Disrupting Saudi Arabia’s Fitness Industry, Fahad Al-Haqbani Reflects on Armah Sports’ Groundbreaking “Smart” Solutions
Armah Sports, a Saudi innovator of smart fitness club concepts and a platinum member of the U.S.-Saudi Business Council, is disrupting traditional models to introduce revolutionary consumer experiences. The Council recently spoke with Fahad Al-Haqbani, CEO of Armah Sports Company, to discuss the company’s plans for delivering ground-breaking, integrated solutions and the company’s vision for the future of Saudi Arabia’s gym, fitness, and health industry.
Armah Sports is the founder of a new “smart club” concept which will fundamentally change the way fitness clubs operate in the Kingdom. What is this concept? Is it the way of the future?
The fitness industry is very dynamic, and new trends are launched every year, however, technology is rapidly evolving and the fitness industry can’t catch up. We realized this a few years ago and decided to make technology the core of our strategy: We build our technology infrastructure and then we build our clubs, which is the opposite of what we used to do in the past. We can’t reveal the smart clubs’ business models due to confidentiality, but what I can say is that we are building an ecosystem where physical, human and digital systems are connected. Our environment will be eco-friendly. We will fight to eliminate the usage of plastic and paper in our clubs in order to deliver a paperless environment while playing a small part in saving the planet.
What led you to develop this new concept? Tell us more about your history and journey towards realizing the potential of this market.
Our passion is fitness. I sleep and wake up thinking about it. We have developed several concepts in the past and continue to deliver new models and solutions. My eldest brother Abdulmohsen was in the U.S. back in 1992 for a long-term military course. He was passionate about body building and fitness in general. When he returned to Saudi Arabia, he realized the huge gap in the market and decided to start “Body Masters” fitness club in 1994 in just an 800 m2 space. Shortly after that I joined the business as a receptionist and from there, we grew the chain to 13 clubs before deciding to leave the company to our partners in 2005. It took us 18 months to develop the next concept: Fitness Time. We travelled the world, attended exhibitions, and talked to experts to develop the best model to suit the market. We opened our first standalone branded club in 2007 and grew the network to 150 clubs in the Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, spanning 25 cities with 3,500 employees serving over 230,000 active members. We decided to make the company public and in September 2018 we floated the company in the Saudi Stock Exchange. The IPO was my biggest achievement up to that point. We decided to leave the company shortly after the IPO due to internal issues with the new board regarding the company’s strategy, and thus Armah sports was born in January 2019.
Armah Sports currently operates three brands: OPTIMO, B_FIT and LIFT. Could you elaborate on the difference between the three and when they expect to launch?
We understand the market very well, especially having worked in the Saudi fitness industry and raising health and fitness awareness since 1994. We did not want to repeat ourselves and copy the same Fitness Time model or any other traditional concept. We viewed that as a very simple and safe approach. However, this is not who we are, and it was not what the people who trusted us throughout the years expected from us. We built the new brands from scratch with totally different business models and with a new vision. Let me introduce you to our brands: 1. OPTIMO: the high end offering, a hotel experience where you reward yourself in a luxury environment, providing the best trends around the world. 2. B_FIT: a brand for the people, a premium offering which is accessible and affordable for all. It’s an avant-garde as we see it. 3. LIFT: our budget offering, the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia, bringing the basic fitness service in the most futuristic environment. We are opening our first club in April 2021 and the rest of the 15 locations will roll out accordingly in 2021/2022.
Armah Sports specializes in delivering innovative, integrated solutions to provide consumers a unique experience. Can you speak about some of the technologies you apply in your smart clubs?
As I mentioned earlier, I cannot divulge details about our smart club models. What I can say is that we partnered with the best tech companies in the world, whether within the fitness industry or other sectors, to build the strongest IT infrastructure, inclusive of fully integrated systems which speak to each other to deliver the best experience to our clients. The concept of a smart city or a smart home has existed for many years and wherever you have a smart environment you will have technology that makes life easier for the end user as well as the operator.
You have partnered with several renowned American companies such as Amazon and Life Fitness. What are some of the other opportunities for collaboration and partnership which exist for U.S. entities?
Our biggest collaborations are with Amazon and Life Fitness as you mentioned. However, we have many partners around the world with whom we have built trusted, long-term, and successful relationships. This includes American companies such as Cybex, Hummer Strength, HOIST, Magnum (now acquired by Matrix), IVANKO, Styko, and many other smaller suppliers. Recently, we completed a $20 million deal with Life Fitness to equip the smart clubs with strength, cardio, and other equipment.
In the past, you have successfully grown Body Masters and Fitness Time into household names across the Kingdom. What is your growth strategy for Armah Sports?
With whatever company we build, we make sure to remain loyal to our culture, values, and beliefs. For the last 20+ years, we promised the people and the market to bring the best fitness concepts to Saudi Arabia and to serve as many people as we can to help build a better lifestyle and to encourage people to become more active. Today, we are not looking to grow 100+ clubs, having learned the hard way to plan better. We now plan to grow 35 clubs in the next 5 years within the best locations while delivering the best service and experience and providing quality vs quantity. We do not want to compete with the market; we want to play in a different league and let the market compete with itself. I am a big fan of Vision 2030 and when we planned our strategy, we wanted to play a role in achieving this vision and thus we incorporated Vision 2030 into our own vision and mission. Our vision is “to enable the human potential of Saudi Arabia through fitness.” Our mission is “to establish Saudi Arabia as a global leader in fitness – through innovations in customer experience, technology, and quality of life.”