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The IHRSA Health Club Consumer Research

A new study spies growth opportunities surfacing in 2013 and beyond 

All in all, U.S. health clubs have weathered the economic turbulence of the past few years remarkably well. In fact, the industry has not only survived, but has grown significantly, creating new categories of club members and reaching more consumers than ever before.

That’s one of the major conclusions of the IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report.

This publication is based on an annual consumer study conducted by the Physical Activity Council (PAC), which researches health and physical activity among American consumers. The council conducted interviews with 38,172 Americans in early 2012, examining the behavioral and demographic changes taking place among the buyers of club services. Those findings were then combined with data from other surveys conducted over the prior three years. The results, compiled in the Consumer Report, provide a multi-year perspective on the country’s fitness trends and club-going habits.

The biggest news: the number of Americans who belong to clubs reached an all-time high of 59 million people at the end of 2011. Club usage also was up, with an average of 102.5 visits per person the same year.

Although the industry wasn’t immune to the recent recession, the business has bounced back quickly. In 2000, 37.9 million Americans were members of clubs, but by 2010, memberships had risen to 50.2 million, and, by early 2011, to 51.4 million. That’s a gain of roughly 14 million over the past 10 years, or a growth rate of nearly 40%—a rather astonishing performance given a growth rate of just 9.7% for the U.S. population between 2000 and 2010.

“We’ve been more stable than other industries, probably because of our membership model, which is based on monthly dues and a recurring revenue stream,” observes Art Curtis, the president of Curtis Club Advisors, LLC, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and ex-officio chairperson of IHRSA’s board of directors. “This industry doesn’t react in a volatile fashion, which should reassure investors.”

How can you explain such resilience and persistent growth?

Melissa Rodriguez, IHRSA’s senior research manager, notes that club operators have regularly updated their programs and equipment, targeted new consumer markets, and kept abreast of the latest fitness trends. They’ve also leveraged market insights gleaned from research reports, such as the IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report and its predecessor, the IHRSA Trend Report. “Together,” she explains, “the two reports constitute an authoritative toolkit that club operators are using to identify trends in programming, consumer demographics, and club utilization.” 

Jay Ablondi, IHRSA’s executive vice president of global products, concurs, noting that such research allows club executives and investors to more accurately assess fitness trends, and to spot emerging opportunities that clubs can explore. “This report analyzes the characteristics of club consumers and provides credible data that club owners, developers, and industry suppliers can use to grow their customer base,” he indicates.

Mark Miller, the vice president of the Merritt Athletic Clubs, a nine-facility chain based in Baltimore, Maryland, agrees that IHRSA’s research reports are valuable management tools. “We benchmark the reports’ findings against those at some of our clubs, which lets us see where we’re strong, as well as where we need to take a step back, and ask if we need to do something differently,” he says.

Trends to watch

The 35-to-54 age cohort has expanded: This group consists of the youngest baby boomers and the Generation X adults who came of age in the 1980s. While this isn’t a “new” market per se, it’s a growth sector that’s expanded by 18% since 2008. It encompasses mid-career adults at the height of their earning potential and, generally, with a high level of awareness about the need to be fit. According to the IHRSA Trend Report, which was released last February, many aging boomers are interested in weight management programs, while the X-ers frequently are looking for sport-specific training.

Middle-income households are increasing: The recession pushed many families into a lower income category, but, at the same time, a growing number of moderate-income earners were “sold” on the benefits of exercise. The number of club members earning between $50,000 and $74,999 rose to 10.1 million between 2008 and 2011, an increase of 25.7%. In some cases, this growth was sustained by affluent members who, although they may have moved into a lower income bracket, traded down to lower-cost memberships. These developments have helped fuel a demand for low-cost clubs that offer all of the basics, but few, if any, amenities.

Long-term membership is stable: It’s been said that marketing to existing members doesn’t help expand the industry, but a club’s current clients shouldn’t be underestimated. This core group of loyal club-goers remains the stable foundation, the bread-and-butter, of the industry. 

Faithful users are engaged. They take part in club events, they’re willing to provide helpful feedback, and they’re less likely to cancel memberships during hard economic times. The Consumer Report found that veteran individuals—those who’ve been members for six years or more—increased their average number of visits to 137–140 days in 2011. Miller says his clubs have worked hard to hold on to as many of these clients as possible during the downturn by negotiating with them on temporary price breaks. 

Hispanic/Latino groups are growing: According to the 2012 U.S. census, more than half of the increase in the country’s total population between 2000 and 2010 was due to the growth of the Latino population. Club operators with a substantial Latino presence in their marketplace might want to make sure that they’re serving this cohort well. The report suggests that hiring a diverse and representative staff, and making use of bilingual membership agreement forms and social media can help clubs reach, attract, and engage this target market.

Programs to watch

The report also identifies the fitness classes that consumers are most excited about and, conversely, those in which they’re losing interest. A few highlights: Yoga continues to be one of the most popular activities, with in-club participation growing by 17% between 2009 and 2011. Music-based exercise grew by 15.5% during the same period. Nearly 16 million members used elliptical trainers in 2010 and 2011. Both tai chi and Pilates declined in popularity in 2011.

For club operators who are eager to attract a new type of customer, or who are afraid that their programming is growing stale, the report has two suggestions: First, reposition a program with declining attendance. For instance, a basic tai chi class could become a seniors' tai chi class, or a workshop on the benefits of the discipline. Similarly, Pilates could become Pilates for beginners, or Pilates for athletes. Second, introduce “fusion” programs, which combine elements of different activities, e.g., strength training and combat exercise, or dance and flexibility work.

Eric Schmitz, the president of the California Athletic Clubs, a chain of four multipurpose facilities based in Santa Barbara, says the report’s observations are reflected by developments in his own business. Yoga and the use of ellipticals are definitely up, and there’s been a proliferation of group exercise classes with a twist, such as ones for families, and others for cancer patients.

“Everyone is disconnected to some degree,” he observes. “They need a place to connect with the community, to spend some time with friends, while knowing that their kids are safe. These programs provide a social connection, which, obviously, is a vital part of the club experience.” 



The IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report: 2012 Health Club Activity, Usage, Trends and Analysis, a 137-page publication, is available to IHRSA members at a cost of just $79.95, and to nonmembers for $199.95. To order, log on to or call 888-229-5745 (U.S.) or 1-831-372-6077 (non-U.S.). 

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