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Which gyms are feeling the burn?

As specialty fitness studios reach tipping point, Planet Fitness and luxe gyms in demand once again

Written by Sarah Spagnolo on Jul 27, 2017 - Read time: 7 min - Read Later

Summertime…and for national fitness chains trying to lure in health-minded gym goers, the livin' ain't easy.

In short: the competition is fierce. Specialty fitness studios are competing against traditional gyms for visitors; athleisure promises a fit body look, sweat not required. So how has shifting consumer behavior impacted the gym category overall?

As a location intelligence company, Foursquare is able to understand foot traffic patterns of millions of Americans, always anonymized and aggregated, to all brick-and-mortar categories, from gyms (which we've defined as regional and national chains with a standard monthly or annual membership structure) to boutique fitness studios (smaller studios that specialize in classes, typically with a pay-as-you-go pricing structure).

Everyone knows that gym visits spike in January, but our data shows actually that spring and early summer are when gyms see the biggest surge in overall attendance. Now that those workout sessions are in the books, we can answer the question: With so many options, are people hitting the gym more or less than before? Are boutique fitness studios beating out the big gyms? Which brands are destined for closures?

Fewer Americans are going to the gym

According to Foursquare's location intelligence, the overall gym industry is showing light growth in foot traffic, with total visits up only 2% year over year across the country.

But this small increase is driven by increased visit frequency from existing gym-goers, not a lift in new ones signing on to annual memberships. It turns out that although total visits are up, fewer Americans are actually hitting the gym, with 31% visiting a gym in Q2 2017 versus 33% in Q2 2016 (down 2%).

American's gym-going habits 2017 vs 2016

Gyms in larger cities are growing faster than those in smaller regions with visits to gyms in the top 20 DMAs growing ~3% YoY, while in smaller DMAs, that growth rate is closer to ~1%. However some cities, including San Francisco and Austin, are even showing double-digit growth.

As specialty fitness studios peak, gym goers go high or low

Despite the continued allure of specialty fitness chains like SoulCycle, OrangeTheory and Pure Barre, the growth in share of these studios is actually seeing a slowdown after strong performance last year. Following steep growth in visits during 2015 and into 2016, when these studios stole traffic share from traditional gyms on both the high end (Equinox, LifeTime) and the mid-market (24 Hour Fitness, Anytime Fitness), the trends are shifting back. Specialty fitness studio share is up 19% in 2017, a decrease of 15% from last year; high-end gyms, meanwhile, have kicked up to 7% growth, versus flat last year. The pendulum swings again.

breakdown of growth for gym chains in the U.S. in 2017

The overlap of people that visit both high-end and specialty fitness studios has been on the decline over the last year, demonstrating that after a highly competitive 2015–2016, high-end, multi-sport gyms successfully lured athletes away from more singular focused gyms. For instance, the percentage of Equinox visitors who also go to SoulCycle declined by 10% year over year in June 2017, indicating that more Equinox-goers are now fully satisfied with their gym experience and no longer need to augment it with specialty classes. Since Equinox owns SoulCycle, there are cross-promotional opportunities that could be optimized.

Another problem for specialty fitness studios? In many geographies, they have pushed past the point of market saturation. Over the last two years (June 2015-June 2017), cycle studios have grown as a category with the total number of studios nearly doubling, but they have seen the visits per location decline by 30%. Exercise concepts such as pilates and yoga, which were in vogue before cycling, saw more than 20% of doors shutter between 2015 and 2016 as gym goer trends changed. Just as we have seen overzealous expansion burn the retail sector in recent years, these specialty fitness studios are likely to face financial challenges ahead if individual locations cannot increase attendance and max out capacity.

Which brand feels like a winner?

