Does The UK Fitness Industry’s Next Opportunity Lie In The High Street?

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  • Change to Use Classes Order regulation paves way for gyms, leisure centres and boutique studios to open in the heart of towns and cities across England
  • Peloton opens 1,700 sq ft showroom in Bullring & Grand Central retail outlet in Birmingham’s city centre, with more planned for similar regional locations
  • Former Xercise4Less chief plans launch of 50+ locations for new affordable boutique studio concept Coach Gyms “in every metropolitan area in the UK outside London”.

LONDON, United Kingdom — As the economic cost of COVID-19 continues to mount up, a law change that kicked in on September 1st could be the key to boosting the ailing UK high street, say fitness industry leaders. 

Since the start of the month, gyms have been free to open on high streets across England following changes to legislation relating to the Use Classes Order regulation, which had obstructed gyms and leisure facilities from opening. 

The new Commercial, Business and Service E Use Class enables health clubs, gyms, restaurants and a wide range of other leisure operators to move into retail units without requiring a planning application or local authority approval. 

Putting boutiques front and centre
“This is massive for the sector,” MoreYoga founder Shamir Sidhu told Welltodo. 

“The idea that you can look for new properties, see something you like, negotiate a deal and sign the lease within weeks is a completely foreign concept to the whole industry. 

“This will allow businesses to move quickly and open sites across multiple high streets around the country which is something that has been a major barrier in the past. 

“For us visibility, footfall and convenience (near a station) all help for a thriving business. By placing ourselves on the high street, we are placing wellness at the front and centre of people’s day to day lives. This is an integral part of our vision.” 

Mark Holland, Franchise CEO (UK and Eire) of Bodystreet — an innovative workout studio that combines personal training with Electro Muscle Stimulation (EMS) — agrees these new laws could revitalise the high street in the UK and provide much-needed employment opportunities for young people with the fitness industry. 

Read More: Is EMS Training Key To Boosting The Fitness Industry Post-COVID?

“The high street is littered with empty properties and these changes will enhance the local community and bring work to those areas,” he told Welltodo. 

“The new unemployment figures, especially for young people, are really staggering, but we are currently recruiting for an extra 30 positions across all our sites due to growth. We are bucking the national trend.” 

Bodystreet, which boasts 300 studios in Germany, Austria, Italy, USA, Tanzania and the UK, has been able to circumnavigate the Use Classes Order regulations in England by working with the local authorities to prove they have little impact on the environment, traffic and parking. 

“The first benefit of being on the high street is access,” Holland said. “65-75% of our clients are female and we are seen as being open and safe. 

“The second is visibility. We need to be seen by people who aren’t traditional gym-goers. 95% of our members are not gym-goers, so it’s a huge benefit for us to get in front of them with a high street location.” 

With these new changes, Holland believes there will be benefits for everyone. “For the local authorities, there will be income from [business]rates. Employment will help with tax and of course, the main advantage is that the health of the nation should be positively impacted,” he said. 

Shift towards wellness and fitness retail
Early signs that fitness could play a central role in revitalising the UK high street are promising. 

At the start of September, John Lewis revealed that its newly-launched athleisure range saw its sales surpass predictions by 102% with the pandemic shifting consumer demand towards wellbeing and fitness. 

It has also led John Lewis Partnership to ramp up sales of wellness-related products, including high-tech at-home fitness devices from Peloton and Apex Bikes. 

Last month, global interactive fitness platform Peloton also moved into a 1,700 sq ft showroom in Hammerson’s flagship Bullring & Grand Central retail outlet in Birmingham’s city centre, with more planned for similar regional locations. 

Iain Mitchell, UK Commercial Director at Hammerson, said: ”While the retail sector is undoubtedly challenging at the moment, it’s clear that the strongest locations remain in demand, and that brands with a unique offer, like Peloton, can still succeed.” 

Does The UK Fitness Industry's Next Opportunity Lie In The High Street?

Image: Anytime Fitness

Breathing new life into the UK high street
Ben Dixon, Commercial and Property Director of Anytime Fitness UK, the nation’s second-largest private gym operator with 170 clubs behind PureGym, believes health facilities could breathe new life into the UK high street. 

Yet he stressed the cost of rent will still be the leading factor in determining if a high street location would be viable and profitable. 

“Even with the COVID-19 pandemic aside, the high street has struggled in recent years and an evolving challenge is the closure of larger retailers,” he explained to Welltodo. “These are natural footfall drivers and could significantly reduce the number of people visiting British high streets in the future. 

“Even with the planning application changes, there are several other hurdles to navigate.” 

Nevertheless, Dixon expects the fitness and hospitality sectors will have a huge role to play in revitalising the UK high street and said the changes would provide Anytime Fitness with the “opportunity to apply more of a focus to high street locations”. 

He said: “While the continued development of technology and increase in online retailers is putting pressure on the future of the high street, health facilities could breathe new life into it. 

“The fitness industry has proven to be robust even in the most challenging of times and there has been a significant amount of pent-up demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We should expect high streets to continue to evolve in years to come and fitness will be at the heart of it.” 

The fate of Xercise4Less is a prime example of the challenges and opportunities the sector is facing over the coming months and years. 

In July, the budget gym chain was forced to sell 51 gyms to JD Gyms after it ran into financial trouble due to COVID-19. However, this month the company’s former chief announced plans to launch 50+ locations for a new affordable boutique studio concept called Coach Gyms

Speaking to Health Club Management, former Xercise4Less COO Stuart Perrin said, “the aim is to have between four and six clubs in every metropolitan area in the UK, outside London,” adding that he’s confident they can deliver 50 Coach Gyms in the UK over the next few years. 

Does The UK Fitness Industry's Next Opportunity Lie In The High Street?

Image: MoreYoga

“Workout to Help Out”
While MoreYoga’s Sidhu acknowledges the new application changes could lead to increased competition in the most desirable locations with larger multinationals more able to capitalise than smaller “homegrown” studios, he hopes further incentives will emerge to aid the UK’s coronavirus pandemic recovery. 

“It would be great to see a ‘Workout to Help Out’ scheme and a VAT reduction for the fitness industry, similar to that offered to the restaurant and hospitality industry,” Sidhu said. 

“Fitness and more importantly wellbeing will be more important than ever to rejuvenate the high street so that people can access mental, physical and spiritual services. 

“With more people working from home, the convenience of a local studio as part of their high street will definitely be an important factor. 

“Imagine going down the high street and having a yoga studio, next to a meditation centre, next to a weightlifters gym, next to a dance studio, surrounded by other businesses such as health food shops, cafés and restaurants. 

“This is sounding like a place I want to be and I want MoreYoga to be.” 

In the planning law changes announced by Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, a new Local Community F2 Use Class has also been created, recognising the role outdoor sports and swimming pools play in servicing the needs of local communities.

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