The Good Soul IHRSA Series - Part 5: The Future Fitness Consumers (Big Box Gyms)

In a world increasingly geared towards hyper-personalization, tech-enhanced experiences and a preference for local (or small-scale) services in the name of sustainability, is there still demand for big-box gyms as we head out of the pandemic? And if so, who are the people most likely to use them in the future?


Let’s explore these questions in this, our fifth and final part of our series on the future fitness consumers.


In the first four articles, we’ve covered:

• What fitness looks like ATM, 18 months into the pandemic (To read Part 1, click HERE)

• How clubs are still people’s favorite place to exercise (To read Part 2, click HERE)

• Why digital is not the enemy of facilities (To read Part 3, click HERE)

• The motivations for people to exercise at gyms, health clubs and fitness studios (To read Part 4, click HERE)


These articles mark our roll into IHRSA in Dallas (13-15 October), and IHRSA Smart Summit in Munich (17-19 November), where we look forward to fist bumping you IRL. We’re hosting short, sharp mobile meetings to share the epic shifts in talent acquisition and look forward to raising a glass with you at the bar.


Is this the end?


Fact 1: The pandemic has been brutal for fitness chains of all sizes in the US. All were affected but some were hit harder than others. Flywheel, Town Sports International, 24 Hour Fitness, YogaWorks and Gold’s Gym all filed for bankruptcy during 2020.


Fact 2: When lockdowns were eased and gyms reopened, COVID-19 restrictions often placed limits on the number of exercisers putting extra pressure on larger, big box gyms.


These two factors led many to predict an apocalypse in the big box market. Some, like Wilfred Valenta, founder and CEO of micro-gym brand Silofit, said there were signs pre-pandemic that some big boxes were in trouble. “The industry was already moving away from big box gyms memberships — COVID-19 just accelerated that,” he told Fortune in December 2020. Valenta used the rapid growth experienced by his Silofit as one of these markers. “We’re at the point where we’re seeing such a large appetite that we would like to expand faster,” he said. This at a time when some big boxes were closing sites and worrying about their future.


A few months earlier (July 2020) a wide-ranging article in Time magazine suggested that the pandemic could be “bad for gyms – but good for exercise”. The Time cited a Morning Consult poll which showed that only 20% of Americans were comfortable going to a gym.


In the article, Cedric Bryant, president and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise, also predicted that the pandemic and gym closures had prompted people to find or rediscover new methods of activity – away from the gym. “Many people have found other more natural, common ways to get activity in,” Bryant told Time. “I don’t think that’s going to go away.”


Break on Through To the Other Side


It seems, however, that the doomsayers might have been a bit zealous in their predictions.


When surveyed in June 2021, 49% of active health club members who cancelled their health club memberships due to COVID-19 plan to return to a gym as reported by The Next Fitness Consumer Report by the IHRSA Foundation, ABC Fitness Solutions and ClubIntel, outlining detailed and current consumer usage of big box gyms. The study examined the exercise motivations and preferences of US fitness consumers post-lockdown and beyond.


A fascinating stat showed 40% of current members at bix bog gyms in the US only joined in the past year highlighting a new woke “health-conscious” member - driven to the gym due to heightened awareness of the need for fitness and potentially making the 20% pie bigger. This new audience indicated that, far from running away from gyms, to the contrary - consumers are running back in. And of those existing members who had cancelled their membership, the only reason 44% have not renewed is because they aren’t confident that the pandemic is under control yet, meaning that there could be another large cohort charging back onto the gym floor once COVID-19 is finally managed.


This take is backed up by another encouraging stat – 49% of former gym members who aren’t currently attached to a gym plan to rejoin within the next six to 21 months.


Other findings relating to the use of big box gyms are:


• 60% of current big box members are “core users”, attending the gym between four and 12 times a month

• 65% work out on their own at the gym

• 54% of former gym members who cancelled their membership due to the pandemic see affordability as a key to rejoining


So what does this mean? Well, to paraphrase Mark Twain’s answer – when asked whether he was gravely ill or dying: it seems that the report of the big box death has been greatly exaggerated.


