How Alia Alston is Designing Success of Icebox Cryotherapy Studios

@cryoprosunited May 01, 2020

From a “Crazy Idea” to Shaping the Future of the Cryotherapy Industry

As I am writing this story, most cryotherapy centers in Europe and the United States have been closed for anywhere between 4 and 8 weeks, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Businesses are hurting, and there is anxiety in the air. Cryopreneurs are trying to help each other in any way they can, while we all understand – the post-crisis world will not be the same. To survive and thrive, we will need to be better organized, smarter and stronger than ever before.

Michael Hyatt says: “No one drifts into greatness, it only happens by design.” So, I am sitting down with one of the most successful American cryotherapy business owners Alia Alston, the founder of the rapidly growing Icebox Cryotherapy Studios, to talk about what designing for success actually means.

The beginning

Alia Alston and I have known each other for almost a decade.

Her father, a Tallahassee-based chiropractor, was among the first doctors in the United States adopting whole body cryotherapy and one of the very first clients in my new role as a cryotherapy promoter and business developer. It was 10 years ago.

Soon after Dr. Whitfield received his cryotherapy sauna back in 2011, Alia came up with an idea to open a studio in Atlanta, GA, which became a reality in early 2012 and was a trendsetter – the first spa-like cryotherapy retail facility in the country. It made the modality more accessible to the public and encouraged many other believers in holistic wellness to follow.

From own pain to helping others

Like many other business owners in our industry, Alia turned into an evangelist of cryotherapy through her own experience. When she was 18, she was hit by a drunk driver. The accident left her with a debilitating back and neck injury, pain from which was only getting worse over time. After having the second child, she was experiencing numbness in her left arm and leg from a pinched nerve triggered by inflammation. The doctor was suggesting surgery as the only viable choice to get better, but it would have been serious – not an option that a young woman could accept with ease. So, despite doctor’s urging, she asked for 6 months to try some other things first. What other things? Alia says she did it all – ice baths, hanging upside down, hyper barrack, yoga, acupuncture, whatever suggestions could be found.

Her father’s whole-body cryotherapy sauna did the trick. Just 5 twice-daily sessions in, Alia had regained sensation in the affected limbs and achieved a significant decrease in pain levels. She was hooked. The same week of experiencing such fast and noticeable relief, Alia was charting a business plan on a napkin while having dinner with her dad at a local restaurant.

20-year experience in retail marketing and product management helped, and Icebox Cryotherapy Studio was born soon after. It was an innovation and a risk, as at the time cryotherapy was practically unknown to the American public, and cryosaunas were only available in professional facilities, like Nike headquarters in Oregon, and some doctors’ practices. Alia saw an opportunity to create a RETAIL environment – a cool upbeat wellness studio that would help regular people achieve their health and recovery goals.

Like any other beginning, it was not easy, the first year was just to survive and not without tears and sleepless nights, but dedication and persistence made the risk pay off. Today, Icebox Cryotherapy Studios is a franchise with more than 40 new locations under development.

Alia is highly respected in the industry among other wellness entrepreneurs, equipment providers and fellow franchisors. Her leadership shines through everything Icebox does. Every communication with the public is simple, clear, in style, and shows care for clients, employees and community alike.

SUCCESS LEAVES CLUES. Alia and I talked through some of them for this article.

So, what are the main principles forming a strong foundation for success that not many in the industry have seen?

Being in a SERVING state of mind

Having passion for wellness and “loving every minute of helping others” is where it all begins. There are many other businesses in which more money can be made faster, but a few compare in the level of satisfaction that comes from seeing clients get rid of their chronic pains and other health issues, being able to return to their best selves and doing the things they love again.

It’s “the best job in the world”, Alia says. She also only offers services she falls in love with herself. This way, the excitement comes naturally, eyes keep shining, people see you walking the walk and trust you to follow.

Surrounding yourself with likeminded, smart and successful people

For many cryotherapy entrepreneurs, like Alia, the trigger has been their own recovery, but they also know to look for the right people as their employees and, for Icebox, also the franchisees.

To be hired by Icebox, you MUST be passionate about wellness. Most of Alia’s team members come from other roles in health and wellness industry. This way, they can better understand clients’ struggles and lead through them towards the results.

These are not the cheapest people to hire, but they can demonstrate authority, build trust, and connect with the clients at a much deeper level.

The facials and the body contouring treatments at Icebox are performed by an esthetician for exactly the same reason.

Building uniformity of the Icebox brand also requires choosing franchisees based on the same principles. It is not all about having the money to invest. The studio owners need to prove they have relevant experience and passion or to build their teams of people who do.

When Alia greets her potential franchisees, she begins with: “I do not sell franchises, I award them.”

