a year later, sports halls can see the end of the tunnel

Brought to their knees by the pandemic, gyms continue to heal their wounds, but the sector wants to believe in a breath of fresh air, with the French’s increased interest in their well-being and a rejuvenation of the clientele. A full year has passed since about 6,500 fitness, climbing or 5-a-side football rooms in France were allowed to reopen and Thierry Marquer, general manager of the “L’Orange Bleue” group, assures: “we are back in business, the trust is there”.

The sector that has suffered the most, with nightclubs

In 2019, the network of 396 chambers in France – and 4 in Spain – had “366,000 members”. Then: “We have fallen to 260,000 during the Covid. There we are at 323,000 and we believe that in September we will return to the + before + level,” the pandemic told AFP this 50-something, from the company’s headquarters , in the outskirts of Rennes.

Other players are showing more moderate optimism as gyms come back from afar after a dozen months of closure during the pandemic. “This is probably the sector that has suffered the most, right after nightclubs,” said AFP Virgile Caillet, general representative of Union Sport & Cycle, one of the representatives of the sector.

“We had the meters, the pass…”

Shared, this observation is often tinged with strong bitterness for officials who always claim that their rooms have been falsely presented as high places of infestation, “ugly ducklings,” said Patrick Mazerot, the vice president of the Active-FNEAPL union.

In June 2021, this employers’ association had published a first estimate of the damage, with a loss of almost half of the sector’s 6.5 million members, and a turnover increase of more than a billion in 2020.

The return of customers did not mean the end of the worries, emphasizes Patrick Mazerot, by giving a tour of a Paris room of his group “L’Appart fitness”.

“We had the meters, the pass … We had to pay a lot for a service that often only happened halfway through,” until the last restrictions were lifted in March, he notes. † During the closures, the gyms were placed under artificial respiration by the government, with state-guaranteed loans (PGE), the fixed-cost support system and massive appeals for partial unemployment among the approximately 70,000 workers.

Then, in the second half of 2021, “between 350 and 500 branches” or nearly 10% of the market disappeared, reports Mr. Mazerot. This period was also marked by the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant, which delayed recovery.

Development of the digital offer

From now on “we are reaching a tipping point” with the start of the refund of PGEs, Virgile Caillet intervenes. Spread over several years, they pose an even greater challenge in the current context of inflation and rising costs.

In the industry, activities such as 5-a-side football are among the fastest regaining activities, as opposed to yoga spaces, officials said. At the head of a 5-a-side football complex of the “Urban soccer” group near Montpellier, William Dodeuil evokes “a soaring electricity bill”, pointing to the multiple lighting on the pitches.

In his case, sales are on track to return to 2019 levels. In contrast, the general trend will be “-10 to -15% sales at the end of 2022,” says Patrick Mazerot.

To reach this new milestone, the sector is counting on the development of the “digitized” offer (online courses), and above all on an increased interest from the French in their “health capital”. Alexandre Boyer, manager of a room “L’Orange bleue” in Rennes, claims to see more members “on the cardio part, to catch your breath”.

Like all interviewed managers, he also reports a rejuvenation of the clientele. “Today we have 25% of young people exercising, it wasn’t like that at all in the past,” he says. Newcomer Maëlle Lejop, a 20-year-old business student, explains that she felt the need to “take charge”, “after sitting at home for so long”.

“Being indoors, seeing people play sports, that’s more motivating”, she says, adding with conviction: “I asked a friend. (…) She will come with me from next school year”.