The founders of LF3 never took online fitness seriously – until they realized it was the thing that would prevent their business from being pummeled by the pandemic like a 98-pound weakling.
Jenna York and Michael Donnelly have done the heavy lifting needed to permanently turn their string of boutique lifestyle fitness studios into a hybrid model of in-person and virtual offerings in order to make their services more accessible to their thousands of members.
“Mike and I thought that online fitness was a total joke, and then we were, like, ‘Maybe we can be the ones that change it,’” said York during an interview with Donnelly at their LF3 location at 34 Beech St. in Little Italy.
They used the same approach they take toward their own health and fitness – to constantly push themselves forward – to get LF3 through the days of infectious disease, and far beyond.
“We didn’t want to just try and survive," said York. "We’re about innovation and taking things to the next level.”
It’s been hard work, she said, but “it’s forced us to look at how else can we service our members and how much more value can we add.”
Members can still opt for in-person small group or individual training sessions at the LF3 studios led by professional personal trainers, using equipment that members likely don’t have in their own homes. The studios offer complimentary espresso and towels, and each studio has a smoothie bar.
The big difference now is that members can also participate in real-time interactive online classes with a trainer who can provide live feedback, form correction, technique adjustment and general encouragement. As well, there are online workouts that members can access and replay anytime. Members can train from anywhere in the world.
“We’ve realized that convenience is king,” said Donnelly.
Added York: “It’s been cool to see how we can take our in-studio experience and replicate it online, and people love it.
“We now feel hybrid is the future of fitness. You need to be able to meet the members where they are.”
LF3 has three other Ottawa locations, in Westboro, Barrhaven and Orléans, as well as studios in the Greater Toronto Area of Oakville and Burlington. The company's membership retention rate has been “extremely high” during the pandemic, said York.
The owners have also entered a new partnership with Altea Active, which means that LF3 will be opening studios inside Altea’s Toronto and Winnipeg social wellness clubs in 2022. Altea Active was founded by a team of Canadian fitness industry veterans to create premium facilities offering the best in fitness, wellness and social amenities. More than 10,000 Altea Active members joined LF3's online community in November 2021.
"We now feel hybrid is the future of fitness."
The LF3 concept grew out of Ottawa’s well-known Greco Fitness studio, for which York and Donnelly have been leading the evolution since August 2016 (founder Tony Greco hasn’t been involved since he sold his business six years ago, they said).
York and Donnelly felt a rebranding was in order; their version of Greco Fitness had changed drastically.
“We started with an apple and ended up with an orange,” said Donnelly of their more sustainable and custom-designed approach to health, fitness and wellness.
The co-founders launched their new name and image this past September. LF3 stands for lifestyle fitness based on their three core pillars: be strong, be healthy and be resilient.
“LF3 is totally different from anything we were doing before,” said York. “It’s about reducing barriers and meeting people where they feel comfortable.”
About 65 per cent of the club's members are women.
The first step for any new member of LF3 is to get their personalized prescription plan. Members undergo an easy body composition scan that provides detailed data through more than 40 measurements.
You can learn if you’re carrying a dangerous amount of visceral fat, for example, or if you can stand to gain some lean muscle mass. The technology spits out a bio age, which can reveal whether your middle-aged self is, say, preserved in the body of a 28-year-old – or trapped in the body of an achy 80-year-old.
York and Donnelly introduced the Australian-made Evolt 360 bioscan body analyzers to all their locations in 2018.
“We can get a really good idea based on what your goals are, how we can put together the most appropriate schedule and training plan for you,” said Donnelly, while adding that they use the ongoing results from their bioscan technology to track members’ progress.
LF3, which managed to keep its trainers employed throughout the pandemic, has also started working with companies interested in keeping their remote workforces healthy.
Donnelly and York have a background in competitive sports. Donnelly played running back on the football teams at the University of Ottawa and Concordia University, where he graduated with a degree in human relations. York was a member of the varsity women’s swim team at Purdue University in Indiana, where she studied business management and accounting.
Business and sports run in her family – her father is well-known Ottawa businessman Jeff York, who played hockey at Princeton, while her uncle is former NHL defenceman Jason York, whose 13-year career included five seasons with the Ottawa Senators.
“Yes, we are athletes, but we’re not competitive athletes anymore,” said York. “We just want to be resilient in life, and there are a lot of other people who want that as well. That’s what’s driving our vision.”