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Zumba Lessons

What clubs can learn from the company that's been called "the quintessential 21st-century business"

It’s been described as “anti-fitness.” Its classes feel like fitness parties. And, in a little more than a decade, it’s become the most popular and ubiquitous branded fitness program in the world.

Clearly, Zumba Fitness, LLC, based in Miami, Florida, is onto something.

Each week, the company inspires more than 14 million people, at 140,000 locations, in 150 countries to twirl, stretch, lunge, and shimmy to exhilarating tunes in Zumba classes. Countless others groove at home as they watch Zumba DVDs sold through infomercials, which helps drive even more people to health clubs or other locations to participate in classes.

In 2001, three young men who share the same first name—Alberto Perlman, who’s now CEO; Alberto Aghion, now COO; and Alberto “Beto” Perez, who’s the chief creative officer—created the company whose name rhymes with the Spanish word rhumba, which means “to party.” It’s a sentiment that captures Zumba’s popular, even magical, approach to getting fit: “Ditch the workout and join the party!”

That feeling has proven infectious.

Zumba has become so big, so successful, and so instructive in a variety of ways that Inc. magazine recently named the business its Company of the Year for 2013, calling it a “genuine mass market phenomenon.” In March, Zumba received the John McCarthy Industry Visionary Award during IHRSA 2013. 

“It (Zumba) is a democracy of cool where the cheerleader, the Goth, and the fat kid from high school are besties,” wrote Leigh Buchanan in the Inc. cover story. “You can do it, and so can your preschooler and your grandmother.”

Alberto Perlman, l., CEO of Zumba receiving the John McCarthy Industry Visionary Award from Bill McBride at IHRSA 2013.Concept to conglomerate

If all of this wasn’t enough, the “three Albertos” have leveraged their global brand to expand beyond fitness into music and apparel, and one can only wonder what they’ll do next.

They’ve been striking deals with major recording artists to promote their songs in classes and feature them in Zumba CD compilations. As Buchanan reported in Inc., “as a creator and distributor, the company has produced more than 400 songs; the 60 tracks available on iTunes have been downloaded a million times.”

To paraphrase Bill Roedy, the former CEO of MTV International and a Zumba advisor, the company is hotter than MTV ever was in its best years.

The cut and colorfulness of Zumba’s clothing line complement the energy and sense of freedom that its music and dance moves inspire. Instructors and class members sport the cargo pants and tops that the company markets through stores and its Website. Sales this year are expected to top 4 million units.

Zumba classes are now offered in 70,000 locations around the U.S., including those of roughly 95% of the largest club chains, so you, and virtually everyone else, are already very familiar with the brand. Still, haven’t you wondered what’s made Zumba so successful? And haven’t you wondered what lessons it might have to teach the industry?

Well, we have.

We could speculate, of course, and say that it has to do with Beto’s charisma, or Zumba’s nonjudgmental attitude, or its determination to generously dispense “freeing electrifying joy” (FEJ). But one thing is obvious: In just a few short years, Zumba has done a better job of enticing people of all shapes, sizes, interests, ages, and fitness levels to embrace exercise than anyone or anything in the history of the industry. It clearly has lessons to impart.

To find out what some of them are, CBI touched base with the Alberto triumvirate at Zumba’s corporate head- quarters. Here’s what we learned.

Lesson 1: Focus on what people want most

The idea for Zumba was born in 2001 when Perlman, an already accomplished 24-year-old entrepreneur, and his mother walked into an aerobics class in Bogota, Colombia. Perlman had been launching businesses since his childhood in Colombia. He’d operated a parking service in high school, charging seniors who drove their cars to school; designed Websites for fashionable Newbury Street shops in Boston while attending Babson College, in nearby Wellesley; been involved with a dot-com company that had gone bust; and, most recently, helped businesses in Chile develop an Internet presence.

Now, having squirreled away $15,000 from the last venture, he was looking for a new opportunity. That led him to watch Perez conduct one of the aerobics dance classes that Perlman’s mother had been raving about.

Mom was right.

Perlman saw the effervescence, experienced the sheer joy, that Perez inspired—an effect that was eventually bottled as FEJ. “That’s what FEJ really is,” he enthuses. “It’s for the stressed-out soccer mom who finds an hour to escape to a Zumba class. Zumba frees you through music, colors, and dance. Some people relax with yoga, or they knit, but lots of people just want to let go. As someone once put it: ‘Zumba is like speeding down the highway with the windows rolled down, blasting music, and singing at the top of your lungs.’ We’re in the business of transforming fitness clubs into night clubs.” 

Fast forward: Perlman and Perez go into business together, along with Aghion, Perlman’s childhood friend and a fellow entrepreneur.

Initially, they sell aerobics tapes via infomercials, but, eventually, they realize that watching a tape is a passive, vicarious experience. They decide that they want to do classes ... that are freeing ... electrifying ... and joyful! 

Lesson 2: Don’t be afraid to be different

The idea for Zumba had coalesced in 2001, but its soul had been conceived earlier, on a fateful day when Perez had arrived at a class 
without his aerobics music tapes and microphone. All he had was some salsa music he'd taped from the radio.

What he discovered in that awkward moment was how liberating it was to improvise. Without a mike, he couldn't tell his students what to do; he had to show them. Perez let his dancing do the talking. "Imagine trying to communicate dance moves visually," explains Perlman. "It's very hard, but, at the same time, microphones ruin the party atmosphere."

