Waiting to Exhale: A Lifetime of Moments Led Annbeth Eschbach to Create a Unique Boutique Studio Brand

Annbeth Eschbach, president and CEO of exhale, showed an entrepreneurial spirit, innovative thinking and courage from an early age. As other girls babysat to earn money, a teenage Eschbach chose a different route—she performed at children's birthday parties as a ventriloquist with her dummy Oscar.

“That is how I earned money in my youth because I did not like cleaning houses or babysitting,” she said.

As an adult, Eschbach, who is this year's Club Industry Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, continues to eschew the norm, running the London Marathon, windsurfing, skiing out of bounds in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and even taking up hockey in her 40s. But perhaps the biggest risk she took was founding exhale in 2002. After gaining more than 20 years of experience in the health club business, Eschbach created a new space in the fitness industry with exhale. It was a space where customers could enjoy a holistic approach to fitness, wellbeing and healing. The revolutionary idea put yoga, boutique fitness—which was barely in its nascent stage at the time—and spa treatments under the same roof. exhale, which has been featured in Fast Company, Entrepreneur and Spa Magazine, among others, helped to launch the boutique space that has changed the health club industry.

Eschbach's vision for exhale took shape in a class at New York University when she was getting her MBA while working at Wellbridge, which at the time was called Club Sports International. The class discussion focused on matrix management, specifically influencing people. She said the “lightbulb went off.”

“I said I didn’t want to be that way,” Eschbach said during an interview at Exhale Enterprises Inc. headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. “I want to be an entrepreneur. I don’t want to have to work around people (to get an idea launched). I want to land the plane.”

Although the lightbulb may have gone off in that class, the vision had been brewing for years.

“The inspiration behind the exhale brand came from a lifetime of moments," she said. “Growing up with a father who was a healer and medical visionary dedicated to making the lives of his patients better. Working in the spa and fitness industry and believing that the world needed to move in another direction. Seeing a void in the industry for an experience that transforms lives. Going to business school validated my thinking. I passionately believed in the dream and concept, which became more clear and compelling when I drafted the business plan and trademarked the brand name.

"I think Mom was instrumental in exposing us to mental resilience and positivity 50 years before it became fashionable, which, in hindsight, has been pretty important.”

Her father, Dr. Joseph Eschbach, specialized in nephrology, specifically kidney disease. His breakthrough synthetic hormone, Epogen, changed the lives of many kidney disease sufferers whose energy level dwindled due to a side effect of the disease, which is anemia. Her mother, MaryAnn Eschbach, introduced her to meditation and a healthy lifestyle. At 82 years old today, MaryAnn is as active and healthy as those decades younger, Eschbach said.

Eschbach, the middle child of three, took what she had learned from her parents and applied it in her professional life prior to founding exhale. She started in the health club business in the 1980s, working her way up the ranks at a variety of fitness companies. Prior to exhale, she was the marketing manager at New York Health & Racquet Clubs (NYHRC), director of the spa division and in charge of marketing and branding for the more than 50 properties at Wellbridge (at that time the third largest spa and club operator in the United States) and president and COO for Cardio Fitness Centers. She also developed and launched the spas at both premier destinations Peninsula Hotels and W Hotel’s AWAY Spa. Her experience in the industry got her elected in the 1990s as the first female chairperson of the board of directors for the International Health, Racquet and Sports Association (IHRSA).

“[Annbeth] represents someone who grew up in the industry when the industry was [very young],” said Rick Caro, president of Management Vision, who has been a colleague for decades. “She has shown all of us how to not just be a good business person but be a good leader. She is someone we all respect.”

Entrepreneurial Success

After her revelation in the MBA class, Eschbach’s next step was to figure out how to translate that idea. Something was missing in fitness offerings, she said, adding that gyms at that time lacked the classes she wanted to offer, and spas catered to those pampering themselves or visiting on a whim, such as during a vacation. None of them offered a highly transformational mind/body experience.

So she knew what she wanted in theory, but she needed specifics. This is where Eschbach’s intuition and vision of future trends came into play. After taking a Lotte Berk Method Barre class in Bridgehampton, New York, she approached the teacher, Fred DeVito, and asked if he and his wife Lis Halfpapp, also a teacher there, would entertain an idea she had.

“I didn’t know who she was or what she was thinking about,” said DeVito, but he and Halfpapp were looking to start the next chapter in their lives after 22 years of running their studio, so he listened to her idea.

“Annbeth was taking several classes and started to see a vision of meshing the worlds of fitness and spa,” he said.

The couple agreed to be co-founders of exhale with Eschbach and to develop the classes for the brand.

