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Health clubs adapt to changing client demands

After forking out more than $50 a month to a Seminole fitness club for five years, Bonney Lowe found You Fit Health Club.

"It was closer to home and costs less than half as much," said the 38-year-old bartender who lives in Largo. "I don't need the pool, the sauna or those personal trainers hovering around offering you tips. Hey, I've got mirrors at home."

That sort of trading down has roiled the $19.5 billion fitness industry. Industry leaders say their business proved to be more resilient than most retail and discretionary service industries that endured steep declines through the recession.

But nationally, fitness club membership remains stuck at 45 million, about where it was in 2004, and the number of clubs has slipped 4 percent since 2007. In Florida, ground zero for the recession, the trend has been more pronounced as the number of operating fitness clubs plummeted 18 percent to a six-year low of 1,831 this year compared with 2007, before the recession.

"Overall, we were flat in 2009 in revenue, which was pretty good given this economy," said Joe Moore, president of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Associations.

In Florida, the recast marketplace is multidimensional.

"I have never seen such an accelerated rate of change in my 22 years in this industry," said Kevin Laferriere, president of Lifestyle Family Fitness, a St. Petersburg-based chain of 55 full-service centers in five states. "In Florida, we had 1,000 new fitness clubs open in three years and 1,400 close."

As the fitness industry matured, it's gotten more splintered and a flock of new-fangled franchised clubs continue to crop up. They're mostly smaller express gyms closer to where people live or work than their much bigger, pricier rivals that draw from 5 to 7 miles away.

Fanning the expansion binge: neighborhood shopping center landlords eager to fill empty space with tenants they spurned five years ago.

"There had been issues with gyms taking too many parking spaces and not bringing enough shoppers, but the fitness industry grew up and draws traffic that shops," said John Crossman, whose firm manages more than 100 shopping centers. "With fewer retailers out there, centers are filling space with neighborhood services."

Smaller clubs charge lower fees because franchises cost less than $300,000 to launch. There often is no sales force, much less a commissioned one. Personal training can be outsourced to another company. Landlords will contribute to renovations.

Indeed, many of the clubs that disappeared were small gyms that signed sky high rent deals at the peak of the real estate boom.

No-frills clubs like Planet Fitness and YouFit operate on a high-volume, high-churn formula priced as low as $10.70 a month.

"We keep it simple; just cardio and strength training, so you aren't paying for things you don't use," said Rick Wesson, area manager for YouFit, which plans to double its local gyms to 16 this year and start selling franchises.

Other recent arrivals are small express fitness clubs like Anytime Fitness, with 20 local clubs and deals for eight more, and Snap Fitness. They are open 24 hours and designed to be profitable with only a few hundred members who live or work within 2 miles.

"We're like your own private gym," said Stephen Katsarelis, co-owner of a Tarpon Springs Snap Fitness that competes with three other clubs within 3 miles.

With no overnight staffing, club members get access cards and rely on closed-circuit TV monitoring, alarm lanyards and panic buttons in case of trouble.

Inside the convenience store-sized club is an edited selection of state-of-the-art cardio equipment and weights. Instead of a room filled with bicycles for spinners, there are a couple of stationary bikes with mountain courses displayed in computer animation.

"My 'aha' moment was not the 24-hour club — hotels did that for years — but putting them closer to where people are," said Peter Taunton, president of Snap Fitness, which grew to 1,100 stores in eight years. "When there's a club right in your back yard, you use it. That convenience resonates with people."

Snap plans to add nine stores to its eight in the Tampa Bay area this year.

Annual contracts are becoming an industry relic. They protect members against rate increases and provide clubs some revenue certainty, but remain unpopular with customers. Most clubs have opted for month-to-month deals.

State regulators list another reason: the cost of securing a $50,000 performance bond required to sell one-year contracts. Dating from the 1980s, the bond reimburses members when a club goes out of business before contracts expire.

"Many clubs today cannot afford a bond, and many insurance companies have been denying coverage or raising premiums drastically," said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates the industry.

Clubs shed the "meat market" and serious bodybuilder image in favor of mass-market average Joe and Joanne. To discourage body builders, Planet Fitness, which describes its denizens as "Judgment Free," has no weights heavier than 75 pounds and promises to bounce members who make too much noise power lifting.

YouFit chose a garish black, green and purple color scheme to look different from other gyms, and the floor is made from recycled sneakers.

The older, bigger clubs adapted their tactics to this changed marketplace. Lifestyle, for instance, added "value-oriented" benefits to membership like discounts at restaurants, hotels, businesses and mail order deals on nutritional supplements. It has kept membership stable at 140,000 at 15 clubs in the Tampa Bay area partly by honoring membership deals for clubs that went out of business. Lifestyle also keeps up with the latest organized exercise du jour like Zumba and mixed martial arts by training staff in new choreography, music choices and fitness techniques every 90 days.

The fact is, more people join a club and drop out than stick with it. That's the void that big, full-service clubs see as their future.

"Most people join a fitness club at a moment of crisis like a doctor's advice or losing weight for a prom date," said Laferriere of Lifestyle. "So we offer the trained support, organized groups, education, networking with people engaged in the same activity and training to achieve their goals. We regard fitness as not just exercise, but a balanced way of living."

He sees the industry's future as a more polarized collection of top-tier, service-oriented clubs and a no-frills budget class.

"There won't be anything in between."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Fast facts

Health clubs in Florida

Since before the recession, the number of licensed clubs rose, then collapsed to a six-year low.

20072,238

20082,300

20092,207

20101,831

Source: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Health clubs adapt to changing client demands 04/17/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 22, 2010 5:51pm]
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