Perez wasn't afraid to change the way that things had always been done in the past. And Perlman and Aghion recgonized that such openness—a willingness to innovate, invent, and revolutionize—was a valuable asset. 

So, today, Zumba instructors don't use mikes, and rather then being conductors, they serve more as dancers. The impromptu, improvisational nature of the resulting classes makes ongoing training vital. At the three-day instructor conference the firm held in Los Angeles in February—it hosts two each year, as well as an annual convention—the 3,000-plus participants learned new skill sets. They practiced new rhythms, and worked on their “visual queuing”—Zumba’s term for showing an audience how to move.

Lesson 3: Innovate to surprise your customers

Another unique tactic employed by Zumba instructors is to “teach to the back row,” where new students or individuals who are a bit uncomfortable with all the high-energy action tend to congregate.

The modification emerged out of and was a testament to Zumba’s success. As classes grew more popular and the venues grew larger, attendees at the rear of the room wouldn’t dance, but, instead, stood and watched—so Zumba decided to transform the peanut gallery into the orchestra.

It understood that, if you were standing at the rear at a Zumba convention with 8,000 dancers, Perez and the Zumba master instructors would seem like specks in the distance, and would have little effect on many in the crowd. The Albertos decided to shake things up by placing the stage in the middle of the dance floor.

“We were concerned that people would be crashing into each other,” recalls Perlman, “but we decided to experiment. It cost a fortune, but we tried it with instructors facing both directions.” Then, after three years, they introduced two stages.

Now, when the doors open on a major Zumba event, most people race to the front of the illuminated stage, where, for the first 15 minutes, Perez warms up the crowd. Then, his stage goes dark, and the other stage lights up. Suddenly, everyone in the back finds themselves in the front row. The show then shifts back and forth between the stages. 

You’ve probably already guessed what’s coming next—Zumba is now considering using four stages to create even more excitement and energy. 

Lesson 4: Be inclusive when building your brand

One of the other core principles of the Zumba philosophy is that it’s as inclusive as possible with respect to everyone—students, instructors, sideline observers, and even passersby.

Inviting, engaging, embracing—these words apply to every aspect of Zumba. The music and the choreography aren’t specific to any country, ethnic group, or genre. The dancing is eclectic and exuberant, which explains why, at instructor conventions, there are scores of nationalities and hundreds of countries represented. And, in class, it doesn’t matter how you dance; it matters only that you dance and have fun doing so.

The same concept also underlies the way that instructors are, first, certified and, then, taught. Rather than creating standards that only the best could meet, Zumba chose to license all comers. Once it’s licensed them, Zumba bends over backwards to help them get better; it also teaches clubs how to identify Zumba instructors with talent.

Zumba basically strives to transform its instructors into successful entrepreneurs, who, in turn help it grow. The company realizes that, if it’s able to replicate Perez thousands upon thousands of times, it’s going to be remarkably, and increasingly, successful.

For $30 a month, instructors can join the Zumba Instructor Network (ZIN), which entitles them to continuing education in the form of new music, new dances, and new choreography; promotional material to display at their clubs; their own Website and a job listing service; and a 10% royalty on any Zumba apparel purchased by their students.

The company also grows its instructors’ equity via its DVDs and infomercials, by forming alliances with recording artists to create original music for classes, and by constantly searching for new opportunities. “We’re talking to major chains to convince them to introduce Aqua Zumba, our water version,” says Perlman. “And, when Curves asked to license Zumba workouts, we said no to the money, but asked, instead, that the contract stipulate the hiring of 6,000 Zumba instructors to teach at Curves facilities.” 

Lesson 5: Do the right thing

In his role as advisor, MTV’s Roedy taught Zumba’s management team the importance of being good corporate citizens. “Bill has worked hard to educate people about the risks of smoking and AIDS,” notes Aghion. “He always says that doing good is good business, and we agree.”

Last month, for instance, Zumba launched The Great Calorie Drive, which allows people, by clicking on an app, to register for a class. “We then donate the equivalent in food of the 750 calories they burn in class to food banks around the world through Feeding America and the United Nations World Food Program,” Perlman explains. “Our tagline is, ‘Don’t just burn calories, donate them!’ We’re donating our money because we want to make a dent in hunger, and because it’s another way to funnel new students to classes.”

Zumba has also linked up with Augie Nieto—the cofounder of Life Fitness, chairman of Octane Fitness, and cofounder of Augie’s Quest—in his effort to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Over the past three years, the company has raised $6 million via its charity platform— Zumbathons—which are now held every year during IHRSA’s International Convention and Trade Show.

“What really keeps us going are the stories of transformation,” Perlman attests. “People keep telling us that Zumba has made them happy. Zumba got them off their depression meds. Zumba helped them to survive an illness or to maintain their sanity.”

At the Zumba conference in Los Angeles, Elizabeth Luaulu, a 60-year-old instructor from Washington, D.C., told Perlman that, a few years ago, half of her body had become paralyzed. Her doctor diagnosed multiple sclerosis. However, she said, after she started taking Zumba classes, the paralysis went away. “The doctor still can’t explain what happened,” he says, “but she told me she thought that Zumba had rewired her brain.” Whatever the explanation, Perlman is clearly pleased.  

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