Zumba: You get fit, they get rich

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The fitness craze is taking over the world, to the delight of its three founders. Charlotte Philby ventures into the world of neon crop-tops, evangelical workouts and branding, branding, branding.

By 10am, the excitement buzzing through the hall is palpable, people dressed in luminous green and pink jiggling up and down in giddy anticipation. Once the room is packed to capacity, the speaker takes to the stage and the crowd erupts; there is cheering, wolf whistles ripple through the air. You would be forgiven for thinking it was Madonna, or maybe even Jesus, under those glowing pink lights. In fact, this is the opening day at the fifth annual Zumba conference, a five-day extravaganza in Orlando, Florida, where 8,000 Zumba instructors from across the world have gathered in shiny neon crop-tops and cargo-pants to worship at the Zumba altar.

Greeting them this morning is the company’s CEO and co-founder Alberto Pearlman. Dressed for business in a shirt and glasses, Pearlman is often referred to as the brain to business partner and Zumba poster-boy Beto Perez’s brawn. Together they have proved a considerable force. Since Pearlman and Perez – along with fellow founder Alberto Aghion – first started out in 2001, trying, quite unsuccessfully at first, to flog DVDs of their euphoric, Latino-inspired dance workouts, which they filmed in a shack in their hometown of Miami using an old bed sheet for a backdrop and two hand-held camcorders, their brand has gone global.

Today Zumba (which, believe it or not, is a trademark) is everywhere: 12 million weekly participants take to the dancefloor (and church halls and community centres and tin shacks) in more than 110,000 locations in 125 countries across the world – and after the US, Britain is Zumba’s biggest market. Hardly a postcode or hamlet in Britain remains untouched with new classes opening every week. With Zumba now the biggest branded fitness programme in the world, the possibilities for its creators have proved limitless.

Alongside traditional Zumba classes, there is also Zumbatomic for kids, Zumba Gold for the mature student, Aqua Zumba, Zumba Toning, Zumba Gold Toning, Zumba in the Circuit, and now Zumba Sentao, a new body-busting  Zumba workout with chairs. A number off  instructors have flown across the world to this hotel on America’s East Coast specifically for training in Sentao, which involves loud music, gyrating with chairs and imaginary lassoes, and leaves participants after an hour’s class both whooping with joy and on the verge of collapse. Zumba may look friendly but the physical results are fierce, with participants burning as much as 2,000 calories an hour while throwing their bodies around to very loud music in varying degrees of unison.

Here, in a steamy conference hall in Orlando, once the applause has settled, Alberto Pearlman – who worked in IT before joining the company 11 years ago – greets the crowd. “We are the United Nations of Zumba!” he shouts, and once again the audience roars. “Anyone who’s here for the first time stand up,” he continues. “Now, those standing on the right of those who are here for the first time, stand up, turn to your neighbour and give them a hug. That’s a Zumba welcome!” The instructors embracing each other in the audience today are old and young, and though mainly women there are a few men, too: fat, thin, super-toned, wheelchair-bound – the only unifying factor is the ZIN membership (more about that later) and the neon uniform. The key message here, as reiterated through a multi-million-pound advertising campaign, is that anyone can get involved: “It is all about you!” Pearlman shouts. “Everything we do here we are doing it for you!”

Universal accessibility is both good news for the fans and for the company, because every single one of us is a potential customer. The students win by keeping fit, the instructors win by making money, the gyms that host classes win by getting new customers – as do the hotels that host these events, charging $4 for a bottle of water. “Doing Zumba,” Pearlman grandly concludes, “makes us better lovers, parents, spouses, friends; it makes us better human beings.”

It also drums up a lot of money. With instructors across the world charging, on average, between £5 and £10 per person for an hour’s packed-out session, serious cash is changing hands, and yet the classes only make up a tiny fraction of this fast-expanding empire. To date, more than 10 million copies of the four different Zumba Fitness DVDs have sold worldwide. Their bestselling video game has shifted more than 6 million copies and dominated the video-game charts for nearly 40 weeks.

Then there is the ‘apparel range’, which turns over $10 million (£6.3m) a year alone, as well as the bestselling soundtracks. “It is crazy,” says 42-year-old Melanie Rhine from San Diego, who works as a legal secretary and a part-time Zumba teacher. “Someone is making a hell of a lot of money… I can’t keep up, it’s like what the hell are they going to come up with next?” According to the heads of the company, the next item on the world-domination agenda is to follow in the footsteps of iTunes and Spotify and create “the world’s biggest music platform”, which sees – in return for a share of the revenue – the Zumba company debuting new tracks through its network of instructors and enthusiasts, giving artists direct access to a captive global audience of 12 million people a week, while adding to their vast annual turnover.

