The real reason boutique gyms are going from strength to strength

From heavy HIIT classes to spinning sessions, there is seemingly no end to boutique gym chains’ offerings. But the question is if they’ll survive past the “golden age of fitness”

The real reason boutique gyms are going from strength to strength

“I’ve always been a bit of a health and fitness nut,” says Caoimhe Bamber. And it’s difficult to argue against that statement when she starts listing the many marathons, radical races and eclectic events she’s embarked on in the past. However, despite her commitment to staying in shape, Bamber used to struggle to enjoy hitting the gym. It wasn’t just that the workouts offered varied from excellent to utterly abysmal but she also often felt that many centres were uninviting, huge and anonymous. “I think people sometimes feel a bit scared of the place and a bit unwelcome,” Bamber explains.

Tired of having these unsatisfactory experiences, Bamber and her husband Geoff – whom she met at a spinning class – decided to do something about it and launched Digme Fitness in 2015. “I wanted to do something that really excited me,” she reveals. Inspired by similar boutique chains they’d visited in the US, the couple set up their first HIIT and spinning studio in Richmond and has since opened four more locations across Blighty. Focusing on ensuring a high quality and luxurious experience where clients could easily find a class to fit their hectic schedules, Digme Fitness has become extremely popular. Taking extra care with the surroundings, the studios are designed to enable everyone to see the instructor who – unsurprisingly, given Bamber’s past experiences – have to be at the top of their game. “Essentially, we try to have the best instructors, cleverly designed classes and the best technologies,” she says.

Although, the Bambers aren’t the only ones launching boutique gyms. Over the past few years, UK entrepreneurs have opened several small independent studios across Britain. Moreover, bigger international boutique brands like Australian HIIT chain F45 and German electro muscle stimulation session supplier Bodystreet have set up shop in the country. “Boutique fitness has grown at a breakneck speed in the past five years,” states Steven Ward, CEO of ukactive, the non-profit organisation devoted to promoting active lifestyles. In other words, the dumbbell economy is booming. 

Of course, staying fit is by no means a new phenomena. Just take the word gym, an abbreviation of the ancient Greek word gymnasium, which referred to a place where people exercised. Still, it would take two millennia before two movie stars really kicked off the commercialisation of fitness. While some historians may point at the Cold War’s endeavours to make exercise a part of nations’ war efforts in both the west and the east or the launch of Jazzercise in the late 1960s, it’s clear the industry failed to make massive gains until Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jane Fonda’s training regiments respectively brought bodybuilding and aerobics to the masses. Together, they popularised the first real modern gyms in the 1980s. 

Thanks to this increasing popularity the sector has bulked up ever since. “[There] was huge growth in the 90s and early noughties and arguably that led to oversupply,” argues Robert Rowland, co-founder of Boom Cycle, the spinning studio chain. The market grew in the noughties with the sector being divided into low-cost chains like PureGym at one end of the spectrum and luxury brands like Equinox at the other. However, both relied heavily on mass appeal, offering everything to everyone, specialising in nothing. “This led to an opportunity for smaller nimble operators such as boutiques to come in and disrupt things even more,” explains Rowland. And thus, chains like Orangetheory Fitness and the Bar Method started to become popular across the US and subsequently around the world. 

For savvy entrepreneurs, it’s clear why capitalising on this trend could powerlift their profits. “Obviously, there is less capital investment needed as a boutique facility will require less floor space, staffing and equipment, which is costly,” suggests Rob Deutsch, founder of F45. At the same time there has seemingly been another boom in the industry. The UK wellness and fitness market is estimated to grow from £17.3bn in 2010 to £22.8bn in 2020, according to Statista, the statistics portal. Whether it’s because the 2008 recession opened up more real estate for new players or if it’s due to a jump in fitness awareness, it’s easy to see why LeisureDB, the leisure database, referred to this as “the golden age of fitness.” Today there are over 7,000 gyms across the UK and the market is only set to grow. “As such, there is more demand and a better chance of success as long as your offering is robust and delivers on its promises,” argues Deutsch.

