The legacy fitness operators are caught between these two trends, trying everything they can to keep their members coming back. In the U.K., where the number of health clubs exploded last year, they span brands including Virgin Active, David Lloyd Leisure and DW Fitness First. It’s the ultimate barbell economy, if you like, as an exercise market frenzy that began in the U.S. shakes up the rest of the world.
In the burgeoning no-frills sector, you may not get a towel, but for about 20 pounds a month you do get access to workout spaces, equipment and classes. In Europe, low-cost groups now account for half of the top 10 operators by revenue, according to Deloitte and EuropeActive, and these are leading revenue growth. Competitors there include Basic-Fit NV, McFit Gmbh and in the U.K., Pure Gym and The Gym Group Plc.
They’ve been able to take advantage of stress in shopping areas to add temples of sweat. In the U.K. alone, more 1,000 retail spaces, from Blockbuster stores to post offices, have been converted into gyms over the past five years, according to the Local Data Company.
At the very top end, pressure is coming from providers such as New York-based Equinox, the luxury fitness group that’s a majority owner in SoulCycle Inc., which has rolled into London. And a new generation of home fitness options are trying to eliminate the need to go to the gym at all, with personalized workout apps tracking your calorie burn in the privacy of your own home. The mainstream providers, many born out of the era when Jane Fonda’s Workout was at the cutting edge, must shape up too.
All this pressure is a risk for investors, especially private equity owners, which will want to make a return and eventually seek an exit. For Brait SE, an investment holding company that owns Virgin Active, this could be sooner rather than later. Brait said recently that a restructuring plan could lead to asset sales.
Virgin Active has sold off many of its British clubs leaving it with 43 in metropolitan areas, down from a peak of about 100. Its focus on more affluent members, who can afford to pay 20 pounds a pop for trendier classes elsewhere, makes it particularly exposed to the studios. Sales in the U.K. were flat in the nine months to Sept. 30, but underlying earnings rose 11.5% thanks to cost savings. To compete with the boutique crowd, the company has been investing in boxing rings and machines for extreme Pilates.
However, sales at its clubs in Italy, South Africa and Asia are growing. Any new owner may look to expand its Asian footprint. One winning strategy for legacy operators may be to concentrate on markets that are less crowded.
David Lloyd Leisure, one of Europe’s largest gym groups by revenue, has already taken this route. It concentrates in the U.K. primarily on clubs with a family focus and racket sports, mainly outside of London, and is also expanding across Europe. Consequently, Ebitda has more than doubled under TDR Capital’s six-year ownership to 135 million pounds last year. Even so, it’s experimenting with Blaze, a stand-alone studio with a “high-end nightclub vibe” in Birmingham to try to fight off the insurgents.
But legacy fitness operators can take some comfort.
As my colleague Sarah Halzack has noted, studio concepts, some of which are also attracting private equity interest, flourished in a buoyant economy. Consumers pulling in the purse strings may take a different view of value, and if clubs can sufficiently up their game, a monthly gym fee might start to look more attractive than high-priced pay-as-you-go aerial yoga classes. The budget sector may be due for a shake up too. There has already been significant consolidation, led by Pure Gym and The Gym Group, but there could be further reshaping as smaller operators feel the burn.
But for the mainstream brands, it’s too early to break for a relaxing cooldown any time soon.
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Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.
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