Rob Beale

Are Gyms Really Bouncing Back? 

Gyms have had a rough year. But as restrictions start to lift, many industry reports are showing some encouraging data about members returning. Is this trend true across all gyms? Does location matter? We spoke to Rob Beale, Fitness Director at Third Space London to find out. With six luxury clubs located across London, we wanted to know:  

  • Are city centre gyms experiencing the same return in members as those in more residential areas?  
  • What changes have they made in order to get members back to the gym 
  • Are capacity issues impacting member’s experience  
  • What trends are they seeing across their various locations 

Many reports are showing encouraging numbers of clubs returning to pre-COVID membership levels. What’s been your experience?

Right away, our enthusiastic members and the ones that are really serious about their fitness goals came back. There was this sense of overwhelming gratitude to be back. It was like Christmas and a birthday rolled into one. It was very joyous. Being in the centre of London, our membership levels match almost exactly with those returning to work.  So about 70% for us at the moment.

The process to come to the gym was slightly different because of temperature scans, social distancing and a new booking system we’ve put in place, but after about two weeks, people were used to it. It was business as usual.

Now it’s a case of getting new members in and getting the rest of the frozen memberships to defrost.

Third Space London

Are all clubs following a similar trend?

If you were to walk around our city clubs, it would be less busy than it was pre-pandemic. That’s because none of the law firms, banks or big insurance companies are back at their offices. But at our Islington location which is in a heavily residential area, it’s busier than it ever was. There is a very obvious correlation between people being back at offices and how busy our city centre clubs are. The thing dictating how busy we are is whether people are back in London working, not any attitudes about risk.

For example, in locations like Canary Wharf where only 15% of office space is being used, our membership levels are over 65%. While this isn’t where we want it to be, it is actually very encouraging. In our more residential clubs like Islington and Tower Bridge, it’s back up to 100%. The reality is that until social restrictions are completely eased and offices are open fully, clubs are unlikely to be full. This is less true for suburban clubs. If you’re working from home, you’re more likely to be a member of your local club versus a city club.

Third Space London

It sounds like recovery has gone well for many clubs but capacity is still a problem, particularly in classes and pools. How are you dealing with this?

Operationally, this is a challenge. We have more members wanting in than we have space for given capacity restrictions. Reducing class capacity in a cycle studio from 30 to 15 during peak time creates a situation where you still have more members wanting to come in versus availability. We have dealt with this by adding more classes and closely monitoring visit times. This has allowed us to continue providing real value for our members, even amidst the restrictions.

Running with reduced capacity like this is operationally difficult and it all comes down to managing member’s expectations. The pinch point is the changing rooms. At 7 am we might have two classes at the same time (a cycle class and a high energy class). That’s 30 people straight off. Then, there’s another 20-30 people in the gym at the same time. With most trying to start work at 9, that’s a lot of pressure on the changing rooms when we can only allow two people in certain areas. This has always been a challenge for clubs, but it’s particularly difficult now.

Other than the obvious government mandated rules around social distancing and enhanced cleaning, have you had to make any changes to how the clubs are being used?

We’ve added one-way systems and moved all the kit around to allow for more space. We’ve also removed some equipment from the gym floor. If we needed to put a treadmill out of order to accommodate social distancing, we decided to move it from the gym floor altogether for a better member experience.

Mask wearing is mandatory unless you’re in an exercise area or changing room.

We’ve added some screens between cardio equipment to create a barrier and we have discreet but obvious signage asking members to clean their machines after use.

We also have more housekeeping staff than we ever have. We clean and sterilize after every class.

And, we are continually getting feedback from our members. We send regular emails asking for feedback and many people have commented on the cleanliness of the clubs. We really want members to perceive the space as clean and safe so we’ve gone out of our way to make it obvious. As a result, there’s been almost no negative feedback from members.

Third Space London

What trends are you seeing so far?

While many members are back in the gym, one definite trend is the continuation of digital exercise. Even members that have come back in person are still using our app when they are not in the gym to do classes or exercise sessions. The amount of digital content we’ve added has been significant. On our app, we’ve gone from having about 30 classes to more than 300. Most is on demand, and some is live. We’ve seen a definite trend toward a hybrid model.

We’ve also seen more members following our workouts or other digital programmes while on the gym floor.

The other trend we’re seeing is an increase in mind and body classes. There are more people wanting yoga and Pilates than pre-pandemic. We’ve always had a large focus here, but the demand is greater than ever before.

What has been your biggest learning so far?

Overall, the rules of running a successful gym haven’t changed. You need exceptionally well-presented clubs that are clean and spotless, great customer service and great products and services taught by great instructors. This is not new. But for anyone that didn’t know this before, it’s very clear now.

We worked really hard during lockdown to engage our members. We allowed them to freeze memberships and gave them loads of content to keep them engaged. We followed a similar strategy with our team. We did weekly education sessions, weird online activities and quiz nights. We wanted to make sure the team felt connected to the brand and the senior team. We did a lot to support teams on furlough.  The reality is, if they aren’t happy with what they’re doing, members will see that and it will have a knock-on effect. We wanted them to know they are the center of what we do and I’m proud of the job we did with the team.

For more information about Third Space locations around London, go to

Posted in Gyms & Clubs, Interviews, The Fitness Network.