Fit to reopen: Gym owners eye pent-up demand

Health clubs will be up and running again next week, but with no sauna or steam room

Ciara Lefroy, managing director of Iconic Health Clubs, in Dartry Health Club, Dublin 6: ‘People are bored training at home. They want motivation and to up their game.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Ciara Lefroy, managing director of Iconic Health Clubs, in Dartry Health Club, Dublin 6: ‘People are bored training at home. They want motivation and to up their game.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

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Outside the Dartry Health Club in Dublin, five women are lounging around after finishing a conditioning class.

As its members work their way back into fitness regimes as Covid-19 restrictions ease, classes are taking place outdoors under an awning. Participants wear headsets to hear instructors and music during their workouts, a system introduced so as not to disturb the neighbours.

Bernie Brady says she did not realise how much she missed the club until she returned this month after being vaccinated.

“Mentally it gets you back into a routine and it lifts and energises you.”

Alice Power says walking the same 5km route became “very aimless” during the lockdowns. Doing online fitness classes lacked the vigour of in-person sessions, and the social element was also missing.

“We got fed up doing the gym at home. It is difficult to motivate yourself,” she says. “It is uplifting being back. We have a focus in our lives again.”

Ciara Lefroy, managing director of Iconic Health Clubs, with owns three health clubs including the Dartry premises, says adapting the business to offer outdoor classes has not been cheap, putting the bill at some €50,000 and adding that no State supports are available.

Full service

Moving outside is not an option at Iconic’s Smithfield and Camden Street branches, so Lefroy felt it was important to offer as close to a full service as possible to those members keen not to wait for gyms to resume individual indoor training on June 7th.

“People are bored training at home. They want motivation and to up their game,” she says.

Things should get easier from next week, but it will not be plain sailing, she explains. Saunas and steam rooms remain no-go areas and children’s swimming lessons, key income-generators for many leisure clubs, are still not permitted.

Lefroy says there is a misconception that gyms have benefited from idle memberships, but is adamant that is “rubbish”.

“If people don’t train they cancel. Our focus now is to get people back into consistent training.”

Another person hoping the sector booms as Ireland reopens is Ben Leonard-Kane, head of fitness and wellness at the Press Up Hospitality Group. It is opening two boutique gyms in Dublin and Cork next Monday, with membership costing €89-€209 per month.

There have been queries about joining, but many want to kick the tyres first given premium elements such as classes and steam rooms will be curtailed by the pandemic restrictions.

“A lot of people are waiting to see the place first to make sure we haven’t photoshopped all our nice pictures,” he says.

Leonard-Kane says pleas for people to continue working from home will likely deter some of the clubs’ target market of office workers, who may find it hard to justify paying a premium rate if they are not always around to make use of it.

Boutique fitness

The hope, he says, is that Ireland’s boutique fitness sector will expand in the future. “Ireland is probably where London was in 2015. The demand is there but the supply isn’t... There is so much unfulfilled potential and that is really exciting.”

Showers, swimming pools and fitness classes have been consigned to the past at Ben Dunne’s fleet of low-cost gyms in Dublin, Meath and Portlaoise.

“We won’t have showers ever again. We won’t have studios ever again,” he says, adding that a members’ survey found that about 60 per cent did not use showers in the gyms prior to the pandemic.

With showers and pools ripped out, Dunne says there is ample room for 2m distancing between exercise machines, which he sees not as a short-term approach but rather part of “a five-year plan”.

“For the foreseeable future we have changed our way of operating. If you want studios you can go somewhere else,” he says. “We will know in a month or two whether we were right or wrong.”

The focus on “individual training” in the Government’s guidelines has been frustrating for class-based studios such as Dutchy’s Fitness, owner Darragh Holland explains. The business is currently operating from a marquee to comply with restrictions, but its indoor spaces in Cavan and Dundalk have large windows and doors to allow the air to flow when they reopen next week.

Holland says the focus on the number of participants rather than the size of a studio in the public health guidelines has been “really frustrating”, but he hopes the pandemic finish line is coming into sight.

“I would be confident the demand is there and we will get back to pre-Covid levels soon enough,” he adds. “It is a matter of riding out the rest of the storm.”