Unfit for business


Irish Eyes magazine, February 2004
by Alison Benney

Is the Paris fitness industry ailing or simply shedding its fat? At the end of December, the health club chain Gymnasium abruptly closed its nine Paris facilities and a few weeks later Compagnie Bleue closed its remaining site; both declared bankruptcy. Shortly after, the leading French health club chain, Club Med Gym, announced that it is closing 11 clubs in the provinces and focusing on its 19 Parisian gyms.

It was especially a shock for the French when Compagnie Bleue ceased business, as this was the glittering showcase for Veronique and Davina, the '80s icons who kicked off fitness in France with a Sunday morning TV show. According to a teacher at its remaining facility in the 6th arrondissement, the company was selling memberships right up until two days before EDF came in to shut off the electricity on 9th January.

What's going on? With obesity on the rise - yes, even in France - and smoking on the decrease, why aren't the gyms booming like they are in the US, where Crunch has just opened up another 47,000 sq. foot facility in downtown Chicago? Is it due to unfit management, criminal behavior, or simply a changing clientele?

"A bit of all the above", says Fred Hoffman, Reebok consultant and longtime Paris fitness professional. "I think that the closures are indeed from bad management, and years of it. In the case of Gymnasium, even the people that took over the chain the last year (Jogin) obviously don't know the business. Consumers are sick of being taken advantage of; they are deciding to go elsewhere, and /or choosing other forms of physical fitness, like running, swimming or martial arts. Many are joining 'associations' which are much cheaper, and often more convivial."

A rising trend in the US is small-group personal training, a compromise between one-on-one training and big group classes. Hoffman insists, "There is a need for big gyms in Paris, yet unfortunately there is no one capable of doing something really top notch. All of the 'foreign' chains know that the French tax structure and social charges make it prohibitive to make a business successful quickly. Many shy away from France...it's like the black sheep of the European fitness industry."

That said, both Club Med Gym and the UK's Fitness First have shown interest in taking over Gymnasium's sites, and rumor has it that the club Espace Vit'Halles may snatch up Compagnie Bleue. Healthy is as healthy does; when the industry tones up its image, the clients may keep pace.