(last updated July 2019)
What has been happening in the fitness centre sector
The fitness centre sector was created in the late 1970s and early 1980s as government policy to encourage increased participation in sport led to the construction of publicly-run leisure centres. For a number of years, leisure centres faced little competition; those private gyms that existed were aimed at bodybuilders and attracted only a niche clientele. However, during the 1980s, hotels began to open up their fitness facilities to non-residents and this led to the birth of the stand-alone, privately run fitness centre. Privately run centres started to become dominant during the late 1980s and early 1990s as initially they copied what the public leisure centres were offering and then adapted to meet changing demand. This meant that while public leisure centres were still offering sports such as squash and badminton that had become unfashionable, private centres were offering aerobics classes, gyms and general workouts.
The mid- and late-1990s were the boom period for the private sector and there was a large amount of money invested in building new clubs and also consolidation in the market as the large chains bought up smaller chains and independents. The 2000s saw continued (though less significant) growth in the sector as interest in health and fitness has been promoted by the government as an effective way of combating obesity and preventing health problems. During the 2000s there was also renewed competition from council run centres as increased investment has led to refurbishment and improved facilities. However, local authority funding cuts announced in 2010 has inevitably had an impact on local authority run facilities in some areas during the 2010s.
Consumer expenditure on membership of fitness centres had traditionally been seen as a luxury and as such had been vulnerable in times of economic downturn. However it increasingly seems that many people see fitness as essential to their well-being and therefore not a luxury and are happy to prioritise expenditure on subscriptions to fitness centres. During the closing years of the 2000s and early 2010s consumers' expenditure on health club membership continued to grow, confirming that a significant proportion of health club users now see it as a necessity rather than a luxury, although it also should be noted that very many people switched to lower cost alternatives to save money - the early 2010s saw the rise of the 'no frills' fitness centre, with a less extensive range of equipment and facilities and considerably lower membership fees. No-frills chains like The Gym Group performed very well during this period. Although the economy improved during the mid 2010s, the budget chains continued to grow strongly and many commentators think that the budget sector will see further expansion in the next few years.
The 2010s saw the launch and rapid expansion of Payasugym which offers people the chance to buy day passes, day pass bundles for facilities that they aren't members of, as well as no contract memberships for up to 90 days and the opportunity to upgrade to traditional longer term memberships. By 2017, over 2,200 facilities had signed up for Payasugym with further growth anticipated. There has also been a trend towards exercising outdoors - for example in 'boot camps' - and many fitness centres have responded by offering their own outdoor classes. Many centres have also introduced more flexible contracts to give members the option of joining for different length periods.
While the sector as a whole has experienced reasonably steady demand it has increasingly been to the benefit of the chains as they tend to be better equipped and have more to spend on their advertising budgets than the independents. As a result, many independently run fitness centres have faced difficult trading conditions and may have experienced falling membership numbers. To survive, many have had to reduce membership fees and reduce or waive joining fees. Participation in Payasugym has also been a lifeline for many independent operators.
You will have to decide whether:
- there is sufficient demand in your area to support your proposed business
- you will be able to compete against other fitness centres
- you will be able to weather any future slowdown in consumer spending
Keep up to date with developments
ukactive represents the fitness centre sector. They publish a great deal of useful research and are involved in lobbying government on behalf of the sector. Visit their website for more information.
'Health Club Management' is a monthly magazine for the fitness centre sector published by The Leisure Media Company. You can find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe on the Health Club Management website.