Fitness industry shapes up: Gyms and fitness studios are having a good run

The fitness industry is expected to gather pace in Asia, including Singapore, as more people step up their pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. And businesses keen for a slice of the pie are going further to differentiate their offerings in an increasingly saturated market, reports Aw Cheng Wei

Gyms and fitness studios in Singapore are having a good run, with membership figures up as new year resolutions get couch potatoes onto the treadmills.

There is usually a spike in membership in January, with many people keen to work off the excess weight piled on over the festive season. Numbers normally shoot up about 10 per cent compared with other times of the year, and 2019 is proving to be no exception.

Health and fitness chain UFIT said January memberships are generally 10 per cent higher (compared with other months) for its services such as CrossFit, personal training and sports conditioning.

Operators are expanding outlets and creating or importing new exercise regimes and gym concepts as they bid for a slice of the massive market. The growth here reflects the expansion across the region.

The fitness industry in the Asia-Pacific is worth US$16.8 billion (S$22.8 billion), according to a report last year by Deloitte and the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

The region's health and fitness industry grew by 5.7 per cent a year between 2014 and 2018, according to US-based firm Market Research, and is expected to hit 6.4 per cent annually between 2018 and 2023.

For instance, local outfit Gymmboxx, which opened in 2010, now has six outlets - all operating 24/7.

Ms Charlene Leung, a co-founder of Slap dance studio, showing off her pole-dancing skills. She says the studio's choreography incorporates lyrical, ballet and contemporary dance moves, and aims to debunk perceptions that pole-dancing must be sexy or seductive.ST PHOTO: JOSEPH CHUA

Health and fitness chain UFIT has 17,000 members, a sharp jump from the 1,000 in 2011.

Pole dance studio Slap has 1,500 members, a steep rise from the 400 it started out with in 2014.

WeBarre, which has four outlets, said its classes were "oversubscribed" for the first eight months when it opened in 2016. Membership figures usually spike between November and March, said co-founder Anabel Chew.

Neue Fit owners Grace Huang (left) and Lam Shumei offer MuayHIIT, an exercise combining Muay Thai with high-intensity interval training. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Singapore Polytechnic marketing and retail lecturer Lucas Tok said fitness outlets are making a comeback since popular gym chain California Fitness shut its doors here in 2016, a sudden move that left around 27,000 members in the lurch.

That abrupt closure hurt consumer confidence but the rising popularity of athleisure wear and boutique gyms has given the fitness industry a new lease of life, according to Mr Tok.

Fitness firms told The Straits Times they have introduced new regimes and gym concepts to stay fighting fit amid the competition.

Owners who previously invested in failed fitness companies said they have learnt from their mistakes, such as employee management, and applied the lessons to their new ventures.

NEW, IMPROVED CONCEPTS

Boutique studios and gyms are offering a slew of fitness regimes.

Neue Fit studio in Kallang has a class called MuayHIIT, which combines Muay Thai techniques with high-intensity interval training, for beginners to get a good workout and learn martial arts.

The studio's co-founder Grace Huang noted that beginners may be discouraged from pursuing Muay Thai as they consider it a competitive sport.

"People were saying they would join me (for Muay Thai classes) after they get fit. But the classes are supposed to make them fit," said Ms Huang, who used to run a chain of martial arts schools before she started Neue Fit last January.

Starting with MuayHIIT allows beginners to try out Muay Thai "without having to punch or touch people", she added. The studio offers various types of exercises, from yoga to Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Ms Huang's business partner, Ms Lam Shumei, said the diversity of classes is important so that Neue Fit is known not just for one type of sport, which may be fad-driven.

UFIT chief operations officer Dean Ahmad (left) and CEO Will Skinner say clients and trainers meet frequently to train together. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

Some prospective members may not want to "sign up for one gym and one discipline" only, she added.

Ms Charlene Leung, a co-founder of Slap dance studio, said it has its own choreography, called pole lyrical, with influences from lyrical, ballet and contemporary dance.

It is an elegant type of pole dance that aims to debunk perceptions that pole-dancing must be sexy or seductive, and it is the most popular class at the studio, she said.

"We want to present pole-dancing as an athletic and graceful performance," she added.

She and her two co-partners started the Asia Pole Champion-ship in 2015 to promote pole as an athletic sport. The annual competition attracts participants globally, including from China, Japan and the United States.

The Global Association of International Sports Federation granted the International Pole Sports Federation observer status in 2017 - the first step towards joining the Olympics. The championship and official recognition give members confidence as well as something to train for, said Ms Leung.

Another company, Breathe Pilates, installed gyrotnic equipment and collaborated with Yoga Lab to create BarreLab last year to diversify its offerings, said co-owner Dennis Teo.

He said: "As a business, we do understand that most people get bored with doing the same exercises over and over again, and it has been a challenge to keep clients."

BUILDING GOOD RELATIONSHIPS

Happy and competent staff members who understand how to work with people are the lifeblood of fitness companies, said business owners.

Gymmboxx chief executive and co-founder Umar Faruq said: "If employees are happy, they are more likely to provide good service and take care of customers."

He said he does not hire sales consultants, so "nobody tries to outsell each other" - a move designed to foster a harmonious workplace.

He added: "We focus on a culture that is conducive for everybody. All our gyms have rules, like no slamming and no grunting, so no one feels intimidated."

UFIT chief operations officer Dean Ahmad said trainers and clients meet frequently to train together, and that helps to "make the (UFIT) brand more relatable" as well as foster a community spirit.

They also spend time together in social settings, and when "you have a lot of coaches spending time with clients outside the workplace, that is a very good time for feedback".

 
 
 

It started CrossFit classes in 2014, near The Grandstand in Bukit Timah, and opened a second CrossFit outfit in Tanjong Pagar in 2015.

CrossFit is a combination of high-intensity weightlifting and gymnastics. Classes are usually conducted in groups.

CEO Will Skinner said building relationships is one way to provide the "very best service and value" to clients.

He added that employees are also given opportunities to develop professionally, and this has helped attract and retain staff in a tight labour market.

Neue Fit's Ms Huang said that employee management is particularly important when staff members come from diverse cultures.

She learnt the lesson the hard way when she started a martial arts school in 2013. Ms Huang, who used to work freelance in the advertising industry, had no experience running a business then.

The school quickly expanded to three outlets, but downsized to one after Ms Huang left in 2017.

She said: "I almost went mad managing instructors who were from countries such as Brazil, South Korea and Thailand, with their cultural differences. I had to learn along the way."

  • $22b

  • Worth of the fitness industry in the Asia-Pacific, according to a report by Deloitte and the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association last year.

Keeping time was a sticky point.

"Some cultures are more particular about keeping time, others less so, and that created a lot of friction," Ms Huang said. Starting classes on time and late-comers became a problem. "We had to explain to the employees how Singapore works."

Even as gyms and fitness outlets learn to manage their teething problems and sort out their growth strategies, larger forces at play may force them or others to rethink their plans.

Singapore Polytechnic's Mr Tok warned that the burgeoning market may become saturated, though the retail scene has benefited overall from the resurgence of gyms and fitness studios.

"Everyone wants a piece of the pie," he said. "Landlords may increase rents, forcing the gyms to increase membership prices. This may have a negative effect in the long run."