Taking a look back at how far the industry has come in the past 20 years can make you appreciate where it is today. History also serves as a gauge to note change. The industry has certainly evolved in the past couple decades and mostly for the better.
In 1973, Joe Cirulli, the founder and CEO of Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers (GHFC), said clubs were built around selling people, and it wasn’t about taking care of them. “Co-ed clubs were not the main things,” he said. “There were three days a week for men and three days a week for women.” He recalls when he started to integrate co-ed hours at his clubs — the men and women shared a locker room during those times.
When William Dabish, the co-founder of Powerhouse Gyms International got in the industry in 1974, “It was just basic barbells, dumbbells and plate loaded machines.” His son Henry, the current CEO of Powerhouse Gyms, started working in gyms in 1996, when he was 16. He remembers clubs trying to be everything to everybody. William believes the best trend over the years was when gyms became co-ed. He said it really changed the way the world viewed training and exercising.
Nanette Francini, the president and founder of The Sports Club Company, said in 1977 people weren’t educated about fitness. The medical and science fields were not behind fitness. There were maybe two magazines on the rack that related to fitness, she said. Back then people were motivated by fun — that’s what got them in the door of clubs.
Beginning his fitness career as a junior high student, Eric Casaburi, the founder and CEO of RetroFitness, entered health clubs around 1987. He noticed everyone paid in full for his or her membership. “Newspapers didn’t have a health section; maybe one did, but not many,” Casaburi said. “There wasn’t much media attention on health and fitness.”
Jeff Skeen’s father-in-law thought he made a career mistake in 1992, working in an industry that was no more than a “fad.” Skeen, the president and CEO of Titan Fitness (a Gold’s Gym Franchisee), got in the industry at a time when it was moving into fitness and away from the concept that gyms were primarily for athletes or bodybuilders. “Most facilities didn’t have multiple group exercise rooms, personal training wasn’t that important and members were starting to become more comfortable paying for their dues through electronic fund transfer (EFT).”
Changes in the Industry
GHFC participated in a study in 1985 that monitored the change in an individual if they had a regimented diet and workouts set up with trainers. What do you know, the members saw results and from there birthed GHFC’s personal training program. The study went on to be part of a book called “The Nautilus Diet.” As time passed, Cirulli realized in order for personal training to reach its full potential it needed to be its own department with dedicated staff.
Francini had staff that told her personal training would never catch on. “Why would anyone want to pay someone to work them out?” they told her. It immediately caught on for her as well. Others around her felt the same when the treadmill hit the market, why would anyone want to run inside? When the Stairmaster hit the market, GHFC basically had “stair master police” to ensure members only used it for 20 minutes at a time due to high demand.
Clubs 20 years ago didn’t have competition. “No one had even heard of the word ‘demographic,’” Casaburi joked. “You were just geographically successful. Now you need to pay attention. You’ve got to be on the right side of the street.”
Francini agreed: “There’s more competition, not only with similar clubs, but studios as well. There are a million reasons why people could go somewhere else.” The business of health clubs is more serious now as well she said. It’s evolved into more of a business, “It’s not all fun and games anymore,” she said. Service is more important now, too. “You really have to take care of your members and staff,” Cirulli said. “It’s not just lip service.”
Members have changed as well. Members expect more for less, Skeen said. “Over the last 20 years there has been a downward pressure on membership pricing as more competitors enter the industry,” he said. There’s more awareness from members and they are more educated. “Even the deconditioned population knows they need to workout,” Casaburi said.
Today’s members are more educated and demand more. “I couldn’t put a trainer out there [on the floor] that’s not properly educated,” Francini said. Members’ expectations have turned more internal in recent years. They don’t just want to look good; they want to feel good too, she said.
Henry has seen memberships become more mainstream — “Added services, such as group exercise, and spinning along with more affordable prices allows health clubs to draw in a broader clientele than just the dedicated fitness enthusiasts,” he said.
What’s going to come next?
Francini recognized the industry’s evolution. “It’s always an evolution more than revolution,” she said. “It’s not ‘This is so new and different.’” She noted group exercise as an area that has been continually changing — the opportunities are endless. Strength training has seen changes too. “A lot more people have an understanding about working with weights and the importance of working your core.”
Francini said. “[Members] see a need for functional training.”
Casaburi feels the industry hasn’t lived up to its potential yet. “I’m optimistic that great, young minds will make a revolution [in the industry]. Evolution is boring,” he said. It will be something completely out of the box, in his opinion — possibly something new to motivate members, because the pain and fear tactics haven’t worked. He’s not sure what that idea is yet.
There are more opportunities now and will be in the future to work with the medical communities, Cirulli said. It’s a matter of insurance companies working together. “The breakthrough will come when they all get together and help each other, the industry and help people stay healthier. They’re currently looking for a marketing advantage,” Cirulli said.
Skeen believes it will all come back to “the 85 percent of Americans who are not members of fitness facilities.” To him, they will be the catalyst of change that spurs the next evolution in fitness. -CS
By Ali Cicerchi