to everybody out there? I think maybe maybe something along the lines of I know not just all the work we do for fitness business owners of their business, but you like me, you’re also a dad, you’re also husband, you’re navigating, homeschooling with kids and all this good stuff. And I know a lot of people out there are dealing with the same challenges and trying to figure this out to work through this time. What advice would you share with them?

Josh Leve: Oh, it’s a good question. I think there’s not a one size fits all, I think there’s everybody has their own unique situations. We’re 100% sensitive to juggling so many different things. And I mean, my goodness, not only are you working from home, your spouse is home, your kids are home, homeschooling, I mean there’s so many elements that you have to worry about. Really what it comes down to is taking care of your health. Number one, prioritizing your work life balance as much as you possibly can depending on where you live, if you can still get outside now that the weather’s warming up, absolutely take advantage of that as much as possible. Just a simple walk or something. But it’s I think the biggest message is it is going to get better.

Josh Leve: There are elements of hope and it’s not all doom and gloom as much as the news sites like to make you think. Things are going to get better. Everybody’s going to get through this. And ultimately for those listening in, I think if you do find yourself having one of those low moments, just know everybody has them. Whether you’re making millions and millions of dollars or you’re struggling to get by, everybody has those highs and those lows. Just make sure you do what you need to do to prep, to plan, to ensure you have more highs than more lows. But it’s also understandable, I mean we’re dealing with a lot of stress. There’s a lot of unknowns. All you can do is control what is known to you. So making sure that you have everything within kind of your realm of ensuring that what you can control is something that allows you the ability to be a better husband and be a better father, ensuring that you get yourself healthy and stuff like that.

Josh Leve: So really at the end of the day, just ensure that you have what’s necessary to get you through this time. And whether that’s education, whether those are the personal connections that you need, whether you’re connecting to friends virtually, do what you need to do to give yourself that boost day in and day out. And know that from a business perspective, you’re always going to be supported. Whether it’s through NPE, whether it’s through AFS and things like that. So there are resources out there for you. Sometimes just have to seek them. Sometimes you might know that they exist, but you have the connections through your various business people as you can say, whether it’s Sean or myself that can make sure that you’re connected. So, we will get through this, that’s for sure.

Sean Greeley: Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t have said it better and just get plugged in, look after yourself, look after family and get plugged in. We’re all here to help you with the business. So and businesses, believe it or not are growing through this time and we’re excited to share how that’s happening, what are the things you can do to make your business stronger and evolve it right now. And we got more to come with the virtual event coming up here shortly. So get yourself registered for succeedwithafs.com and absolutely become a member if you’re not a member already. I recommend this to everyone in the NPE community, the resources that AFS offers are phenomenal. So Josh, thanks again for being with us here today. I know you’re off to pick up kids, so have a great day. Thanks for being on here with us again.

Josh Leve: No, thanks for having me, Sean. I really appreciate it.

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