We take a fresh look at the front line of the gym industry, to see how it’s working out.
In 1847, circus strongman Hippolyte Triat opened the world’s first commercial gym in Paris – a vast dome of cast iron and glass filled with dumbbells and barbells where the wealthy exercised for exercise’s sake. As bizarre as it was, the concept caught on. Today there are an estimated 200,000 gyms around the world, including almost 3500 in Australia. And with so much focus on healthy living, 200 new gyms are slated to open in Australia every year, according to an IBISWorld industry report.
But growth in the number of new memberships in Australia isn’t keeping up with the number of new gyms. “At the moment we have around 20 per cent of Australians with gym memberships, six per cent actually go to a gym regularly and that leaves 80 per cent of the population doing whatever,” says Barrie Elvish, CEO of peak industry body Fitness Australia. “So we are not targeting those people.”
Justin Tamsett of Active Management, a consultant in the fitness industry, puts it like this: “As an industry, we’ve helped the fit get fitter and helped the fat get more embarrassed to get fit. So how do we decrease the intimidation factor of gyms to welcome people in?”
The answer, market research dictates, is a new breed of gym that incorporates technology, sports science and innovative customer service models to attract new members and future-proof profit. Here are three gyms setting the pace.
The 45-minute gym
F45 was ahead of its time when former equities trader Rob Deutsch opened the first outlet in Sydney in 2011. It draws on 2700 different exercises used to create challenging work-outs that change every day. It ticks off more than half of the Top 12 Fitness Trends for 2020 identified by Fitness Australia. These include “functional” training that mimics everyday movement, bodyweight training, high-intensity interval training and small group classes led by registered professionals.
Named after the length of its classes, the brand has taken the fitness industry by storm. There are now more than 500 F45 franchises in Australia, and another 1300 more around the world. As many as 10,000 new venues are expected to open in the US alone.
“The reason they grew so fast was probably the low barrier to entry compared with other franchises,” says Tamsett. He’s referring to F45’s simple equipment – free weights, pull-up bars, kettlebells – and annual turnover of $400,000 per studio. “Their timing was also perfect because they came in at the front end of the influencer marketing trend.”
Last year, actor and fitness icon Mark Wahlberg bought an undisclosed stake in the company. At the time, he said, “I fell in love with F45 after I walked into a gym and saw people from all walks of life, all levels of fitness, working out together.” And in January, Bloomberg reported F45 had taken steps to list on the New York Stock Exchange. F45 declined to comment but if Deutsch’s previous statements are anything to go by, it’s a done deal. “We’re the fastest-ever franchise rollout in Australia and we believe in the world,” he said.
The no-thrills gym
Fitness and Lifestyle Group, the company behind Fitness First, Goodlife Health Clubs and Jetts Fitness is the largest player in the sector, with almost 30 per cent of industry revenue – a billion dollars per year. The second biggest player, with 15 per cent of industry revenue and 520 outlets, is Anytime Fitness.
Established in the US in 2002, the company revolutionised the fitness industry with self-service gyms that have no full-time staff; only casual cleaners and personal trainers who are available on demand. Bored receptionists have also been taken out of the equation. Instead, members let themselves in – any time of the day or night – with keycards.
The no-thrills model has made it possible for Anytime Fitness to open gyms in country towns like Mount Isa and Narrabri on the North West Slopes of NSW. Here, people are 16 per cent more likely to be sedentary than city-dwellers, according to the National Rural Health Alliance.
“Our mission is to ‘Improve the self-esteem of the world,’” says Anytime Fitness CEO and co-founder Chuck Runyon. “It may sound like an audacious goal but we’re very serious about it. We’ll soon have 4000 gyms open in more than 30 countries. Each of those gyms supports a small community of like-minded individuals who are determined to enjoy healthier, happier lifestyles.”
Anytime Fitness has mastered the art of acquiring new members. Now it’s working on mastering the art of retaining them. “We built the franchise by focusing on convenience, affordability and a friendly, supportive atmosphere. That’ll never change,” Runyon says. “But we’ve sustained our growth by expanding our benefits for members. Specifically, our new group training sessions and our mobile app. It’s like having a personal trainer in your pocket.”
The spa gym
“Feels like a spa, works like a gym.”
That’s the mantra at Shelter, a luxurious high-tech health club that opened in the Sydney suburb of Double Bay last year. The focus is on spin classes – gym-talk for stationary bicycle work-outs. However, Shelter also offers hybrid spin-boxing classes, private infrared saunas and a smoothie bar; you’ll find wacky ingredients like hydrolysed collagen and hemp protein. It also has the only freshwater ice bath in Australia. This is a form of therapy used by professional athletes to accelerate recovery after exercise and injury.
“When I lived in New York I’d train at SoulCycle, sauna at HigherDOSE, practise cold baths at AIRE in Tribeca, box at Gotham in the West Village and loved my juices from Juice Press,” says co-founder Ben Mills. “I questioned why someone hadn’t integrated these models that fall into the health and wellness space and why no one had done so in Australia. Why couldn’t you leave a gym with the same feeling as you do leaving a day spa?”
A recent poll by Finder.com showed that more than 44 per cent of gym members rarely go to their gym, with wasted fees adding up to a $1.8 billion per year. Shelter is among the gyms that have dumped this old pricing model. Instead, it sells single passes for $40 or discounted packs of 5-50 passes you can buy on-site or using your phone. “We’ve developed our own app,” explains Mills. “It’s a pretty seamless booking process.”