Never giving up on education

It starts with self-education and continuous learning. “Never be the smartest person in the room AND outsource everything you are not good at” is one of Alia’s mottos. I have met many business owners who are afraid of surrounding themselves with knowledgeable, capable people, because they feel it may undermine their authority. Alia is just the opposite. It is how she grows and makes her team stronger.

In addition, she is an avid reader - of business books more than anything else in this stage of Icebox development. We briefly exchanged the lists of our favorite “crisis reads” and found some in common right away, like “How cool brands stay hot” by Joeri Van Den Bergh and Mattias Behrer.

The Icebox team is also very well trained. Alia admits that to have all her places feel, look, even smell the same, she is “heavily involved in the process”. Strict rules, no democracy – treatment-related training, customer service, scripts and role plays ensure the desired level of care, competency, and uniformity. All team members go through equipment manufacturer certification and are required to follow policies and guidelines to assure that customers have a safe and professional experience. In addition to thorough initial training, continued education and testing ensures they remain relevant with the latest information in the industry.

All the above would bear no fruit without educating the public. Teaching it about holistic wellness and the benefits of the offered treatments leads to people’s willingness to get involved and to commit, as they are made understand WHY they should. This way, the “sell, sell, sell” approach can be put to rest.

Education of the audience is how Alia started when there was no awareness of cryotherapy. Passionate and persistent, convinced by her own recovery story, she would run around telling people about it 8 years ago, and being an educator has never been taken off her “to do” list. This approach also shines through most social media posts – not what treatment to get, but why to do it, like the following two: 

Staying laser focused

Alia calls herself a purist. “We only do cold, and we do it well,” she says. While most other businesses in the industry seek extra revenue by branching into additional wellness modalities involving heat, light, water and other elements of nature, Icebox stays true to cryo. Why so?

“It makes it easier to educate and train. It also keeps the message cohesive and simplifies its communication.” While many believe that surviving “just on cryo” is difficult, if possible at all, Alia proves the opposite.

Icebox centers offer whole body and local cryotherapy, cryo facials and cryo slimming and toning that was added last. Alia says that it was also the most difficult to incorporate, message-wise. Icebox uses T-Shock technology, but the machine has been re-branded and private labeled to avoid the word “shock”. For facials, they use Elephant from Cryomachines like many other centers, but do the treatment “their own way” and only by an esthetician. Even if it is expensive to hire, the added quality and credibility justifies the extra investment.

In addition to cold-based treatments, Icebox only offers so called “enhancers” - NormaTec compression massage and kinesiology (taping).

Designing care-centered processes

Small business owners, especially if they are also the operators, manage the business intuitively and “on the go”. Seeing carefully and purposefully designed processes that must be promptly followed by every single employee is a rarity.

At Icebox, nothing is left to random. The intake is designed to learn as much about the client as possible.

The wellness coordinator stays with a new client throughout the entire visit.

The information gets portioned and delivered at the right moment to enforce client’s experience. “Nobody wants to listen to a 20-min lecture”, Alia says. The irrelevant to the particular person information gets kept out of the pitch – the coordinator only talks about what applies to the client’s situation. At the same time, the most important information (like the number of treatments required for result) gets repeated at least 3 times during the visit to make it sink in.

The attention also makes the client better understand what they want, and the demonstrated expertise and care are convincing.

Icebox personnel is trained to focus on education and retention from the first visit. They ensure personal touch by taking notes and keeping records. This way, personalized notes that reflect events in clients’ lives, like competitions they are preparing for, can be sent out at the right time and brought up in the conversation. People feel noticed and cared for, and a stronger bond is forming.

It works towards the employees, too – they get acknowledged and appreciated internally and in public communications. No one at Icebox is just a cog in a mechanism designed to generate revenue. All team members have faces and personal stories. In services, people buy from people, not companies.

Here are some of the social media posts by Icebox during the lockdown: 

Learning from experience and pivoting

Because the early users were athletes and there was no awareness outside the sports-related community, Alia first started pursuing football and basketball players, referring to the experiences of Nike and Dallas Mavericks.

She says she was even stalking a football team to get them try the equipment, plus never took “no” for an answer. The persistence resulted in working with teams for years. This is a great example of how committed business owners get their companies going – by knocking on people’s doors rather than waiting for them to come. Putting in the effort is also always appreciated by investors, like the “sharks” on TV’s Shark Tank – their interest goes down immediately as they hear “I don’t have the right connections” excuse.

Despite it all, the first year of Alia’s new cryotherapy business was a struggle, involving tears and sleepless nights, as she was putting a legwork in and trying to figure it out. “Overnight success” is an illusion. The more it looks like a miracle, the more work has been put in behind the scenes.

We all start small and, initially, can only rely on ourselves, but Alia knew early on she needed a team. “Running everything on your own cannot be a sustainable business model”, she says.

The first Icebox studio was off the beaten path, in a strip mall, but it was then moved into an easier accessible, more public space. Visibility does not automatically guarantee success, that it does is another common misperception in our industry, but having a major magnet nearby, like a gym or a health store, definitely adds to opportunities. This is the reason why all franchisors only go for premium locations.

