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The transformation of the fitness industry


Social distancing protocols are one area where fitness clubs like the Nuffield Health Sunbury Fitness and Wellbeing Gym outside of London are learning to adapt as businesses reopen.

By Mark A. Stein


Like restaurants, retailers and other businesses normally conducted in crowded locations open to the public, the health and fitness industry in Europe is scrambling to recover and get its business back on track — as soon as it figures out what its business will look like.


The orders by public health authorities to close health and fitness clubs several times have had a profound effect on the industry. The consulting firm Deloitte estimates that clubs in Europe lost 15.4% of their members, or more than 10 million people, even when closures were relatively brief. Industry revenue fell twice as much, by almost 33%, as clients froze their accounts or requested refunds.


While the pandemic drags on, club executives are trying to fully understand how fundamentally COVID-19 has transformed their industry, which generated $96.7 billion in global revenue in 2019.


“For a long time now, I believe that too many health club leaders around the world assume they have the full and undivided attention of the exercising consumer,” said Ray Algar, a global fitness industry business adviser and analyst with Oxygen Consulting in Brighton, England. “That the gym sits at the top of some exercise industry hierarchy.”


“The gym may have once had this temporary monopoly, but this is over, and the pandemic has demonstrated that consumers can capably locate and enjoy many different gym substitutes,” he said. “What the pandemic has done has made these gym substitutes more visible. So, this does represent a significant inflection point, because never has this global industry been challenged to demonstrate its right to serve and support the exercising consumer.”


Stefan Ludwig, a Deloitte partner and leader of the Sports Business Group, said that the lockdowns had indeed had a “significant impact on both consumer behavior and operator offerings.”


A report by ClubIntel, a marketing research and consulting firm, found that closed clubs led many people to lose the habit of exercising regularly and caused others to try alternatives, such as biking, joining a walking club, signing up for video classes (dance and boxing are popular options) or buying an interactive device like a Peloton or Mirror.


Many customers, the report found, have chosen remote options offered by providers other than a fitness club. To retain or recoup pre-pandemic clientele, clubs need to increase those kinds of options and build a business model with diverse offerings like on-demand and streaming video. Many have already begun.


ClubIntel found that 27% of the 2,000 people who participated in an online survey said their fitness clubs offered digital fitness during COVID closures; that rose to 58% after clubs reopened.


“Many brick-and-mortar operators were quick to adapt their digital offerings, and these remain key to their success,” Ludwig said.


Customers seem open to remote workouts. MindBody, a fitness-software company, said 7% of customers it surveyed in 2019 used livestreamed workouts; during the pandemic the figure climbed past 80%. While three-fourths of those customers said they intended to return to a club when they could, many added that they also would continue virtual workouts.


“While digital offerings are here to stay, they are unlikely to replace the traditional brick-and-mortar services,” Ludwig said. “Operators are well-advised to integrate a comprehensive digital experience into their offerings while maintaining their on-site facilities.”


Tracking COVID-19 transmission rates, reconfiguring clubs and creating coronavirus protocols are important steps to rebuilding trust that gyms are safe environments and persuading clients to return to gyms. “The industry’s efforts, especially in Europe, has led to an encouraging member return rate,” Algar said.


PureGym, Europe’s second-largest gym brand with around 500 gyms cross the United Kingdom, Denmark and Switzerland, recently said it had 1.6 million members at the end of June 2021, which is about 94% of its June 2019 level.


To be competitive, fitness clubs cannot rely on what worked in the past. Clubs must learn to bundle different options delivered via a variety of ways, such as live, streaming and on demand, rather than continue to view the industry as a zero-sum game that pits the gym against Peloton or Apple Fitness+, Algar said.


European operators will find that a diverse approach is easier to adopt because governments in many countries forgave business taxes and made grants to cover payrolls and overhead costs to mitigate the closure of brick-and-mortar clubs, Ludwig said. Only 1.4% of the clubs in Europe have closed since March 2020, compared with about 25% in the United States.


Similar support for the U.S. industry was proposed. The Gym Mitigation and Survival Act would offer grants of as much as $25 million to gym owners. But the bill, which has 157 co-sponsors, including 27 Republicans, has not moved out of the House Committee on Small Business.


Bankruptcies also have been less common in Europe than in the United States. Two U.S. chains, 24 Hour Fitness USA and Gold’s Gym International, sought protection from creditors in spring 2020. 24 Hour Fitness closed more than 100 clubs, while Gold’s shut 30 before being acquired by RSG Group, owners of McFit, Germany’s largest fitness club operator.


Helen Durkin, executive vice president of public policy for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, said it was difficult for fitness clubs to forecast how radically the pandemic was transforming the industry, “but the need to be omnichannel has been talked about for a time and some have been planning for it.”


Durkin said COVID had accelerated innovation, pushing business owners to open more studios — that is, smaller locations devoted to a single discipline, such as yoga or Pilates — or offer drop-in classes for which clients pay by the session rather than by the month. “The industry is looking at different pricing models,” she said.

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