The fitness industry is recovering fast after suffering a knockback during the pandemic, making it a very healthy sector for franchise investment today
Fitness franchises are jumping back to health again after suffering losses during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.
David Minton, founder of LeisureDB, which provides research and reports on the UK fitness industry says: “The pandemic meant that the industry was knocked back in size, sites and membership to between 2018 and 2019 levels. At first glance, that looks bad - but 2019 was a golden year for fitness.”
Meanwhile, the PwC Outlook for Fitness 2022 report lists many reasons for optimism (free to download at pwc.co.uk), so this could be just the right time to get in.
Ben Dixon, chief development officer at Anytime Fitness, the UK’s third largest private health club operator according to LeisureDB’s 2022 State of the UK Fitness Industry report, says: “Demand for health club membership remains high. Our club network grew by 14 clubs between 2020 and 2021, and we opened two new sites in May 2022 (Maynooth in the Republic of Ireland and Maidenhead in Berkshire). Both have already surpassed 1,000 members and rapidly exceeded their breakeven revenue targets.
“We have a pipeline of club openings for the rest of the year, set to take us past the 200-club landmark.”
Why choose to get in with a franchise?
Setting up a gym on your own requires in-depth knowledge of the sector and can mean putting significant capital at risk.
However, many of the top UK fitness brands are franchises, so getting in with a franchise may be safer. Typically the franchisor helps you choose the right location, fit out your centre and arrange launch marketing, and as a franchisee you benefit from their training and sector experience.
Which type of gym franchise suits you?
The traditional full-service gym, complete with exercise equipment, rooms for classes, and a team of staff, can be costly. Typically, opening a gym like this can involve an investment of £100,00 and commonly more – though remember that franchise specialist lenders will often offer loans of up to 70 per cent of the total investment for suitable people investing in franchises with a history of success.
Smaller gyms or studios, sometimes specialising in a particular kind of exercise, may offer members 24-hour card access, with staff available only between certain hours. These typically offer ‘budget’ membership deals. Usually, the investment here is lower.
Outdoor fitness clubs operate at the lower end of the investment scale. Many existing fitness clubs took to offering outdoor classes in lockdown, but there are also separate outdoor fitness franchises, which don’t require premises from which to operate.
Trends in fitness
Fitness is prone to fluctuations in trends, so find out what consumers are looking for at the point when you want to invest.
David Minton says: “Boutique studios suffered the worst during the pandemic. Outdoor classes increased by over 400 per cent, because people became more interested in their health, and low-intensity interval training (LITT) took over from high-intensity interval training (HITT) as more people could do LITT.”
Tech is important
The pandemic accelerated the move towards the use of tech in fitness, and wearable technology, online classes, and social network contacts with trainers and other gym users became the norm. Many users now take all these for granted. That does not mean that in-person classes and training are dead, however.
David Minton says: “Connected fitness became popular during the pandemic, but because we are such social animals, people went back to their social groups and live classes as soon as sites reopened. All connected fitness brands are restructuring and cutting back now.”
Location is key
Where your club is located can make all the difference to your success. Franchisors with established fitness brands will usually have good experience and data, which helps identify the kinds of locations that lead to the biggest chances of success.
“Landlords see health clubs and leisure facilities as reliable long-term tenants. Having worked in the health and fitness industry for over 15 years, we’ve never been in a better place in the property market,” said Ben Dixon. “Retail and hospitality have traditionally been the preference as commercial tenants. However, we’re now in a position to open health clubs in properties that were previously beyond our wildest dreams, and we’re well placed to take advantage of that.”
“This means our industry can access sought-after city centre locations, which previously wouldn’t have been obtainable due to high rental values. This provides potential health club owners with ideal locations to attract a broad demographic of potential members and swiftly establish profitability and a return on investment.”
However, don’t leave it all to the franchisor. David Minton recommends you do your own research as well. “Conduct your own independent research on the sites you’re offered, remembering location is key. Go as granular as possible on geodemographics, competition, and estimating latent demand.”
A franchise to suit you
Fitness franchise offerings are many and they vary widely. The size and focus of your fitness franchise must suit you. Don’t forget, it’s not all about racking up membership numbers – a fitness franchise is about transforming lives too.
“We want to be the kind of fitness franchise that prioritises customer transformation. There are fitness operators that seem to be about little more than membership numbers and customer turnover, but we don’t want our clients to just feel like a direct debit,” says Niri S Patel, managing director of fit20, the franchise where customers make individual appointments for weekly 20 minute sessions on resistance machines with a personal trainer.
Niri continues: “It involves slow and careful movements for a high-intensity deep core workout that gradually increases the customer’s strength and fitness. Customers have told us that medical check-ups have shown improvements in cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes and blood pressure readings.
“One woman was having her blood pressure monitored fortnightly, and at one session, it had fallen to such a healthy extent that the nurse thought it must have been a mistake and retook the reading – but it was correct. The only change in the woman’s lifestyle was that she’d been coming to fit20. The same woman recently completed a 100km walk in Spain in just five days. She credits her fitness to her fit20 sessions,” says Niri.
