Over a decade ago, gyms or fitness centers in Lebanon evoked images of steroid pumped men grunting loudly while lifting heavy weights, or leotard clad women enjoying aerobics classes led by smiley and energetic trainers with questionable training abilities. The Lebanese fitness industry has since grown significantly, inspired by global trends of wellness and healthy living. This growth stretches across the industry and manifests itself in the increased number of fitness centers, the variety of sports activities available and the rising awareness of the importance of hiring certified trainers.
Growth in fitness
Emile Baroody, Vice President of Baroody Group sal, a sports company established in 1912 which represents Technogym, a commercial fitness equipment brand, places the industry’s annual growth at about 15 to 20 percent over the last five years, based on his own estimates.
Naji Saliba, managing director of Young Trading Co, established in 1997, which represents Life Fitness, an American brand of commercial use fitness equipment, also cites significant growth over the past three years, naming at least four gyms which have opened in Beirut and Mount Lebanon in the last three years.
Components of the industry
The fitness industry is divided into two main categories. One is the purchasing of equipment for residential, personal use. The second is commercial use and is itself divided into various subcategories including hotel gyms, corporate gyms, fitness facilities in residential compounds and health clubs.
The use of fitness facilities in residential compounds is the one that has seen the most growth since 2009, according to Saliba. Both Saliba and Baroody list more than ten residential developments which have bought fitness equipment for the residents’ gym and Saliba places the budget for these gyms at $100,000 each.
The latest trend in commercial fitness equipment is for it to be technologically connected overseas
Speaking of hotel gyms, Saliba says this particular sub market has not witnessed a significant growth because no major hotels have opened in Lebanon in recent years. Baroody says that, with the exception of the five star or international names, hotels in Lebanon do not view their fitness room as an important revenue source for their outlet and as such do not invest in good quality fitness equipment, preferring instead to buy cheaper Chinese brands or second hand machines. “It is a short term vision because in the long run, clients will appreciate hotels with a professional quality gym,” admits Baroody, adding that some five star hotels in Lebanon make money out of their hotel gym by opening it up to non-guests for an annual membership fee.
Increased interest in fitness centers
Fitness centers remain the biggest category of commercial fitness in Lebanon, with Saliba placing 90 percent of the country’s gyms in Beirut, Mount Lebanon and the North up to Tripoli.
Patrick Bejjani, founder of 4 Actions Academy which educates and certifies fitness and personal trainers, has a long history in the health club industry, starting out as a trainer before establishing 4 Actions in 2011. Bejjani finds that, in general, the Lebanese show a greater interest in attending health clubs and training sessions today than they did in past years. “There is definitely more interest in working out. You see it in the increased number of gym memberships, in the social media posts of people using the gyms and in the general vibe of wanting to be healthy,” says Bejjani. Saliba believes this growth in the fitness club business is led by women who are working out more now, especially with personal trainers.
Investing in fitness
Because fitness equipment for commercial use is built to last at least ten years, it is not cheap, with both Saliba and Baroody placing the cost of machines between $5,000 and $25,000, depending on the specifications and how technologically advanced the equipment is.
Baroody explains that, while five years ago the most important criteria for gym operators in selecting machines was the cost and length of the warranty, today they prefer instead to base their selections on their gym’s needs, such as safety of the machine, its durability and its entertainment options.
The latest trend in commercial fitness equipment is for it to be technologically connected overseas, with Saliba explaining that Life Fitness machines are now networked to the main office in the USA so that whenever a malfunction occurs, Headquarters informs the local representative first. Technology and entertainment are also central components of gym equipment selection, with many of today’s cardiovascular machines equipped with smart screens which create virtual scenes for runners (such as running on the streets of Paris) or allowing cyclers to connect with and race each other within the gym.
Despite the high costs of the machines themselves, the biggest expenses for a gym operator is rent. “The gym equipment and decor may be expensive, but it is an investment which is made once and lasts ten years. Rent, on the other hand, is an annual expense,” says Saliba, adding that some gym operators own the facility’s property and as such are able to generate profit much faster than those who have to pay rent.