Earlier this month, the Financial Times in London reported that the fitness industry – and big boxes within it – was already getting back into financial shape as members were returning in droves. “The recovery has been strong enough to attract new investors, including some who have bought into recent initial public offerings of fitness brands despite the Delta variant of the virus continuing to spread,” the article stated.


As IHRSA Foundation says in the Next Fitness Consumer Report, “The surge in demand for fitness is encouraging and opportunities remain for the industry to meet the physical activity needs of consumers.”


Come on baby light my fire


So what is it about big box gyms that will keep members returning and using facilities? Well, the consumer report offers us useful insight to this. We’ve already looked at what it says about the motivations for people to exercise at a facility in general in Part 4 (click HERE to read). But what is it specifically in a big box gym that attracts members to return?


The report surveyed gym members who had cancelled their membership during the pandemic and then rejoined. The 16 most important reasons are listed below in priority order. While not surprising, they do offer optics for club operators looking to make their bringback strategies even more tantalizing.


The top 5 reasons for rejoining are:


Equipment (54% of responders)


The most popular reason for rejoining a gym is the range of equipment on offer. While the Pelotons, Tonals and Hydrows did go gangbusters over lockdown, they’re predominantly a one trick pony and cardio focused. The big bang exercises drawing the functional training crowd back need squat racks and chin-up stations, sleds and heavy (expensive) kettle-bells. The big sexy sea of cardio machines like treadmills, bikes, ellipticals, and stairmasters puts the heart-rate member into a frenzy and the boutique inspired zones provide the Millennial-minded a backdrop for transformation.


Amenities available at the gym (45%)


It’s no coincidence that many membership deals are sealed overlooking the spa and steam room. Even if you are paying membership dues there is something sexy and luxurious about someone else paying for your hot water and pampering.


To get out of the house (43%)


Let’s be honest, there are only so many burpees you can do in the dark in your garage on your own and the fact that supermarket shopping replaced “date night” for 18 months points all the bells and LED lights towards the gym being the new Ibiza.


The variety of workouts available (40%)


The fact that most big boxes now offer a gym floor and group classes and personal training means that members have a great selection of workouts to choose from and it can draw a bigger crowd who seek some or all of these things. Having scanned the world on screens with health and fitness being socialized we now want it all. Not only are consumers expecting an omnichannel approach to fitness – a mix of digital and physical choices – they also demand variety when they are at the club.


The routine of going to the gym (38%)


It’s great to see that the future fitness consumers are much like every generation of fitness bods before them – the gym is part of life. It’s where most of us actually can be sure to do any exercise. Traveling to a club, changing into your gear and hitting the floor is just...bliss.


(The other) 11 Reasons Why


I work out harder at the gym (31%)

To work out with other people (27%)

To work out with a personal trainer (26%)

I see more results with a gym (24%)

Convenience/location of the facility (23%)

For social interaction (22%)

The ability to challenge myself (17%)

For accountability (16%)

For the sense of community (16%)

To get guidance from fitness professionals (15%)


What does this tell us? Well, first of all, people see clubs and gyms as places where they are guaranteed a proper workout. Facilities offer the equipment, variety, environment and know-how (from PTs and staff) needed to make exercise meaningful.


Secondly, the reasons why people love big clubs haven't, after all, changed that much during the pandemic. In the consumers’ minds, a well-stocked gym is a place where results are, if not guaranteed, more likelier to be achieved. Compared to, say, doing squats in the living room, while staring at a virtual instructor on a laptop.


While COVID-19 and all its variant friends hang around, it’s clear that big boxes that have survived the last 18 months, are here to stay – at least for now.


With that ends our five-part series on the future fitness consumers. We hope you gleaned some insights and look forward to seeing you at the IHRSA events this year.


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