Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Are Health Clubs A Growth Industry Despite The Recession?

“As many local businesses struggle through the recession, some local health and fitness clubs say they are growing in strength. Health clubs have just finished what is typically their strongest month of the year. According to Brian Russell, spokesman for Gainesville Health & Fitness Centers, health clubs gain 14 percent of their new members during January. In Gainesville, those typical gains haven't receded for some clubs, while others struggle under trying circumstances. ‘When you really go across the business - all aspects of the business - we're still staying really strong ... The number of people staying with us is actually increasing,’ said Gainesville Health & Fitness owner Joe Cirulli, who has been in the industry more than 35 years. Cirulli said his business is right where it was last year when looking at December and January. His club just finished a major remodeling on its main facility on Newberry Road in Gainesville, and is re-doing its women's facility in Thornebrook Village. Also unscathed by the chilly economic climate is Powerhouse Gym in Gainesville. Manager Steve Dillenbeck said business is up 20 percent over last year. Dillenbeck said a new month-to-month membership payment plan was the primary factor for increasing revenues. ‘We just made it easier because of the economy,’ Dillenbeck said. ‘We no longer commit our members to 12- and 24-month agreements ... They can cancel with a 30-day notice. That's it. That's a huge, huge discount.’ Powerhouse kicked off a $34 a month membership promotion with the new year. Sun Country Sports Center has expanded its youth fitness services in Alachua County, opening a second location in Jonesville totaling 15,000 square feet. Sun Country offers a variety of youth recreational programs including gymnastics, cheerleading, fencing, karate, indoor rock climbing and dance. Owner Linda Bennett said it had not seen a drop-off in business since the recession's onset. ‘When parents select a fitness program for their children, they don't usually cut back on anything like that,’ she said. ‘They realize the importance of it.’ Not every area gym is thriving in the face of the recession. The Gainesville Gym, which changed ownership in July, has seen the declining economy's effect on its business. ‘Well, it's been pretty tough,’ said owner Jerry Parham. ‘And, actually, we bought it not knowing that the economy was going to do what it did. It was just before that. ... And so, yeah, it's been a challenge.’ Parham said he was doing all he could to sustain the business, including cutting costs, doing extra advertising and offering a January special for a $149-a-year membership. The recession is also affecting Gainesville's YMCAs. The Y has two facilities in Gainesville, and athletic fields located off Archer Road. According to George Tatarchuk, chief operations officer in Gainesville, they are down about 6 percent on overall memberships, and their January membership drive is also down 15 to 20 percent. The health club industry as a whole tends to weather recessions fairly well, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a trade group that represents the fitness industry. It says club members view memberships as investments in good health, not luxuries. In Florida, 18.2 percent of the population belongs to a club, the association estimates. Between 2004 and July 2008, the number of clubs in the state grew to 2,223 - a 46 percent increase. Owners and managers of the fitness businesses interviewed for this article said that focusing on a quality product was far more important and beneficial than engaging in price wars. ‘We are not cutting our prices, because we feel that we charge a fair price for the programs that we're offering,’ said Bennett, owner of Sun Country Sports Center. ‘We just offer consistent, good quality, and I think our customers realize that.’”

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