Shaping up: How Ireland's gym industry is going from strength to strength
With Irish people increasingly focused on their health and fitness a new range of gyms are using ever-more innovative strategies to tap a growing market
In the heart of Sandyford, south Dublin, sits a facility made of corrugated steel and concrete blocks decorated in bold colours. Inside is a community of people dedicated to exercise, something that has rapidly become almost a new religion.
When Raw Gyms opened in 2008 it was one of the first of its kind to cater to the demands of high-intensity niches such as body building. It has gone on to become one of the most recognisable brands in the country and will later this week open a two-storey underground facility with a twist in Donnybrook.
It is one of many businesses targeting a range of people with 'boutique' exercise propositions.
The company is tapping into the new worker bee mentality, the same train of thought that has driven down the level of alcohol consumption among young Irish people.
"Donnybrook will be something completely different and unseen in the Irish market to date," says Raw's marketing manager, Sinead Kavanagh, of the company's latest location.
"We're going a lot more premium, it's going to be a mix between a gym and a nightclub and it's taking a sense of what New York and London gyms are like.
"There's nothing here like it. We'll be two floors below ground, and we'll have live DJ sets going on and we'll have night-club neon style lighting. It's going towards making fitness fun again."
While the idea of a live DJ in a gym might sound like a gimmick, more and more brands are using in-house DJs with even Nike's 'Niketown' store in London boasting its own DJ.
Kavanagh insists the DJ is part of the brand's bid to make the exercising experience more communal and inviting.
She says the gym's community is already very strong but that integrating the social and fitness elements will open the doors to far more potential members. It doesn't hurt either that the new premises will sit just down the road from Facebook's Fibonnacci Square development, the single-largest office letting in the history of the State.
"What we've always been known for is our sense of community. We were here on Christmas day and this place was packed, people come in and train with their friends and then they all sit in the communal area and chat," she says.
Raw is looking at an additional five new gyms within the next three or four years and they're far from the only investors eyeing growth in the sector.
According to a recent study from Deloitte and not-for-profit EuropeActive, 500,000 people are members of 710 health and fitness clubs in Ireland, with an average of 704 members per club. Ireland's members per club ratio is one of the lowest in Europe, with the top 10 operators accounting for a fifth of all members in the country.
One leading player is FlyeFit, a network of gyms that lets people work out wherever they like for €31 a month. It has become the fastest-growing chain in the country with 60,000 members in total. Since starting in 2011, 14 premises have opened with another two planned this year.
A spokesman says it plans on opening another five a year "into the future" with each gym costing around €2m to establish.
"Our gyms are generally 20,000 sq ft in size with each gym fitted out to a premium standard and packed with the latest and highest quality equipment so members get to enjoy the best workouts and results," he said.
"We opened our 14th location on Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork, which is indicative of our plans to expand outside of Dublin. We're going to continue opening in city centre and suburban locations. The expansion has been financed organically by a combination of shareholder funds, bank debt provided by AIB, and retained profits."
FlyeFit's co-founders and majority shareholders Brendan O'Hagan and Sé Kennedy are low key but have backgrounds in a ranges of businesses including telecoms, property and distribution.
The company's most recent accounts for the 2017 financial year showed a 50pc bump in sales to €8.7m and a profit of €1.6m. Now one of the best-known brands in Dublin, Flyefit has also attracted the interest of Paul Keenan's corporate finance business Capnua, which is now a shareholder in the business.
Flyefit's continued expansion in the budget gym sector has certainly gotten under the skin of high-profile businessman Ben Dunne who has been in the gym business since 1987. Hardly a day goes by where the airwaves aren't treated to Dunne's radio ads, which lay down the gauntlet to Flyefit directly, proudly boasting of his gyms' €20-a-month price tag.
But his competition is not just the indigenous gym groups - it's international rivals."The hardest thing to do is to monitor ourselves against the English and European gyms," Dunne said.
