June 21, 2010 / 10:07 AM / 7 years ago

Tighter belts shape health club industry

4 Min Read

NEW YORK, June 21 (Reuters Life! - The nearly $70-billion-dollar global health club industry is rolling with the punches of a tough economy while seizing the opportunities of globalization, a new report shows.

Big health club chains tackled far-flung markets, and value clubs drew budget-minded consumers in 2009, according to the IHRSA (International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association) 2010 Global Report on the state of the health club industry.

"Clubs doing well in Europe and the United States are either high end or budget clubs, because people want to cut back while still keeping gym memberships," said IHRSA spokesperson Alison O'Kane. "It's squeezing the middle market a lot."

In the United States health club chains made more money in 2009 but the number of clubs fell slightly. Club membership in Europe, led by the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, increased by four percent.

"Europe and the United States are the most advanced markets, so the trends will start there," O'Kane said. "There are more clubs open in Europe but America has more club members on average."

Over 128,000 health clubs served 119 million members around the world in 2009. And despite the weak economy, giant chains were keen to extend their global reach.

The Curves franchise of women's gyms is already in 76 countries and expects to enter Russia, China and India by the fall of 2010. O'Kane added that Gold's Gym has several facilities in Egypt.

And Anytime Fitness, a coed chain with 1300 gyms worldwide, has recently come to a franchise agreement with Japan, which had been among the most insular of markets.

"Very few foreign brands have tried to enter the Japanese market," said O'Kane. "And Japanese chains have stayed in Japan."

O'Kane said that while globalization has lessened the industry differences among countries, some remain.

"There are a lot more community centers in Europe, where they'll have a pool, soccer, workout equipment," she said. "The big box model is unique to America."

She added that it is one-stop fitness, which is very big in Midwestern suburbs.

"The whole family membership price is great, and there's daycare. Huge clubs exist in Europe but the price point is way up there."

O'Kane said the 40-year-old global industry evolved from regional activities.

"Every country has some sort of physical activity origin that the health club industry grew out of. It's cultural thing," she said.

"The Japanese market developed through swimming pools. That was the center. Then they added a gym. The Netherlands' health clubs developed out of martial arts, the U.S. clubs out of tennis and racquet ball."

She added that in Asia, the spa is very big and something that they've shared with the rest the world.

So what's on the horizon? O'Kane forsees a shift toward wellness.

"The industry is trying to reposition itself as a solution to the global obesity problem," she said. "Countries like Canada are leading in tax incentives for joining a health club. Switzerland and South Africa are also doing well."

O'Kane said it is happening in America, but much more slowly.

"We need to find a way to leverage health promotion, working with governments, insurance companies, and doctors. Without branching out to these partnerships we'll grow at a much smaller pace," she explained.

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