Women are one of the target markets for the gym sector and while many female users are happy to work-out in a traditional gym, others prefer a more feminine environment. The well-established Fernwood Fitness and newer model Envie Fitness are two of the brands operating in this space.
The market is definitely cluttered but in Australia only about 10 percent of the population are members of a gym so there is a huge opportunity, says Dave Hundt, who heads up the women-only, studio format Envie chain.
So how challenging is it to operate a niche business in today’s marketplace?
“The franchisor has to understand the viability of their market. If you only need 100 to 150 members to break even in a niche market then it can be achievable.”
The 24/7 gyms were a disruptive technology, a game changer, he observes, and the big box gyms felt the impact. Suddenly you only needed 400 to 500 sq m rather than 5,000 to run a gym, so it was a more economical business proposition.
“Fitness is very convenience focused, the 24/7 access, but how many people do use it? We offer non-intimidating supportive environment, customers feel comfortable. Baby boomers are a big market, more suited to our market than some of the others.”
Programs are suited to the client profile – not all customers are 22 year old gym bunnies, says Hundt. Most are less confident in the gym, they want assistance and need motivation.
“The group element is huge for us. Customers enjoy the social side, they like to know people recognise them at the gym. There is a push back towards service.”
The business is expanding rapidly in the US; Gary Findlay, the former president of Curves,is now the chief operating officer. “He brings great experience to the business,” says Hundt who also employed fitness franchisor Liberty Harper as director of operations.
“The business is a constant innovation.”
Two studios have been opened in the US (Phoenix and Dallas), and there is a pipeline of other outlets in development. In 2015 Hundt hopes to add another 20 to 25 outlets. “We’ve invested heavily in creditable team in the US, they will run it, they are very experienced.”
The expansion is being funded from Australia but it will have no financial impact on local franchisees, assures Hundt. “We’re very well placed,”he says.
Diana Williams has been in and out of the business she founded 25 years ago; most recently the disruption of the 24/7 model brought her back from a hands-off role to oversee a high level of change and innovation within the company.
“We needed to reinvent ourselves. We’ve changed our brand, our demographics, become 24/7 as well, and have an on-line membership.”
The all-female clientele remains, but while the senior market demographic around Australia may be on the increase, Williams says a greater percentage of younger women take up exercise and fitness so there are greater gains to be hand by appealing to a more junior profile. This has been achieved through adoption of different fitness programs within the gyms, marketing and pr.
“We have introduced more intense fitness group sessions like Functional Fit,” explains Williams. There’s a focus on personal trainers too. “We’ve had them for years, but now there are more options,” she says.
“Groups are more popular. Members enjoy the community. Fitness is more than just exercise, you need to have fun and be part of a community.”
Altering the franchise model to allow gyms to open all hours was not a difficult process, just a case of going through the relevant council permits. Like any other 24/7 gym, after hours the Fernwood Fitness venues are unmanned.
Williams says it has been a success in the urban areas, with less of a take-up in suburban and regional outlets.
“But there’s been no negativity and it’s been good for franchisees. It can ease some of the staffing stress too, if someone is late opening up it doesn’t matter, the members can still access the gym.”
Williams concurs with the IbisWorld view that the market is moving tow-ards saturation.
“I tend to agree. Something has to give. I can’t see that everybody will survive for ever. The small concept gyms will come and go,” she predicts.
But she believes there is more to be done in attracting non-exercisers to take up fitness.
However, Fernwood won’t be jumping on every trend that strikes the workout arena. Adopting the 24/7 access model wasn’t about a reflex copy-cat action, she says. “It was easy, and gave our members another level of service.”
Fernwood has been re-shaping its future and is now ready to grow further. Williams indicates another four or five outlets in the next 12 months would be an appropriate level of expansion.
And while that’s not a significant boost to the network the focus is as much on retaining members as adding them, insists Williams.
“We have our online program, which when members sign up is intense for the first 28 days. They get videos, meal plans, exercises. The average weight loss in the first month is 3kg.
“There are some cheaper options but although we are perceived as expensive, we’re middle of the market. It’s not about getting new members,” she says, contradicting the traditional gym model that typically recruits new members, signs them up to a contract, then makes no effort to engage them or encourage their attendance.
“That’s really sad. We focus always on retention. We put a lot of energy into ensuring they get results,” she says.
Fernwood members may choose to pay extra to participate in seasonal and one-off challenges that are on offer.
Williams agrees that the trend is for more passive forms of exercise such as tai chi, Pilates and yoga. “We’ve always had these but now people realise getting fit isn’t just about breaking out in a sweat.”