x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Smaller gyms trim the high cost of keeping fit

It's an expensive business keeping yourself toned and trim in Abu Dhabi, particularly if you're a single man. Thankfully change is afoot, with the opening of smaller gyms like Beyond Health Club.

A view inside the Beyond Health Club in Khalifa City A near Abu Dhabi. The owners also plan to open a health food store and bistro in the complex. Silvia Razgova / The National
A view inside the Beyond Health Club in Khalifa City A near Abu Dhabi. The owners also plan to open a health food store and bistro in the complex. Silvia Razgova / The National

It's an expensive business keeping yourself toned and trim in Abu Dhabi. In this city, unless you want to head for one of the cheap but usually downtrodden backstreet gymnasiums, you're pretty much bound to paying a tidy fortune to join a hotel health club.

And these costs are even more exorbitant if you're a single man, with some of these clubs charging double for men than they do for members of the fairer sex.

Of course, there are a handful of private non-hotel gyms of high standards - such as the Abu Dhabi Country Club, but even this has a hefty yearly membership fee and that comes after the lengthy waiting list to be actually granted membership.

The situation is vastly different up the road in Dubai, where a flurry of smaller gyms and exercise studios have opened in recent years, while international health chains, such as Fitness First, have infiltrated the market.

Yet change is afoot in Abu Dhabi, albeit at a creeping pace.

Earlier this month, the international health club Fitness First made its inaugural foray into the capital with a new gym at Marina Mall.

With costs starting at around Dh30 per day, it definitely undercuts its costly hotel-based rivals. However, unfortunately for the men, it's a women-only facility, although the firm is to open two mixed gyms at Marina Mall and Dalma Mall later in the year.

There are also a number of smaller workout areas that have come online in the past few months, such as Beyond Health Club in Khalifa City A, or Gold's Gym at Mazyad Mall in Mohammed Bin Zayed City. These are slightly cheaper than their hotel equivalents, but still would not be categorised as moderate in costs in some quarters.

So, what's the reason for this vast difference between the expense of exercising in these two neighbouring emirates?

Corey Oliver is the chief executive and founder of Original Fitness Co, a company that runs military-style boot camps and personal training sessions in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, giving him first-hand evidence of the disparity between the two cities.

"Of course, gyms are very expensive in Abu Dhabi, much more so than Dubai," he says.

"One of the reasons for this is that hotels and the [Abu Dhabi] Country Club have to claw back some of the initial fit-out costs, which were so high. They've bought a lot of top-of-the-range equipment - your fixed weight machines and the like - that hardly anyone uses now, it just sits in the gym and looks pretty. Whenever a place fits out a techno gym in full, the costs are unbelievable. You're talking somewhere around Dh10 million for all the equipment."

Despite their expense, Oliver believes that the equipment in these places was viewed as old-fashioned among most fitness professionals.

"The fact is, most people in my industry just don't recommend using all this strength-weight equipment. We mostly agree that these small independent studio gyms actually are better suited for helping people get fit. Dubai has plenty of these places, but that's why Abu Dhabi is still a bit behind because it doesn't yet."

Up the E11 highway in Dubai, it's a completely different scenario, says Oliver. "When you look at Dubai, there are gyms opening up every week and on every corner. It's really booming at the moment. They're keeping their costs down with the fit-outs and they're doing either studios, which doesn't take any equipment at all, just a few Body Pump sets, or bikes in there."

However, Oliver does foresee changes on the horizon in Abu Dhabi.

"Prices have been pretty premium for the past few years because the hotels have monopolised the market. It's a kind of price fixing.

"All it would take is a quality gym that's not a hotel to start up and offer membership for something like Dh300 a month. Then everyone else is going to have to drop their prices and I do think this will happen pretty soon.

"Some of these gyms in Abu Dhabi are Dh1,100 to Dh1,500 a month. That's a huge amount of money."

One new gym that is slightly cheaper than the average hotel is Beyond Health Club in Khalifa City A, which opened in October and costs Dh8,700 for a single person for a year, with a current discount rate of Dh6,700 as an opening offer.

Ross Millar, the director of the company, had his theories as to the excess charged by the competition.

"It used to be that if you want to enjoy leisure facilities in Abu Dhabi, you have to be a member of a health club. There are only a few public beaches on the Corniche, and a lot of people don't like going to these because you can get stared at," he says.

"There are plenty of old gyms and expensive ones in hotels, but very few that offer five-star, independent solutions.

"We're trying to be middle of the road by comparison, in that we can't be too cheap because we offer a high-end service, but likewise, we want to keep our prices affordable to make sure that customers have an incentive to join.

"I think people are tired of having to pay these really expensive costs for the hotels and are after something different."

Nevertheless, Linley Marjolin, the recreation manager at the InterContinental Abu Dhabi, contends that his hotel, which charges Dh9,500 a year for men and Dh7,500 for women, represents value for money.

He explains how the price structure was formulated: "We base ourselves in the market of Abu Dhabi. We come up with a price and benchmark it on the leisure club market in Abu Dhabi. We see what else is out there, what they're charging, and come up with a competitive price that reflects that.

"We are constantly updating the equipment, so that costs money. You have to look into your maintenance, operation costs and the like. We do spend a lot of time calculating the rates."

He argues that compared with other hotels, the InterCon's gym was an excellent deal for customers: "Our hotel is in an excellent location and the club itself is very well known in terms of people. We've had some people who have been members here for 15 years, so if it wasn't good value they wouldn't keep renewing.

"The fact is, you're not just getting entry to a gym, you're getting beach membership as part of the deal. So it's membership to a leisure club, rather than just a gym."

But Marjolin predicted a decrease in prices as the market became saturated.

"As more and more gyms open in Abu Dhabi, I am sure prices will drop eventually. Everybody will look into the price of structure and they will look into the strategy of how and what we do. Our prices have dropped a bit over the past few years, just because there have been more hotels opening. Everybody had dropped the price down."

So, until then, are the citizens of the capital doomed to either grow morbidly overweight, or be continually broke? Oliver believes there are alternatives.

"You don't always have to work out in the gym. Abu Dhabi has a lot of green spaces and parks, so you could get out and exercise outdoors.

"You do see a lot of people out in the parks, out on the Corniche, especially this time of year when the weather's so nice.

"I think that paying all this money to join these expensive hotel gyms isn't the best use of your cash, and what you're actually getting there is something that's pretty much outdated."

hberger@thenational.ae

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