Health clubs gain muscle in downturn

gym-exercisePrivate health club operators have seen no let up in membership levels in spite of the downturn, according to figures published by leisure consultancy, The Leisure Database Company.

In a sign health-conscious Britons may be more reluctant to forgo their gym memberships than would have been expected, LDC said private health and fitness clubs had seen a 1 per cent like-for-like increase in membership numbers during the 12 months to the end of March.

“The industry is showing remarkable resilience,” said David Minton, director of LDC. “In times of a recession, people are seeing exercising as a way to release stress and the gym as a place to network. This is especially true for those who are unemployed or working fewer days.”

The figures offer a contrast to a report published in March by Mintel, which painted a more worrying picture of the private fitness industry.

In the grip of a worsening economic climate in which gym fees were increasingly viewed as a luxury, Mintel said it was expecting penny-pinching consumers to trade down to cheaper alternatives, such as facilities run by local authorities.

It forecast 8m extra admissions to public leisure centres this year and a 100,000 fall in private health and fitness club memberships.

Mr Minton of LDC agreed membership levels at public leisure centres were increasing. He has seen no evidence this was at the expense of the private sector, however. “The pie has gotten bigger,” he said. He expected private gym operators to continue to increase their memberships this year.

Figures from LDC also showed that in spite of some well-publicised discounts offered by some gym chains, average membership fees have remained steady at £42.91 a month, compared with the average of £42.37 during the previous 12-month period.

Not all private health club operators have been profiting from surging numbers of body-sculpting Britons. As in other sectors, debt has become an issue. Companies House figures for 2007 showed while some big chains made impressive operating profits, most ran into the red after paying interest on their considerable debts.

Esporta is by far the sector’s most high-profile victim to date. The fitness club operator is poised to be taken over by its lenders after administrators failed to secure a buyer for the group .

Source: The Financial Times

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