Depending on which way you look at it, the brand’s phenomenal success is either a very clever pyramid-selling scheme or the democratisation of fitness, or maybe both. “It’s a cult,” says 46-year-old Marianne Bolt, a civil engineer from Portland. “When I came to my first convention last year I was like, ‘What have I been indoctrinated into?’” While she can’t fault the dancing, Bolt says she is concerned about the rate of expansion: “Someone up there is making a lot of money; they’re, like, what can we invent next? Don’t get me wrong, I lost 100lbs through Zumba, but I’m not sure about all the stuff that comes with it.” For some, though, particularly women, Bolt concedes, it is a lifeline: “A lot of people get fanatical about it. For people who are looking for something in their lives, it offers a closeness, a family aspect that you don’t get in a gym.”

It is certainly building its own global community. Everyone here is a so-called ZIN member. These are affiliated instructors who pay around $30 (£19) a month for membership and in return get their literature and cards printed by one of the brand’s many sponsors, as well as new choreography and CDs, and the chance to sell the clothes for a small cut of the profit. In order to become a ZIN, you have to pay around £300 to do a day’s training, then pay for insurance and various other costs including ongoing training. But according to 21-year-old Emily Fry, a civil engineering student at Warwick University, “it is totally worth it”. After seeing an infommercial on TV, Fry trained as a ZIN, at the same time as her mother, in order to earn money while studying. As we will see, there are financial incentives, but it is about much more than that. “Zumba is my everything,” she says, “it is my income, my workout and my social life.”

Signing up to become a ZIN also provides access to a special social networking site, giving members instant links to fellow fanatics around the world. This morning, thousands of instructors of all different levels – some are professional dancers, some are newcomers to fitness who just want a piece of the love – have gathered to try out new products, embark on fresh training and do masterclasses (and have their pictures taken) with ‘celebrity’ instructors. The latter are accosted by fans at every turn in the hotel’s packed corridors.

Every one of the instructors has their own story to tell, including the evangelical 33-year-old Corina Gutierrez from Texas, who has a severe brittle bone condition which causes various complications, including problems with her immune system and breathing difficulties. I meet her in the halls of the conference centre in her wheelchair, which has the words ‘Angel On A Mission’ inscribed on the back; she is being swarmed by fans asking to have their photo taken with her.

Gutierrez says that after seven years of occupational and aquatic therapy, which wasn’t covered by insurance, and going to the doctor at least twice a fortnight, she heard about Zumba. “I tried it and I loved it”. Two years later, her health markedly improved; she has even gained an inch in height from all the stretching, and hasn’t needed to go to hospital for a year. Best of all, she says, it only cost $5 a class, “which compared to the cost of healthcare…” Earlier this year, Gutierrez trained as an instructor and now teaches classes of up to 35 people (mainly able-bodied, because of problems with disabled access in a lot of gyms), calling out the names of the steps or using demonstrators to act out some of the moves she can’t do. Gutierrez says, “Zumba has saved my life”.

This morning, there are screeches of delight and group hugs in the corridors of the hotel as fellow ZINs meet face-to-face for the first time. Among these is 23-year-old Josh Pocaigue,f  who has travelled here from Guam for his inaugural convention. Dressed in tiny shorts and a tight blue T-shirt, with tattoos all over his arms and an enormous grin, he tells me, “It is not just a dance, it is a life-choice. Zumba changed my life. I attended one class in the synergy hall in Guam three years ago and that’s all it took to inspire me. Everything started moving through my veins and my body reacted.” As well as losing half his bodyweight as a consequence of doing regular classes – “I was a very heavy-set person” – Pocaigue, who now teaches four classes a week in his hometown alongside his day job as a store supervisor, says it is also a way to make friends. As Diego Rodriguez from New York puts it, “Zumba is not a class, it’s a movement”.

If Zumba is a movement, then Beto Perez is its figurehead. Now 42 years old and built like a Ken doll, Beto was the one who came up with the dance concept. In the 1990s, so the legend goes, he was supposed to be teaching an aerobics class in his home town of Cali, Columbia, but forgot his music; instead, he used a mix-tape of popular salsa and merengue from his backpack. “Energy electrified the room; everyone was smiling and cheering,” he explains. “On that day a revolutionary new fitness concept was born.” In 2001, Beto moved to Miami to lead classes there; soon he paired up with the other two Albertos and the company was born. For six years, Pearlman says, “we were four guys in a shack trying to make it happen”. And then it did.

