Rise of the 10-a-month gym in the First Coast
May 06, 2012 (Menafn - The Florida Times-Union - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --When Planet Fitness opened a new gym on Old Kings Road in March, competition was not far away. Right around the corner at Philips Highway and Baymeadows Road, Just Fitness 4U draws hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people a day.
And that's not all. Within 2 miles, there's a Bailey's Powerhouse Gym, a YMCA and the Jewish Community Alliance, which has a full gym, as well.
But the fitness business in Jacksonville is becoming a busy place. Planet Fitness and Powerhouse recently opened gyms within a mile of each other on 103rd Street. LA Fitness is entering the Jacksonville market for the first time with at least four clubs under construction, including two on Atlantic Boulevard.
"Is it too many?" said Jay Kaplan, co-owner of the three Just Fitness 4U clubs in town. "I guess that's to be seen. We've done well in Jacksonville and plan to open more.
"I think we can do a total of six or eight here."
But with the competition is coming membership prices that haven't really been seen before.
Ten years ago, the average price for gym membership was 39-49, said John Atwood, who has been a consultant to the fitness industry for more than 25 years.
But prices at some clubs, like Planet Fitness and Just Fitness 4U, have dropped to as low as 10 a month even with no contract. It's just month to month.
"The health club business used to be about service," Atwood said. "But the 10 clubs have drawn a new line -- no service. Great equipment, great space, but no service.
"Just give me the equipment and let me do my thing."
For Kaplan, the lower prices have been key to his business, even when he owned several Gold's Gym franchises in Jacksonville.
"I had already started trending down," Kaplan said. "We were at 17.50, and I got a lot of flak from other owners about that."
Then he met Bill Smith, who had just founded Just Fitness 4U in Atlanta and was charging only 10 a month for a basic membership.
"I just hadn't gone far enough," Kaplan said.
Smith and Kaplan are now partners in Just Fitness 4U, a privately held company that is growing -- and growing quickly.
It has close to 50 clubs open now, but Kaplan said he expects to open about 35 more this year alone.
"We're in a major growth mode," he said. "Not a week goes by that I don't get approached by a club that is failing and wants us to buy it or a landlord who has a space."
Just Fitness' 10 monthly fee is for the most basic membership: just access to the equipment.
If you want to join classes or, as Kaplan put it, "access to anything that has a door to a room," you have to upgrade to 20 or 30 a month.
Jonathan Blake has been a Just Fitness member for two years, paying 20 a month so that he can use any of the chain's three gyms in town and bring guests.
That's far less than the 75 a month he paid in Orlando, which included an employee-plan discount.
"You get what you pay for," Blake said. "Some of the machines stay broken too long, and they're too close together. But it is cheap."
But Praga Shah, who works out at the Just Fitness Baymeadows club five days a week, said she had no complaints.
Of course, she got into a lifetime deal that now costs her 45 a year, with no contract.
"I don't believe in contracts," she said. "I got burned at a Bally's in New Jersey. But I can go to all the classes here. I'm really lucky I got it."
The key to the lower prices, Kaplan said, is obviously lots of members. His Baymeadows club may see 2,000 people on a Monday, usually the busiest day of the week.
"You have to have the larger numbers," he said. "It's definitely a volume business. But you still have to have a good product."
Atwood said that from what he's seen, there are two philosophies.
"Any club that charges 30 or more wants to get all their members to use it," he said. "They're the ones who renew, they're the ones who buy the extra services."
But with the 10 clubs, he said, clubs actually count on many members not using it. Since the monthly fees are automatically withdrawn, the customer doesn't have to pause when writing a check for a club he hasn't been to in two months.
"It's just throwaway money," Atwood said.
But Kaplan disagreed.
"If you don't come, it's 1 or 100, at some point it will click when they look at their bank account.
"If you're not coming, if you're not getting results, you're not paying," he said. "So we have to keep it fresh. It can't get old or they're gone."
The lower prices have other effects.
Blake said he knows a number of people who have more than one gym membership.
"For 40, you can have two memberships," he said. "Actually, you belong to two different gyms for 20. Go to one or go to the other."
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