In a basement gym in the south of Mumbai, music channels blare on flat screen televisions, as four young men work out late on a Saturday night – part of a new rising middle-class in India that is committed to staying in shape.
“A lot of people are getting more health conscious,” says Dinesh Bhandari, 47, a trainer at the Rs13,500 ($218) per year club. “Socially, everyone wants to look good.”
Be it an obsession with the lithe actresses and burly actors of Bollywood, or a combination of rising disposable incomes and growing awareness of health issues, demand for gyms is growing in Asia’s third-largest economy.
India’s fitness and slimming industry is expected to rise from Rs60bn in 2012 to at least Rs100bn in 2015, according to research from consultants PwC and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), with global gym operators looking to capture a larger chunk of the market.
This week Fitness First, the UK-based chain, announced ambitious plans to invest Rs1.6bn over the next five years adding 30 new clubs to its existing network of seven gyms. “There is probably an inflection point,” says Andy Cosslett, chief executive. “The time is right now to move faster.”
Global groups, including gym operators such as Gold’s Gym and hotel chains such as Sofitel, which open their fitness centres to members, compete with a number of more traditional fitness services in India– from private yoga instructors to old world gymkhanas, private members’ clubs with extensive sports facilities.
Global gym brands have not adapted their services much for local audiences. Consumers want much the same thing as peers abroad, they say, while many local competitors offer dingy facilities with basic equipment.
However, Fitness First has found that its users in India are drawn to the social aspect of exercise. About one-third of visits involve group training – far more than in the UK and other developed markets – a figure that is rising as the group tailors its menu of classes to Indian tastes.
“We have indoor cycling classes that have their own specific music that links to beats per minute,” says Vikram Aditya Bhatia, managing director of Fitness First in India. “But here very clearly they want the latest Bollywood music . . . they just want to scream and shout.”
As international gym operators muscle into the Indian industry, offering premium clubs in a handful of major cities, local rivals have ambitious plans of their own, often opening smaller, low-cost gyms on a model that can be rolled out further afield.
Prashant Talwalkar, whose grandfather founded Talwalkars Better Value Fitness, the listed chain of health centres, is using a franchise model to expand the group’s network of 150 branches to 500 within three years.
“The international players came in and opened these huge sizes [of club], their capital expenditure was brilliantly high,” he says. “There are not many people to fill that.”
Talwalkars’ range of 17 new HiFi gyms can be as small as 3,000 square feet and operate in cities with a population as low as 300,000.
Growing beyond India’s big cities raises fresh challenges, however, as gyms struggle to attract thriftier Indian consumers while battling to find convenient locations amid the country’s expensive real estate market.
“The Indian mindset is that I want it long-term and I want a good deal,” says G Ramachandran, director of Gold’s Gym in India, explaining that annual memberships are more common than monthly payments.
The chain adjusts fees from some Rs30,000 per year in large cities such as Mumbai to between Rs15,000 and Rs18,000 in smaller towns. And Gold’s Gym tackles India’s unaffordable rents using flexible structures, negotiating with landlords to pay a fixed baseline rent plus a share of its revenues.
“In India if there’s a drawback in the metros it’s the real estate,” Mr Ramachandran adds. “It’s a wrong notion to say the costs are very low.”
A shortage of standardised training courses for fitness instructors means labour is another major concern. Local groups are often forced to hire inexperienced staff and open training academies, spending time and money educating new hires.
Fitness First, for example, must expand its team of 170 personal trainers to 320 in order to meet its ambitious expansion plans, and began training a month and a half ago for a club due to open in February.
“We are very worried because this industry is coming up and growing and we don’t think this should go beyond control,” says Rajpal Singh, director at Ficci. “If there are no trained instructors they may harm more than they train.”
Given the backdrop of strained gender relations in India, it is surprising that women make up almost half the market for many gym operators today.
Women’s beauty and fitness services took off in the early 1990s in India, following the rise of the beauty pageants and icons such as Miss World, Aishwarya Rai.
With men dominating the public gym and a paucity of female personal trainers, fitness centres were forced to offer specialised services for women.
Talwalkars Better Value Fitness, the popular Indian chain of health clubs, had set times of day when the club was closed to male members and other facilities exclusively for women.
Today, however, few gyms have gender specific facilities, as India’s rising middle-class is drawn by the social aspect of working out.
“The women who are now coming to the gym are the younger generation and they love to mingle with the men,” says G Ramachandran, director of Gold’s Gym in India.
In premium clubs such as Fitness First, there is almost an even split of male and female members, while 40 per cent of members are female at Talwalkars, a more affordable local chain.
Gyms are attracting young women eager to get in shape much like their peers overseas. But it is among the older generation that gym membership is skewed as India’s aunties (an affectionate term for middle-aged women) remain reluctant to sign up.
“The over-forties are slightly hesitant because they’ve put on a lot of weight and they feel shy,” Mr Ramachandran adds.
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