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Mon 5 Nov 2007 04:00 AM

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Chain reaction

The worldwide obesity pandemic has opened huge opportunities for the global health and fitness industry. Louise Oakley reports on how the fitness industry in the Middle East is making the most of the current climate.

Chain reaction
Standalone health clubs are proving popular with consumers.
Chain reaction
Physical advantage on the beach.
Chain reaction
Shokk’s interactive Target Wall inspires the young.

Historically, the health and fitness industry in the Middle East has revolved around hotel gyms, country clubs and ladies-only venues.

The facilities themselves are high-end and well kitted out, with a vast range of activities on offer. Abu Dhabi Ladies Club, for example, is set in beautiful grounds next to the beach by Kempinski's Emirates Palace hotel and features a pilates studio, group exercise studio, two tennis courts, a basketball court, a volleyball court, a small spa and food and beverage services along side its 1300-member gym.

The hotel gyms are generally of a similarly high standard, such as those at the Grand Hyatt and Burj Al Arab in Dubai - which is coming up for an upgrade - but often they operate exclusively for hotel guests or offer a very selective, expensive membership, often with a waiting list.

However, the good news, of course, is that the waiting lists mean people are keen to exercise and stay active. The fitness industry therefore has both an opportunity to embrace and a responsibility to fulfil in ensuring there are enough facilities on offer to cater to the needs of consumers across the region.

Widening the appeal

This year there has been a shift in emphasis from hotel gyms to standalone chains.

Often located in shopping malls, adding to their function as total leisure destinations, the clubs offer reasonably priced membership packages accessible to a wide cross section of the general public.

The markets leading this part of the industry in the region are Turkey, as a result of European influences and advances in fitness, and Dubai, thanks to the entrance of Fitness First, which currently operates five full-service health clubs based on its international model.

Turkey, meanwhile, is now home to the Mars Athletic Club (MAC) chain, with the first club now open in Istanbul following a US $6m investment by parent company the Mars Entertainment Group (MEG).

As well as a 15-station gym, the 4700m² club features five fitness studios, a 28-metre pool, a basketball court, ski/snowboard slope, NuSpa area, steamrooms, Turkish baths and a sunbathing terrace. The concept is being rolled out, with six MACs planned across Istanbul and Ankara.

There are also some hidden surprises, such as Gold's Gym Grand in Saudi Arabia - the largest Gold's Gym in the world - and Gold's Gym Egypt, plus Fitness First in Beirut. In fact, Mira Hawa, director of sales and marketing for Mövenpick Hotel and Resort Bierut, which has the largest hotel gym in Lebanon, says fitness is a happening trend in Lebanon.

"Most Lebanese people are very self conscious of their physical appearance and work out to maintain a certain level of attractiveness, but health clubs are also one of the places people go to mingle and relax," says Hawa. "However, member profiles vary from one gym to another. Professionals and older members tend to prefer the services and comfort of hotel gyms, whereas the young and fitness lovers target independent and chain gyms."

More choice in the market

There are not just opportunities available for health club chains though. With consumers currently embracing fitness, there is the potential to offer far more creative and far-reaching activities.

We could soon see the introduction of niche studios providing particular training methods, such as vibration training.

This involves sending vibrations through to muscles at speeds of 20 to 25 times a second through mechanical vibration plates, causing muscles to contract and relax at the same rate. Clinical studies by manufacturers such as Power Plate suggest this can increase muscle tone, strength and flexibility and accelerate the metabolism, as well as aid relaxation by releasing endorphins.

Al Kamda CEO Reg Cox says sales of the Power Plate are higher than ever in the UAE, and he expects that the company will look into developing sales to small, standalone vibration training studios next year.

Children and young people are also benefiting from the development of the industry in the region. As well as youth sports clubs and kids' holiday camps, there is now a growth of youth-specific gyms, thanks to UK youth fitness specialist Shokk.

Currently, Shokk is working with distributors in Israel and Saudi Arabia, namely UniSport and Areka International respectively.

The Oasis Centre, which has recently opened in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, includes a Shokk gym for young males between the ages of five to 18.

Shokk international manager Jason Brown says the concept has proved so popular that the centre is already planning on adding more equipment.

The company expects future expansion in the region thanks to its joint venture with the énergie Group, a UK-based franchise company specialising in fitness products. Future locations include two sites in Kuwait and one in Dubai.

The popularity of outdoor fitness, such as the military-style boot camps offered by Physical Advantage and Renegade in Dubai, is another reason for health club operators to ensure they are offering the widest choice of facilities and quality service to keep their members coming back.

After all, with temperatures across the region often hitting extreme highs, indoor fitness facilities should surely present an appealing option.

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