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Bisnow’s 2019 Guide To Losing Those Christmas Pounds (And Avoiding The Impending Boutique Fitness Club Bubble)

The festive period is over, and so comes to an end a time when most of us have overindulged in booze, chocolate and gravy-drenched roast meat. And so, thoughts turn to how to shed that holiday flab.

Increasingly, Londoners are using boutique fitness clubs to stay trim. According to data firm Leisure DB, the number of boutique fitness studios in London increased by 28% to 278 between 1 January and 31 October 2018. That number has shot up by 281% in the past five years.

But the sector could well be at a turning point. Some brands are performing well and expanding consistently. But intense competition from new brands trying to enter the market is pushing up rents, and the first signs of a bubble similar to that seen in the restaurant sector could be emerging.

The Red Room at Barry's Bootcamp, Manchester

“We’re now seeing more of these kinds of requirements than ever,” Savills head of leisure David Bell said.

New operators are looking to enter the market and existing names are expanding. New names set to come to the UK in 2019 include Sweat 1000, a South African operator that also has a presence in the U.S. American spinning giant SoulCycle is set to make its long-awaited UK debut. 

Among existing brands, Aussie-run F45 is the largest in London with 21 branches, according to Leisure DB. It operates a franchise model and, advised by Savills, it is looking to expand further in London and the rest of the UK. Another big U.S. name, Barry’s Bootcamp, recently upped its number of London sites from four to five with a new studio in Canary Wharf. It has also opened its first site outside London with a studio in Manchester, and is looking for locations in Birmingham and Dublin.

The appeal of boutique fitness studios for users and property owners is clear. For the typical time-poor but cash-rich urbanite, they fulfil a need: They are not cheap, with classes often priced around the £20 mark or higher, but offer the chance to burn a lot of calories in a short space of time.

And they offer what has become the nirvana of the retail and leisure sector: experience. At their best, boutique fitness studios offer a nicer experience than hitting the gym — the workout is intense and targeted, led by a trained instructor, and the studios themselves are often design-led and cool, with changing rooms offering fancy shower gel and cafés serving post-workout smoothies.

For property owners, fitness studios provide a different offering to traditional retail or food and beverage, and can solve the problem of what to do with difficult bits of buildings, such as basements or other areas without windows.

But Bell said that as the market heats up, the economics for operators are becoming more challenging.

Riders at a SoulCycle class

“A lot of people are aggressively expanding, the amount of space available is limited and competition is fierce, so it is simple supply and demand,” he said. “People miss out on one site and so they are willing to pay more for the next one.”

Some fitness companies are paying £250K to £300K in rent, plus service charges on top of that, Bell said.

“When rates and service charge are included then for leisure operators London real estate can be the most expensive in the world, so there is a process of education that is going on.”

The number of paying customers any one studio can host at any one time is fixed, so the only way to improve margins is to increase prices. But while the typically young, fitness-conscious city dweller targeted by these operators does have disposable income, there is only so much they are willing to pay. And as choice increases it becomes harder to raise prices — there are almost 16,000 boutique fitness classes in London each week, according to Leisure DB.

“We’ve seen it before in the F&B market,” Bell said of the dangers of brands overpaying for real estate.

Several restaurant chains were forced to close sites in the UK last year after overpaying for real estate.

“Some operators are going to get burned,” Bell said. 

He said some operators are already shutting sites and looking to sub-lease them to other operators, although he declined to say which ones.

With that in mind, operators are evolving. Brands focused on a single type of exercise are diversifying. Spinning brand Psycle is adding yoga and other forms of fitness and wellness classes at its Mortimer Street site to differentiate it in an increasingly crowded field.

There is room for growth for operators that get it right. But it is not getting any easier.

Just. So. Much. Sweat.

Now, Bisnow has never been afraid of a challenge, so in order to properly report on the London boutique fitness scene, Bisnow UK editor Mike Phillips tried out some of the studios expanding in the capital, with fitness nut Bell as his guide.

Bisnow CEO Will Friend also roped him into a workout which is not yet a boutique concept, but may well be soon. Warning: It will make you hurt in ways you didn’t even know were possible.


First up was Barry’s Bootcamp, in its studio on Queensway in West London. Barry’s mixes running with weight training, switching between the two disciplines which you undertake with ascending levels of intensity. All this takes place in a studio called The Red Room. Bronte fans will remember that Jane Eyre is locked in the Red Room and becomes hysterical, but the room is symbolic of her inner power. That sounds about right.

Bell is an old hand, having visited Barry’s several times. He set his treadmill at least 20% faster than mine, and chatted happily to the person next to him, while I tried not to fall off in front of the good-looking patrons of West London.

Instructor Miles was too polished and smooth to resemble a bootcamp-type drill sergeant, but the workout did the job, leaving me dripping with sweat and sore for days afterward.

Barry’s is clearly aiming for a high-end vibe — you get a reviving smoothie as part of the price, and the changing facilities are stocked with spa-style showers and fancy toiletries.

Bisnow's Mike Phillips and Savills' David Bell flanking trainer Tim from F45 Tottenham Court Road

F45 on Tottenham Court Road is not aiming for the same type of luxury experience, but the workout was even more brutal, combining elements of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, and circuit training.

Around 20 people packed into a small room with two instructors, who are constantly up in your grill imploring you to work harder, leaving you nowhere to hide. Aussie instructor Tim found the right balance between support and torture, and by the end of the session I felt I needed to be removed from the floor with a mop I was so sweaty, although again Bell didn’t seem to have the same issues.

The final leg of Bisnow’s mini London fitness tour came courtesy of Bisnow CEO Will Friend and his younger brother John, a civil servant and reservist in the British Army's IV Battalion Parachute Regiment, who is one of the most disgustingly fit people you could ever encounter.

The trio headed to Battersea Park to undertake 'The Murph', a workout with a sad but inspiring backstory. It was the favourite workout of Lieutenant Michael Murphy, a U.S. Navy Seal who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005. A foundation in his honour has raised more than $1M for charity, with people participating in an annual Murph challenge.

Bisnow's Mike Phillips and Will Friend

The workout itself involves undertaking a 1 mile run followed by 100 pull ups, 200 press ups, 300 squats and another 1 mile run — all wearing a 20-pound weight vest or 20 pounds of body armour, just in case it wasn’t hard enough already.

The first run was uncomfortable but not too hard. The exercises are broken down into 20 sets of five pull ups, 10 push ups and 15 squats. Again, the first couple of sets were not too tough, but after that for me it became about making it through without losing too much face in front of my boss and someone who has trained to become an elite solider at a moment's notice. Long after your intrepid reporter switched to knees-down push ups, and pull ups that involved jumping from the ground rather than any actual pulling up, John Friend was cracking out perfect pull ups and trying to beat his personal best time.

Will Friend is clearly more adept at this, only switching to easy press ups at the end, providing a mid-point between the two extremes.

As a novice the workout leaves you hurting not just for a few days, but at least a week afterward, and quite possibly causes the immune system to quit, based on the fact that illness struck me soon afterward. But it is well worth the effort.