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Fashion / Shopping

The Coolest Gym in the World?

River Oaks’ Latest Hotspot Isn’t a Restaurant — It’s a Teched-Out Fitness Club

BY // 12.04.15

“When I was living in New York and working for the airline (Air New Zealand), I was in this tiny apartment, and I could barely afford to eat. I’m not even kidding, but I did have an Equinox membership,” Equinox president Sarah Robb O’Hagan says. 

It’s safe to say the New Zealand native has come a long way since then, working six years at Nike before serving as Gatorade‘s chief marketing officer and then president, where she was responsible for the brand’s popular revamp that included the addition of performance-enhancement products (gels and protein drinks) alongside its signature sports drink.

After a meeting with Equinox CEO Harvey Spevak, Robb O’Hagan decided to join the expanding fitness empire in September 2012 as its president.

“I was excited because they [Equinox] were really focused on expansion, and thinking about how they could take this fitness offering to the next level,” she says.

“If you think about four or five years ago, that was when the beginnings of the quantified-self movement were starting, so it was an interesting time. Harvey is fantastic, and he wanted to go to the future. I loved having these conversations about what the future of fitness could be.”

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Sarah Robb O’Hagan joined the Equinox team as president in September 2012.

Robb O’Hagan is in town for this week’s grand opening of Equinox’s new 33,000-square-foot River Oaks District location, and when we met there were only two days remaining until the big moment.

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The highly anticipated gym was still undergoing a few last-minute tweaks, so we connected at a nearby hotel to discuss Equinox’s entrance to the booming Houston market. Robb O’Hagan is nothing less than dynamic. She’s gregarious and extremely well spoken — not to mention physically fit.

“It’s funny, because people often assume that just because I’ve spent a lot of time in sports that I must have been a professional athlete, and I wasn’t at all, in fact, far from it,” Robb O’Hagan says.

“But I have always been super passionate about fitness. [When I first joined as a member], Equinox was only three locations. It was a very young time in the company’s history, but I was so into fitness, and it was where the scene was happening. I just loved it. When I got into the company all those years later, it was quite amazing to see what it had become.”

Equinox opened its first club in 1991, and now operates 78 full-service clubs across the country in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Boston, Texas and Washington, D.C., along with outposts in London and Toronto. In addition to fitness clubs, Equinox has acquired a range of other brands, including Pure Yoga, Blink Fitness and the increasingly popular phenomenon known as Soul Cycle.

The company will also add a hotel to its holding when it opens (in 2018) the first Equinox hotel, slated for New York City’s Hudson Yards (a $20 billion development that has been called the largest private real estate project in U.S. history).

But what’s behind the hype for a gym that once had a 20-something year old O’Hagan sacrificing for fitness? For starters, it’s less a gym and more a lifestyle club that revolves around fitness.

To some that may sound like an overcomplicated definition of well … a gym. And if your typical gym combines prime fitness offerings (think unique classes, cutting-edge equipment, personal training and internationally acclaimed instructors), refined interior design, a hotel-caliber locker room fully stocked with Kiehl’s products, a steam room, a full-service spa (if you’re in the mood for a 24-karat gold facial, look no further), an on-site juice bar, a fitness apparel shop and the luxurious swagger of your resident country club, then by all means, Equinox is merely a gym.

In addition to all those club perks, Equinox River Oaks (which officially opened on December 3) features five fitness studios (dedicated barre, cycling, yoga — both regular and hot yoga — Pilates and main fitness studios), cardio and strength-training areas (with free weights and state-of-the-art cardio machines), open spaces for socializing and lounging, and a dedicated stretching area.

“It feels to us that the Houston market is so ready for something like Equinox. The culture of fitness isn’t as developed here as it is in other cities, but you can tell there are a lot of people who want it. I think what you’ll find that’s cool about Equinox is that, yes, there’s fitness and the group training, but it’s also the social scene that Equinox creates, and most gyms in the industry don’t think about it that way.”

“They’re more like, ‘get your workout and go home,’ whereas we love it when people want to hang out and come with their friends to the club and really turn it into a social scene.”

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Equinox River Oaks members are greeted by this stunning entry. (Photo courtesy Equinox)

Of course, the immense luxury offerings and thriving social scene come at a price. Houstonians can join until December 22 sans the $300 initiation fee, but locking into a 12-month membership commitment will run you about $149 a month.

“We put a lot of investment into the club,” Robb O’Hagan says. “The buildout itself is beautiful, and it’s super luxury. We are fastidious about cleanliness and maintenance. You will never find a broken piece of equipment at Equinox. So we believe that the offerings absolutely command the price point. We target people who are extremely into fitness, and we are not apologetic about that.”

Members can also take pride in knowing they belong to a club that is always on top of what’s fresh and new. Take Equinox’s use of technology. In an era in which the average person spends more time on their technological devices than they do sleeping, this fitness center decided to put an emphasis on high-tech advances with its Equinox app.

“The app is a huge part of the membership experience now. We invested heavily into technology over the past few years, because we could see that there was going to be this big shift towards people wanting to track everything, and we wanted to make sure that we weren’t just following a trend but actually leading a trend as well. We started to see that a lot of our members would be using Jawbones and Fitbits and all those kind of devices, but they would stop using them after three or four months because they didn’t know exactly what to do with all of the data,” Robb O’Hagan says.

The Equinox app tracks all of the data acquired from the classes and workouts you participate in at the gym, and members can also connect their personal devices (Apple Watch, Fitbit, Jawbone, etc.) to the app.

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The Equinox app

“If you’re working with a trainer, they can also see the data, so they can better figure out how the session fits into your overall lifestyle. They can say ‘Oh, I see that you ran six miles yesterday, so let’s change today’s workout accordingly.’ So there are a lot of parts of the membership experience that have been really enhanced by technology,” Robb O’Hagan says.

In addition to data tracking, members can book and add classes to their calendar, schedule personal training, browse Equinox’s Q Blog and find other clubs. The app is also used for membership verification,

Technology isn’t Equinox’s only source of innovation. The fitness empire is constantly conducting scientific studies advance its fitness curriculum and club offerings.

“We are going to be introducing sleep consultations into our higher levels of training. We’re doing another clinical study at the moment comparing people who just do training with people who do training and sleep the way that is recommended. Then there will also be brain training. One area we have been doing a lot of scientific research is just brain health in general.

“It’s a hard thing to get young people to care about, but there’s so much research that shows with the aging population and the onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s that what you do when you’re young is what will help you when you get older. So the brain-training class is currently being developed and will roll out next year. It’s high-intensity, but it’s all about tricking your brain into moving your body into different directions that aren’t normal patterns,” Robb O’Hagan says.

Robb O’Hagan ends our conversation with a challenge to skeptics: “Just walk in the door, and you’ll see for yourself.”

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