How gyms are luring back members following COVID closures and Peloton's rise
Last week, New Jersey lifted indoor capacity restrictions for gyms to 50%. This week, New York City resumes fitness classes for yoga and Pilates enthusiasts. The East Coast moves follow similar recent reopenings for health clubs in other parts of the country, such as California.
It’s been a long-awaited return to normalcy for gyms, which saw revenues plummet and many locations shutter during the pandemic.
“The industry as a whole has taken a beating,” says Rick Caro, president of health club consulting firm Management Vision, noting that fitness purveyors don’t have the same lobbying clout in Washington, D.C. as restaurants, hotels and airlines.
Adding to the challenge for health clubs is the rise of at-home fitness purveyors such as Peloton, Mirror, Hydrow and Tonal, which have skyrocketed in popularity as locked-down consumers, eager to exercise, invested in their own equipment. Peloton sales blew so far past expectations in 2020 that the brand turned off marketing early on during COVID-19. In its most recent quarter, sales grew 128% to $1.1 billion. Interactive home device Mirror, which Lululemon purchased last summer for $500 million, is now selling in the retailer’s stores and performed well over the holidays, according to brand executives.
Now, gyms have to roll out more than just a “Welcome Back!” mat. They have to work to reconnect with consumers who have turned to other fitness brands during the pandemic.
They also have to convince members that their clubs are as safe as homes for workouts, and that rigorous COVID-19 protocols are followed. Some, like Planet Fitness, which introduced a “United We Move” campaign with digital workouts last March shortly after the coronavirus caused lockdowns, are using humor to market their messages. Equinox recently switched up its marketing structure to give more control to a new in-house studio, which can react quickly to trends and pursue “always on” messaging. OrangeTheory is stressing the value of personalized coaching in a gym environment.
“There’s been a lot of talk in the industry of everything is digital and at-home,” says Jeremy Tucker, chief marketing officer of Hampton, New Hampshire-based Planet Fitness, noting that the chain has had at-home and digital offerings for a long time. “What’s different now, because of restrictions lifting and COVID fatigue, people want to take the step and be out with other people and be in a club environment, and we’re celebrating that.”
New messages of safety
Yet chains are marketing against a difficult backdrop. Last year, health club industry revenue fell 58% to around $15 billion, according to research from Caro and the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, which also found that 17% of fitness facilities permanently closed in the U.S. Caro says there is an opportunity now to focus on the assets of working out with others in a club environment.
“We are part of the preventive side of health care—if you are physically exercising, you build up immunity and physical wellbeing,” says Caro, noting that the benefits include mental fitness as well. “We know that we are placed in the right positioning.”
Late last year, trade industry group IHRSA debuted an Active & Safe message, with special decals for clubs touting new processes like air filtration systems, cleaning protocols, distancing signages and touch-free check-ins. Many have created videos with messaging around such safety measures. In addition, Caro says many chains have relaxed their membership model rules around cancelation, and they have also introduced more free trials and waived guest fees in order to encourage more people to come in.
“Everyone has been different and it’s been a challenge, but the good news is it’s improving—despite the devastation, we’re coming back,” says Caro. “We’ve become a very safe environment.”
At Planet Fitness, though the chain turned off big promotional sales and campaigns from mid-March to September last year, the brand never went dark and kept up communication via its digital channels. The free “United We Move” program of digital workouts kept members up and off the couch, says Tucker. When others were using somber music and serious messaging in the spring, Planet Fitness stayed true to its brand of humor, a strategy that’s continued in recent months. The chain, which reported a total revenue decline of 30% to $57.7 million in the fourth quarter due to pandemic closures, partnered with Comedy Central on a video depicting a couple breaking up with their fart-riddled couch as they plan to get their own bodies in shape. Planet Fitness, which works with agency-of-record Barkley, is currently running a spot that illustrates the difficulties of working out at home and encourages people to “Take your workout back at Planet Fitness.”
“There’s no big ta-da of what we’re doing because we’ve been working so hard to adjust and make sure we’re communicating correctly as we’ve been going,” says Tucker.
Now, with over 95% of its clubs open and ahead of Mental Health Awareness month in May—and following more than a year of COVID-related mental health issues for many—Planet Fitness plans to connect with members on both a physical and mental level with new messaging that stays true to its brand.
“If you can find the insight around humor, it unites and engages,” says Tucker. “It starts to open the aperture to get people to take the action.”
Last week, high-end health club operator Equinox rolled out its first big brand campaign since pre-pandemic. On previous work, the brand had worked with agencies including Droga5, but the new push, meant to highlight the new features on its Equinox+ app, was done by its growing in-house studio. Called “Welcome forward,” the campaign will run with periodic new content through the fall. Will Mayer, who joined Equinox in January as executive creative director leading the internal creative studio, says the brand has seen a lot of members return in recent months following COVID closures last year.
The campaign “has an optimistic tone that will welcome a lot of members back, or welcome them forward, and that’ll be how we solve for that,” he says.
Meanwhile, Orangetheory Fitness is promoting its new interactive digital offering, Orangetheory Live, which it debuted earlier this month as a way to maintain connections with members who might still be hesitant about attending classes in person. After closing studios, beginning in China in January of 2020, the chain has been slowly reopening locations in its 26 countries, most recently with gyms in California and Washington.
Orangetheory, which creates marketing content through its in-house team and agency-of-record Tombras, has been touting its small, personalized classes as a way of winning back members that may have frozen their memberships during COVID, says Kevin Keith, chief brand officer. He says that a lot of consumers are overwhelmed by the bevy of choices and are simply looking for a single source of fitness. The chain recently posted a message on social channels celebrating its 11-year anniversary and asking members to post their own stories of resilience. Keith says, in the coming months, Orangetheory will be harnessing its “influentials,” those who love the brand and are not to be confused with paid influencers, with integrations.
“For new members, we’re hearing a lot about how there’s this real need for simplification and consolidation of a fitness program, rather than going from one app to a gym to another location to another source,” he says. “With Orangetheory, we are able to provide them the simplicity of getting a workout that’s good and connected with other people—the human connection.”