Contact Us: 678-686-1125

Will Fitness Consumers Return to the Gym?

Image Credit: Parilov / Shutterstock

The pandemic of 2020 spared very few industries and marketers from its wrath. Forced closures and lockdowns altered the very fundamentals of long-standing business models that were often static for decades. For the fitness industry, the broad swath of disruption by everything tech was changing its landscape long before the arrival of COVID-19, but loyal brick and mortar gym-going consumers were still mostly content to pony-up membership fees and drive into favorite local fitness centers to sweat off a few pounds, bulk-up or just maintain a healthy lifestyle. In-home exercise equipment providers and virtual workout programs enjoyed a respectable share of the market from those that didn’t favor the social scene antics at nearby sweat and shape-up venues. But for many, the experience of sharing pain and gain was a communal practice, where one went off-site to de-stress and get away from the daily pressures of work and home responsibilities. COVID-19 forced the industry to reconsider technology’s role as patrons were locked-in and locked-out.

As fitness studios were forced to close across the world in March, customers quickly turned to home exercise equipment sellers. Suddenly a spare room, and some not so spare, were converted to in-home fitness studios. The lockouts led to the permanent closure of nearly 15% of gyms and studios and resulted in a $15 billion loss in revenue, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. “There is no curbside pickup for fitness,” says the trade group. An industry that traditionally saw significant increases in sales beginning in early fall and continuing through the end of the new year experienced a complete and unexpected deviation from normal sales expectations.

Beginning in March, the unexpected demand for everything from dumbbells to high-tech exercise platforms skyrocketed as patrons were turned away at local gyms. Scott Egbert, president and CEO of Utah Home Fitness, says, “Dumbbells were like toilet paper. When COVID hit, sales just blew up, we sold out of everything in our warehouses and they were empty for several weeks. I’ve been in the industry a long time and have never seen anything like this.”

Fitness industry revenue was predicted to hit $102 billion in 2021. Like every other business the expectation, after the arrival of COVID-19, was revised downward. In 2019, total industry revenue was $96.7 billion, up from $94 billion in 2018, and approximately 210,000 fitness centers worldwide served 184 million members. Between March and June 2020, sales of home exercise equipment and accessories skyrocketed 600%. Now that an end to the pandemic may be on the horizon, the question is: Will all the consumers who moved home return to the local brick and mortar outlets?

For many gym owners and industry pundits, optimism has not been dashed completely by the pandemic. “There will be a ‘huge rebound’ effect for health clubs by the third quarter of next year (2021)” said Walter Thompson, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine. “Gyms are going to be overwhelmed with business. I’m incredibly optimistic about what’s going to happen to the fitness industry in 2021, people are going to want to get back into the gym — not just for exercise, but to meet people, to socialize just like they did prior to COVID. The health fitness industry is going to have a very good year in 2021,” Thompson concluded. “I think it’s going to be business as usual by June or July.” The question now? Is this level of optimism a realistic expectation and, in this unprecedented time of turmoil, what is the definition of “business as usual”?

The past year has seen the creditability of nearly all the prognosticators diminish as the unprecedented combination of events in 2020 challenged even the most capable of predicters. The art of forecasting the “next time” attracts a bevy of prognosticators each year, or each new crisis, that are armed with a personal library of scientific facts and statistics to support predictions for the future. Neither the art nor the science was adequately prepared to deliver on the promises in a year where the calamity of events defied the norms of history.

The gravitational advance back to local gyms is likely to be more deliberate than many in the industry predict. The choice to return to the clubs or remain at home will be made by the consumer and based on what solution best fits a specific situation. The truth may be that many more fitness centers in communities all over the country could close in the coming year.

The mantra that “some things never change” should be shelved to history. To be honest, we all remain in the dark and deeper in the unfamiliar woods about just how the future will look like in a new light. Just as the world of business was not prepared for the coming of a pandemic, it is inexperienced in how to move through a time of recovery.

Agility and the ability to adapt to changing consumer behaviors are essential for all commerce, not only the fitness industry, going forward. That’s a good thing because many professional marketers have demonstrated an incredible ability to bob, weave, and avoid the most fatal of punches in 2020. Being customer-centric and listening to the customer has never been more important for a return to anything that can be considered normal. Plan a course, adjust previous, unrealized assumptions, be creative, and stay committed to delivering on the promise.