Barry’s Bootcamp is preparing to launch its first UAE outpost in Dubai this year. At the same time, Lululemon is gearing up for wide scale growth throughout the Middle East, and Fitness First is continuing to expand its local footprint under license by the multinational conglomerate, Landmark Group.
Evolving rapidly from a once unstructured, unregulated territory, today, Dubai’s comprehensive infrastructure and flourishing real-estate market are attracting a growing number of homegrown entrants and international players alike, and globally-minded wellness brands are taking notice.
With adjacent industries like healthcare and medical tourism experiencing extraordinary growth in the region, prospects for the wellness industry are very positive. But what are the barriers to entry, and do opportunities exist for brands to scale?
For Lululemon, entering the UAE made good business sense. The Canadian activewear brand, which opened its first store in Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates in September 2015 is one of a number of established global brands recognising the market potential.
“With Lululemon steadily growing its international store base over the last few years, it felt natural to make Dubai a part of the roster,” said Christine Zanon, Brand and Community Manager at Lululemon.
“Our stores in the US and Europe draw in many Middle Eastern travelers, so we could tell that we already had a strong following. But even more importantly, wellness has been on the rise in Dubai over the past 5 years and we knew we could play an integral part in creating this transformation,” she adds.
Currently in a phase of growth, the wellness industry in Dubai has enjoyed a seismic shift over the past 2-3 years in response to a number of driving forces, including the rising population and continued urbanisation of the city.
“As the city of Dubai has grown and more businesses have cropped up, it’s had a big impact on the wellness industry,” says Asma Hilal Lootah, Founder of The Hundred Wellness Center.
The entrepreneur, who opened a Pilates and wellness venue in 2014, argues that a combination of government-lead initiatives to encourage healthier living, increased consumer awareness surrounding wellbeing and demand for services that ease the stresses of living in a fast-paced environment, have all played their part in boosting the market, which is on course to grow in-line with the the global trillion dollar industry.
“Things are growing so fast, but without the supply relative to major Western cities.”
However, with so many new fitness and wellness-related services entering the market, for native residents who may not have been educated about health and wellbeing it can become overwhelming, says Lootah.
The good news is, for brands like The Hundred Wellness Center, creating a business that educates and informs consumers about the benefits of living a balanced lifestyle, can help differentiate them from competitors by adding value to their core product/service.
Offering a 360-degree approach to wellness, where the main goal is to improve the wellbeing and health of the local community is why Lootah believes so many people visit The Hundred Wellness Center.
“Because we offer a wide spectrum of personalised services, including classical Pilates and high intensity interval training as well as physiotherapy, homeopathy and nutritional and educational resources, we help connect like-minded people from all walks of life and ultimately connect the community as a whole,” she says.
Building a nurturing and supportive brand that respects local culture, whilst connecting the community as a whole, is a strategy that foreign entrants looking to break into the market must consider in order to succeed. If they’re willing to do so, Dubai can offer opportunities that leading markets might not afford them.
Josefine Wallstromer, Brand Ambassador for BARE, supports this view. The bespoke health and fitness facility, which differentiates itself from standard gyms by integrating fitness and nutrition, launched in Dubai ten months ago and is already breaking even. Wallstromer believes that the brand’s potential to disrupt the market is far greater than it would have been if they’d launched elsewhere.
The development team, who are based in London, recognise that whilst the market in the British capital is highly saturated and dominated by big players, leaving little space for new entrants, in Dubai, BARE have positioned themselves as pioneers.
“Things are growing so fast, but without the supply relative to major Western cities. This makes for an environment where we have the opportunity to grow to a level that means we can eventually enter more competitive markets abroad,” Wallstromer says.
And Wallstromer argues that although Dubai’s wellness scene is still in relative infancy, because expatriates make up between 80-90% of the population, with a high percentage of residents travelling regularly, Western influence is driving trends and consumer demand for services that can be found in cities like London and New York.
The emergence of a number of international brands scaling up via a franchising model, illustrates this demand.
George Yiasemides, COO of UFC Gym, a mixed martial arts facility located in the US and Australia, explained that the brand, which has decided to open their first Middle East franchise in Dubai, made the decision to do so because the culturally rich region gives them the ability to reach a greater diversity of clients all within one location; generating new interest in countries the UFC GYM franchise has not yet penetrated.
According to Yiasemides, Dubai is home to a high number of professionals with plenty of disposable income, but because of the broad range of nationalities present, consumers sharing their experience of the brand will do so with friends and family from all corners of the globe.
“They’re talking about what they’re up to in Dubai. So you see how viral that can become, especially with modern day technology and social media,” he said in a statement.
Buoyed by the fast growing and advantageous market conditions, Dubai’s wellness industry is a primary target for serious players, but the market doesn’t come without barriers to entry.
“There are risks for foreign entrepreneurs launching businesses, due to local licensing laws, which can be very complex.”
Availability and affordability of real estate can be problematic, according to Faisal Jamil, who is opening up the country’s first Barry’s Bootcamp studio later this year. He knows that parking is crucial and ground floor properties with enough aspect are hard to come by.
Additionally, for operators who aren’t used to dealing with local rules and regulations, setting up a new business can be a daunting and often frustrating task.
“There are risks for foreign entrepreneurs launching businesses, due to local licensing laws, which can be very complex,” explains Andrea DeBellis, who set up a premium boutique fitness venue for women in Dubai, NYLA House.
Even with backing from a private investor, DeBellis, who was a co-founder of Barrecore in London, says the launch of the wellness destination for women (which has now ceased operating) was fraught with difficulties, including the propensity of laws and licensing rules to be altered for a variety of reasons, and often with very little notice.
DeBellis admits that franchising, bespoke licensing, or having a local UAE citizen as a sponsor, can help speed up and streamline the launch of this type of business in Dubai. Especially when dealing with local laws and regulations surrounding free zones, special economic zones set up with the objective of offering tax free, and free customs duty benefits to expatriate investors. However, giving the majority of business ownership to another party isn’t always the best option.
Aside from the legal and structural challenges, reaching capacity and hiring qualified personnel can also present problems.
“Rent is expensive and getting qualified people is expensive. So you get very fancy places with very weak personnel; or you find outstanding personnel in very limited spaces,” founder of FitRepublik in Dubai Sport City, Ali El Amine told The National.
The businessman, who launched the state-of-the art leisure complex in 2015, backed by investment from Fadi Ghandour and Arif Naqvi, founders of the UAE logistics company Aramex and Abraaj Capital respectively, hopes to benefit from economies of scale by paying for one large property, rather than expanding through additional outlets. FitRepublik signed almost 3,000 members in its first three months alone.
“When NYLA was open it was very successful,” says DeBellis. And yet as the market evolves, businesses are learning from the mistakes of others.
Reporting full occupancy, unveiling expansion plans and raising their prices in response to increasing demand, boutique fitness studios in particular are planting seeds for other verticals, like athleisure and healthy eateries, and driving interest from investors who are carefully watching the market.
Additionally, as the real estate market continues to mature, the spa industry in the UAE is set to generate revenue of US $495 million by 2019. With wellness tourists ploughing money into the country, Dubai is quickly becoming a global hotspot for leisure and entertainment.
In line with these forecasts, the potential that exists for the UAE’s wellness industry to innovate, and become an industry leader, is evident. The main challenge for brands will be finding the right competitive positioning to ensure relevance and differentiation from growing competition.