Starting a fitness studio in a foreign country

Heather Almers shares her experience opening up her gym, You. Just Stronger in Javea Spain, as an ex-pat from Canada.

Heather Almers shares her experience opening up her gym, You. Just Stronger in Javea Spain, as an ex-pat from Canada.

Starting a business can be challenging, but starting a business in another country comes with a whole other set of trials and tribulations. No one is more familiar with obstacles and hurdles that can arise when opening up a fitness studio in a foreign country than Heather and Henrik Almers, owners of You. Just Stronger in Javea, Spain. Heather, originally from Canada, and Henrik, from Sweden, moved to Spain prior to the pandemic, and while they had COVID as an obstacle, they knew it was the right moment for them to start their new business and open their gym. We sat down with Heather to learn about her experience opening You. Just Stronger, what ex-pats should know about starting a business outside of their home country, and what resources and tools have helped them run their successful business. To see what she had to say, follow our interview below.

Heather Almers and her family wearing their You. Just Stronger branded merchandise.

Tell us about your business

My name is Heather and I'm Canadian, my husband's Swedish, and we ended up here in Javea, Spain. I am a mom of 2 great kids, a fitness coach, a nutritional consultant, a yoga teacher, and a Swedish masseuse. We'd always talked about getting into the fitness industry and when we moved to Spain we knew it was time to change from working in the travel industry to doing something else that we felt really passionate about. Henrik started to do some additional education as well, we're both OPEX coaches and that's what led us to start our business. Initially, we had a little gym in our yard where we would coach our clients from, and then in March 2021, we opened our studio here in Javea.

What led you to Spain to open your fitness business?

Having been in the travel industry we travelled the world to try and find the perfect little spot to live. Henrik came here in January 2016 after we'd gone up and down the coastline of Spain and Portugal, even as far as South Africa. He came here and he just fell in love. It's the right kind of town, it's got a really good ex-pat community, which makes it a little easier for us to go into a business than in a truly Spanish town because unless you're Spanish, or have a Spanish partner, it's going to be hard to do it. We are catering a lot to the ex-pat community.

How did you decide what you wanted to offer in your business?

We really went with our strengths. We started with private coaching and personal training, and used word of mouth to friends who needed training. Henrik really started on that front first. Then he met someone that needed help with nutrition. We started with a small trickle which was great for us upon opening the studio because we first started catering to our customers in our house and now we have a great spot. I was doing as much as I could through COVID. I started doing a small class, often one to one doing a yoga or stretch class out in my yard. That's how we started to build it to what it is today. I do stretch class three days a week with two to 12 people.

Did the pandemic and timing of your move influence your decision to open a business?

Fitness and nutrition, but really nutrition have always been a passion of mine. I've always known that I wanted to work with it. We own scuba diving travel companies and in 2020, my husband lost his job and I went down to 60% and we needed to figure out how to make ends meet. We saw an opportunity to do what we wanted to do in the fitness and nutrition industry. Both my husband and I have experience in starting up companies, I had a full-time company while in university, so starting a business and getting it up and running wasn't what we were afraid of. That wasn't so daunting, but it was different doing it in a new country. We took the opportunity of our new work situation and just said let's go for it.

Keep reading for Heather's tips and advice about starting a fitness business in Spain

What is your advice for navigating some of the challenges of starting a business in another country?

Be understanding of the cultural differences

Being from Canada and moving to Sweden, I had already experienced challenges adjusting. Of course, there is a language barrier and it depends on where you go. For anybody when they're going to another country you need to accept that you won't immediately understand how all things work.

The first thing that people really need to think about is that you have to have the patience and understand that this system, and the new country, are not necessarily going to work exactly as it does at home. Having that open mind and giving yourself more time to get yourself prepared is crucial. So if you want to open in two months, you need to realize that it may take five to six months to have time to prepare everything.

Find support and someone who can help you locally

You have to find somebody you can trust from day one, such as a good local representative or lawyer. Someone who is going to have your best interests in mind. That's a really important thing. We did have a good lawyer and a good accountant that helped us set up our business.

You have to know that this isn't your native country and that challenges are common, but having a good team and support can help. You need to come in with a good mindset and know that it can be hard. You may need to wrap your head around that just because people say they're going to show up, doesn't mean that they actually do so. Just stop and breathe through the process. It's good to have my yoga stretch classes to calm myself.

When it came to getting the pieces of your business together how did you figure that out?

That was a challenge. Trying to get people to communicate, especially here in Spain. People wouldn't communicate at all, or they would communicate and then we would be almost at the finish line, but then something would change. For example, a landlord decided to only keep their facility in the family.

