Zumba no longer just exercise, it's big business

Reuters, Tuesday 26 Jun 2012

Colombian fitness instructor Alberto Perez was just seeking to make a living, but is now one of the kings of the Zumba craze

Zumba, founder
Reuters photo

Alberto Perez started out as a street performer and then an aerobics teacher in Colombia, making extra cash on the side teaching the wives of businessmen how to dance in nightclubs in his hometown, Cali.

Today, he stands at the centre of the Zumba exercise craze, having helped transform Zumba Fitness, a private company, into a rapidly growing fitness empire with heavyweight investor backing.

"I'm not a businessman, but I knew this had the potential to be something special," said Perez, who along with two Colombian associates founded the Miami-based company.

Zumba, a Latin dance-inspired aerobic workout, has exploded from a Miami gym phenomenon to infomercial and DVD smash hit into a global craze with some 12 million people taking classes every week in at least 125 countries. Zumba Fitness now boasts being the largest branded fitness program in the world.

Started on a shoestring budget in a Miami garage nearly 11 years ago, Zumba Fitness now has more than 200 employees, and a pair of New York investment firms are betting the craze has staying power.

What began as a company focused on fitness has evolved into a lifestyle and entertainment brand combining e-commerce, apparel and music, and a sought-after outlet for stars like hip-hop artists Pitbull and Wyclef Jean and reggaeton singer Don Omar who have turned to Zumba to promote their music.

The accidental instructor

Zumba got its start by chance in the 1980s.

Perez, who is known as Beto, was eking out a living as a street performer and salsa and merengue nightclub dancer known for his boyish model looks and muscular physique.

One day the owner of a nearby gym called and asked if Perez could stand in for an injured aerobics teacher. He agreed - but didn't mention he had never done aerobics and rushed out and bought a copy of Jane Fonda's Workout Book.

His fitness career was born.

Months later, getting ready for a class, Perez forgot his aerobics music. Instead, he put on his own merengue and salsa tapes and improvised dance moves for a workout, creating what today is known as Zumba.

It proved to be a hit and he quickly developed a loyal following before he moved to Bogota, where he briefly worked as a choreographer with pop star Shakira.

In 1999, Perez packed up and headed to Miami, speaking no English but hoping to make a breakthrough in the Latin-flavored US city with his new dance exercise class.

He struggled before eventually building up a large, adoring fan base of mostly Colombian expatriate women, including the mother of Alberto Perlman. 

Then a technology entrepreneur, Perlman lost his job in the dot-com bust two years later and was struggling with what career move to make next. He co-founded Zumba Fitness and is now its chief executive.

"My mom had been taking his classes for years," he said. "She would tell me about this amazing class but I never paid attention. When the bubble burst, I went to have dinner at her house and she kept saying 'Talk to Beto, maybe you guys could start a gym.'"

"I said I'd meet with him but I wasn't sure what I was going to do with him," Perlman recalled. But after watching a class, he came up with the idea for a new fitness video he hoped could be an infomercial success.

The men sought to put a name on the exercise, first thinking of the Spanish word rumba, which loosely translates as party, but realised it was already trademarked.

"We just went through the alphabet to see what rhymes with rumba," Perlman said. "We were getting nervous by the end, nothing sounded good - bumba, kumba. Then we settled on Zumba, it was perfect."

12 million and counting

Perlman said growing the instructor and student base is the firm's top priority, with a goal of one day reaching 100 million students, more than eight times the current number.

The company has also launched its own line of brightly coloured clothing, Zumba footwear and a glossy magazine named ZLife all designed in its Miami office.

But it is also focused on developing TV shows, pushing into global markets, particularly Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, and exploiting a new business opportunity: fitness concerts.

"I see Zumba Fitness also as an entertainment brand," Perlman said. "It's becoming a music, TV and concert platform."

Fitness fads rise and fall. But two prominent investment firms have made bets Zumba Fitness will avoid going the way of workout has-beens like Jazzercise, Thighmaster and the Ab Rocket. 

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