Disruptive and disliked, initially at least, by its rivals, GymNation has been attempting to revolutionise the UAE fitness industry since its opening in June 2018. When it went to market with a Dhs99 membership package and 5,000 founding members, people unsurprisingly sat up and took notice.

Despite that initial, and indeed subsequent, success, no real competitors have emerged in the budget gym space. New facilities are opening all the time in what is a thriving industry in the UAE, but they almost exclusively tend to target the top end, focusing on clientele with high disposable income.

GymNation’s approach is exactly the opposite, with equality of access its guiding principle. In his native UK, GymNation co-founder Loren Holland saw the success of companies like PureGym and Gym Group and felt it was a blueprint that could be replicated in Dubai. Last year PureGym became the first UK gym chain to reach one million members, with Gym Group sitting at around 800,000.

“In the past 10 years the concept of budget health and fitness has exploded in more mature markets,” Holland tells Sport Industry Insider. As well as the UK, you have Crunch Fitness and Planet Fitness in the United States and Basic-Fit in mainland Europe. They’ve had phenomenal success stories and growth.

“That model hadn’t reached Dubai and when I moved out here for work I was absolutely staggered by the cost of gym memberships. Most places were asking me for somewhere between Dhs4,000-5,000 upfront to train at rather average and, in some cases, substandard facilities.

“It was clear that there was a gap in the market and my co-founder Frank [Afeaki], who had seen a similar growth in Australia, had exactly the same idea. That is how GymNation started.”

Ahead of its opening last year, GymNation launched an aggressive marketing campaign almost exclusively through social media, with initial memberships to its sprawling Al Quoz facility available from Dhs99 per month. By the time the gym doors opened for the first time, 5,000 Dubai residents had signed up.

“We had a very tight marketing budget but very quickly realised that, particularly in this market, the social media reach is just fantastic. It’s a very young demographic that averages 2.5 mobile phones per person.

“Straight away, we noticed that the return from social media far outweighed traditional marketing in radio and print and so probably 95% of our spend went through social media. It gave us absolutely fantastic coverage and is still a real asset for us.”

It certainly helped that the opening membership offers for GymNation were unprecedentedly low and Holland admits that many in the UAE fitness industry scoffed at the prices.    

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From a competitor perspective, the reaction was very negative which is what we expected really. Our concept is very disruptive and the market here had not evolved like it had in other leading cities.

“Our competitors were generally dismissive, particularly around the quality of the product, and tended to suggest that the gym would reflect the price point, i.e. not be up to scratch. That was never part of our vision.”

It is an understandable concern to raise: just what do you get from a gym that has no contract, no joining fee and costs only Dhs99 per month?

“For us it’s a very tight business model,” Holland explains. “We’re on very thin margins charging, in most instances, a third or a quarter of your competitors, so we need to be tight on capital expenditure. We started as a blank sheet of paper and said ‘what can we cut out?’

“Many gyms have a sauna, steam room, a swimming pool – huge costs both upfront and in terms of power, maintenance and cleaning. Stats show that those wet facilities are actually only used by 5% of your members, yet they’re the highest costs. Straight away, we chopped those aspects out that we deemed to be non-essential.”

“Competitors now recognise we are a force for good. While we have clearly taken market share, we’ve actually grown the market as well.”

Other “frills” cut out at GymNation are free towels and WiFi, as well as front desk staff – automated systems for payment collection and admin mean the company is “staff light”. Having managed to create such a streamlined model, other gyms would be forgiven for following suit. But so far, it has not been the case. 

“I’d say the newer gyms that have opened since we launched still seem to be opening at the premium end and they’re still pushing the pre-paid model as well. The market hasn’t moved towards a discount model at all and it is still very expensive here.

“The week we opened there was an independent study done by Deutsche Bank into the cost of living in the top 100 cities in the world. They use many different metrics for pulling their data together, but one of the metrics was the cost of a gym membership. Dubai came out as the second-highest in the world, just after Tokyo. This is why we opened.”

GymNation now has 10,000 members and has opened up gym access to many people who could not previously afford it – 35% of them are first-time gym members meaning that for many it has been the first steps to regular exercise.

“I don’t think resentment exists among competitors anymore because while they were rather dismissive at the start, I think they now recognise that we are a force for good,” Holland says. “While we have quite clearly taken market share, we’ve actually grown the market as well.

GymNation Dubai

“People who were basically priced out of the market before have now got back into health and fitness thanks to GymNation. Our membership base is as diverse as the population of Dubai – from CEOs who could afford to go elsewhere but recognise have a quality product and those who have not been able to afford a gym membership elsewhere.”

Having doubled the number of members since opening, GymNation is now pressing on with ambitious expansion plans within the UAE with new sites opening at Bur Dubai and Manar Mall in Ras-al-Khaimah in December, before further new facilities are rolled out in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in next year with a view to having 10 GymNation sites in the UAE by the end of 2020.

But despite the obvious temptation to look beyond the borders of the UAE after such impressive early success, Holland insists GymNation is keeping its feet on Emirati soil for now.

“There’s definitely a watching brief on Saudi Arabia as there are a lot of operators opening there and I really think GymNation could make an impact in that market, and all around the GCC.

“But in the next 12 months, we’ve got our work cut out to do fulfil our potential in the UAE. It’s all about cementing our place as the number one fitness provider here. Then after that, I’m sure we can start looking at international growth.”