In 2012, Nicolas St-Maurice was looking for adventure and opportunity.
He was working at the Club Sportif MAA in downtown Montreal when a friend and co-worker told him there was a need for high-end personal trainers in the Middle East.
He couldn't have predicted that, in only a few short years, he'd be working regularly with global soccer stars such as Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and internationally renowned music icons such as 50 Cent.
St. Maurice — who is a McGill University graduate with a degree in kinesiology — and two friends from Montreal set up a training centre when they arrived.
But things didn't go as planned.
They discovered that the average person in Dubai didn't have the same motivation to train and work out like North Americans.
"We thought: back in North America all the boys want to grow up and want to be professional athletes in football, hockey, soccer or the NBA, but out here it's not the same you know. We wanted to build on that, there wasn't much demand," St-Maurice said.
Within a few years the gym closed and his business partners returned to Canada.
That's when St-Maurice went online and his career started to take off.
Life as a social media influencer
St-Maurice leaned into what he calls the "bling-bling" lifestyle of Dubai and started promoting himself and his personal training company on social media sites like Instagram.
His following started to grow.
He secured multiple sponsorships and he was even featured on the cover of Men's Health magazine.
But despite his apparent success, St-Maurice says being an influencer didn't fit with his personality and he wanted to do more than just train people for glamorous photos and "likes" online.
"It wasn't really me. Growing up as a high-level athlete, doing track-and-field sprinting for over 10 years, playing american football, soccer, all these things, I've always wanted to play sports and work with athletes," St-Maurice said.
St-Maurice says he realized Dubai's fame as a vacation destination for many of the world's top athletes could be the lynchpin to his success.
"Dubai is a hub, everybody from all over the world is coming here, especially from Europe. All the high level players from Premier League, Bundesliga and France, they all come here for vacation."
He started looking for a way to connect with the stars while they were in town.
A hotel concierge gave St-Maurice his big break, recommending him to a player in the Chelsea FC Academy who was in town on vacation and looking to workout.
"From there it was a snowball effect, with Instagram and social media nowadays and word of mouth," St-Maurice said. "Soccer is really small. It's a big sport but everybody knows each other and everybody talks."
The former Montrealer, now 33, says balancing privacy with promotion has been key to his success.
He doesn't post anything online without a player's express consent — but he says it's often the player who wants to make his workouts public.
"When (my clients) come to Dubai, people assume they're coming just to party, have a good time and take it easy," St-Maurice said.
"But it looks good for everybody if they're training with a celebrity trainer who everyone trains with. They might get one 45-minute session in the whole week. But this is what they post and everyone is happy. The team is happy, the agents are happy."
St-Maurice is often tagged in the videos the players post to their millions of followers. Now, when the rich and famous come to Dubai, he says they ask for him directly.
Adapting to pandemic times
With most travellers grounded last year, St-Maurice adapted his offerings, using his online presence and marketing skills to grow his business base.
He says he's doing more online classes with younger, aspiring professional athletes and he plans to keep doing more of it — regardless of what comes next.
"The plan was to do a lot more travelling and train players at their place, but in the back of my mind I've always wanted to do more online training," St-Maurice said. "It's very rewarding to work with kids who are 16 or 17 and want to become professionals."
St-Maurice, who is also an expecting father with a baby due in August, says he has dozens of young athletes now from all around the world working out with the programs he sets up for them through his app.
But he insists that the core of his business will continue to be his status as the go-to man for working out in Dubai.