We've had that so many times when Henrik was out in search of a place to rent. He'd find a place and make floor plans for it, and then landlords would decide not to rent to us. You have to be prepared that it's a rollercoaster ride, but in the end, it works out. A lot of it is who you know and that's why it is important to get good people onto your team.

What makes you different from other gyms in your area?

We're not the run of the mill style gym. We charge more and what we have tried to do is distinguish ourselves from the other gyms that are here in town. They're charging 59€ a month, or, less sometimes, and we're charging 99€, but we do programming for all of our clients. Clients also get a nutritional/ fitness consultation each month, and there is always a floor coach to support clients when they are at the gym.

It's more of an OPEX style gym, not the classic style with multi treadmills and machines. We are actually targeting the ex-pat community and the higher-end market and that keeps us set apart from the others.

Find out what marketing strategies You. Just Stronger used to promote their new fitness studio

What types of marketing strategies did you put in place to reach the ex-pat community in Javea?

Networking with local international schools

Luckily we have kids and as we didn't put them in a Spanish school, they are at a local international school, there are actually two in the area. From that, we were able to spread it through our children's school extracurricular program and through parents that we have met as a marketing strategy. As well, I've been wearing my work jacket or my t-shirt everywhere which is a free way of advertising ourselves. People will come up and ask me about it and then we can tell them about our gym and services which is how we've gotten some clients.

We went to the other international school, where coincidentally the other headmaster is Canadian, and now we're one of their partners. We're in their newsletter every month and we do a free class for the adults once a week up at the school on their football pitch. We could definitely go into the local Spanish schools, but we haven't gotten that far.

Social media and Facebook groups

We have one of our clients doing our social media. We are active in the Facebook groups for things going on in our area, such as Javea Fit and Javea Connect, and that's paying off. Posting several times a week, we will see that a person likes our posts, and then follows us, and then a couple of months down the road they come in for a free consultation. It takes time, but it works.

Local business collaborations

We have also gone to the tourist office, local restaurants, bike shops and have done leafleting with local businesses. We are really trying to get out there the old fashioned way.

What were some of the things that you had to get in place to open a business?

To get a permit when starting a business in Spain you have to apply for it and once it is processed you can open your business before actually receiving the document. It can take up to two years before you get your permit. As long as you've applied for it, you can open your company. It's really backwards to a lot of places. You have to have an architect and you have to have all of these people helping you. Most importantly you have to be very aware of what is and is not included in what you are paying for.

For example, we failed one of our sound tests. Our electrician had done all of the other gyms in the area and knew exactly what he needed to do, but he didn't put in one of the rubber parts while installing the ventilation. He told us he could then come back and do it for an additional cost, even though it was supposed to be included in the entire service, so we said no and that he had to come back and do it as it was already paid for. It's small things like that, so having somebody on your side that can fluently speak the language, and knows how things work is essential. It's better to have someone local who knows how to be your champion. You should also go to the town hall and verify what you need and double-check.

Make sure you have the right fitness instructor certification when you start a business abroad

When you moved from Canada to Sweden to Spain, how did you ensure you had the right certifications and qualifications?

You really need to do your research. I think it depends on the type of education you have. I know that the course my husband did was recognised within the EU. For instance, if you are going to the US or to Canada, you need to make sure to go online to check if your fitness instructor certification is recognised. You might have to do a separate course altogether. OPEX was recognised and I've also done a Precision Nutrition course for my certification in nutrition. I also took a three-year college course which is recognised as being certified within Canada.

But I also have to be really careful of what I do here because legally, I can't do more than what is in my scope of practice. It's actually even more censored here, so I just have to be careful that I'm not treating anybody that has medical issues.

What is your advice for other fitness business owners who are also considering opening a business internationally?

You just have to be smart and patient about what you're doing. You have to make sure you have everything you need to run your business successfully. It's definitely not always easy, but it's very rewarding. I have been gone from Canada for about 23 years, which is crazy because that's half of my life. When I visit home, friends say how different I am or ask me if I am ready to come home. For me, I haven't stopped exploring. I want to be here as long as I feel good about it. It's beautiful. I love the lifestyle, it's much more relaxed than life in the north. I think that's what a lot of people look for. I can be out in the sunshine, teach a class, make a delicious meal, go to bed at 10:00 PM and wake up fresh at 8:00 AM. That's what you're coming for and that's part of the adventure. When that becomes something that doesn't make you happy, then it's time to move. But if you want that type of life - then go for it.

Thank you for sharing Heather! You can learn more about You. Just Stronger on their Instagram and Facebook pages, as well as learn about the upcoming Coaches Congress Henrik is co-hosting in January 2022 in Sweden, here.

For more tips and advice about starting a fitness business, find out how to start your own personal training business here and what to know when you open a fitness studio here.