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Wed 22 Apr 2020 05:23 PM

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Will anyone ever visit a gym in the UAE again?

The Covid-19 crisis has crippled the $100bn global health and fitness industry. Will it ever recover?

Will anyone ever visit a gym in the UAE again?

Fitness Last Gym chains may face closures as a result of Covid-19. Image: ITP Media Group

Confession time. The Nike Training app, which I downloaded at the start of the lockdown, has a special “Ronaldo voiceover” on some of its fitness programmes. And it’s brilliant, just brilliant. Every now and again, my hero gives me superb motivational advice like “Come on champ, you can do it!” or “Champ, don’t give up!”

It’s so, so good, I sometimes start to believe Ronaldo is here, in my front room. And I don’t want to let him down, so I try even harder than ever. Give up? No! That’s not what champs like me are about.

“The pandemic is changing consumer spending behaviour forever. Luxuries like fitness club memberships are likely to be top of the chops list”

Which leads me nicely to the subject of chumps: right now, the world’s $100bn health and fitness market, which has known nothing but staggering growth in recent years, is on the brink of collapse. The lockdown has resulted in a total closure of most of the world’s health and fitness clubs – nearly 50,000 in the USA alone.

Here in the UAE, there are an estimated 800 clubs with over half a million members. That’s a massive 6 percent of the UAE population that has a gym membership of some sort. The numbers in KSA, especially for female gyms, have also been rising fast.

Doors shut

Unfortunately, health and fitness clubs are likely to be amongst the last businesses to reopen. Question is, will anyone still walk through their doors again? Okay, I might be the only person foolish enough to believe Ronaldo is in my front room, but like so many others, I have signed up to at least one of the 250,000 fitness apps on the market. Job insecurity and fear of handling gym equipment that has been used by endless people is likely to mean a large chunk of us decide to chuck away our gym membership for good.

The fitness app market was already estimated to be worth $2bn last year – that figure is likely to have doubled in the last two months.

“Right now, the world’s $100 billion health and fitness market, which has known nothing but staggering growth in recent years, is on the brink of collapse.”

This will have huge implications for the industry – not to mention the thousands of personal trainers who face bleak futures. Barry’s Bootcamp, which now has over 70 locations worldwide including here in the UAE, was, according to Bloomberg last year, talking to investors about a potential sale. The price tag? $700m. What is it worth now? Maybe half that? Then again, Barry’s maybe a few of the lucky ones that maintain customer loyalty given its unique offering. (I actually have a friend who is genuinely addicted to Barry’s Bootcamp. She’s probably a gibbering wreck right now).

What about Fitness First Middle East, part of the Landmark Group? It has grown from 15 clubs to more than 60 across 51 locations in six countries including the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Membership had grown in excess of 12.5 percent in the last 12 months, and its impressive CEO George Flooks was arguably sitting on top of one of the most exciting parts of the Landmark Group empire.

When the lockdown is over, he will be watching anxiously how many of his customers come back.

Uncertain future

In late February, just before the seriousness of the pandemic became clear, Flooks was asked by Arabian Business what he would do if he could run the country for a single day. He replied: “Ban sugar, ban fizzy drinks, ban Coca-Cola, ban Pepsi Cola.”

Little did he realise his own product would soon be banned. I hope I am wrong about all this. I have many good friends who work in the industry, they are decent hard-working people staring at an uncertain future.

But I fear I am right because one thing the pandemic is doing is changing consumer spending behaviour forever. Luxuries like health and fitness club memberships are likely to be top of the chops list.

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