Despite a perceived obsession with health and fitness in North America, only 17 percent of people actively use a membership at a health club, according to an industry veteran and head of a professional fitness development firm.
Kevin LaFerriere, CEO of Fitness Professionals Ltd., said Saturday during an industry summit in Aspen that 35 percent of North Americans who join a health club will never set foot in the establishment again. Some fear being a social outcast and not fitting in with the gym rats. Others are intimidated, thinking the fitness freaks they encounter will make them feel that much worse about their bodies and abilities.
The industry has been slow to respond to the needs of normal folks, LaFerriere said. The attrition rate of gyms is second only to the magazine industry, he said.
But there are encouraging signs that the health-and-fitness industry is adapting and responding to what people want, LaFerriere said.
He was a featured speaker at the Aspen Sport Summit, a two-day conference founded by Bill Fabrocini and hosted along with The Aspen Club. The event attracted scores of participants to hear and participate in presentations featuring leaders in health, fitness and sports medicine. The lineup of activities at the Aspen Meadows was diverse. On Saturday, audience members could participate in meditation led by professional snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, then absorb an update on concussions and sports by Dr. James Kelly, an expert in the field.
LaFerriere captured the attention of many in the audience — which included personal trainers, physical therapists, medical professionals and lay people interested in health issues — with his presentation on the future of the industry.
He contended that the era of the big-box gyms is over. One national chain is dropping prices at many thousands of its locations to $9.99 per month in desperation of holding onto members. Another national franchise with a meteoric rise, Curves, has crashed back to Earth. It peaked at 10,000 franchises but has dropped to 3,175, he said.
Meanwhile, smaller fitness centers emphasizing a model featuring simplicity, camaraderie and attention to customers are building muscle. Online resources meant a person didn’t necessarily have to rely on expertise from someone at the big-box gym anymore.
“Somewhere in 2007, the introduction of month-to-month memberships, the proliferation of more readily available sources and all sorts of small and diverse brands opening up across the nation, for the first time in the history of our industry, it became a member-centric world,” LaFerriere said. “They could choose where they were going to go. They could choose what they were going to pay. They could choose the information they were going to rely on. All those things turned the industry a little bit.”
In addition, fitness took on cult status late in the past decade.
“It’s a form of self expression — my fitness the way I want it to be,” LaFerriere said.
Big-box gyms tried to be everything to everybody. They feared they would lose their members if they took an interest in any activity outside their own gym. It was widespread thinking, but flawed, according to LaFerriere.
“You cannot own the member,” he said.
The smaller businesses work harder to manage and coordinate their members’ activities, even to the point of referring them to outside sources. They don’t try to own them — they try to offer specific approaches that are different from the place down the road.
“Differentiate or die. It’s not the box anymore,” LaFerriere said.
One shining star in the industry is OrangeTheory Fitness, according to LaFerriere. The franchise’s gyms are small in size, generally less than 2,400 square feet. They are sparsely equipped, with 12 treadmills, 12 rowing machines, some kettle bells and space for TRX classes on suspension straps. They charge $199 per month, but are reeling in members and proving that people are willing to drive to a place that fits their needs.
CrossFit is enough of a prime example of the direction of the industry, he said. It features workouts in sparsely equipped industrial spaces. It’s exploded from a handful of franchises to more than 5,000 in the U.S. and it has recently arranged to start franchising overseas.
But LaFerriere predicted the biggest game changers in the health and fitness will come from outside the industry. Technology companies such as Apple and Intel have already elbowed into the industry with purchases of other companies. Sportswear manufacturers such as Nike and Under Armour are poised for a greater role.
LaFerriere urged people in the industry to be aware of the changes and be in position to take advantage of them.