It’s not just the actual classes and locations that draw in people. Boutique studios also offer something huge anonymous gyms don’t – a sense of community. “Everyone knows each other,” claims Chris Elms, founder of YourZone45, the HIIT studio chain. “It’s first name terms here. People come down, the trainers know you and that kind of friendly environment is appealing.” This is a recurring theme, with every outfit from CrossFit to Digme Fitness claiming they enable clients to feel that they’re part of a tribe. Many also encourage this by organising events outside of the centres, essentially transforming these high-intensity sessions to an alternative to hitting the bar to make new friends. “The boutique market is [making working out] the new going out,” suggests Elms.

So who goes to these establishments? “[Boutique] pay-to-train fitness has become increasingly more popular amongst a newly affluent audience of young, urban professionals seeking innovative and compelling workout experiences, which are not available at traditional gyms,” says Deutsch. In London, only 17% of boutique gym-goers are male, according to a study by Zingfit and ukactive. The same study found the average London client is 31 years old and eight months. Additionally, it’s possible to draw a parallel with the rise of boutique gyms and the fitness hipsters, or fitsters. While it might be a slight generalisation, the average boutique gym-goer is in other words the same kind of person who’d buy the latest health-trackers, Apple Watches and apps measuring the intensity of their exercises – affluent professionals looking to stay in top shape. “In general, they are committed exercisers and fitness fanatics who exercise multiple times per week and are willing to pay a premium for the experience,” says Deutsch. “They consider exercise to be part of their daily lifestyle and are looking to be constantly challenged to get the best results.”

While there certainly is a great opportunity for fitness aficionados to try their entrepreneurial chops and launch a boutique gym, it’s not for the faint of heart. “[It’s harder] than you think it’ll be,” says Rowland. Even though the spend per head is low, studio owners still have to worry about overhead costs like rent and the upkeep of the equipment. Additionally, there is a fear finding funding is becoming more difficult. “[It’s not easy] but there is capital out there and I think the appetite for the sector is still there,” Rowland believes. “Brexit certainly hasn’t helped the risk appetite of funders but if you can make your margins on a site level and show good site profitability then that’s the starting point to try to secure good investment.”

Moreover, while it’s always encouraging to see more entrepreneurs trying to realise their dream, it has also meant the boutique gym market is becoming increasingly saturated. “When Boom Cycle began [in 2011] you could count the number of boutique studios in London on two hands and now it’s in the hundreds,” suggests Rowland. Indeed, up until October 2018, the number of boutique gyms in London had grown to 278, representing a 281% jump over the last five years, according to LeisureDB’s recent 2018 London Boutique Studio Report. And keeping up with the others in the sector is expensive. “[There] are large costs now to compete with incumbents and there is a lot of competition,” says Rowland. 

Additionally, it’s not just the rival boutique gyms entrepreneurs in the sector have to worry about. “Established gyms are increasingly recognising the value in broadening their appeal to boutique customers and many have looked at ways of diversifying their offering to customers,” suggests Ward. It’s easy to see his point. Recently David Lloyd Clubs launched a boutique-style concept called Blaze, énergie Fitness has unveiled its concept called the YARD and Virgin Active has attempted to engage gym-goers with its The Grid concept. Taking a leaf out of their smaller competitors’ book, many of them are also trying to engage their communities more than before. “Meanwhile, traditional operators have also looked to build partnerships with leading boutique brands, such as Everyone Active’s recent deal with MoreYoga to bring the boutique brand into its leisure centres,” explains Ward. “I expect to see more such collaborations, as the larger fitness chains look to offer a taste of boutique to a much wider audience.”

As competition intensifies, entrepreneurs in the field will have to step up their game. “The next few years will see a consolidation of the sector, as boutiques evaluate their position and the market matures from a quickly expanding boom into a sustainable long-term industry,” says Ward. To win, they have to ensure they build fast and strong. “The challenge for boutique studios [is to] build lasting foundations amid an ever-changing fitness landscape,” adds Ward.

Despite these challenges, it seems as if many businesses are being bullish about their prospects for the next few years. “The future of the boutique sector remains bright – health is the new wealth,” says Emma Barry, former director of group fitness at luxury exercise company Equinox and global fitness industry expert. She argues that savvy entrepreneurs can keep staying afloat if they scale fast and utilise the latest tech to secure satisfying services for their customers. If they do, she claims there’s only one potential outcome. “Boutique fitness will continue to capture the hearts and heart-rates of more consumers as the fitness and wellness purse continues to fill,” Barry concludes. 

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson

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