As high-end gyms work up a sweat stealing back share from specialty fitness studios, both are actually duking it out for high-end customers who represent a very small percentage of the market as a whole. Meanwhile, mid-market gyms are also feeling the burn and struggling to win over consumers. Our data shows a squeeze on the middle at both national gyms like 24 Hour Fitness and Snap Fitness as well as regional chains like New York Sports Club and O2 Fitness Club, in the South. Collectively, these chains lost 5% of their gym visit share in the last year.

So who is winning?
There's a large swathe of cost-conscious consumers who are converging on a different, trending brand: Planet Fitness.

chart showing the winning gym in terms of foot traffic growth

Planet Fitness occupies a decisive position as the market leader for low-cost gym memberships, with a $10 monthly package. In addition to recent company earnings that reflect revenue on the rise and increasing same store sales, we found in our foot traffic analysis that Planet Fitness is the most popular gym in America — nearly 25% of gym-goers went to a Planet Fitness last quarter. The kicker: As luxe gyms and boutique fitness studios fight for a small piece of the pie, Planet Fitness has been growing its larger share at 10% YoY. Now those are stats of a champion we'd bet on.

How can marketers flex their brand's muscle?

Shifting patterns in gym-going behavior reflect the larger trend around healthy lifestyles: as consumers become increasingly wellness-conscious, companies are coming up with more health-focused products and places than ever for consumers to spend.

Location intelligence can help inform a brand's strategy when it comes to understanding and reaching these health-minded consumers, whether it's a gym chain, a QSR with new menu options or a retailer with a line of athletic wear.

Here's how Foursquare can help brands better understand, reach, measure and engage with health enthusiasts:

  • Plan: Marketers at gyms or fitness studios can gain deep insight into their own and competitors' members using Foursquare Analytics. The dashboard offers data spanning consumer loyalty, demographics, visit frequency and more. QSR and dining brands can leverage the dashboard to understand the healthy behaviors of their consumers: do they overindex at juice bars or dive bars? Salad shops or burger joints?
  • Reach: Advertisers looking to reach fitness fanatics can use Pinpoint by Foursquare to target ads to people based on where they go in the real world, whether they are promoting a new healthy menu option or a new line of yoga pants. Foursquare can run ads across over 150 million devices in the U.S., specifically targeting consumers based on their fitness frequency and loyalty. Looking to up gym membership for a traditional gym chain or specialty fitness studio? Reach visitors of competitive gym facilities, and target health enthusiasts based on their shopping and dining affinities.
  • Measure: Marketers can measure the success of campaign creative and targeting by tracking visit lift with Attribution by Foursquare, which links digital ad exposure with real world visit behavior.
  • Engage: Brands with consumer apps can improve the user experience and increase engagement by leveraging Pilgrim SDK by Foursquare. Want to learn how to segment your app users, or message them when you know they've entered your fitness facility? Pilgrim SDK applies Foursquare's location technology directly within third party apps, allowing developers to send contextually relevant messages and catch people at the perfect time and place.

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Foursquare analyzes foot traffic data from more than 50 million monthly global users of its Foursquare City Guide and Foursquare Swarm apps and websites, which people use to explore the world and check in. These location-based apps help us understand trends and notable societal shifts. Our user data is always anonymized and aggregated. All data was normalized against U.S. census data in order to ensure that the analysis accurately reflects the U.S. population, and removes any age, gender or geographical bias.

In this analysis, Foursquare's data scientists looked at visits — including both explicit check-ins (from Foursquare Swarm) and passive visits (from both apps) — to gyms across the U.S. We categorized various gym chains into specific buckets for analysis: 1) specialty/boutique fitness studios (e.g., SoulCycle, OrangeTheory, Physique 57), 2) national and regional mid-market chains (e.g., LA Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness, Gold's Gym), 3) high end chains (e.g., Equinox, The Bay Club Company, Life Time Fitness) and 4) Planet Fitness (selected in isolation based on trademark $10 plan and superior market performance in L24 months). Visit share data excludes independent gym locations, while our analysis of larger category shifts is based on all venues categorized as gym or fitness locations, including chains as well as public and independent locations.


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