Sector insight: Health and fitness clubs

Fitness First is the market leader with 170 clubs
Fitness First is the market leader with 170 clubs

Despite being hit by the recession, the sector is well-placed to recover as the effects of the downturn beg in to alleviate.

The desire to be fit and healthy is as strong today as ever, although many people find it difficult to squeeze exercise time into busy lives.

The advent of Nintendo's Wii Fit game, which is now in more than 5m British households, means that home exercise has come a long way since the days of Jane Fonda workout videos. Yet even with the aid of technology, all those well-intentioned New Year resolutions to 'get fit' still require determination.

The health and fitness club industry has thrived in the UK, on the back of a trend to allocate exercise to specific times, as sedentary work and home lives often mean that little exercise occurs as part of our everyday activities.

However, the past 18 months has been tough for the market, as the recession has taken its toll, and funding for club openings has largely dried up. Even for the most determined exercisers, expensive club memberships are one of the first discretionary expenses to be cut back.

The market value of private health and fitness clubs in the UK was £2.5bn in 2009, with membership penetration standing at 10.5% of adults, according to Mintel. This value has been fairly static over the past year, which is expected to continue through 2010.

More than a quarter of private club members have cancelled their membership in response to the credit crunch, according to research by GMI, and yet more plan to trade down to cheaper options.

Lapsed membership has always been a problem for health clubs, with 30% to 40% of members ditching their subscriptions each year. This attrition rate is even more of an issue in the current climate, as new members are less likely to replace the old.

With expansion curtailed by the recession, many of the leading companies have concentrated on building revenue from their existing clubs. The main areas where additional revenue is possible are personal training, health and beauty treatments and food and beverage sales. However, additional spend on personal trainers and treatments is easy to cut for those keen to maintain their membership.

Although this is a fragmented industry, Fitness First is the biggest player in terms of number of clubs. David Lloyd Leisure Group has the most members and revenue, after its acquisition of the Next Generation and Harbour Club operations.

Other brands in this sector include Virgin Active, LA Fitness, Bannatyne's and DW Sports Fitness. The latter, formerly known as JJB Fitness Clubs, has maintained an active expansion policy despite the recession, and offers a value-for-money proposition.

The key competitors to this market are public leisure facilities, outdoor exercise such as running and cycling, home exercise and dedicated sports clubs. Many of the public options have been upgraded in recent years to offer better facilities, and company and college sports centres often offer services to their staff and students at reduced rates, or even free of charge.

Running is growing in popularity as events such as Cancer Research UK's 5km Race for Life have encouraged people to try the sport, flagging up its benefits while raising funds.

The budget health club sector has opened up to an untapped set of customers with its no-frills options. Companies including The Gym Group and Fitspace offer pared-down facilities for as little as £10 a month.

While the growth rates of the 90s are unlikely to be replicated, as the recession eases, consumers look set to increase spend in this sector.

The wider issue of tackling obesity levels in the population, which the government continues to place high up the health agenda, will mean maintained focus on exercise. For private clubs that can create an environment that appeals to current non-exercisers, at an affordable price, there is still plenty of room for growth.

By 2014 the market is expected to be worth £3bn, an increase of 24% since 2009, according to Mintel, with average annual revenue per member predicted to remain at about £480.

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