Bita and Reza Alavi
Co-founders, Real Pilates
Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
When Reza first took a Pilates class, he was hooked. A corporate head of strategy at an automotive company, he found Pilates helped him relieve the mental and physical stress of constant travelling and meetings. He liked it so much that he decided to make it his business. At first Reza, thought his lack of Pilates experience—he isn’t an Instructor—would be a detriment in opening a studio, but he soon found his entrepreneurial background was a huge plus. Currently, Reza co-owns Real Pilates with his wife Bita, a two-studio operation in Dubai. Real Pilates is also Dubai’s only Merrithew Licensed Training Center.
Here is how he did it.
Reza Alavi was busy. The corporate head of strategy at an automotive company in Dubai, his life was an unending blur of business trips, meetings and late evenings at the office. “It started to take its toll,” he says. “I didn’t feel strong.”
He joined a gym, but the routine of it soon bored him. One day, he decided to join a Pilates class that the gym offered. That was in 2007. By 2008 “I was completely hooked,” he says. “I felt refreshed, calm and centered. More cheerful.” Reza searched for a studio dedicated to Pilates, but there wasn’t much on offer in Dubai at the time. The few locations he found, he always felt there was something missing. “Either it would be a bad location with good instructors, or a good location with bad instructors,” he says.
Reza comes from a family of entrepreneurs and had used his wealth of business experience in Dubai to consult with other businesses on how to open locations in the city. He decided to use this experience to open his own Pilates business. “I decided to help myself,” he says.
Reza resigned from his corporate job and spent a full year planning his business. “From Day 1 I wanted to elevate Pilates,” he says. He developed a boutique studio concept, identified major suppliers of equipment and education, created his brand, and decided his objective, which was to create a studio space that would also function as a Pilates education center.
For further research, he traveled to FIBO in Germany, and it was there that he met Lindsay G. Merrithew, Moira Merrithew and PJ O’Clair. After a mix of formal and casual business meetings, he realized that Merrithew® STOTT PILATES® method was what he needed to realize his dreams of running his own Pilates business in Dubai. “I felt we connected very, very well,” he says. “Seven and a half years later we are all friends,” he says.
Initially, Reza was concerned about his lack of Pilates training. “I thought not being from a Pilates background would be a detriment,” Reza says, but his background in business soon proved invaluable. Eleven months after his resignation, Reza opened the doors to Real Pilates and within the first two months, he realized the real advantages of his business acumen in navigating the entrepreneurial landscape of Dubai.
Because Dubai is structured to attract international business clients, Reza was able to open his new business relatively quickly and with a minimum of red tape. But Dubai’s newness also meant that no one really knew what Pilates was, or how to categorize it. So initially, he officially registered Real Pilates as a yoga studio, then later as a fitness center.
From the start, Reza knew his audience would reflect the makeup of Dubai itself, roughly 90% international expat, and 10% local Emirati. Because of this, deciding the location of his studio was critical, he says. He looked for an area that was roughly a 50/50 mix of Emirati and expat. Because of local customs, he planned 80% of classes as female-only.
Two years later, he opened a second location, this time in a more modern area of Dubai, with a population that was largely expatriate. Here, he chose to offer mixed classes. Because of the expatriate community, Instructors may have up to 12 nationalities in one class, making language an ever-present challenge, he says. Educating the market in what Pilates is, and the role it can play in maintaining optimal physical health and a mind-body connection was also a challenge.
But despite this, Real Pilates “was very quickly successful,” says Reza, and much of this success had to do with planning. Reza had opened Real Pilates in December of 2009, and was offering training courses by January of 2010. In the first year, Real Pilates offered 32-33 group classes per week, and now that number has grown to 165 group classes between two locations per week. To date, over 1,300 students have trained at Real Pilates. The success of Real Pilates has been inspiring—Dubai now boasts over 25 Pilates studios.
Reza plans to expand his business and open Pilates studios throughout the Persian Gulf region. His advice for those considering opening their own studios? Study, plan, then study some more. “Don’t be too dreamy,” he says. “It’s a business. It’s hard work. I planned carefully, meticulously. And I studied.” Reza notes that he has seen many start fitness businesses around him in Dubai, only to fail because they moved too fast.
“Be more patient,” he advises. “It will all pay off.”