There’s one new year’s resolution that always seems to top the list: get fit. New exercise gear is purchased, fitness regimes carved out, and diets started (however temporary they may be). But while people have tended to sign up to the bigger gym chains at this time of year, a rising number now choose a more high-end workout.
Boutique studios, like cult indoor cycling chains SoulCycle in the US and Psycle in London, are becoming more popular. Smaller than your typical gym, they often specialise in one type of exercise and allow you to work out in more salubrious surroundings. What makes these gyms unique is their price: while the big chains might cost £50 to £100 a month for unlimited access, studios can charge £20 a workout.
With one in seven people in the UK now a member of a gym, it’s a boom time for the private health and fitness club market, which was estimated to be worth £3.1bn last year and is expected to rise to £3.9bn by 2022, according to Mintel.
While the low-cost market – led by the likes of PureGym, which offers membership at £14.99 a month – is prospering, the last few years have also seen a rise in boutique gyms targeting the more cash-rich customer.
Frame was one of the first boutique fitness studios when it launched in Shoreditch in 2009. “The decision to open Frame came as we couldn’t find a place to work out that was fun, had a strong sense of community and was offering something a bit different to the norm,” says Frame co-founder Pip Black. Frame has since expanded to four studios in London, and there are plans to open two more in the city this year.
One of the key attractions of these studios is the pay-as-you-go approach. While most of the large chains offer annual membership, many boutique gyms provide pay-as-you-go classes or bundles of classes at a cheaper price for customers who don’t want a long-term commitment.
“People want flexibility without having to be tied into gym memberships,” says Sophie Bickerdike, founder of Go Yoga and Go Revolution cycling studio in Harrogate. “By offering a variety of classes at different times, individuals have the flexibility to go to a class that suits them that particular week. With gym memberships there is always an excuse to go tomorrow, whereas if you’ve paid and booked a class you are much more likely to turn up, and hence see the results.”
According to Black, boutique gyms have something else that the large chains don’t: community. “Our members are known as ‘Framers’ and they identify with our brand values incredibly well,” she says. “The variety of class genres we offer at an expert level is also something that we are really proud of … One day you might feel like slamming two classes back to back and the next you may feel like curling into a ball while doing yin yoga.”
“Boutique studios offer an experience that feels more personal and offers a sense of community,” says Simon Moriarty, an analyst at Mintel. “The cost can be prohibitive, but the growth in this segment suggests it isn’t a massive barrier for many people who feel that the value of the new type of gym experience is worth the price.”
Kevin Yates, a former operations director of London-based studio 1Rebel, started a HIIT (high intensity interval training) boot camp called Trib3 in Sheffield on moving back to his home town in 2016. Replicating the model – which often comes with a premium price tag – outside of London has been a challenge.
“It’s not been an easy ride,” he admits. “When we were opening and charging £10 per workout, people were thinking, ‘why should I pay more than what I pay for PureGym?’” He says it took a few months for people to be swayed. Since then the company has expanded to Meadowhall in Sheffield and Leeds and started a franchise model, with Trib3 gyms already opened in Moscow and more set to launch in Spain and Finland.
With an increasing number of high-end competitors opening, are studio owners starting to feel the pressure? “As more competition comes along, the quality of studios and classes has to go up in order to succeed, and that can only be a good thing as far as we’re concerned,” says Black. “We’ve been first to market with a lot of concepts over the years and pride ourselves on pushing boundaries. A healthy bit of competition never hurt anyone.”
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