This week, I explore the changing fitness landscape, including how membership benefits are fueling a new lifestyle vision where exercise is less centric.
Soon, you may opt to join a gym or boutique fitness brand not just for exercise, but also because of the membership perks.
Gyms and fitness brands are quickly adopting new membership benefits programs to supplement their members’ lifestyles by providing exclusive or preferred access to various services focused on facials, food, travel and clothing. These programs lift the playbook from the likes of American Express and swap out the usual perks for those centered on wellness. So, instead of using an Amex to get a coveted table through Resy, a member of one of several fitness studios or gyms can use a unique discount code for their favorite nutritional delivery program.
The change began in 2023, first with Equinox. Though the high-end gym, where introductory prices start at $255 in the NYC area, has always offered perks and services like eucalyptus-infused towels and saunas, it went a step further in May 2023 when it introduced a program called Equinox Circle. Equinox Circle grants gym members access and perks to luxury brands across health tech, nutrition and travel. That includes events and product offerings from the sneaker resale site StockX, the online watch marketplace Bezel, and helicopter and seaplane company Blade.
Then, in Nov. 2023, on the other side of the spectrum, budget-friendly Planet Fitness also began offering its own perks program called “Perksfest” during the holiday shopping period. Perksfest offers special discounts and offers to AARP, Blue Apron, the Expedia travel site and Fitbit, among other partners. Most recently, in mid-January, pilates workout studio Solidcore introduced its own benefits program called Core Collective. It includes special discounts for six brands, including Milk Makeup products and Care/Of vitamin subscriptions.
Perks and benefits are also frequently entering the gym and studio space. Since May 2023, Barry’s has offered select “recovery stations,” in partnership with Therabody, on top of its pre-existing juice and smoothie bar offerings, which Equinox also has.
What has brought on this change is a mix of consumer desire, competition among fitness companies, and the general understanding that exercise is not very fun and people need motivation to keep up with it.
“A lot of people think about growth in terms of the number of studios we are opening,” said Bryan Myers, president and CEO of Pilates studio brand Solidcore. “That is certainly one way we are growing our business, but we’re also growing our business by becoming more valuable and relevant to people who already know about Solidcore.”
Solidcore, founded in 2013, has over 100 studios across the U.S., with plans to reach 250 locations within the next 2-4 years. Myers declined to share membership figures but said there are “tens of thousands” of members. Members can access the perks through their monthly Solidcore newsletter. A unique link brings them to a landing page where they can find more information about access and activation.
Elle Hvozdovic, brand marketing manager of Solidcore, said that Solidcore plans to host co-branded events with partners throughout the year and collaborate on paid-media campaigns. Solidcore has a year-long contract with its brand partners, but it is not a pay-to-play opportunity for either side. Each brand has quarterly reviews regarding opportunities to co-brand and share customers. She said the program may grow with new or additional partners over time. Myers said he’d like to be able to “deepen” the partnerships with existing brands over the long term to offer customers more benefits.
According to 2023 data from fitness studio booking software platform Xplor Mariana Tek, 60% of boutique studios offer or plan to offer wellness services within the next 1-2 years, with the majority wanting to provide nutrition services. With the sudden proliferation of Ozempic, Wegovy and other GLP-1 weight-loss, fitness companies are rethinking how to approach the traditional diet-and-exercise model. Fitness chain Life Time, for example, is piloting a program of prescribing weight loss drugs to members. And Equinox is developing fitness programs for those already prescribed the weight loss drug. Notably, Mariana Tek also found that, of the companies that use its software, those that offer wellness perks or sauna amenities have a 26% higher priced membership.
“[When it comes to] competition, the amenities that are being added to fitness studios, like smoothie bars, are what consumers want, and not having to leave the studio makes a membership even more attractive,” said Shannon Tracey, vp at Xplor Mariana Tek.
According to a 2023 report from the trade body International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, boutique fitness accounts for 42% of all gym memberships today, with an estimated growth of 17% by 2025. This is a rebound from the pandemic when 30% of studios in the U.S. permanently closed in 2021. The report also noted that consumers’ interest in “recovery amenities” like saunas and cryotherapy is a significant industry trend. But not everything has rebounded as quickly. Equinox is reportedly working with investment bank Goldman Sachs and Centerview Partners to raise more than $1 billion to refinance loans due this year. It has over $1.5 billion in debt, according to WSJ Pro. Equinox Group Chairman Harvey Spevak told Bloomberg in Oct. 2022 that Equinox expected memberships to reach 90% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of that year.
But more fitness studios are arriving daily. In addition to Solidcore’s plan to open 150 studios in the next few years, Orangetheory plans to grow internationally in the same timeframe. Planet Fitness maintained rapid growth in 2022 and 2023. Furthermore, Crunch Fitness plans to have 100 clubs by 2026, and even Nike is eyeing a boutique fitness concept called Nike Studios in partnership with FitLab.
“In this next wave of studio openings, companies are starting to get more creative about their offerings and leverage the square footage they have,” said Tracey. “In new studio openings, companies are including some of these [perks] that they hadn’t previously, like IV bars, saunas and ice baths.”
Myers added that benefits programs can also help drive new memberships and retain existing customers. He compared such efforts to frequent flyer travel rewards credit cards because they drive loyalty, brand affinity and incremental value for the consumer. Notably, the airlines behind the travel rewards credit cards have been likened to banks, as they make more money from the credit cards than they do from flying planes.
What fitness studios may evolve into is anyone’s guess, but they won’t likely resemble a traditional workout environment in the near future. Equinox’s 2024 campaign, “Want It All,” has already staked a claim on being a cornucopia of lifestyle offerings ranging from hedonistic to monastic. Since 2004, the company tagline has been, “It’s not fitness. It’s life.” Meanwhile, the simplified and small square footage of a Solidcore studio speaks to its no-nonsense approach as a workout, but leaves little opportunity for extra amenities like juice and smoothie bars and meditation studios.
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