"All the winds are blowing in the right direction and the sails are wide open,” says Planet Fitness CEO Chris Rondeau. It’s a fair summary of the franchise operator’s bounceback from COVID lockdowns, with its Q3 2021 results making for impressive reading.
Planet Fitness ended the third quarter with total membership of more than 15 million – 97 per cent of its pre-pandemic high of 15.5 million and a performance Rondeau says represents “the highest sequential net member growth of any third quarter in company history”.
Meanwhile, quarterly revenues reached US$154.3m, up 46.4 per cent on the same period in 2020, with the portfolio reaching 2,193 locations across five countries.
This performance led Planet Fitness to raise its outlook for the full year ending 31 December 2021, forecasting revenues of US$570m–US$580m and adjusted EBITDA of US$210m–US$220m – all assuming no significant worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic as result of varients such as Omicron.
Shares hit an all-time high, as investors continue to favour wellness investment, although the situation with Omicron has subsequently led to adjustments.
The message to investors is one of confidence, says Rondeau: “It’s about reassuring investors that – in spite of home fitness – people are coming back to gyms as we move to the other side of this.
“People want to be around people,” he says, “the variety and quality you get in a true fitness centre is unparalleled and does not equate to anything at home. And with regards to the economy, the value of Planet Fitness is that people can afford it.”
With all US locations now re-open, Rondeau’s predictions are now being borne out across the estate: “We actually picked up acceleration in the second quarter: it was the best second quarter in our history, with twice the net member growth of Q2 of 2019 and more member growth than the first quarter. That never happens,” he says.
And the positive momentum is being seen across the board, not just in new clubs that are ramping up. “Generally, our mature stores [clubs] add a lot of members in the first quarter, even through April, but really for the second and third quarters they can actually pull backwards a bit,” he says. “Not so post-lockdown: “We saw mature locations gaining members even in the third quarter, which never happens.”
He adds: “It reinforces what we had explained was going to happen, and it continued to build confidence in the model, the brand and the future of Planet Fitness in the months and years ahead.”
If anything, Rondeau now sees the opportunity today as being even bigger than pre-COVID: “For decades, we’ve all been told we have to exercise and take better care of our health, but unfortunately too many people ignored it. Coming out of the COVID lockdowns, as tragic as it was, people are walking away with a heightened appreciation of the importance of taking better care of themselves.
“This wellness boom will continue to gain traction – I believe it’s a trend that will last for many years – and fitness is part of that.
“And people are choosing bricks and mortar businesses. They’re coming back faster than we’ve ever seen. Gen Zs are joining faster than we’ve ever seen. We’re stronger now on the other side of the lockdowns.”
Diving deeper into membership growth, Rondeau explains: “We’re seeing around 40 per cent of our joiners being first-time gym members, which is slightly higher than the norm in more recent years: in 2017, 2018 and 2019 it was sometimes as low as 35-36 per cent.
“But the thing that’s really encouraging is that we’re seeing re-joins at higher levels than we’ve ever experienced – people who’ve been members in the past and who have come back to us.
“Normally about 20 per cent of the people we sign up are re-joining. Right now, it’s 30 per cent. People are coming back faster than we’ve ever seen.
“Even if you just look at the 2020 cancellations – the people who cancelled in the first year of COVID – the percentage that have come back this year is slightly higher than the 2018 cancels who joined in 2019.”
Impact of free app content
The audience for Planet Fitness is also growing significantly, partly thanks to its app. The company made free workout content available to members and non-members throughout lockdown to engage more potential members and there’s still some free content on offer. “It’s been a way of introducing people to fitness and to the brand, and hopefully get them to feel confident to come in and try to exercise in the clubs,” says Rondeau.
Planet Fitness has also launched PF+, a full digital subscription charged at US$5.99 a month. “We have a lot of app users who are non-members and former members, and what’s been interesting is that about 40 per cent of PF+ subscribers have gone on to buy a club membership,” says Rondeau. “It’s really turned into a gateway, which is great because there’s only so much you can say in a 30-second commercial!
“This tech didn’t exist for us two or three years ago, so it’s interesting to think about this new world and how we leverage digital to expose the brand to more people, and hopefully drive more acquisition for the clubs.”
“We’ve also definitely seen the digital world integrating into the clubs beyond digital workouts,” he says. “For example, if you look at 2019, about 30–35 per cent of our join-ups were done digitally and mostly through our website. Now it’s about 70 per cent and it’s done via the app as well as via the website. People are also using the crowd meter in our app to adjust their workout schedules, too, so they can avoid crowds in the club.
“Generally, I think people will increasingly adopt digital as a way to interact with physical clubs, which means we can be in contact wherever they are. That’s really interesting and something we’ve never had before, and it’s one of my most interesting learnings from COVID so far: the pandemic has accelerated our digital focus by five to 10 years.”
The profile of members also makes digital an invaluable addition for Planet Fitness. “Forty per cent of our members have never gone to a gym before in their entire lives, so they don’t know where to start. It’s one of the big barriers to giving fitness a try, and it’s why we already offer free training in our clubs. With digital, we’re able to offer even more, and at any time of the day.”
