For almost a decade, boutique gyms have reigned supreme as the fitness industry moved away from multinational, traditional facilities towards a more bespoke approach. Customers have since been spoiled for choice in terms of exercise options, with classes becoming increasingly creative. Trampoline HIIT on Monday? Sure. Puppy Pilates on Wednesday? Why not.
Flexibility and diversity have become central principles of the industry and apps like ClassPass have flourished, offering people a multitude of experiences and ensuring they don’t need to be shackled to one location, one set-up, and one group of trainers. The UAE has wholeheartedly embraced this fitness philosophy and the options are extensive, with boutique studios appearing in communities across the emirates.
But is the tide starting to turn?
The Covid-19 pandemic decimated many membership-driven fitness businesses, though those that quickly responded and evolved — whether with virtual workouts, or at-home equipment — were able to survive and even flourish. However, the boutique fitness market has generally taken a beating. Many people’s fitness habits have changed, with some worried about returning to small, tightly packed studios for health reasons and others won over by remote workouts and at-home gym equipment.
A different approach is emerging as some industry professionals feel the time is right to reinvent fitness venues by creating architecturally and aesthetically appealing ‘third spaces’; a sort of ‘super club’ that can cater not just to people’s exercise requirements, but their need to work, socialize and feel part of a community. There are examples a-plenty: the 5,000-square-foot multi-sport hub Wellfit at Jumeirah Village Circle’s Circle Mall. The Bridge in Abu Dhabi, which lives up to the promise of a “wellness lifestyle destination” in Abu Dhabi’s Al Qana that offers a gym, spa, a range of boutique classes, restaurant, juice bar, nutrition corner, concept store, outdoor activities, arts and culture events and more. Judging from the Instagram teasers, the forthcoming Vogue Fitness FIT facility located in Yas Mall will also be enormous, as is the first Warehouse Gym to open in Abu Dhabi at Yas Bay.
Helena Hijazi, founder of FitnGlam, believes wholeheartedly that a major change is coming. FitnGlam is part of a new wave of ‘super gyms’ hitting the UAE, with vast premises offering significantly more than just a simple workout. The first facility opened last year in Al Quoz, with a second following earlier in 2022 in Mirdif; and the new Dubai Hills branch.
Australia-born Hijazi’s initial focus was on creating inspiring female-only spaces where women could come together and create new communities formed around exercise.
“When I started it wasn’t meant to be a super club per se — the idea was small but just kept growing and growing,” Hijazi tells Livehealthy. “I moved to Dubai and was excited because I could see there were options for female-only gyms and spaces, which we didn’t really have in Australia. However, I found that a lot of female-only gyms just weren’t as interesting as mixed ones and often were actually just a dark room in a mixed gym.
“I thought I could do it better and that’s why I started FitnGlam. It began small then quickly developed into three warehouses in Al Quoz and we then added Mirdif too.”
FitnGlam facilities all include a traditional gym set-up and a selection of boutique classes — at Dubai Hills these will be provided by Platform Studios — but there are also a variety of add-ons such as cafes, sauna and steam room, salt room, Cryo chamber, nail salon and working spaces.
“I want to spend my day somewhere where I can get everything I need,” Hijazi explains. “At FitnGlam I can come and have my coffee, do my workout and then socialize a bit, maybe jump on a computer and do some work or get my nails done in the salon — all of those option are open to me. I wanted to put all of those things into one space that would help me better enjoy my day.
“After Covid, everyone started prioritizing their health and it became very important for people to get outdoors and mingle with other people — maybe they aren’t coming to the gym to train but just to have a coffee with their friend. Being a Super Club has also made it easier to be Covid-friendly — we have the space and still take these measures very seriously; we are as careful now as we’ve always been.”
The new Dubai Hills branch is FitnGlam’s biggest undertaking yet — a sprawling 30,000 sq ft space with cycling room, double-story HIIT ‘coliseum’, Cryo recovery centre and a new branch of Abu Dhabi favorite Nolu’s Cafe. There will be some mixed classes offered for the first time, but the facility remains predominantly women-only.
FitnGlam’s approach seems to be working and membership numbers are rising. South African Katie Kerns is one of that expanding community and has been impressed with her experience so far.
“They haven’t sacrificed on quality, which I think is always a risk for bigger gyms,” Kerns says. “It’s very high end, with a great choice of classes every day. You get the benefits of the space that a super gym offers but also the boutique feel because Platform run the classes. It’s the best of both worlds.
“There are so many gyms opening, but they are not getting right. I think FitnGlam have nailed what they’re offering and have partnered really smartly which makes them stand out and takes things to a whole new level.”
It is a sentiment shared by Yasir Khan, entrepreneur and founder of new Dubai-based transformation concept Transform Your Body (TYB). Laid across almost 85,000 sqft in Al Quoz, TYB offers three warehouses containing various holistic fitness facilities including a boxing ring, studio space, a tennis court, two padel courts, a trainer’s warehouse, a recovery room, a nutritionist’s room, and cryotherapy for customers.
And Khan, who was responsible for Emirati influencer Khalid Al Amiri’s well-publicized recent health transformation, feels that the super club represent the natural next step for the fitness industry.
“We’ve seen it before with shops,” Khan tells Livehealthy. “They start as individual premises, then more shops spring up around them offering different options and then restaurants start to come too — this is why we have malls, places where people can go, socialize and do many different things in one space.
“The super gym becomes this one place for everything in the fitness industry because people are now very conscious about their fitness; the future of this industry has great possibilities as people look to add value to this part of their life.”
However, not everyone agrees that the super club concept will rise unchallenged as the new major players in the fitness industry. Boutique gym Boxica opened in Studio City in September 2020 and managing partner Cryrus Rustom insists the appetite for smaller facilities is as strong as ever.
“Social and community has always been an important part of the fitness industry and I think boutique gyms are naturally better equipped to deliver that experience to people,” Rustom tells Livehealthy.
That just can’t stack up to “big-box gyms”, which offer substantial free weights, cardio areas and group fitness classes.
“It’s inevitable that you get more of a personal touch: people remember your name and you will be part of a community. There are events outside of the gym that you’ll be a part of. It’s more than just a gym, it’s a relationship. There is a whole support network from joining a boutique gym. It’s a different environment.”
Rustom insists that boutique studios like Boxica, which offer a range of classes and modalities, have enough to offer customers without the need for spaces for work and F&B.
“Boutique gyms are here to stay — the community atmosphere is so important. A boutique gym is an experience, not just a workout and there will always be a basic human need, even as things move towards digital aspect in the fitness industry, to go out and meet people and experience something. I don’t think there’s any better place to do that than at a boutique facility.”
The American College of Sports Medicine’s annual Health & Fitness Journal, which assesses each year’s global industry trends, was a little more skeptical of the outlook in its 2022 edition – identifying “boutique fitness studios, low-cost and budget gyms” as facilities expected to face serious challenges.
FitnGlam founder Hijazi believes that Super Gyms will become a major new industry player and while clearly recognizing the benefits of boutique fitness with her current offering, she is convinced that the ability to offer a wealth of space and options beyond just exercise will win more and more members.
“I think that even in recent years, many people would still have a traditional gym membership, but they would constantly be supplementing with boutique classes and paying so much more money every month,” she explains. “Here it’s a boutique experience but with lots of additional benefits.
“I know there will always be people who just want to hop around and we still welcome ClassPass members here and want them to feel at home, but our approach has definitely been ‘go big or go home’.
“Creating a super gym has massive community benefits but it’s a huge undertaking. We have a massive team and it is really hard work; you need to be confident and importantly need significant investment and great partnerships.”