More than 16 years later, Eschbach’s vision has never blurred. Since opening in 2002, exhale has grown to 29 locations with more than 2,000 associates. But what may be more impressive than the steady expansion is that top brands are knocking on her door to partner with her. Some of the agreements include the partner fronting many of the expenses, including build-out, equipment and even some of the marketing.

Steve Baile, senior vice president at Daniel Corp., worked directly with Eschbach during the exhale Midtown Atlanta project. The mixed-use development included a hotel, residences and office space. Baile said his group wanted a known brand and an offering that could cater to all three clientele.

Eschbach is a great negotiator who isn’t shy about what she wants while still being flexible, he said.

“Most people can focus on a business model and know it well,” Baile said. “She definitely has that skillset, but the fact that she can quickly embrace it and understand our business model and what we want to achieve is where she stands out.”

Baile said that Eschbach added to his company's original program.

"She made us reach and do a little more because she gave us the confidence [that her ideas] were the right thing to do,” he said.

This summer, Eschbach opened the exhale Bermuda location by pouring champagne on the roof in a traditional roof-wetting ceremony. (Photo courtesy exhale.)

When looking for funding, Eschbach approached Brentwood Associates. The private equity firm just happened to be looking to get into day spa space. Brentwood Associates invested in Eschbach's vision and is still a backer of the brand today. 

exhale isn’t limited to the United States. Along with a location at Gansevoort Turks & Caicos Resort, a second international spot at Hamilton Princess & Beach Club in Bermuda opened its doors this summer.

“Introducing exhale to Hamilton Princess & Beach Club was a no-brainer,” said Andrew Green, whose family owns the resort. “From the start, we knew that we wanted a New York City-based company that would ensure that the hotel always offers the latest trends in fitness and treatments. Everyone we spoke to in New York recommended exhale, a brand that is well-established and has a great reputation.”

Developing a New Brand

exhale wasn't the first new brand that Eschbach created. While working at Wellbridge in New York City, she was assigned to create brand new spaces within The Peninsula Hotel and W Hotel—two premiere brands. It was an undertaking she hadn’t been responsible for previously. Her task at Peninsula Hotel was to create a “top-of-the-market” concept where the offering was an exclusive club with both spa and fitness, all in a relatively small area of 5,000 square feet. Her task at AWAY Spa at the W Hotel was similar, but because W was a four-star hotel and not a five-star one, she had to create a lifestyle destination in a boutique hotel. Almost 20 years later, both brands she created are going strong at each of the respective hotels.

Art Curtis, COO at Wellbridge at the time Eschbach worked there, explained that what was asked of Eschbach, who held the position of vice president of marketing, did not exist anywhere at the time.

“Annbeth does a great job at taking the time to really understand who the customer is going to be,” Curtis said. “She takes those insights and utilizes that to help create design and elements inside those projects, whether it was the W or Peninsula spas. She could go into almost any situation, and she has the intellect and skills to figure out what is unique about the market. She then comes up with ideas and concepts to take advantage of the opportunity.”

Eschbach said that the timing of the challenge was perfect for her.

“[At the time], I was fascinated with anything in business," she said. "And I was very passionate about spas and fitness. But I was more passionate about positioning these businesses and how to communicate them, market them in a compelling and unique way. I got excited about stuff like that.”

It was during these projects that she first worked side-by-side with exhale co-founder Julia Sutton, now COO of exhale. Eschbach impressed Sutton so much that when Eschbach came to her with the idea for exhale, Sutton agreed to go on the adventure with her even though at the time Sutton was pregnant and had a secure job at Wellbridge.

“Knowing Annbeth, she is definitely a visionary and usually is ahead of her time,” Sutton said. “Knowing that, I had a lot faith [that exhale] would be successful, despite [the concept] being foreign to lot of people.”

Early Marketing Methods

Eschbach first made a name for herself in the industry in the early 1980s working in the marketing department for NYHRC, where her responsibility was to set its clubs apart from the other big names in the Big Apple, which were Equinox and Jack Lalanne Fitness Centers and Health Spa (later to become Bally Total Fitness).

One way she achieved this was a novel idea at the time—targeted marketing. She approached top brands, such as American Express and New York magazine, and she acquired member lists in their databases that fit certain criteria of people she felt would join NYHRC. She then marketed to them directly.

She also put on promotional activities within the communities the clubs were situated, so as to give potential members a glimpse of what was offered.

She got her feet wet in the spa sector of the industry while at NYHRC.

“One thing I have always held sacred is that a brand should always have a very strong point of difference,” Eschbach said. “You need to meet the market need and fill a void.”

Industry Leader

Eschbach was viewed as an industry leader long before the success of exhale.

In the late 1990s, she became the first female chairman of the board of directors for IHRSA, the trade association for commercial health clubs.

