A conversation with Elbert Tiwa, the founder of Empire Fit Club, about how he started the gym, shifting online platform during the lockdown and more.
Growing up in the United States, Elberlino Tiwa – or Coach Elbert to his friends and clientele – never imagined that he would end up opening up a bootcamp gym in Jakarta. Previously, he was a combat fitness instructor during his time in the U.S. military with plans to open his own gym in San Diego, California. But then, a trip to Indonesia completely changed his mind.
It was back in 2013 and Elbert realised that he couldn’t find a gym that had what he needed. In other words, he identified a gap in the market when he felt that nobody in Jakarta was offering the kind of training that he did and presented an opportunity for him to provide something different, something outside of what people in Jakarta are used to.
Elbert eventually moved to Jakarta in 2015 and set up shop. It wasn’t exactly a gym at the beginning. He called it Military Fitness Basic Training, which is a bootcamp-style training program that he held in the softball field at Gelora Bung Karno. Elbert’s early venture gained quite a following and in 2016, with even more people joining up, he moved to a space at the rooftop of the World Trade Center and established the Empire Fit Club. Fast forward to a couple of years later, and it has become the go-to place for functional and bootcamp training in Jakarta, especially for those looking to exercise before and after work.
There are no winners here; we are all trying to get up and then we’re all trying to win together and not win against each other.” – Elbert Tiwa
The thing about Empire Fit Club is that, while it offers something quite unique compared to other gyms, training there can be quite intimidating, especially for beginners. Elbert was quite aware of this reputation, but the gym’s growing presence on social media gave a lot of the push they needed to give Empire a go. It certainly helped that more and more famous personalities and influencers training there. Speaking about training at Empire, Elbert explains that what really differentiates it from other gyms is that they don’t stick to one workout template all the time. In a way, they personalise training regimens depending on a member’s performance.
“Over the past four, five years, there are more people who are willing to try the training that we provide. And I’m really, really looking forward to it because it’s good for us as a business,” Elbert comments. “You know, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people trying this kind of training.”
The million-dollar question is, of course, how do they get people to commit? Because getting people to try new things is one thing, making them stick to it is a whole different ball game. “At Empire, we always say that we are not in the business of fitness, but we are in the business of changing habits. The biggest key for us is consistency over intensity. You don’t need to go hard; you just need to go often,” Elbert points out. “The hardest part of working out is actually showing up consistently, which is why making it fun is so crucial, because that fun aspect is what more often than not is going to get people to come back.”
Empire is very community-driven, because when people work out together, they are more likely to enjoy it. Anybody who has visited the gym will immediately notice the strong sense of community. They got the athletic element down pat, which is obvious, but they also provide something that is fun, effective and, more importantly, safe. As Elbert puts it: “We try to get everybody to encourage each other. We try to have that healthy environment where everyone is kind of on the same goal. There are no winners here; we are all trying to get up and then we’re all trying to win together and not win against each other. So, it’s not just the coach’s job to drive things. A fun environment to work out is how we deliver and make sure people keep coming back and change their habits.”
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has basically thrown everything Elbert has been fighting for out of the window. With social distancing still the norm and full or partial lockdowns still in place, working out in public spaces is not exactly the right thing to do. Empire adapted by producing online content, but Elbert admits that in the beginning, he saw a significant drop in Empire members. Some couldn’t find the motivation to work out, others felt that home workouts don’t push them hard enough. Limited exercise space, lack of equipment as well as limited interaction between coaches and members certainly didn’t help.
Another challenge was the simple fact that Empire wasn’t the only gym putting out online content. And now they are competing against gyms and fitness trainer from around the world, and against a torrent of free online content.
Still, Empire didn’t wait for too long to formulate new strategies. Elbert also realised that, as a business owner, he had to think about the coaches that worked with him along with his team.
“We started to build our own online community where we communicate through WhatsApp and Instagram,” Elbert explains. “Over the past six to seven months we’ve been fully invested in that. The good thing is that we are so focused on our members; we are so focused on the interaction between our members so they feel that sense of belonging to Empire itself. That’s one part that we are grateful for.” This online community has kept him busy for the past six months and also became his coping mechanism as he searched for a positive outlook.
At the end of the interview, Elbert mentioned about his goal of opening a second location for Empire in the city sometime next year. Plans were actually in place to do so in March, but the lockdown made it impossible. In the meantime, Empire will continue focusing on its digital platform, as they see that there’s a lot of potential there after cultivating it for the past eight months. They now have new people coming in from countries like Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Australia and the United States. Basically, they have reached people a new untapped audience by putting out fitness content on social media. It goes without saying that this success has boosted Empire’s confidence. “We just need to approach things the right way and we need to market it the right way. And with the digital platform, we can go bigger, right? And we actually want to start promoting Empire services in Singapore, maybe through video content, virtual class or even a fitness app.”