"The going price for one of their gyms is about €20 to €23. I run our business taking into account that our Vat rate, which is currently at 9pc, will eventually rise to 21pc and you want to be able to compete with them when they come in."
Dunne said that anyone who believed the reduced 9pc Vat rate on gyms was going to stay for the long haul had their "head in the sand". The former Dunnes Stores boss compared the cyclical nature of gyms to the retail sector where the period either side of Christmas was at its most busy. But he says that's beginning to change.
"Much like retail, if you have the wrong merchandise, you won't do business. The equipment that's being used today is completely different to what it once was," he says,
"Classes are very important and you need to be able to strike a good mix between males and females, because it's becoming a place where people meet people."
Dunne has 10 gyms in his network with another two opening next year.
"Our plan is top open up more gyms in the Dublin area because you need population. You can open a gym down the country and have 3,000 members but if you open one in the right area in Dublin you can have 6,000."
He spends around €800,000 fitting out his premises and has set his sights on another 10 in Dublin in the coming years, which should greatly boost his member count from its current 53,000 level.
Dunne said there is plenty of room for growth for more of the population to begin exercising more regularly, insisting that Ireland "has a climate where it's far more comfortable to work out indoors than out".
He also left the door open to a potential exit from the gym business in its entirety.
"What I think will happen is that an overseas brand will come in here and buy some existing businesses out, that could include mine," he says. "I'm a businessman, so I'm open to suggestions."
The exercise revolution has sparked the development of numerous franchises too, from CrossFit to F45, all of which looking to make people healthier and happier. Australian-based F45 is the fastest-growing franchise. It offers a high-intensity 45 minute workout with 27 variations and has become wildly popular. It offers franchisees a low-cost barrier to entry and access to premium equipment and one Irish business has landed a bumper contract to provide the software for its 1,500 studios.
"The common theme is that group exercise and the experience that comes with boutique fitness is very strong," Glofox founder Conor O'Loughlin says.
"The boutique franchises are similar to what you see in retail and restaurant chains where the offer more durable business models. You can charge a premium for these offerings too because it's more personalised. These concepts can be quite profitable on 300 to 400 member because their outgoings are quite small."
O'Loughlin's business has just completed a €10m fundraising to back its expansion into the US. Glofox provides specialised gym software for the boutique industry. It has reported 200pc year-on-year growth over the last five years. The former Connacht rugby player also has some fairly ambitious goals for the business.
"Getting to the other side of a fundraise requires a lot of effort and it nearly becomes a full-time job in itself, so I'm looking forward to getting my life back," he says.
"In terms of our ambition and what we can achieve, if we can bring in some large accounts we potentially might not need to do another raise. For us, we see a path to an initial public offering in the next four to five years, which may be a potential exit for our current investors."
He says that Glofox has only "scratched the surface" and said that there is a huge growing market for boutique fitness offerings, all of whom will need software to manage their customers.
One such offering is BikeRowSki, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Founded by Stephen Weinmann in late 2018, the class monitors users' heart-rates in a heated room to help people get the most out of their session.
"We opened our first studio in August 2018 and our next four franchise locations are opening in Glasnevin, Balbriggan and Fairview in Dublin, and Douglas in Cork this summer," Weinmann says.
"We have had interest from overseas in the UK, the US, and as far as Russia but we are focusing on the Irish fitness market first."
He says the industry has never been as "busy and exciting" as it is now and that the traditional market has changed in recent years due to the "rise in popularity of the boutique fitness experience".
Weinmann's offering is testament to Ireland's new exercise industry. A whole of new businesses have emerged that have contorted themselves to service the niche needs and desires of the evolving population.
The shared and social aspect of classes has completely changed the way people exercise. Once limited to team sports, the "we're all in this together idea" has now proliferated itself through modern day fitness.
One industry that was once viewed as intimidating, and exclusive, having a gym membership is a must-have for a new generation of health and body conscious consumers.
Sunday Indo Business