Big box gyms have been facing a fair bit of turbulence, and over the past few years we’ve seen a number of unexpected closures. The latest to bite the dust is Pure Yoga and Pure Fitness' Suntec City branch, which announced the news on 27 September leaving members flustered.
According to the company, a key consideration to the closure was the evolving business scene in Singapore leading to the reshuffling of resources to optimise offerings. Pure Yoga and Pure Fitness are not the only brands to face headwinds this year. Notably UFC Gym also shut its doors earlier this year which led to the lodging of police complaints.
Meanwhile, an article on The Straits Times also quoted Melvin Yong, the president of the Consumer Association of Singapore saying that in the first six months of this year, consumers lost more than SG$20,000 having to pay upfront for gym and fitness club packages.
The fitness industry in Singapore is a cluttered one right now with many small boutique gyms now emerging. According to fitness enthusiast Paul Soon who is the CEO of Mullen Lowe Singapore, the rise of smaller gym franchises such as BFT, Ultimate Performance and even specialised independents such as The Lion’s Den which specialises in weightlifting and strength, signals the want for consumers and gym-goers to feel a sense of belonging to a community. He said:
Starting your fitness journey is mostly a personal one but that does not need to be experienced alone.
With many experienced independent coaches at these boutique gyms, Soon explained that consumers are willing to pay more for better personalised training and to have a more personal relationship with their trainers.
“This is definitely driven by the growth of needing to have a more personal experience rooted in specialised training and the community that comes with it,” he said. Moving forward, larger gyms will have to rethink their overall proposition and evolve their product experiences and offerings, and possibly look towards providing 24/7 access.
Competition isn’t just from the boutiques
While the closures do raise questions on upfront payment in the minds of consumers, Yvonne Low, founder of fitness brand Band of Sisters that offers products around strength training, said there isn’t necessarily a “direct correlation between big gym closures and erosion of brand trust”.
Low who was formerly a marketer, added that the fitness industry has “definitely been disrupted massively” in the past few years. Apart from the competition from boutique gyms, many big gyms are also facing competition from fitness apps that provide gym-like exercise programmes in the comfort of your home to consumers without the commitment of yearly gym memberships.
Kevin Kan, founder of BreakOut Consulting shared that on a personal front, he has left a big chain gym to work directly with his personal trainer, and has seen a rise in similar “mobile gyms”. Mobile gyms, he said, are where personal trainers go to the houses of clients - a trend that first emerged during the pandemic, but is still in motion today.
“The Singapore government has also upgraded many fitness corners in our neighbourhoods. This gives people who are on a tight budget (due to our current economic downturn) the opportunity to still exercise with equipment available,” he said.
The explosion of fitness content on YouTube or TikTok influencers demonstrating home workouts or body calisthenics may also have contributed to the decline in gym memberships. The ability to tune in from home is very convenient without the need to travel to a gym location.
“The only caution there is whether you are doing the exercises correctly when not having access to fitness professionals, which then brings us to the personal trainer on-demand service where trainers offer live video training, and they supervise your home training via Zoom or an app,” he said.
With the plethora of home-based training options available, the signal is clear that consumers are demanding new solutions from the fitness industry.
A new experience needed
With high operating costs and often, lack of specialisation, how can these big brand gyms keep up?
“The only way the big chain gym brands can compete is through customer experience and convenience,” said Kan. Big chain gyms need to think about what they can do differently to enhance the experience for members.
An example is Virgin Fitness’s approach to fitness encapsulates overall wellbeing that includes Zero-Gravity Sleep Pods, Himalayan Salt Room and Hydrotherapy Spa Pool.
“Rest and recovery are just as important as working out and exercising. It’s not just the gym workout or the classes, it’s about total wellness that members would now be looking for,” said Kan, adding:
Big gym chains need to get innovative.
Kan also shared that when great trainers leave these big brand gyms, often their clients might be tempted to shift with them. “How big gym chains treat their employees is another important consideration for the chains to maintain memberships. Not having a great employee experience may trigger an employee to leave which may also trigger a member to leave the gym chain as well,” he said.
Soon also highlighted the importance of making internal staff, especially trainers, feel more integral to the gym organisation by reworking compensation schemes which can be quite minimal. Moreover a “hub and spoke” approach could also be taken, said Soon, explaining that this would entail one big location with a mega offering and smaller satellite boxes to increase presence and different ways to experience the brand. He added:
Fundamentally, being big should have its advantages but unfortunately, the investments around brand building and product innovation have not kept up.
Content marketing and experiences beyond the gym facilities, explained Low could be a way to rebuild the connection with consumers for big brand gyms.
“Big brand gyms might need to be more active in the way they engage with their existing members through authentic and educational content on social, regular member-focused events and innovate their current service experience,” she said.
“In the world of fitness, a high-touch service experience such as personalised and regular communications will help differentiate your brand offering and build stronger loyalty and brand trust with your customers,” Low said.
A long-COVID effect?
Commenting on the changes in lifestyle that remained prevalent post-pandemic, Low said hybrid working still remains in place for many companies, saw more consumers wanting to head to gyms closer to residential areas, leading to the rise of many boutique gyms.
What’s interesting about these gyms, said Low, is that they tend to specialise in certain types of workouts such as functional strength training, aerial yoga or rhythmic cycling which do not require gym membership. Instead, attendees of the classes can even engage a pool of personal trainers that fit your budget and your fitness goals.
“These boutique gyms are unique as they are usually favoured by individuals keen on deepening their knowledge and practice of a certain type of workout, and the class fees from their gyms are relatively affordable,” she said.
Big brand gyms, on the other hand, have a one-stop-shop fitness experience, and of course have their own demographic to appeal to. Individuals who enjoy trying out a variety of classes or are fond of facilities such as the swimming pool, sauna or steam room, will certainly still prefer the bigger chains.
Shirleen Low, senior strategy director, Design Bridge and Partners believed there is still space for big brand gyms. What the shifts mean is that the market has been carved out for traditional gyms, leaving them with a niche group of consumers in the personal training market or seasoned gym-goers themselves.
For these traditional gyms to stay relevant, a reevaluation of their role and model is needed. They need to move from being pure generalists to standing for something clear that their offer is built around, and recruit through culture and community.
"You see this sort of phenomenon with any market as it matures. Consumers become more educated, offers become more fragmented, and it becomes critical for brands to more clearly define the communities and offers they are aligning themselves to,” Low said.
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