Paul Davies
Paul Davies is a Senior Financial Services Analyst, researching and writing UK financial services reports and giving key addresses at Mintel’s Big Conversation events.

Gyms across England are bracing themselves for their long awaited reopening on April 12th. This will be a crucial milestone in the sector’s recovery, however operators still have many challenges to overcome in order to return to pre-pandemic trading levels. 

The vaccine rollout will encourage more gym goers to return…

Looking at learning points from the UK’s initial nationwide lockdown we know that some gym goers will avoid visiting these venues when they first reopen. In late September 2020, only a third of pre-COVID-19 gym goers had returned to the gym, a couple of months after they were allowed to reopen. 

But the situation is very different now. Consumers’ concerns about potential exposure to the virus have fallen in recent weeks as the number of cases drops and the vaccine rollout continues its momentum. This should help instil confidence in visiting indoor venues such as gyms.

…but consumers won’t break habits that easily

On the flip side, consumers’ exercise habits away from the gym have become more ingrained during this latest lockdown. Buying home exercise equipment has proved popular since the start of COVID-19 and some people have also taken up a new form of exercise, such as running or yoga.  Meanwhile, outdoor exercise will remain preferable for many during the warmer spring and summer months, with Mintel’s research highlighting that many people intend to continue to exercise more outside even once indoor facilities are available again.

Woman exercises while watching workout video on a laptop and her baby playing around

Source: Istock

Another blow for gyms is that they have missed out on acquiring new members at their busiest time of year. The timing of the January lockdown couldn’t have been worse for health and fitness clubs, who usually capitalise on consumers’ new years’ resolutions to get fit and healthy. Having said that, it is likely that some will use the lifting of lockdown as an opportunity to “start again” and ramp up their exercise activity. Over 10% of people say getting back into their usual exercise routine is one of the things they are looking forward to doing most once measures are relaxed.

Opportunities to branch out into new locations

Throughout the pandemic, gyms have had to adapt by bringing their services to consumers’ homes by developing and rolling out virtual classes or personal training. As exercisers consider returning to venues, it is far from guaranteed that they will return to the same venue they visited prior to COVID-19.

Many consumers’ lifestyles and working patterns will have changed for good. Remote working will become a more common feature of society, resulting in less commuting and more people moving out of cities into suburban or even rural areas. 

This will force gyms to reposition themselves to match consumers’ lifestyles. We’re likely to see more gyms and fitness facilities pop-up in suburban towns where some people will be spending more of their time.

Meanwhile gyms that previously scheduled early morning or late night classes to attract those commuting in and out of London are likely to notice demand for more flexible schedules that allow people to attend during their lunch break, or even throughout the day.

Gyms need to emphasise their social side

Gyms can also play a vital role in combating feelings of loneliness experienced by many people throughout the pandemic. A majority of leisure consumers said they missed socialising in venues such as pubs and gyms, when they were closed during the initial lockdown in spring 2020.

Source: Unsplash

Whilst virtual communications have been a great support for many throughout lockdown, consumers are desperate to see friends and family and to meet new people in-person. For young consumers in particular, gyms represent a social hub where they can workout and hangout with like-minded people. 

This will be a key competitive advantage for gyms in the battle against virtual alternatives, and is one they should explore to the maximum. Small group classes are not only likely to be popular to ease consumers’ safety concerns, but also to increase the chances of members forming strong bonds with instructors and each other. 

What are the long term prospects for gyms?

The lasting legacy of the pandemic on the fitness industry will be twofold. Firstly, we will see consumers put more importance on both their physical and mental wellbeing. This is clearly good news for gyms, as their target audience should be wider than it was prior to COVID-19. 

Secondly, we will continue to see increased use of digital fitness apps, as more consumers look to track exercise, nutrition and activity to boost their mental wellbeing. More than half of consumers plan to use an online health or fitness service even once COVID-19 is over. This could be seen as a threat to gyms’ popularity, but instead operators should see it as a way to enhance their service and strengthen their relationship with members. 

Consumers will no longer solely choose a gym based on cost, equipment and location. More people will take an operator’s digital capabilities and support for mental wellbeing into consideration.

Consumers’ expectations of gyms have changed for good, and operators that tap into these new areas of demand will recover fastest as we enter the “next normal” for the fitness industry.