Do Virtual Health Clubs Give Real Gyms Reason to Sweat?

24-Hour Fitness, Others Claim New Rivals Create Bigger Pool of Enthusiasts

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- It doesn't take a calendar to tell it's January: Just turn on your TV and check out the annual barrage of resolution-exploiting ads from health-club operators such as Bally Total Fitness and Life Time Fitness. And, indeed, the first week of 2010 has been no different, except that virtual health clubs have entered the fray as well in a play to steal would-be weight losers from their bricks-and-mortar competitors.

WHO'LL BE THE BIGGEST LOSER? Web programs such as that of 'Loser' trainer Jillian Michaels are a cheaper alternative to gyms.
WHO'LL BE THE BIGGEST LOSER? Web programs such as that of 'Loser' trainer Jillian Michaels are a cheaper alternative to gyms. Credit: NBC
On its face, the trend creates some awkward dynamics: Consider the ad onslaught for an online weight-loss program from NBC's "Biggest Loser" trainer Jillian Michaels, which touts a gym-free program of dieting and exercise to drop pounds. Surely that's unwanted -- not to say cheaper -- competition for, say, the biggest sponsor of the "Biggest Loser," gym chain 24-Hour Fitness, no?

Tony Wells, chief marketing officer at 24-Hour Fitness, thinks otherwise. "We don't view it as competitive," he said, adding that "Biggest Loser" has been an "incredible partner." "Fitness isn't just what happens when you're inside a gym."

The show's executive producer, Mark Koops, concurred, noting robust sales of Ms. Michaels' DVDs throughout the show's six-year run on NBC. "There's a larger agenda to the show than just the commercial interests, although those are certainly important," he said. "We're trying to encourage people to adopt a healthy lifestyle any way we can."

Analysts, for their part, largely agree, noting that because only 18% of U.S. adults belong to a health club, the online programs may actually be expanding the potential customer pools for health clubs by selling new consumers on a more-active lifestyle.

'Social aspect'
Tom Shaw, who covers publicly traded club chains for Stifel Nicolaus, said the online plays appeal directly to consumers who -- like Ms. Michaels' trainees on "Biggest Loser" -- may be intimidated by crowds of more-fit people in a gym setting.

For those who aren't intimidated, Mr. Shaw said, there's a reason countless workout DVDs -- and VHS tapes before them -- haven't hurt the health-club business. "There's a social aspect to going to a health club that you can't get through a computer or a television," he said.

While that certainly is the case when considering workout videos, it's not necessarily so online.

Nike proved as much with its Nike Plus sports kit, which measures, records and shares running times and distance in a manner that allows users to compete in virtual global road races, and compare running notes while connecting on online forums. (It also allows runners to share their times and distances on social-media sites such as Facebook.)

Ms. Michaels' program tries to create online social networks, offering people a list of people by age, fitness level and geography to help them find "weight-loss buddies" and through online message boards.

Cutting back
It's unclear as of yet whether users will find that social aspect as satisfying as a health club, but, from the industry's perspective, it's surely a less-than-opportune time to welcome cheaper competitors. While health-club membership rolls have been surprisingly resilient to date, there are clear signs that members are becoming increasingly cost conscious.

Life Time Fitness, one of two publicly held chains, saw membership rolls increase during the third quarter, but the average "in-center" revenue per membership declined by $104 during that time, meaning members are paying their dues but cutting back on personal training and other goods and services sold at the gym.

The other public company in the category, Town Sports International, saw a similar trend of member cutbacks, but also saw a 3.3% total revenue decline during the first nine months of 2008, as memberships fell.

But if industry types are concerned about clubs' vulnerability to cheaper, online alternatives during these tough economic times, they're not admitting it.

"When you look at the videos and things that have come before, I don't think it's incrementally a new challenge," said Sharon Zackfia, a Chicago-based analyst for William Blair. "Paying for it is the motivation to do it."

Wii Fit
"The next [online site] that does [pose a threat] will be the first," said Michelle Boyko, VP-Wally Boyko Productions, which publishes the National Fitness Trade Journal. "If they have the motivation to work out at home, they don't need a computer to do it."

Mr. Wells, of 24-Hour Fitness, said younger workout enthusiasts were increasingly open to non-gym alternatives. He pointed to the success of Nintendo's Wii Fit workout system, which 24-Hour sells branded workout kits for.

"If you look at Generation X and Generation Y, they're open to fitness delivery not being confined to one space," he said. "So we'll see what role other forms of fitness instruction and advice will play."

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