As millennials become increasingly preoccupied with their physical and mental wellbeing, has the gym become the new pub?
Jo Ellison, FEBRUARY 9, 2018
An imposing corner building south of Green Park, in Piccadilly, 12 St James’s Street occupies an area associated with London’s gentlemen of leisure. It’s the home, after all, of TS Eliot’s Bustopher Jones — the “cat about town” — who had eight different clubs and white spats. The street, rich in the grandiose architecture of wealth, is studded with members-only bolt-holes.
Twelve St James’s Street also houses an exclusive club. But unlike its neighbours its allure is not in the promise of cognacs, cigars and the company of other men but in technologies designed to “redefine your potential”. E by Equinox, which opened officially last week, is a gym commanding a £500 initiation fee, plus a £350 monthly subscription, in return for sport’s most advanced innovations. Beneath the original cornicing, nestled among vast marble colonnades, runners work out in a mezzanine area, designated the Precision Running Zone, where a suite of treadmills fitted with O2 vaporisers filter out nitrogen gas to allow the body to work harder with less stress; a Pilates studio offers the Cadillac tower, from which you can balance suspended in a state of perfect spinal alignment; and an on-site valet sits ready to launder your gym kit and hand out clean towels impregnated with the tang of eucalyptus.
The dumb-bell economy is booming. Members’ clubs and boutique gyms (those smaller outfits offering specific, signature workouts via pay-as-you-go classes) are mushrooming in every metropolitan area in which affluent folk seek a spin class. They’ve become a magnet for celebrities, too: where once the paparazzi loitered outside hotel bars until the small hours hoping for a snap of someone in a state of drunken disarray, today they stalk the morning streets searching for A-listers running into Zumba lessons, or doing ballet at the barre. Drop by Barry’s Bootcamp on Euston Road on a Saturday morning, and you may well find yourself doing an hour-long “thousand-calorie workout” alongside Victoria Beckham (who, it is said, seldom breaks a sweat).
Where once consumers looked for acquisitions to express their status, our spending habits are shifting towards more holistic expenditures. In the past 20 years, the leisure industry has emerged as one of the most dynamic, disruptive and fashionable of forces. It’s all part of a new focus on the “lifestyle experience”, a trend that has possessed consumers and found luxury brands spiking with sporty new offerings — sneakers, leggings, apps and accessories — designed to harness the burgeoning market. As Harvey Spevak, the executive chairman and managing partner of the Equinox group, likes to say: “Health is the new wealth.”
David Minton, the founder and managing director of LeisureDB, who has been tracking UK consumer habits for more than 30 years, predicts the next two years will be a “golden age” of fitness. “The industry is likely to hit several milestones in 2018,” he explains. “The number of UK gyms is on course to go over 7,000 for the first time, total membership should exceed 10m, market value is expected to reach £5bn and the penetration rate should easily surpass 15 per cent. The growth will only be limited to the imagination of those pushing the boundaries.”
Likewise in the US. According to Marketwatch, Americans spent $19bn on gym memberships last year — and a further $33bn on sports equipment. But the study’s most significant feature was the scale of millennial spending: 36 per cent of 18- to 36-year-olds paid for a gym membership — twice the percentage of people older than them.
On a Wednesday lunchtime in midwinter, Equinox’s new Piccadilly outpost reflects these statistics rather well. The turnout is fairly evenly split between men and women, and most of them appear to be under 35. Some wear the hipster uniform — hoodies, man-buns, beards — others are more tidy and corporate-looking. A young woman performs a series of hanging leg lifts — up and down, up and down — with the same core strength and grace as the gymnast Simone Biles.
“They’re Type A personalities,” explains Spevak. A Bronx-born executive whose own schedule runs to three sessions a week with a personal trainer, five weekly runs on the treadmill and, when he can, a couple of SoulCycle classes, he’s fairly Type A himself. “They want it all,” he continues. “They want to figure out a way they can feel good, look good, be active, and be with like-minded individuals as well as thrive in whatever their personal objectives are . . . That could be their career, their relationship with their spouse, getting ready for their wedding, or post-divorce. It runs the range. Everybody’s got their own objectives. But our mission is helping people maximise the potential within themselves, and nobody does a better job at that than we do.”
