By Gavin Gibbon
Fitness First Middle East is embarking on an ambitious expansion campaign throughout the GCC, but don't expect its CEO George Flooks to celebrate with a bar of chocolate or a can of fizzy drink
“If you were able to run the government for one day, what would you ban?”
George Flooks, CEO of Fitness First Middle East, sits back and ponders this question at a media round table event last month. Nuclear weapons? Gas-guzzling vehicles? Social media? All kinds of baked beans except those made by Heinz?
His answer, delivered as if it has long been part of his manifesto, awaiting that moment when he is temporarily sworn into power for 24 hours… Sugar.
He says: “Sugar does absolutely nothing for us. Ban sugar, ban fizzy drinks, ban Coca-Cola, ban Pepsi Cola, get rid of it. Make me the government for a year and I promise you I’ll turn it upside down and we’ll reduce the rate of diabetes in the country.
“More people die from cardiac arrest through the complications of diabetes than they actually do through the complications of heart disease through smoking.
“And it’s all sugar related. The more sugar you have, the more you keep eating. It’s a pretty simple equation.”
There were around 54.8 million diabetics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in 2019, according to IDF Diabetes Atlas. The condition is present in 12.8 percent of the population and almost half of the cases remain undetected.
Unsurprisingly, for a man who has been at the helm of Fitness First Middle East for the last nine years, his ban on sugar and fizzy drinks is also complemented by exercise.
“We can encourage exercise. Exercise with a good head on your shoulders and a good mind, outperforms medicine,” he says.
“When you go to a doctor and he tells you you’ve got high blood pressure, what does he tell you to do? He says you should start to walk round the block. If you go to the doctor and you say you’ve got high cholesterol, what does he tell you to do? He says you need to exercise a bit more.
“Exercise outperforms everything.”
Fortunately for a man at the top of his industry, many people in the region agree.
In the last nine years, Fitness First Middle East, which is wholly owned by the Landmark Group, has grown from 15 clubs to more than 60 across 51 locations in six countries including the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
The challenging economic climate, where companies are struggling to mitigate the effects of a continually turbulent geopolitical climate, usually sees gym memberships and other such luxuries as the first casualties when people start tightening the purse strings.
However, Flooks reveals membership has grown in excess of 12.5 percent in the last 12 months.
He says: “That’s very interesting because, if you look at the marketplace currently, there’s not a huge influx of people coming. In fact, families of four are reducing to families of two or families of one. The target audience is maybe static if not getting slightly smaller.”
There are certainly no thoughts of down-sizing on Flooks’ mind, with bold expansion plans announced.
As well as the UAE, Fitness First Middle East has brand rights to 13 different countries in total across the MENA region.
In the next two years, the fitness chain will be opening in Pakistan and Egypt.
And this year alone will see the opening of ten outlets. The first of the ten new clubs is due to open in April at Marina Gate, Dubai, where Flooks says patience has definitely paid off.
“For nine years we waited to get into the marina. We were patient, we looked at many sites, we just couldn’t find the right space,” he says.
That will be the brand’s 33rd club in the UAE and 23rd in Dubai.
Other new locations set to open include Dubai Silicon Oasis and The Meadows; Khalifa City in Abu Dhabi; Al Zahia in Sharjah; Ajman City Centre in Ajman; and Oasis Mall and Bahrain City Centre in Bahrain.
Current clubs in Dubai Festival City and Sahara Centre in Sharjah will also be relocated with brand new and improved concept clubs set to replace them.
All new venues will follow the ‘club in a club’ concept, which was launched for the first time in the new Nakheel Mall on the Palm in November last year and encompasses up to five studios hosting a variety of different classes – HIIT, spinning, yoga, boxing, etc – alongside the traditional gym offering.
He says: “When you look at the boutique market, most boutiques are one concept, a HIIT studio where they’re doing high intensity workouts. But you pay a lot of money for those classes, some are AED100 a class, some are AED120 a class. They’re pretty expensive.
“These boutique concepts creep into the market. They’re very difficult to make a success of, because the one thing that’s very different in the UAE, particularly, versus countries like the US or cities like New York, Chicago, is you don’t have the density, you don’t have the population group.
“If you open a boutique studio in London or New York, you have millions of people coming past your front door every day. If you open up in the marina, you don’t have that level of volume. So you also see the number of boutiques that have come in, none of them have had the ability to scale up because they’re really suffering for the volume and you get good frontage so your lease agreement is pretty high.”
And so the ‘club in a club’ is born. “To stay relevant in the market, we’ve taken the boutique concept and brought it in-house,” adds Flooks. “It’s almost Disneyland, you pay one price and you get the full experience in our facilities.”
The chain, which sits very much in the upper mid-market, is also planning to launch a completely separate brand “in the next three months” aimed at the budget sector, an area which Flooks believes is currently underserved in terms of the quality offered and value for money.
While the base price is often appealing to potential gym-goers, he warns the necessary additional charges can push the price up to unrealistic levels.
In a scathing assessment of what is currently on offer, he explains: “If you look at the current offering that’s out there it’s low, low value in terms of the facility and what’s on offer. People will say it’s a very low price, but it’s actually a very high price.
“When I say it’s low value, it’s because a lot of the services you still have to pay for. You think you’re entering at a low price, you’re entering at AED199 a month for a 12-month contract that’s rolling, or you’re entering at AED299, which is just a monthly rolling contract. But it doesn’t come with WiFi, it’s a low value – Starbucks has WiFi, Costa has WiFi.
“When you look at those type of offerings, it’s very low in terms of value. Everyone today is on a treadmill with their own YouTube video or playlist plugged in. If you don’t have WiFi, you’re going to pay for it.
“Then you pay for everything else. For example, some of the group exercises you pay for. If you go for a HIIT class or you go for a jump class, you’re paying AED50 for that class. If you’re paying AED299 for the flexi of no contract, and you’re doing one class a week, that’s an extra AED200, you’re paying AED499 and that’s more expensive than Fitness First, at a very low value.
“The current model, once you look into it, people just see the headline price, but they really don’t understand what’s going on between the lines.”
Is there a market for another offering?
Flooks dismisses suggestions that the budget brand could cannibalise what they have already. “We’ll match the price point, we’ll just give you significantly higher value in that market,” he says.
“Statistics will show that people spend about 10 percent of their disposable income on health clubs/gym memberships. If you look at our current offering in the upper mid-market, it’s a different target audience.
“In Burjuman we’ve had a budget offering open literally 100 metres from our club. We’ve had our best month ever in Burjuman; month-on-month, year-on-year, we’re up something like 56 percent in membership.”
Whether Fitness First can replicate the achievements of its brand with its new budget offering remains to be seen.For all the latest Health & Fitness news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.