The costs of operating a gym do not end with the rent and equipment. They include other overhead costs such as electricity, water and maintenance, with the bigger gyms that have pools or sports fields incurring even more charges, explains Saliba.
According to Bejjani, monthly membership fees and the cost of personal training (PT) sessions have not significantly increased over the past five years and still range between $130 to $200 at the good quality gyms and $40 to $60 for most PTs. He explains that, while prices have remained stable because they cannot afford to be raised considering the limited income of most Lebanese, the expenses for gym operators have nonetheless increased.
The rise of the small gym
Elevated expenses have caused gym operators to migrate towards establishing smaller gyms rather than the traditional big gyms which boasted membership of 1,000 members or more. The concept of the smaller gym focuses on the new trends of Crossfit (Olympic style exercises) and functional training (exercising the way the body moves), thereby saving on rent and fitness equipment. Saliba adds that popularity for this type of gym is growing in Lebanon, naming four which have opened in the last year alone.
Bejjani and Baroody have noticed that small studios or boutique gyms are also on the rise, pointing out six personal training studios which only offer sessions with a personal trainer and do not provide membership. According to Bejjani, the reason for this shift is that private trainers who develop a big clientele list are tempted to set up their own practices, making more money that way than when they have to give a percentage of their earnings to the gyms that employ them.
Trainers are arguably the heart of any gym, capable of bringing in increased revenue when they garner a loyal customer base who come specifically to train with them.
Fitness instructors, however, are not yet represented in the ministries and don’t have a syndicate or an order to represent them. This is despite the fact that they, like physiotherapists who do have syndicate representation, work in the healthcare industry and are liable to causing serious injuries to clients if not well educated in their business, laments Bejjani.
Although certification programs for fitness trainers have always been available in Lebanon, they have only recently become a proper industry, adopting international standards and increased awareness about the professional significance of having certified trainers.
The concept of the smaller gym focuses on the new trends of crossfit and functional training, thereby saving on rent and fitness equipment
Realizing the new potential in this burgeoning business, and looking to bring international standards to the fitness industry in Lebanon, Bejjani quit his job as a personal trainer at Fitness First and established 4 Actions in 2011, becoming the sole agent of the double accredited International Fitness Professionals Association (IFPA) in the Middle East and North Africa.
Bejjani started by offering IFPA courses at the Panacea gym in exchange for educating the gym’s trainers for free, but quickly moved from giving the course in several other gyms to finally renting his own premises in Abraj Center, Furn El Chebak, in 2014. “With my growing list of students, I felt I needed a home base where students could interact with each other, relax and read up on fitness,” explains Bejjani who has graduated over a 1000 students up until today. The course costs $800 and Bejjani admits that in Lebanon he is only able to break even, whereas he is able to make real profit when he teaches the courses in Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
Personal training is a growing business in Lebanon, attests Bejjani, with the trend moving towards group personalized fitness where a maximum of five clients train with a PT at lower cost than solo PT sessions. “The last five years saw a big growth in personal training because people want to gain the most out of their workout session. There is more profit for gym operators in this as well, since trainers can charge between $50 and $100 per hour, of which the gym gets a cut. So naturally they encourage it,” explains Baroody.
The future of Lebanon’s fitness industry
While the Lebanese fitness industry has been steadily on the rise, there is of course always room for further growth. Saliba says the penetration of active gym users in Lebanon is low, placing it at 3 percent, in comparison to the USA which has 14 percent market penetration. “There is still room for the market to grow because in Lebanon we have a comparatively lower use of fitness equipment per capita when compared to other countries in the region such as Dubai,” says Baroody.
Whether this growth in the fitness industry manifests itself in the creation of more gyms or into other forms of sports training remains to be seen. Either way, it is a positive sign that more and more people are getting out and moving their bodies in the hope of achieving a healthier lifestyle.