Monday, April 27, 2009

Recession? What Recession? Let’s Open a Gym!

“In late 1929, world markets were crashing and the American economy was in ruins. But a young Italian immigrant who had recently changed his name from Angelo Siciliano to Charles Atlas saw opportunity. He offered customers ‘the path to perfect manhood’ through his mail-order fitness program. Thus was born Charles Atlas Ltd., the fitness industry phenomenon that to this day sells workout routines to young men tired of getting sand kicked in their face. Before the Great Depression finally lifted around 1941, muscle entrepreneurs like Joe Weider and Jack LaLanne would also get in on the act. This was the dawn of the modern fitness industry. Atlas, Weider, and LaLanne weren’t necessarily prescient contrarians, but they were shrewd businessmen who grasped the situation at hand. After all, the era in which they launched their brands saw a blossoming of recreational pursuits that coincided with massive public works projects such as sports stadiums, gymnasiums, swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf courses. Hunger for escapism, a key ingredient in Hollywood’s unprecedented popularity at the time, may have helped too. Is something similar afoot now? Despite swirling dark economic clouds, at least ten gyms and fitness centers of various stripes have opened along the Biscayne Corridor during the past two years. Their numbers include everything from tiny boutique spots that train only one customer at a time to sprawling complexes with hundreds of members. They join what would appear to be an already crowded constellation of fitness businesses in this body-obsessed town. The number of frequent health-clubgoers is up over previous decades, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. And in 2008 the number of fitness businesses nationally increased slightly, according to the association. But as far as Miami’s gym boom goes, appearances may be deceiving, says Brian Biagioli, director of FIU’s graduate exercise and sport science program. ‘This is probably the worst time to open a gym,’ he says bluntly. The fitness industry as a whole is down about 30 percent since the current recession set in, Biagioli says. Biagioli suggests that fitness entrepreneurs stand a chance if they offer something new and challenging that avoids the repetitive boredom of machine-based training. But, he cautions, it’s a tough business no matter what: ‘Gyms go out of business at a rate similar to restaurants.’ Several new fitness center owners are relying on Biagioli’s suggestion, expressing hope that the unique nature of what they offer, combined with average people’s desire to better themselves, will bring success. ‘We believe that it is recession-free,’ Simi Aboutboul says of her business, Studio FitVibe. The Midtown Miami studio, open since September, offers ‘whole body vibration,’ a super-efficient muscle-contraction workout technique supposedly developed by the Russian space agency. Although she admits she was ‘naïve’ about opening in a down economy and is ‘struggling like anyone else,’ Aboutboul thinks the recession will push people to redirect their expenses toward more health-conscious pursuits: ‘When times are hard, that’s when people are looking into themselves more.’ Similarly, Dan Martin of Crossfit 305, a bare-bones fitness center that opened in a former Lemon City auto garage this past April, sees potential in the downturn. People are looking for relief from the bad news, and a good workout can do that. Manning Sumner of the just-opened Legacy Fit ‘training facility’ in Wynwood, doesn’t speculate much on the economy, but he’s confident more people would sign up for his services if they knew what was best for them in hard times. Says Sumner: ‘To be able to have a place to go to, to let go, to not have a care in the world except for sweating, letting all the stress go.’ It’s a simple equation, Sumner says: ‘Money doesn’t bring happiness. I think that health can bring happiness, make you comfortable in your own skin.’”

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