The network now has seven franchised studios, with two more opening shortly, but ultimately aims for 500 across the country. Niri says: “You don’t need a background in the fitness industry because we provide training, but you do need to be committed to changing people’s lives and open to learning.”
State of the fitness industry - the key figures you need to know
The State of the Fitness Industry Report 2022 was recently released by The Leisure Database Company, the first since 2019. It found the market was in remarkably good shape with some key metrics running at the same levels as 2018, and some at 2019 levels.
• 631 clubs have closed, the majority early in the pandemic, while 455 have opened, so the overall number of sites has only dropped 2.43 per cent from 7,239 in 2019 to 7,063 in 2022
• Market value fell by 4.3 per cent – around the same level as 2018 (2019 was a peak year)
• Memberships dropped by 4.7 per cent to 9.9 million
• The penetration rate also dropped back one percentage point to 14.6 per cent after passing the 15 per cent barrier for the first time in 2019. Figures were based on an audit of more than 7,000 facilities. The full report can be purchased at hcmmag.com
Duncan Attwood: Growing a fitness business 20 minutes at a time
Duncan Attwood was an unhealthy, overweight child, but took up kayaking as a teenager and competed in white water slalom. “My sport changed my physique and removed my health conditions, so I no longer needed medication. It meant I wanted to help others get fit and healthy the natural way,” says Duncan.
After a degree in sports science, a masters in management, and 20 years as a manager in the fitness sector, he started his own business in Exeter with a fit20 franchise in 2019. His studio offers weekly 20-minute workouts, tailored to individual clients, and delivered by personal trainers.
“Initially I was sceptical that 20 minutes a week in a fit20 studio could keep people fit, but when I discovered that fit20 already had 130 studios in the Netherlands, I was comforted,” he says. “I was also swayed by talking to a couple who had been training with fit20 for a year. A bout of ‘flu left him weak and struggling to play golf, but after only a few months of fit20 training, he could easily walk the 18 holes. His wife said that fit20 training had brought down her blood pressure to the point that she could give up her medication. That’s when I decided to invest.”
Duncan likes the fact that fit20 has a training program for all its personal trainers, with exams to ensure everyone is appropriately qualified to train members. “The franchise also helps franchisees find suitable studio locations and provides links with marketing companies to help with lead generation if you want.”
He says: “I love to see the benefits my members achieve and growing the site means we can positively affect the lives of more people locally.”
Acknowledging the shortage of personal trainers within the industry, he says: “I look after my team because I believe that looking after your staff means they will look after customers.” As well as providing commissions on appointments booked from leads, he treats his team at Christmas, buys them coffees, and even drove camping equipment to the site of a trainer’s family holiday.
Duncan advises people seeking a fitness business to be passionate about what they do: “The franchise will support you, though you must be driven to succeed – and you must be excited by the sector, as you are more likely to be successful if you enjoy it.”
Connor and Steve: Fit for business success
Connor Thorne and his dad Steve, both fitness fans, opened their first Anytime Fitness gym in Ringwood in 2018, and now have four sites, including two on the Channel Islands.
“We decided the franchise model offered better prospects than going it alone,” says Connor.” The way Anytime Fitness operates in the industry means it’s not pinned to one demographic, and you can attract a broad range of members.”
Connor and Steve have expanded their business fast. “I honestly don’t think we could have done it without being a franchise, given the pace that we’ve worked at,” says Connor. “The support has been massive, especially with our first club and the development of the site. The design and marketing services have been great. We wouldn’t have such professional marketing if we weren’t a franchise.”
Connor continues: “Anytime also helps with recruitment of experienced fitness managers from its network of contacts. Getting recruitment right is arguably the most important thing; if the service is good, people will come back.”
“You must look after your staff,” Connor advises. “We go for dinner and drinks to catch up with staff outside work. We’ve done things like DJ nights, getting a barber or beautician in – and if staff bring in their own idea for a club, we’ll never turn it down without listening first.”
Connor recommends franchising to others keen to get into the fitness business: “If you’re a hard-working individual it can be hugely profitable and successful. We’ve opened four sites already and are on track to do five in five years, which I think you’d struggle to do in many other franchises.”
Ready for a fitness franchise?
You need more than a passion for fitness and a desire to make money to succeed with a franchise. Here are some other points to consider:
1. Owning a fitness centre will test your business skills more than your capacity for bicep curls. Fitness franchises offer training and support, but previous management experience helps too.
2. It pays to get involved. Many fitness franchises are happy for you to be an investor who appoints a manager to run your fitness centre, but it helps to be proactive in setting business goals, motivating your team, and prioritising marketing.
3. Fitness means working with people. People management skills and customer awareness will give you a leg up in this industry.
Linda Whitney writes about franchising for the Daily Mail, What Franchise and many other publications.