Part of the US-based Equinox portfolio, E by Equinox is the second of the group’s standalone gyms of its type — the first opened in Kensington in 2012 — and the most expensive. Further Equinox fitness clubs will open in Shoreditch and Bishopsgate in late 2019. According to Spevak, the club offers “full-service luxury fitness using science-based research to create an experience that satisfies a high-performance lifestyle”. He wouldn’t mind at all if I described it as the Hermès of the exercise world.
Spevak has spent 25 years working in the leisure sector. He was an early gym pioneer. At Equinox, he oversees a portfolio that also includes Blink Fitness, a more accessible gym that operates 65 clubs across the US, and SoulCycle, the cult exercise boutique they purchased in 2011, and which currently operates 84 US outposts (it will arrive in London soon). Last month, they bought a minority stake in Rumble, a boxing boutique whose unique selling points are their “teardrop-shaped, water-filled” training bags and a “premium nightclub quality sound system”. It currently has two branches in New York.
As a privately owned company, Spevak won’t disclose the numbers, but business is brisk: Equinox’s 92 clubs currently have about 350,000 global members, who spend a “blended average” of about $3,500 each year. Blink Fitness is closing in on almost 400,000 members spending about $250 a year. Spevak will spend a further $1bn “in fresh capital” on reinvestment and expansion over the next five years. “We’ve always been a high-growth company,” says Spevak. “And high growth as we see it means growing 10 to 15 per cent from a profit perspective. That’s how we’ve grown for years, and that’s how we continue to grow.”
Meanwhile, next year will see the first Equinox hotel opening in New York’s Hudson Yards, the first in a rollout of Equinox hotels earmarked for billions more in investment. The hotels will be founded on the same full-service ideal as the clubs. “Our vision for the hotels is to cater to the high-performance traveller,” says Spevak, “and we think about it as we do, historically, from a science perspective. We call it MNR — movement, nutrition and recovery — where a high-performance lifestyle and a healthy lifestyle is a three-legged stool.” The clubs will also be a key feature of the hotels, where local members will be encouraged to work out with hotel guests in order to curate a more “authentic” traveller experience. “Because, if you think about it,” says Spevak, “nobody wants to hang out in the hotel restaurant or the hotel lobby with another business traveller.”
Twenty-five years ago, it was a different story. In 1999, investors weren’t interested in building gyms. “When I went to landlords and to investors, trying to raise capital, they would say to us, ‘You’re in a fad business, I don’t believe you’re going to exist in the future,’ ” says Spevak. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of stickiness in the gym world. “It was very mom-and-pop-y,” he continues, “and the financial and real estate community just didn’t want unstable business in their space. They didn’t want something that connoted something that they didn’t feel good about.”
Sitting in St James’s, in an area unparalleled for its grand associations, it’s clear how far that attitude has shifted. In the current landscape, businesses clamber over themselves to advertise their proximity to clubs. The gym has become a landmark feature in areas looking to gentrify and regenerate. And we’re all signing up. No question, millennials have had a profound influence on this new enthusiasm for exercise. As pubs continue to close at a rate of 29 a week, according to the Campaign for Real Ale, the culture of leisure is changing. That young people today prefer to sweat pints than to sink them is a fact we must consider. A study conducted by the student letting app SPCE last year found drink featuring last on the list of student expenditures, with 18 per cent of the 2,000 people asked saying they spent nothing on alcohol at all.
Additionally, as our lives have become busier, atomised and more urban, the gym has emerged as the new place in which to gather: to be part of a community. As Minton points out, not only are millennials more likely to buy gym memberships, they’re driving the boutique business as well. The rise of the group workout, club membership and all of the attendant accessories that come with it have become part of the new language of “wellness”. Self-care is now considered a luxury indulgence, and one’s club the new status symbol.
