Silver Anniversary Calls for Reflections on the Changes in the Fitness Industry

Future Fitness
(Photo by Thinkstock.)

I recently celebrated 25 years with my company, 15 of which have been with Club Industry. Twenty-fifth anniversaries are silver, right? I'm guessing my company is sending me a pot of silver for this monumental achievement. I'll update this blog when that arrives.

As weird as it may be these days for a person to stay with the same company for 25 years, it's allowed me a perspective on the evolution of a company—and for the past 15 years, on the evolution of the fitness industry—that many people don't get.

You likely are more interested in what I've seen evolve in the fitness industry than within my company, so I'll spare you those details, although they have mostly been good. 

I started with Club Industry in June 2002, and the first stories I wrote were for the August 2002 issue. A quick search on our website uncovered that one was about making sure you have enough insurance for your club. The second was a column we called Management Notebook that included two articles: one about how to create good marketing materials and the other on how to fit in a workout as a busy health club operator.

By January 2003, I was contributing some information for the annual State of the Industry report that Club Industry used to publish. Reading through that story, I was struck by how much things had changed and how much they had not, so I'm basing many of my reflections about change on this article from within my first year in the industry. In that article, we noted that the fitness industry was affected by the economic slowdown in 2002, which led to a slowdown in new club build outs. However, IHRSA reported that the United States had 18,000 clubs attracting more than 33 million members that year. We've certainly seen growth in those numbers in the past 15 years. IHRSA reports that today the United States has 36,540 health clubs and 57.3 million members. To combat the economic difficulties facing the industry at that time, some people interviewed for the story noted that health clubs needed to offer everything to members—pools, kids programming, group exercise and more. Today, of course, we see how popular niche clubs have become.

I had to smile when I got to the part of the story that mentioned that members were beginning to skew younger. We mentioned Generation Y, which at the time was a fairly new term to me. The article stated this:

"That younger or Generation 'Y' population (approximately 70 million people aged 6 to 24) may be the key to long-term growth. And many of them may come into contact [with fitness centers] during their college years as SGMA reports that a building boom is underway in college recreation centers where 25 percent of the 1,546 centers have been built since 2000."

Of course, today we know this generation as millennials more so than Generation Y. Still, the prediction about the importance of Generation Y to long-term growth was on target—although with this generation being the most populous ever, it didn't take a fortune teller to call that one.

Toward the end of the article, we noted five companies to watch in 2003. Following are those five companies and predictions one of our sources offered for each:

  1. Bally Total Fitness: “As a high-profile, public company, Bally is the company that investors judge the industry by.”
  2. Curves for Women: “They have hit a cord with women and are growing quickly because of it.”
  3. 24 Hour Fitness: “May be the next public fitness company.”
  4. Town Sports International: “Watch for a potential IPO.”
  5. LA Fitness: “They are flying under the radar, but not for long.”

Since 2003, a lot has changed.

Bally Total Fitness filed for bankruptcy multiple times, went private and sold off most of its clubs.

Curves for Women's glow has faded as has the glow from women-only circuit training clubs.

24 Hour Fitness never did go public, but its founder, Mark Mastrov, later left the company, which was followed by a succession of a few other CEOs and management teams, plus a sale of the company in 2014.

Town Sports International did in fact go public in 2006, and in 2014 it moved many of its mid-priced clubs to a low-priced model. Its management team changed hands after active investor Patrick Walsh got on the board, and the low-priced model is not as big of a focus for the company today.

LA Fitness definitely is not flying under the radar any longer. It had a major growth spurt in 2011 when it purchased 171 of the Bally Total Fitness clubs. It has ranked No. 1 on our Top 100 Clubs list since the 2013 list, bumping 24 Hour Fitness to No. 2.

Also at the end of the story was a look at what the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) predicted would be trends to watch for 2003. The list included that Pilates would grow and move into the mainstream, that "active relaxation" was on the rise (comprising more gentle forms of exercise that promote better sleep, longevity, reduced stress), that sport-specific training would bring more athletes into fitness facilities, that strength training would increase among seniors, that online personal training would gain popularity, and that time-starved Americans would lead to an increase in the need for combination cardio and strength training classes. Many of these trends hold true today. However, ACSM's 2018 list ranks high-intensity interval training, something not even on the 2003 list, as the top trend for next year.

During the past 15 years, I've seen companies go public (Life Time Fitness, ClubCorp, Planet Fitness) and two of those companies go private again (Life Time and ClubCorp). I've seen more interest in our industry from private equity firms. I've seen technology enter the industry in mobile apps, online membership registration, wearable technology, on-demand group exercise classes and better customer relationship management software. I have seen the growth of wellness programming and discussions about increasing the professionalism of the industry and the personal trainer role. I have seen disagreements about tax exemptions for YMCAs. I have watched as various groups have tried to work on standards for the industry. I have watched as the number of big equipment manufacturers has decreased but the number of new startup businesses in other areas of the industry have grown.

During those 15 years, one thing has stayed the same: the commitment of so many of you to improve the health of your community and to help your fellow club operators do the same.  

Do I have another 15 to 25 years in me with this company and the Club Industry brand? Who knows? What other changes will we see in the coming years? I'm not a fortune teller, but I anticipate that technology will lead us to offer a much more personalized workout experience for members and likely a whole new model we haven't yet envisioned. What I do know is that however many years I have left in this business, I will enjoy watching and covering the changes and growth of this industry as much as I have enjoyed watching and covering it so far.

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