When gyms finally reopen at the onset of Phase 3 of de-escalation, who’s going back? On July 1st, are we going to queue up outside of Illes fitness studios and MegaSport? Or have we learnt that we can stay fit and healthy without the price tag?
During confinement, social media was awash with videos of family and friends exercising in their underwear, encouraging us all to run with the home fitness movement. Inspired, we found YouTube tutorials and smartphone apps with six-week training programs and subscribed to gym newsletters with daily workouts. To supply the growing demand, every fitness guru took his or her yoga and HIIT classes online (the UK’s Joe Wicks, aka ‘The Body Coach’, went from under one million to over 2 million YouTube subscribers in a matter of weeks). We’ve learnt how we can exercise at home, and in ‘the new normal’ the only one paying the price for our fitness might be the traditional gym.
According to researchandmarkets.com, home fitness equipment sales have grown by 170% during lockdown. I see this trend everywhere. My friend Christian Verheughe, of OsteoPalma, invested in a set of barbells, weight plates and dumbbells. My predecessor on this article, Luke Wills, now has an air bike from Spanish retailer ‘Maniak Fitness’ standing on his front porch. Not only have fitness fanatics got their favourite bit of kit at home; they’ve got into the habit of using it as well.
But all the equipment in the world can’t provide the motivation and engagement that comes with face-to-face coaching and group training. I exercised during lockdown, but what I really missed was the social element that influences my exercise patterns, both inside and outside of the gym. Communities provide friendships that pull us back to the gym even when we don’t care about our summer tum. And group training activates our competitive edge so that we push our bodies longer and harder than we do at home.
The traditional gym, however, doesn’t foster communities. It’s more like a hotel, where individuals and small groups walk in and out whenever they feel like it. Real friendships develop when you meet the same people at the same class week in, week out. As such, it is fitness classes- like those provided by martial arts dōjōs, cross-training gyms and Yoga studios, which build the strongest communities. And as you can’t put a price on motivation and friendship, it is these business models that will continue to attract paying customers.
But what will happen to the traditional gym? I doubt the pandemic will spell the end per se. It has simply accelerated pre-existing trends. Pre-COVID, traditional gyms were already offering more group classes to meet a changing market. MegaSport, off the Via Cintura, for example, now hosts 600 classes a week- offering everything from boxing to Zumba to spinning.
The pandemic will also see a shift in the payment scheme members choose. As a consultant, I worked with the founders of ‘37 Degrees Health Clubs’- a chain of upmarket London gyms. Their goal was simple: a big marketing push toward the end of the year to see an annual membership spike in January. But who’s going to buy an annual membership in these times of uncertainty?
From the member’s perspective, the annual membership was rarely a sensible approach even before the pandemic struck because traditional fitness studios make their money out of people who don’t attend. In 2018, MegaSport had 10,000 members. Could it cater to all of them in a single day? Obviously, it couldn’t. The traditional gym model relies on member’s dwindling motivation. The strategy works well as 35% of annually contracted members give up by February and 80% by October. For 56.83% of traditional gym members, the actual cost per visit with an annual contract is higher than the pay-per-visit option, as was found in a Canadian study by Elsevier, the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. Even before the pandemic stuck, the sensible economic option was to pay monthly.
So, will the traditional gym survive the ‘new normal’ or will it fade away like a six-pack in quarantine? As usual, only time will tell. Many of us have learned how to stay active without parting with our hard-earned cash and the rest of us are getting savvy to the financial and social benefits of group training (the timing of this pandemic might also be a hurdle for traditional gyms, as attendance is at its lowest during the summer when outdoor activities become more appealing and accessible.)
Poor MegaSport had only just regained its license after the whole Tolo Cursach ordeal, finally reopening its doors at the beginning of the year, only to be shut down again on March 14th. Along with all other traditional gyms in Spain, it is allowed to open again during Phase 3 and I’ll be curious to see how it fares. My guess is that we will see more changes and adaptations to the business model. As the famous management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “innovate or die”.