“Today’s consumer has an insatiable appetite for healthy living, or — as we call it — high-performance living,” says Spevak. “And that is a dramatic change from 25 years ago. If you were a health nut in 1995, you probably went to the gym twice a week. Today, being a health nut means taking two classes a day. The consumer wants to be healthy and feel good and look good. And you don’t just see it in our category, you see it in beauty and skincare. You see it manifesting itself in so many different ways.”
Where you work out, who you work out with, and what you wear to work out in have become totems of fashionability. Spevak traces the first shoots of the wellness trend to 9/11, when he saw a jump in the number of people becoming focused on holistic health and taking care of themselves. The proliferation of gyms in the years after was also a product of the 2008 recession, which opened a swath of prime real estate the new leisure entrepreneurs could exploit.
But more than anything, the fitness boom must be a corollary of a digital revolution in which working out has become a ubiquitous feature of our online life; our social media feeds are saturated with videos and images of people doing dance classes, or advanced yoga poses, or supping post workout smoothies. Podcasts proliferate with meditation guides, sleep guides and inspirational lectures to make us more active. The gym hashtag has become a key signifier of a tribal society seeking to identify itself as part of a gang. Could one of the weirder ironies of phone addiction, and our increasing self-absorption, be to make us more health-conscious? As if to speak to precisely that point, I observe a young gym-goer in a crop top and leggings flashing selfies as she readies to work out.
“People go to the gym because they want to identify with the people they see there,” says Spevak. It’s presumably this same instinct — to engage and be seen as being part of something — that possesses a world-famous star such as Beyoncé or Victoria Beckham, who could afford to build state-of-the-art gyms in their basement, to attend group classes in public instead. “While we believe the home experience is growing, it’s a compliment,” says Spevak. “But at home you don’t get the chance to be with your community; and your community could be your bestie, or your partner. Or just like-minded people that you want to hang out with.”
Minton agrees that a gym’s success depends on cultivating this tribal loyalty, delivering a unique experience and then selling product that marks its members out. “Some of the most interesting clubs are those that are expanding into less obvious areas,” he says. “We now have over 600 boutiques across the UK and they are growing faster than traditional gyms as they have a smaller footprint and can take pop-up spaces. One of the best examples is Boom Cycle at the Curtain hotel [in east London].” The club takes over the hotel’s nightclub during the day, “and then morphs back into a club at night”.
The experiential market is throwing a lifeline to retailers, as well. “The fashion link is growing,” adds Minton. “Fitness apparel brands like Lululemon, Sweaty Betty, Reebok, Nike all now offer free in-store workouts, which provide them with an opportunity to market their brand lifestyles more directly and forge a connection with the consumer.”
The E by Equinox tribe is a crack elite. At the bar, an alpha type with hipster hair takes a conference call with his New York office. At the club’s food bar, Munch Fit, women choose between protein smoothies with ingredients such as acai, cashew butter and whey protein. Post-valet, they are dressed in the designer wardrobe of the super-wealthy: all Dolce & Gabbana and Chanel bags — one is enveloped in a huge Balenciaga shearling throw. Such a material display of wealth seems incongruous where one’s status is more often insinuated via the tier of trainer you chose to work with and how often you like to be embalmed in a cryogenic wrap.
On a wall near the entrance sits a range of branded sportswear, T-shirts and water bottles all marked with the Equinox stamp. I wonder whether a water bottle might one day surpass the handbag as a status symbol? “The demise of retail is a permanent shift,” says Spevak. “It doesn’t mean retail’s going to go away, but it’s going to look very different. The consumer, in my opinion, will continue to buy nice things for themselves, but I think in the scheme of priorities the experience is more important than the handbag.”
In the distance, a now-familiar whirr from the mezzanine announces the start of another oxygen-rich run. Eucalyptus infuses the air. The scent of wellness is very rich indeed.
Original Article - Financial Times