As the hike in living costs hits consumer spending, business owners in the fitness industry are facing the challenge of retaining customers at a time when they are still recovering from the pandemic.
In fact, six in 10 people have made changes to their lifestyle or finances to cover the cost of essentials in the past month, research published by consumer magazine and website Which? found.
For some, a gym membership or twice-weekly yoga class will be one of the few areas where they can cut back on.
While national fitness chains may be able to absorb costs if their membership falls, fitness professionals and small gym owners across East Anglia are anxious about the future of their businesses.
Fiona Manders, 35, who owns the Blackhearts and Barbells gym in Norwich, said that although rising living costs has not impacted her business yet it is something she is “definitely aware” about.
She said: “I think where I’m situated it’s not too bad at the moment but I’m very aware within say the next six months I will potentially start to see people having to penny pinch, people having to think about what is the necessity in their life and I’m very aware that gym membership possibly isn’t one of those things so, while I haven’t seen it yet, I’m preparing myself to see it in the near future.”
Charlie Lewington-Bracey, 41, who co-owns a personal training fitness studio in Attlebridge, Norfolk, revealed that despite some members looking to leave because of changing financial circumstances, she has not lost anyone due to being able to offer a cheaper alternative.
“What we’ve done is rather than them stopping personal training, they’ve moved into a group session which is cheaper for them, or they’ve reduced their personal training sessions down so rather than doing one a week, they’ve gone to one every other week,” she said.
“It does affect our income because it means that we’re earning less from those people, but what it does mean at the moment is that, although we’re earning less, we haven’t lost anybody which is a good thing.
“For us we’ve had to think ahead of the game really and look where we can open up slots for other people, so that’s where we’ve gone.
“The more people we have in a group session the more we earn within that session, so we’ve had to do that and get more people into the group sessions as a backfill almost.”
Prior to the pandemic the fitness industry had been growing.
A 2019 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report found that one in seven people in the UK had a gym membership and the sector was worth more than £5bn for the first time.
Locally, East Anglia has a strong fitness industry, with Norwich named as being the third best city in the UK for the number of gyms per person in a recent research published by fitness advice website BarBend.
Along with well known chains, there are many small, individually owned gyms across Norfolk and Suffolk contributing to local economies.
Covid-19 restrictions, however, had a massive impact on the sector, with gyms having to close and fitness professionals needing to quickly adapt to online teaching.
Despite adjusting to the changing circumstances, many small gyms and fitness professionals found their membership numbers and revenue fell during lockdowns.
When she had to close her gym in March 2020, Ms Manders explained that she lost a few members.
She said: “I think it was within the first lockdown when there was the realisation that we weren’t coming out of it anytime soon. I reduced everyone’s membership because I was aware that there were gyms in the area losing members and I think I lost a few members in the first lockdown, so to try and stop further losses that’s when I brought everyone’s memberships in-line because everyone was receiving the same programming and everyone had access to full timetable.”
Dan Brown, 35, who co-owns a personal training business DNA PT in Ipswich, also found the pandemic a difficult time, but is hoping that the experience will help with the challenges ahead.
“Having survived Covid I think we could probably take a punt that hopefully we would be okay, there’s no certainty unfortunately,” he said.
“It’s just not ideal that we’re going straight back into something like this.
“With Covid I think everyone was in the same position, whereas with this it depends on how people value their exercise.
“It’s not a luxury, although many people may consider having a personal trainer as a luxury.
“Certainly what’s happened over Covid is that people have found that exercise is an integral part of their lifestyle, so people are maybe willing to invest a little more into themselves now than they would do with other things.”
Yoga teacher Jo Betts, 47, who owns OneSpace Studio in Manningtree, Essex, also thinks that those who prioritise fitness and wellbeing as part of their lifestyle will continue paying for classes.
She said: “You’ve got the one side of it that people are pulling in the belt and cutting back on their wellbeing because they’re wanting to hold their money back for various other reasons, then there’s other people who are ramping it up and I think they’re doing it for the mental health benefits.
“It’s really interesting because it’s really split down the middle and that all goes down to people’s priorities and where they place priority in their lives and how important mental health and wellbeing is.”
To keep members, especially at a time when people are struggling financially, many gym owners and personal trainers are reluctant to put up prices to help cover their rising costs.
Mr Brown at DNA PT has not considered increasing his prices and is not keen to do so in the future.
He said: “It’s not something we’ve really discussed. We’ve kept our prices the same because we’re aware of what our customers might be going through, so we’ve not raised it as an issue within the company yet.
“We probably won’t be raising our prices because we would rather encourage more people to stay on board with us instead of risking losing some if we were to think about rising our prices.”
Ms Lewington-Bracey is also not planning to rise prices, she said: “One thing we’ve decided, we’re not going to increase our prices, which I know a lot of other people in the industry have done to cover their costs, but we don’t feel like that we’re in a position where we can do that and we don’t want to do that to our clients.
“So for us we are quite determined that we will find every which way we can to keep people on board and engaged and reduce their stress levels, and without bringing in our own price increases alongside of that, because I just think this isn’t the time to do it and we need to be strategic in what we’re planning and doing and start think forward.”
Some small gym owners, however, have had no choice but to increase membership fees as business costs rise and falling revenue during the pandemic.
Ms Manders said: “With the price increases that were starting last year with energy increases, I had to slightly increase my membership prices, but that was minimal margins because I know that, although as a business I’m being affected, I’m aware that my members are being affected so I wanted to keep a happy medium that everyone could afford.
“That was last year I made the announcement about putting up membership, but in terms of making changes to the business I’ve just put on a couple of classes to see if that could bring in any other new members, I’ve also recently done some promotions on social medias to try and drum up a bit more business, offer some gym deals, membership deals that kind of thing in hopes that, yes that will then, promote more business through the door and then they’ll hopefully sign up to a full membership.”
With their own business and living costs rising, many fitness business owners are anxious about how they will continue operating in the coming months.
Mrs Betts said: “Fortunately my rent hasn’t gone up, but my electric has gone up.
“How I’m going to sustain myself, I have no idea. How we’re going to carry on, I don’t know because the yoga world is not a big money industry. It’s quite hard going, but you don’t really go into it for the money.
“I think most of us in business, when you work for yourself, we’ll all very creative and so I think you are always finding ways of problem solving and you can end up being quite innovative when times are hard. So at the moment OK, for the future who knows.”