And what about in-club? Are people’s behaviours changing in the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdowns? “We’re seeing people using the facility slightly more than they did historically, which is a good sign,” says Rondeau. “Pre-COVID, the average member would probably use the facility about five times a month. Now it’s about six, which – when you scale it up over 15 million members – is significant.”
Meanwhile, Black Card – Planet Fitness’s premium membership, which includes additional services and guest passes – is now held by 62.5 per cent of members, “up slightly from the same period last year”.
Strength of the system
On the point of membership bounceback, Rondeau clarifies: “If you look at a per-site basis, membership is not quite back to pre-pandemic levels, but we’ve opened more locations – 130 in 2020 – and we’re on track to open between 110 and 120 in 2021.”
That might be fewer openings than usual – “put 2020 and 2021 together and it’s almost a normal year”, he says – but interestingly, more than 95 per cent of the franchises sold in 2020 went to existing franchisees.
And their confidence seems well placed. Rondeau explains: “Across the US, 22 per cent of all gyms closed permanently as a result of COVID. Within the Planet Fitness system, I’m extremely thrilled to say that, out of all our franchisees, we didn’t have one permanent closure or bankruptcy. We didn’t lose a single one.
“I think it’s testament to the brand, the strength of our model and the strength of our franchisees. If this had happened 10 years ago, I’m not sure we could have weathered it quite as well as we did, but we’ve been franchising for almost 20 years’ now. Ours is a strong group of sophisticated franchisees who could weather a storm like this and get to the other side.”
They weren’t left to battle through it alone: “We have an independent franchise council who we worked with weekly, going through the obstacles people were having and putting together playbooks. We also had monthly Zoom calls with franchisees, because in some states, they were already operating and had a lot of learnings we could redirect to people in the rest of the system.
“And then financially, we weren’t charging any royalties. We also gave franchisees a one-year extension on new site development commitments and an 18-month extension on their re-equip schedule: we’re normally pretty adamant that stores are re-equipped every five to seven years.
“In actual fact, our franchisees are back to opening locations ahead of schedule and are re-equipping their clubs ahead of their obligations. The business is back and the memberships are coming through, so franchisees are confident to begin to get back to previous growth plans.”
More growth to come
So how big can Planet Fitness get? “Pre-COVID, all our market analysis indicated the domestic potential here in the US to be 4,000 units. Of that, over 3,000 are already committed. Over 1,000 are sold to our current franchisees for development, on top of the 2,200 stores we already have open.
“But we sold a lot of area development agreements seven or eight years ago, and there’s a big difference between what we thought then and what we know from the data today.
“Where we thought there might be demand for 10 locations in an area, for example, we now know we could fit 12–14 – especially with the recent closure of many gyms in the US – so I think 4,000 locations is probably our floor and not the ceiling.”
Might that involve taking over clubs that have folded during lockdown? “We do that occasionally,” says Rondeau, “but our model is so different from most other gyms and there’s so much real estate available on the market, most times it’s easier and less expensive to go into a closed-down supermarket and re-open it as a gym than to take on an existing club and try to convert it.”
And how about internationally, with Planet Fitness already present in Canada, Mexico, Panama and Australia? What plans are there for international growth? “We’re looking to build up in those countries and maybe, from there, go to Asia,” he says. “However, with the US potential as big as it is, we don’t want to get distracted and take our eye off the ball here. The US will continue to be our main focus.
“And we have a lot of work to do. As great as it is to have 15 million members, there are still 200 million people in the US who are of age to join a gym but haven’t.”
A vital need for advocacy
This observation brings Rondeau to what he identifies as his biggest learning from the pandemic so far: “That the industry needs to do a lot more work around advocacy. We’re so close to our work, we probably didn’t realise the rest of the world looked at us as a vanity business rather than a health business.
“That came to light at the start of the pandemic, because when the shutdowns began, we were lumped in with hospitality and leisure – casinos and restaurants and nightclubs.
“If people had really understood what we do as an industry, things might have been different. Because let’s face it, the crux of the problem with COVID-19 is that too many people were out of shape and not taking care of their health. When you look at who was affected most, it was the obese, the overweight and those with pre-existing conditions.
“Whether it’s COVID or another illness, your ability to fight it – the strength of your immune system – comes from working out and taking better care of your health. But we had never really pushed people to understand that the gym industry is preventative healthcare. What we really do is make people’s hearts healthier, help them take better care of their obesity, help them lose weight, reduce stress and anxiety and sleep better.
“Going forward, the industry has to push the world to understand what we do – to hire lobbyists to drive advocacy in the future – as well as focusing even more on mental health.
“I’d like to make all this part of my legacy, making sure the government – and everybody else – see us as part of the healthcare delivery system, not just as a dumbbell gym. I’m in pretty close contact now with the American Heart Association and other health organisations here in the US, which pre-COVID I was never able to do,” he says.
“With every new statistic showing the relationship between being severely ill or dying from COVID and the condition of your health going into it... people are listening. The door is open to talk to them, but people have short memories and that door might close again in a couple of years, so I believe the time is now to get a foot in the door and have them listen.
“So I’ll continue to support my franchisees to open more stores – democratising fitness and making it more accessible to more people and getting more people off the couch. But I also want to make sure everyone realises what this industry really means for people.”