Today, Zumba employs 250 in-house staff, and to his followers Beto is a god. When he jumps on stage at the meeting, women rush towards him; at one point he has to ask them to back off and put down their cameras. “Don’t lose this passion,” he adds, “this is the sense of Zumba!” Wearing a skin-tight blue T-shirt, shorts and patent blue trainers, Beto delivers his key message to his audience to keep pulling in new students: “You need to invest in your education, this is serious… All the company is working hard for you guys… The only thing you need to have is a dream… We have [launched] a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to drive more students to your classes.”

By 8pm that night, a nearby stadium is packed with thousands of people, all wearing pink, for the Party in Pink Zumbathon – one of the company’s latest charity drives. It’s the biggest since 4,000 followers filled out Alexandra Palace in London, raising £170,000 for breast cancer – and the crowd is chomping at the bit. They are waiting for Beto and his band of dancers to take to the stage to lead tonight’s Fitness Concert, which sees 8,000 stone-cold-sober people (mostly women) dancing like lunatics along to the steps performed by their leaders, who at one point rise Sphynx-like from a stage in the middle of the room to an eruption of screams and whooping. A woman in her 50s shrieks when Beto dances twice with one of his backing dancers: “It’s not fair, it’s not fair!”. (Targeting straight men is high up on the priority for next year’s PR campaign.)

The next morning, the same people spend two hours queuing around the block for a masterclass with the man himself. Among those in the line is Ally Letsch, aged 42, who eventually walks out of the class halfway through because, she says, “it’s too much. Everyone was giving him presents on stage and trying to touch him.” Letsch, who drove eight hours with her five-year-old in the back seat, says she can expect to make back the money she spends on the conference in just two days: “Especially with kids’ classes, you charge $7-10 per child and they have to sign up for 10 weeks.” Getting her teaching qualification took just nine hours of training, with supplementary study as she goes along. But it pays off. “I make my own hours, say I do two or three hours a day, 60 people in a class all paying $6, five days a week, that is good money. I can support myself and my son.”

Around the corner is an equally epic queue for the Zumba Apparel shop, where inside there is a frenzy of panic-buying, with women emerging with bags and bags loaded with $25 tops, $50 cargo pants, and accessories. As a registered ZIN they can buy them at slightly discounted prices and sell them on to their students for a profit back home. The clothing range, which launched in 2007, has fast become a phenomenon in itself. “We’re making $10 million a year in clothes sales,” Pearlman says. The company expects 3 million units to be sold this year, that is compared to just 1.8 million units in 2011. “There has been an 800 per cent increase since we launched the range in 2007,” the CEO adds, the figures helpfully at his fingertips.

The clothing range is a key part of Zumba’s growing business model, which seems to be not so much about diversification as about creating a brand that is entirely self-sufficient. When in 2002 they launched their DVDs, and people started seeing them and asking how they could become instructors, they launched their training programme; when five years later they had the idea of selling a few clothing items to publicise their brand, they put 500 T-shirts and 500 cargo pants on sale online, those sold out within a month, and they decided there was something in it. Rather than licensing their clothing range, Zumba decided to keep that in-house, as well. Their market research is cheap: instead of focus groups, members of their 25-strong clothing team go out to Zumba events and see what the people are wearing, how they customise their clothes, and then they repackage those ideas back to the consumers. It works. “Now we are sitting on top of what’s quickly becoming an apparel empire,” adds Zumba finance guy Robert Moreno, and they are only just starting to move the stuff into stores.

This month, Harrods in London launched a Zumba department on the fifth floor, “because they let us do demonstrations in the shop.” Every decision they make is about controlling and correctly promoting the brand: that applies to decisions over which films and TV programmes they allow to feature Zumba and how the word is used. “You can’t adapt the patented Zumba trademark,” Pearlman reminds his audience; for instance, it’s illegal to say “I’m going Zumba-ing”.

Alongside the merchandise here in Orlando, there are stalls selling protein bars, shakes, vitaminwater, insurance, speakers, unidentifiable bits of fitness kit to be incorporated in classes – the companies lining up to be associated with the brand is phenomenal.

Next year, Zumba opens its first office outside the USA, in Britain. While the company doesn’t disclose their overall figures, with an 800 per cent increase in people taking classes in the past three years, one imagines their bank manager will be dancing for joy. George Gottl, having worked for years as Head of Apparel at Nike and who now brings his expertise to Zumba, believes it “is the definitive 21st-century company. We’ve taken Facebook and moved it into the real world.”

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