Survival of the Fittest

It is not yet 8am. But at Slim Jim’s executive gymnasium and squash club the first City gents of the day are already sweating and straining through a circuit of exercises under the supervision of Ossie Grant, a former Notts County footballer. At the strident instructions – “Start”, “Five seconds to go”, “Stop” – of a tape-recorded sergeant-major, Britain’s new breed of lean and hungry businessmen move from trunk-curls to leg-presses, ski-jumps to step-ups.

As befits a former soldier, Nick Chamberlin, the owner, runs Slim Jim’s with military precision. He says: “You can’t afford to fool around in this business. Everything has to be spot-on. Our members work hard. They travel hard. They make a lot of money for themselves and their companies. They expect high standards. If they don’t get them they will go elsewhere.”

The Chamberlin formula – which included free towels, robes and toiletries, and inhouse laundry, hairdressing and massage service – clearly works. A few weeks ago, the gym moved from London Wall to bigger premises in Finsbury Avenue, and Chamberlin says he is well on target to expand membership from 750 to 1,400.

But the gyms that didn’t work are to be found throughout Britain. They range from the multi-story Hannibal’s club just off London’s Regent Street, now for sale, to possibly hundreds of high street dance centers that opened during the aerobics craze.

Health and fitness are big business. Bill Martin of Leisure Consultants says the revenue from the country’s 1,500 health centers is more than pounds 50m and they are regularly attended by more than 500,000. About 80% of them opened in the past five years. “There’s still big potential for growth,” he says. “Britain has a long way to catch up on, say, the United States.”

But it is also a risky business, according to a recent report by Leisure Consultants. The reasons are changing fashions, more discriminating customers and poor management. In leisure as in other businesses, it’s the survival of the fittest.

“Too many clubs are run by real amateurs,” says Robert Upsdall, whose company, Leisure Developments Ltd, recently bought a failed Hampstead club, which after renovation will reopen next month as the Ragdale Health Club. Before buying he looked at more than 60 clubs.

“Too often the health sector attracts those with an enthusiasm for fitness rather than an aptitude for business,” he says.

“One of two things can happen, either people spend an awful lot of money and find they simply cannot get the membership to support the facilities, or they get the formula wrong. It is important to decide where your market is.”

That’s especially important in London, where competition is fierce. Among the latest arrivals at the top end of the market are the Aquilla and Gleneagles clubs, part of the Rembrandt and New Piccadilly hotels with annual membership fees of pounds 750 and pounds 900 respectively.

questions who will pay such prices. With fees of pounds 195 a year, Slim Jim’s is competing in the middle of the market, against clubs like Cannon’s, near Cannon Street railway station. His gym prospers, he says, because it remains select and serious, and refuses to compromise on standards. “We will not play the numbers game, seeking members.”

Despite the high failure rate among health clubs, competition seems certain to intensify. Several hotel chains are adding health clubs to their premises, for the benefit of both residents and the community.

says the big brewers are thinking, too, of adding small gyms to their pubs. “Why not? Pubs often have plenty of room available and they have to recognize that they will not survive merely as placed where people rest their elbows.” Keepfit floors replacing the pool tables? “Quite possible,” says Bill Martin.

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