How Dubai-based GymNation is set to disrupt the regional fitness industry



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How did the idea for GymNation come about?


Holland: Before GymNation, I was involved in private equity in the UK and had previously invested in UK-based budget operator Xercise4Less. The idea for GymNation came about when I relocated to Dubai to work in the corporate finance team for a leading UAE-based education provider and was shocked at the high pricing, annual upfront payments and low quality of fitness facilities available within the UAE.


Frank had previous hands-on experience within the affordable fitness sector in Australia, having helped build Crunch, UFC and Hard Candy franchises, which were owned by his family, and Ant had previously managed the sports marketing for brands including Adidas, Reebok and OSN Sports across the Middle East and Africa.
The overall idea behind GymNation was to launch an affordable gym that gave people access to world-class fitness facilities around the clock. As consumers ourselves, to pay over Dhs400 per month, in one upfront annual payment just wasn’t justifiable and we felt that because of this industry-wide high price point, too many people were being priced out of the market. Around the time we launched our first club in 2018, Deutsche Bank released a study on the affordability of living costs in key cities around the world with one of the key metrics being the cost of gym memberships. Dubai came out as the second-most expensive market in the world to have a gym membership and that reaffirmed everything we knew.


With over 200 free group exercise classes, more than 500 pieces of cardio, machine and free weights equipment, combat and functional fitness areas, we have created gyms that are as inviting and welcoming for the first-time gym user as they are for the professional athlete, at a price starting from Dhs99 per month.



Give us a business overview of GymNation’s current operations.

Afeaki: We currently have seven open sites across three emirates, and a pipeline through to 10 sites by the end of the year, which will see us finish the year with over 50,000 members. We are also targeting our first international lease this year and have a plan to open multiple GymNation locations across the GCC over the next few years.



How has Covid-19 affected your business?

Holland: As was the same for the majority of the global fitness industry, we were forced to close all of our locations during the lockdown period in 2020, pausing all membership payments and losing this revenue as a result. We quickly partnered with Les Mills to provide free access for everyone in the UAE to their market-leading Les Mills On Demand platform, so that people could continue to work out from home.


Once we reopened, we lost a significant portion of our members who had been made redundant and had to return to their home countries. However, within a few weeks of reopening, we were back to normal again as people quickly realised that it was more important than ever to be fit and healthy. Since then, the performance of our business has been stronger than ever, and whilst there are some capacity and social distancing limitations in place, we continue to work closely with government authorities to ensure we are fully compliant with their guidelines and are providing safe environments for all of our members.


Additionally, as a continuation of our partnership with Les Mills, and a recognition that members still want to work out but sometimes can’t make it to GymNation, we have just launched GymNation On Demand, offering over 1,000 online workout classes that can be streamed online, anytime and anywhere. And whilst our competitors are charging for similar digital workout offerings, we have decided to offer this content for free to both members and non-members across the UAE.



How do you ensure a constant supply of highly-skilled trainers and workforce?

Afeaki: We take pride in and put a big focus on ensuring we recruit and retain the best in the UAE market. Prior to joining, all trainers and instructors are vetted to ensure that they have the necessary certifications and meet our strict criteria to operate out of GymNation facilities. We have partnered with UAE personal training company Enhance Fitness, which ensures that all personal trainers have a particular focus on regular upskill training. All GymNation staff are also enrolled in our centralised learning management system where they go through regular soft and business skill training and development. As a result of these combined efforts, we have managed to minimise staff turnover.


GymNation recently struck a deal with UAE Rugby. What is the scope of that agreement?

Martland: As a homegrown UAE brand, being an integral part of the communities in which we operate and creating meaningful partnerships within these communities has always been a key priority for us. The UAE Rugby Federation approached us at the start of the year, looking for a partner that could provide their male, female and development rugby teams with 24/7 access to world-class fitness facilities. Aside from UAE Rugby, we have also recently announced partnerships with the UAE’s leading triathlon community TriDubai, UAE event organiser Super Sports and we continue to work with inclusive sports community Heroes of Hope and provide people of determination the opportunity to excel through employment and access to fitness.
These partnerships, and some others to be announced soon with both government entities and private companies, ensure that we will always remain close to grassroot initiatives.



How competitive is the fitness market within Dubai and the UAE?

Afeaki: The UAE market has several fitness operators ranging from international franchises to homegrown brands. However, fitness penetration rates in the UAE stand at 7 per cent, meaning just seven out of every 100 people own a gym membership or are engaged in regular physical activity. This is very low compared to other mature markets in Europe and the US where it’s common to see penetration rates of over 20 per cent.
Whilst there are a lot of existing gym operators, particularly in Dubai, we do not believe that we are at a saturation point as the market size could, or should, double over the next five years which creates room for many new entrants and growth of the existing operators.



How has GymNation leveraged tools such as social media to generate original media content?

Martland: Even when GymNation was just an idea on paper, we knew that social media would be one of the main drivers in generating and maintaining awareness of the brand. We definitely didn’t want GymNation to be one of the many brands that put out substandard, unengaging and unoriginal social media content.


The Matrix campaign, in particular, was a campaign that we scripted, filmed and released in 48 hours for our new Motor City location. We knew that our main competitor, on the floor above us, had finished their renovations and were about to release a standard uninspiring fly-through tour video, so we wanted to come up with something original and highly engaging. Through the video and the on-ground activation of it, where we gave people outside of Control Tower the option to choose between taking a red card, or a yellow card with a free seven-day GymNation pass on it, we generated over 500 new membership signups in less than one week.