Business

The tough world of the Australian fitness industry

  • 11 November 2015
  • From the section Business
Participants in a Dangerously Fit class Image copyright Dangerously Fit
Image caption A growing number of Australians are taking to getting fit

Sarah Turner has her hands full. Not only does she care for an eight-month-old baby girl and a boisterous toddler, she also runs her own company in Australia's ultra-competitive fitness industry.

With a degree in tourism, she quit the grind of the corporate world seven years ago to start Pure Fitness Manly, which offers personal training and outdoor sessions for large groups.

It is a notoriously fickle line of work, where many of those who dream of a career helping people shed unwanted kilos, while improving strength and stamina, don't last more than a year in business.

"There's not much longevity, especially among the younger generation who think it is a bit of a glamorous job," says Ms Turner, as her clients try to get the better of skipping ropes, dumbbells and medicine balls, at an early morning class at Manly beach in northern Sydney.

"Actually it is quite long hours, it is tough mentally and physically."

Ms Turner's customers pay up to 80 Australian dollars ($57; £37) for a class, and all are eager to absorb her expert direction - elbows in and knees high as the skipping routine intensifies, while a kind breeze blows in off the ocean at sunrise.

Her firm has an annual turnover of around 120,000 Australian dollars, while outgoings include equipment, and a fee to the local council of 1,500 Australian dollars that allows her to use the beaches and parks.

Image caption Sarah Turner says her job is tough, both mentally and physically

"As a sole trader it is not a huge amount of money," says Ms Turner.

"There's only so many hours and so many clients you can do," adding that the key to surviving in a saturated market was to always look ahead.

She is expanding an online business for time-poor mums, and has recently completed courses in postural analysis, boxing, nutrition and body building coaching.

'Heavily contested'

The fitness sector in Australia has never been more popular. Some estimates put its value at around 1.3bn Australian dollars.

Qualifications are needed to operate legally as a personal trainer, and the various registered organisations turn out about 20,000 graduates each year.

Image copyright Dangerously Fit
Image caption Sydney's generally warm and sunny weather makes exercising outside more appealing

Fees for a 12-month course at the Australian Institute of Personal Trainers can cost as much as 6,000 Australian dollars.

"You can tell quite early if someone has the right attitude," says chief executive officer, Adam Jacobs.

"It is a very heavily contested market, but the demand for good quality personal trainers is still there."

Yet while 20,000 graduates are being created every 12 months, the vast majority disappear from the industry within five years. Many pull the plug within 12 months.

"The lifespan in the fitness industry is not long," says Mr Jacobs, who adds that courses now have a far stronger business focus to try to help aspiring trainers survive.

Kevin Norton, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Australia, agrees that the marketplace is full, but says "good students will always get jobs, particularly with Australia's ageing population".

His advice to people thinking of getting work in the fitness industry is to instead broaden their outlook, and also consider employment in linked sectors, such as nutrition.

"My advice is [for people] to look for new opportunities, to perhaps align themselves more into health promotion rather than fitness per se," he says.

'Future-proofing'

While the seafront at Manly on a bright weekend morning looks like a giant exercise class, with the squats, lunges and sprints of various fitness bootcamps, other Australians do their exercise indoors.

About 15% of adult Australians are members of gyms, many attracted to new 24/7 unsupervised facilities by their convenience and low fees.

These new upstarts, such as fast-growing Anytime Fitness, have put pressure on gym industry heavyweights like Fitness First.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Why many Australians hit the beach to do their exercise, others still go to gyms

Fitness First, which has 68 clubs in Australia, and is owned by US private capital company Oaktree, has remained profitable despite seeing its market share decrease because of competition in recent years.

It has recently spent 80m Australian dollars upgrading its facilities in Australia to try to keep rivals at bay.

"We're not seeing growth in the number of people. It is just more players fighting over the same people," says Adrian Holdsworth, Fitness First's Australian development manager.

The company has more than 200,000 members in the country, who pay up to 45 Australian dollars a week, and are regularly asked what they think of the service they receive.

Mr Holdsworth says that in such an aggressive sector, identifying and accommodating new fads and trends was critical, especially at its clubs in central Sydney and Melbourne.

"We've got some boxing and MMA (mixed martial arts) studios, but down the road you'll have a hot yoga studio," he says. "Further down the road you'll have what we call the playground, which is strength gymnastics.

"We definitely feel that we are trying to future-proof our clubs better than we have ever done before."

'Cutting edge'

Staying ahead of the game is the key to success for smaller fitness operations, too.

Dan Clay, a former barrister's clerk in the City of London, and an ex-scaffolder, founded Dangerously Fit based at Sydney's Bondi Beach in 2003.

Image copyright Dangerously Fit
Image caption Dan Clay gave up a legal career in the UK to move to Australia

"Bootcamps weren't that big back then," he says. "It was before it all kicked off, but I could see the trend setting in with outdoor group training.

"I read every book on nutrition and exercise, and I really knew my stuff. You need to definitely be on the cutting edge and see what is going on in the industry.

"You need to look two or three years ahead and try and get in there first."

With a turnover of around 500,000 Australian dollars per year, Mr Clay says that having a sound business brain is essential, and that marketing is a priority.

"There is always a little bit of self-doubt," he says in regard to the relentless pressure from rivals.

"It is a lot harder than it looks. There is a lot of competition out there, and you have to put a lot of time and energy into being successful."

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