News Analysis: Gym chains aim for image boost

With the fitness sector's trade body, the Fitness Industry Association, preparing to draft in its first PR firm, the industry is set for an image makeover. Dan Bloch looks at how the gym sector has grown and how it tackles PR.

News that the Fitness Industry Association is looking to draft in its first PR agency comes amid signs that, after several years in the doldrums, the industry's fortunes are on the rise.

Gym membership rose by 5.6 per cent in the year to March 2004 to 3.6 million, compared with growth of 15 per cent in the previous year, and the number of clubs opened this year is on course to beat 2003's figures.

There are now around 2,000 private fitness clubs in the UK with over 500 members or that are part of a chain, according to the FIA's annual report, published in March.

Gyms on the rise

This upbeat news follows several years of shaky investor confidence in the sector and mirrors the increasing attention being paid by the Government in the nation's health.

But as the Government seeks to get the nation more active, has some positive PR offloaded onto the fitness industry - and why the need for PR support?

FIA comms director Andree Deane argues: 'The reverse is true, with stories such as one in the Daily Express four weeks ago entitled "Obesity crisis but gyms won't fix it". They are saying: "Yes we need to get more active, but don't go to a gym. They are a rip-off and you will give up after a month anyway."'

The press are 'unaware' that the FIA has established the 22,000-member Register of Exercise Professionals, funded by the Department of Health, which sets the training standards all member groups' employees must meet, says Deane.

Much of the negative press is directed at establishments without registered employees, she adds. 'I'd like people to be aware that a lot of chains offer a phenomenal service, and that most membership is from the D and E social economic groups, not, as traditionally thought, wealthy middle-class people, according to our research.'

The trade body also wants to boost retention of members, to show that gyms are not simply places to 'pump iron' but offer wider activities such as yoga and stress management, and help the Government meet its target of reducing obesity. These goals are behind FIA's decision to boost its PR clout.

A firm is expected to be appointed later this month, with an undisclosed budget funded by what the FIA calls its 'Vanguard Council', which consists of chief executives of a dozen large individual fitness chains, including Cannons, David Lloyd and Fitness First.

Such members have also come up with innovative ideas to boost the gym-going experience. Esporta Health & Fitness's retained agency Corixa Communications, for example, began a 'mystery member' scheme in January. Each of the group's 62 clubs has one or two mystery members, who feed back reports on the standard of service through monthly focus groups.

'We've found from the feedback that things have been changed as a result - for example, improving visibility of noticeboards, the quality of food and beverages, and interaction with staff,' says Corixa MD Joanna Randall.

The top four gym groups (see box) use a combination of local and national PR work.

Fitness First's PR team allows club managers to develop their own campaigns locally while supporting particular sites at launch or when they want to raise their profile in the face of competition, says Katie Start, account manager at the firm's agency Promote PR.

Corixa uses a similar approach to media relations for Esporta, besides its mystery members, as does LivingWell in-house PR manager Lea Graham.

LA Fitness uses the reverse approach, with a national agency, NP, providing local media relations support, while retaining responsibility for co-ordinated national campaigns in-house.

One industry analyst insists PR is essential to help dispel the myth of gym members as 'lycra and leg-warmer-clad ladies'. Start says: 'With increasing competition, consumers have so much more choice. PR is a very important tool to distinguish your gym from the rest. Getting that third-party endorsement is very important.'

But some third parties themselves point out that fitness centres need to do more. 'Gyms need to have a more holistic approach,' says John Ville, deputy editor of Men's Health. 'Some of the accusations against them are valid. They should absolutely put across the message that there's more to gyms than metal.'

Ville adds: 'Go to the man on the street and ask him what else is in the gym and he may say a sauna or a steam room. But he probably won't be aware of things like good-quality food, sports massage, injury recovery facilities and beauty treatment.'

Top Sante deputy features editor Elizabeth Dawson goes further. 'Gyms are not very aesthetically pleasing, or fun. They need to find new ways to attract people. One, Gym Box in Holborn, has been very successful by introducing "disco spinning" - people ride exercise bikes in a darkened room with a glitter ball to funky music - and "sexercise" classes - to exercise particular muscles. Gyms need to entertain, that is how they will attract new members.'

Whether this approach will generate the long-term reputational boost the FIA's tender for PR support is hoping to achieve remains to be seen.

PR OPERATIONS OF THE UK'S TOP FOUR GYM BRANDS

FITNESS FIRST

- Number of UK clubs: 163

- Opened or due to open in 2004: five

- PR team: five - three-member team at Promote PR, led by MD Sue

Anstiss, for consumer/trade media relations; two-strong team, Mark Lunn

and Amelia Hine, at Gavin Anderson for financial PR.

LIVINGWELL

- Number of UK clubs: 81

- Opened or due to open in 2004: 0

- PR team: one (in-house) - PR manager Lea Graham.

LA FITNESS

- Number of UK clubs: 67

- Opened or due to open in 2004: four

- PR team: approx 30-strong team at NP, spread across 11 regions of the

UK and Ireland. New in-house PR manager expected to begin at the start

of December.

ESPORTA HEALTH & FITNESS

- Number of UK clubs: 62

- Opened or due to open in 2004: one

- PR team: three, from Corixa Communications, led by MD Joanna Randall

(handles consumer, trade and financial PR).

- Top four brands according to research firm The Leisure Database

Company.

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