The UAE population’s increasing awareness of fitness has had a knock-on effect, with gyms of various sizes and specialities mushrooming across the country. From boutique boxing gyms to cycling studios, calisthenics centres and sprawling warehouse-style chains, residents are spoilt for choice when it comes to picking their method and place for getting into shape.
For Patrick Hegarty, who owns Vogue Fitness, there are three primary factors behind the rise in fitness interest over the past five years: The introduction of compulsory national service for Emirati men, initiatives propelled by the country’s leadership, and education.
“The [national service] has helped inspire Emiratis adopting fitness into their lifestyle earlier in life, and the discipline of the military has provided a lot of the Emirati population with a very positive attitude toward maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle.”
“The [national service] has helped inspire Emiratis adopting fitness into their lifestyle earlier in life, and the discipline of the military has provided a lot of the Emirati population with a very positive attitude toward maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle.” The country’s leaders are also playing a part. “For example, Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of Dubai Sports Council, at the Gov Games.” Hegarty also points to the growing culture of education and understanding of health and fitness in the UAE, where people are now able to make better choices to lead a higher quality of life.
“Healthy people cost much less to insure, and employers and insurers have finally realised that they can trim insurance costs by incentivising healthy lifestyles.”
Naresh Moolchandani, COO of Fitness 360, cites another initiative spearheaded by Shaikh Hamdan — last year’s 30x30 Dubai Fitness Challenge, which challenged UAE residents to get at least 30 minutes’ exercise for 30 consecutive days. He also cites health insurance costs as a driver for people aiming to get fitter. “Healthy people cost much less to insure, and employers and insurers have finally realised that they can trim insurance costs by incentivising healthy lifestyles.”
Additionally, advances in wearable consumer technology have made it easier for us to track the amount of effort we put out, its impact on our body and long-term data — all in real time.
Tech muscles in
“Data that was previously only available to professional athletes is now accessible to anyone via the click of a button on their wrist or in their hand.
Loren Holland and Frank Afeaki, co-founders of GymNation, believe technology has fundamentally changed the way people exercise, with members at their two gyms, which operate 24/7, enjoying access to more data on their own bodies and physical activity than ever before. “Data that was previously only available to professional athletes is now accessible to anyone via the click of a button on their wrist or in their hand. We have just entered into a partnership with Fitbit and are witnessing the demand for wearable tech first-hand. This is a huge plus as now members will be able to see their progress in numbers and become more selective on gyms, workouts, classes or equipment.”
Moolchandani says smartphones and wearable trackers have changed the way we exercise through three major factors: Personalisation, awareness and interaction. “The ability for people to see how many steps they are taking in a day, how many calories they burn, what their heart rate is, or what their blood pressure is, is making them much more in tune with how their body works and how they can improve their health. It’s one of the major reasons for human awareness and fitness in the 21st century.”
Hegarty, though, says data isn’t necessarily a game-changer. “People can fall into a trap of thinking the technology will help get them fit. While this might be temporarily true by providing short-term motivation, if you haven’t set this as a part of a broader and sustainable fitness lifestyle, the device will only end up sitting expensively on the shelf.
“Vogue Fitness has taken a simplistic and sustainable approach to wearable technology. Across all of our fitness centres, you only need a single app to book your class, view the schedule, see the workout and automatically get your biometric results after each class.”
Gyms in the UAE used to promote themselves via print ads, radio spots, word of mouth and referral schemes. Social media — and Instagram, in particular — have fundamentally changed the gym promo game. “When owning a health club, fitness studio, or personal training business, client attraction and retention becomes the highest priority,” explains Moolchandani. “There are hundreds of ways to do this, from referral campaigns to advertising. But social media is a particularly effective channel that has two huge advantages over traditional marketing: it’s cost-efficient and easy to measure.”
GymNation co-founders say, “Social media provides a fantastic platform to not only showcase our facilities and gym environment to potential new members but also engage and interact with current members. Social media platforms are increasingly being used as customer service channels, so having a system in place that can respond quickly and with detailed information is imperative. Social media accounts today are what shop windows were to businesses in the past.”
Unlike shop windows in traditional brick-and-mortar stores, social media allows the customers to make themselves the product, which is why Moolchandani advises: “Promote your audience, not your brand.”
However, fitness centres have a responsibility to be honest in their social media communication, says Hegarty. “There are a lot of influencers and companies that portray a very different story to their actual reality. People are now learning to see through a lot of the falseness on social media. Let your social media be an actual representation of your brand, not a fairytale that only disappoints people when they walk through the door.”
Ripe for expansion
“We like to be five minutes from where you work or five minutes from where you live and we’ve achieved that, especially in the UAE market.”
For George Flooks, CEO of Fitness First Middle East, one of the aims of business growth is simple: “We like to be five minutes from where you work or five minutes from where you live and we’ve achieved that, especially in the UAE market.” His chain operates 60 clubs across the region, so the goal might not require a Herculean effort — unlike a group exercise class.