2 years after starting Icebox, Alia says she “made the worst business decision in her life” – invested in a mobile unit. It ended up being a marketing vehicle at most, and Icebox does not have it anymore, but it was among the first mobile units in the country and a valuable learning experience.

Growing only when ready

Alia added the 2nd location in 2017, 5 years after establishing the original center in Atlanta.  It was a necessary step towards franchising, the next stage in Icebox development, as the business model needs to be well established and proven successful before it can be multiplied, or all the growth will do is spread and amplify the problems. More than one location under the same brand requires a new level of standardization and staff training.

Alia learned and gained confidence one step at a time. The experience of opening the first franchise was nerve-wrecking but it turned out to be a huge success. Now Icebox is actively expanding in many states at once to ensure availability – the traveling members will be able to keep their wellness journey uninterrupted. 

The business is growing smart, carefully selecting partners. To ensure that the Icebox culture gets embodied across the board, all new franchisees need to hire the right team if the owner is not the right person for the business. Alia believes that the industry has been hurt by many “wrong people” getting into the cryotherapy business because of the low entry barrier and false attraction created by the growth statistics and massive celebrity endorsement.

The more, the merrier

As opposed to many other business owners who complain about competition next door, Alia is one of those who believes that more cryotherapy businesses in one area mean more talking about it and, as a result, better results for everyone. It makes marketing easier, too. This is one of the reasons why Icebox is opening 6 studios in NJ in relatively close proximity to each other.

Geography is also important because Icebox membership is usable at all its studios. Understanding that services like whole body cryotherapy are more about convenience than destination, Alia wants to bring it closer to her audience, wherever it is or goes.

Choosing to cooperate instead of competing

Another principle in which Alia firmly believes is not locking herself out of cooperation and cross-marketing opportunities. For example, having your own physical therapist on board makes working with other physical therapists more difficult, opening a studio inside a gym limits the audience to only the particular gym goers, as customer loyalty is strong. Building alliances that benefit all participants is Alia’s way of growing her business.

Building relationships

Icebox is very strategic in choosing whom to work with. “I do not sell franchises, I award them” is one of the first things all potential franchisees hear when they gather to orientation meetings from all over the country.

Alia is looking for a particular type of people with “obsessive dedication to health and wellness”. Criteria include retail or health and wellness business experience, passion for healthy lifestyle, energy and enthusiasm, AND compatibility with the Icebox concept.

Once on board, these people will receive all necessary training, procedures and support to become brand ambassadors and to build close ties with their communities.

Holding own position

Just one example of what it means.

Icebox chose to stay closed for longer regardless of the state’s decision to open for business, putting safety of employees and clients first.

“In light of the recent state-level announcement allowing certain businesses to reopen, we remain committed to prioritizing the health & safety of our community, our employees and our families. We are so grateful for all the support our community has given us and share in the same excitement to reopen again.

While we look forward to eventually getting back “inside the box”, we will remain closed for the time being and will continue to provide updates on our reopening plan.

We continue to monitor the situation daily to determine the most responsible time to reopen. Although this is a very difficult decision for a small business, we believe there are no opportunities for second chances under the circumstance we’re all in. All memberships & packages will remain frozen until we officially open. We can’t wait to see everyone again soon.

Stay safe & stay cool! The Icebox Team”

This address was put out on social media and very well received by Icebox fans.

The time off was spent in preparation to adjust the flow and to observe limitations after reopening. Special own design masks for the team were ordered to make the precautions feel friendlier, less medical.

 

Advice distilled

At the end of our conversation I tell Alia how much her approach reminds me of the one deployed by Ellen Latham who created Orangetheory Fitness with one goal in mind: to make sure anyone who tried it was successful. To do that, she went her own way “against the grain” of what other workout places were doing to create not another gym, but a cohesive fun experience and mutually supportive community. Orangetheory now has nearly 1 million members and over 1,000 studios all over the world. In 2019, the company exceeded $1 billion in revenue. I do see Icebox taking a similar path under Alia’s leadership and do believe that she will become “Ellen Latham” of the cryotherapy industry. She has what it takes. Alia laughs and says she would not mind.

 

To wrap it up, a few of my favorite points from this conversation:

  • As a business owner, talking the talk is not enough. Walk the walk.
  • Always surround yourself with smarter people and outsource everything you are not good at.
  • To build a sustainable business, you need a team.
  • Learn from unrelated industries, it helps to think out of the box.
  • Spend enough time analyzing what is working and what is not and adjust without hesitation.
  • Keep the business “clean”, do not lock yourself out of co-marketing and cooperation options.
  • Company culture only happens by design.
  • Never stop learning. During the crisis, read more (many) books.
  • Now more than ever before you must be rooted in the community.

 

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