In this position, she did more than blaze the path for two other women to later hold that position. During her tenure, she was one of the voices of the organization that pushed to make IHRSA more global. IHRSA now has hundreds of member clubs outside of the United States, and it hosts a handful of international conferences. According to John McCarthy, the president of IHRSA at the time, that push is what separated IHRSA from other industry trade organizations.

“She was respected and liked without exception. Many people can be envious and jealous in this industry, but there is none with her,” McCarthy said. “I think the industry is very fortunate to acquire a leader of her stature. Her leadership and social skills are in the (top) 1 percent. Her skills are so extraordinarily high and outstanding; it is amazing.”

Getting Personal

As Eschbach developed her entrepreneurial skills to eventually launch exhale, she also developed her family life.

For 29 years, she has been married to Patrick Parcells, now a retired Wall Street CEO, who was raised by a single father in a lumber town and was one of the few people in his family to not only graduate from high school but also from college. Despite both of them being raised in Washington state, the two didn’t meet until both had moved to New York City when Eschbach was working at The Printing House Fitness Center. The couple live on Shelter Island in New York where they raised their son, Ryan Parcells. Ryan just began his freshmen year at Babson College, a Boston-area business school known for entrepreneurship.

“He has always had an entrepreneurial mindset and fell in love with the business of hospitality at a young age,” Eschbach said. “From an early age, he witnessed from the front row what it takes and what it means to build a hospitality brand and business.”

While Ryan may have fallen in love with entrepreneurship from watching his mom's success in business, she fell in love with hockey by watching her son play the sport. Eschbach was enthralled by the balance, strategy, speed and strength required in hockey, she said.

When Ryan was about 11, he outgrew his gear, but that gear happened to be Eschbach's size, so he gave it to her. Knowing how much she loved the sport, Ryan convinced her to join the men’s 5 a.m. Saturday and Sunday pick up hockey sessions at Chelsea Pier in New York.

“They allowed ‘the kid,’ Ryan, to join them since he was good—and tolerated the old lady because I was ‘the kid’s mom,’” Eschbach said. “It was humiliating and exhilarating, and I loved every moment. Treasured it. After a few months, I was still extremely unimpressive, so I enrolled myself in an adult hockey camp in New Jersey.”

In the two-day intensive camp, she was the only woman with about 50 men who had been playing for years.

“There is nothing more taxing than doing hockey drills and scrimmages for 10 hours a day for two days,” she said. “I am entirely in awe of hockey players.”

An accident put an end to her hockey aspirations. It wasn't the first time Eschbach dealt with an injury. During the 1980s while she was working at NYHRC, an accident while skiing out of bounds in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, caused a tear to her right ACL.

“After the fall, I stayed in Jackson and had the mountain docs do my surgery,” she said. “Then, on New Year's Eve, we flew back to New York and life on crutches. Tough year.”

The scar from that surgery is still visible on her right knee.

“I am proud of that scar,” she said.

She also is proud of her parents. There is an endowed chair at the University of Washington Medical School in honor of her father, who died nine years ago. 

“Dad was a visionary and pioneer in the medical field and became famous for the research and breakthroughs that he achieved in his specialty of nephrology,” she said.

He specialized in kidney disease and dedicated his life to improving the wellbeing of his patients’ everyday lives.

“His quest was to eliminate the suffering that comes with anemia, which is a side effect of kidney disease,” she said. “He spent 15 years conducting research to validate his hypothesis—and dream – which was that by creating a synthetic hormone to stimulate the bone marrow to create more red blood cells in a patient with low hematocrit levels—would allow his patients to live a better life, they would be able to ski, grocery shop, have energy to live a more robust and happy life.”

He partnered with AMGEN, a biotech company, to conduct clinical trials and ultimately his solution was brought to market under the name EPOGEN by AMGEN.

“Dad is a legend and was a true healer; he inspires me every day to work hard, be kind and help people live better.”

Her mother is now 82 years old and defies all logic and conventional western medical thinking, Eschbach said.

“She…walks five miles or more a day, is fit as a fiddle and happy in every way,” Eschbach said. “She behaves like she is 42. Most of her friends are younger than me. She started meditating and studying her sleep habits years before I did. She is a writer, has a Ph.D and lived a lifestyle filled with mindfulness before anyone even knew the science behind this practice or the very real benefits associated with it. She developed her own brand of positive thinking meets mental resilience and made it her mission to raise us with awareness and control over the wiring of our minds so that we could abort the negative thoughts and fuel with positive, grateful ones. It is certainly a very powerful healthy approach to life that today has a rapidly growing body of scientific research and validation. Mom inspired me to see possibilities, not barriers.”

With that guidance, it may come as no surprise what Eschbach has achieved in her 30 years in the health and wellness industry.