What will replace it? Affordable gym chains making a comeback, but challenges ahead.
Peloton — the company behind a line of gadget-forward stationary bikes that enjoyed a swell of business during the early lockdown period — announced layoffs, studio closures and price hikes on its signature product in Canada and the U.S. this month, following a sharp decline in sales.
Another high-end fitness brand is struggling, outside the home: SoulCycle, the chain of group cycling studios that launched in 2006, closed 25 per cent of its locations earlier this week.
That includes a complete exit from the Canadian market with the shutdown of its lone Toronto studio, the company confirmed to CBC News.
“I think that explains the kind of popularity at the lower end of the consumer fitness market in terms of brick and mortar,” said Natalia Petrzela, an associate professor at the New School in New York and author of Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession.
“More people are going back to the gym in person, but it is the lower-end businesses that are thriving.”
The fitness industry is between a rock and a hard place, with two previously reliable business models floundering at this stage of the pandemic. While in-person studios are still recovering from government shutdowns, at-home fitness brands are losing clientele while people favour affordable brick-and-mortar gyms and fitness centres.
Small gym owners still getting back on their feet
As pandemic-related measures relax, people are “re-evaluating their relationship to what they spend on exercise and why they want to work out,” said Petrzela.
“What Peloton is experiencing is kind of a correction — not even a failure — but a correction on that over-the-top enthusiasm and excitement for home fitness at a moment when so many people had no other options,” she said.
The company reported in May that its third quarter revenue fell short of expectations, taking in $964.3 million, a decline from the $1.26 billion it raked in a year earlier. Its market value plummeted by $46 billion as pandemic-driven demand for at-home fitness dried up.
“But at the same time people aren’t going back to work out in the same way that they did before,” said Petrzela. “So something like SoulCycle, which was the darling of the boutique fitness industry, has to adjust as well.”
Even as affordable gym chains thrive, small business owners are picking up the pieces two years later. One of the ongoing challenges is a shortage of qualified personal trainers, according to a Toronto-based business owner.
“There are too many personal training companies, too many gyms that require trainers, but there are no trainers,” said Sergio Pedemonte, the CEO of personal training company Your House Fitness. Pedemonte runs both an at-home service and a studio and gym.
He says that he’s still struggling to find trainers after a mass exodus in 2020, when many in the industry left to pursue other ventures while CERB payments provided a financial safety net.
“I think that the biggest struggle of all these in-mortar companies is that their [monthly] build-up has gone down,” he said, after provincial governments shut down and restricted gym access. His business was making roughly $100,000 in monthly membership revenue when the pandemic hit — that number then swiftly fell to zero.
Sara Hodson, the president of the Fitness Industry Council of Canada, said that business owners are still reckoning with the challenges and changing consumer behaviour of 2020.
“You look at an industry that was shut down, that lost all of its revenue, that had to stay afloat, and at the same time had to reinvest in technology in order to do everything that we could to keep Canadians active,” said Hodson from Vancouver.
Future business models will focus on mind-body health
The Canadian fitness industry’s market size expanded in 2022 and is now on par with pre-pandemic numbers after a two-year slump, according to market research firm IBISWorld. Petrzela said more consumers have come into fitness during the pandemic.
“This is a result of the fact that the pandemic and its kind of enforced sedentary-ness led a lot of people to realize that exercise really is very important, both for general well-being and — honestly — in terms of certain COVID comorbidities,” she said.
Because so many people invested in high-end home fitness setups (a basic Peloton setup has a price tag of about $1800 Cdn), most won’t be willing to “shell out on a high-end health club or boutique experience,” she said. Hence, the shunning of SoulCycles and Flywheels in favour of GoodLifes and Fitness Worlds.
In an industry that yo-yos between trends, Hodson and Petrzela agree that the next phase of fitness and lifestyle branding will remain a hybrid model of virtual and in-person connection.
“What we’re really seeing across the industry and even when we look at global trends is this massive return to in-person connection,” said Hodson, who is also the CEO of gym chain Live Well Exercise Clinic.
She said she has observed that her older clientele are more open and able to engage with virtual classes as a result of the pandemic, but are also returning to the company’s brick-and-mortar facility.
“I think that the next popular business model is going to combine connected fitness, in-person experience and community,” said Petrzela. “That’ll probably engage meditation, recovery, stretching, maybe even certain forms of therapy, quite honestly, that fit under that mind-body health bracket.”
“But I think that there is no question that connected fitness and home fitness is here to stay.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jenna Benchetrit is a web journalist for CBC News. Based in Toronto and born in Montreal, she holds a master’s degree in journalism from Ryerson University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jennabenchetrit.
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