Take That, Digital: When the World Opened Up, Visits to Real World Wellness Destinations Surged 

…People hit gyms, fitness studios, spas and wellness travel destinations at rates far greater than expected

Since the pandemic hit, we’veof courseseen a massive adoption of (and investment in) all kinds of digital health and wellnessfrom virtual workout platforms to new companies that deliver mental health support (and wellness via screens was a big focus in our 2021 trends report). Investors are pouring gazillions of dollars into technologies that will allow us to live evermore digital lives, and the New York Times recently explored how “tech won the pandemic, and now may never lose.” On the fitness front, the media asks whether gyms will go the way of movie rental storeswith Peleton’s CEO calling the bricks-and-mortar gym “a broken model of yesteryear.”  

 But data coming in—in places where the world started opening up this spring—provide important insight into just how much consumers value in-person wellness classes and experiences—from their fitness studios to spas. New industry surveys and reports show a rush to IRL (in real life) wellness experiences that were more powerful than anyone could have expected.  

 The fitness industry was rocked by the pandemic, with the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) just reporting that 22% of all fitness facilities closed permanently, and $29 billion in revenues were lost from March 2020 to June 2021. But a new, major ClassPass survey of its 40,000 studio, gym and spa partners across 30 countries found that, in the first half of 2021, users “have made a nearly full return to in-person fitness and wellness experiences, with nine out of 10 of the most-booked classes and services now in-person”—and with spas entering the top 10, most-booked experiences for the first time. Mindbody (which aggregates data from its 58,000-fitness studio and wellness business partners) reported in late June that US booking numbers for in-person classes/experiences are reaching pre-COVID levels.  

 The International Spa Association’s (ISPA’s)  recent report on the 2020 US spa industry shows that while hard hit, the numbers are surprisingly less bad than one might expect: a roughly 35% drop in visits and revenue. But spas are reporting that as of July 2021, demand for services has never been higher (more below). And wellness travel destinations are seeing far more travelers choose wellness trips as their first vacation than they could have ever expected (more below).  

Yes, the Delta Variant kicking in in mid-July has put a damper on the in-person wellness recovery, but as North Castle Partners, a big investor in fitness companies, notes: “It is still really good.” And yes, the easy answer to every question about what a post-pandemic future holdswhether for work, fitness, food or medicineis it will be “hybrid.” For instance, a 2021 Mindbody consumer survey found that 65% of people plan to do their workouts at home and in person after COVID.  

 It’s possible that the recent rush to real-world wellness classes and experiences just signals pent-up demand. But investors in fitness don’t seem to think so, and big bets are now being placed on the bright future for bricks-and-mortar models. (And big fitness companies are using the data showing the demand when lockdowns ease in their pitch decks.) For example, PureGym, the UK’s biggest gym chain (which has hit 94% of its 2019 membership levels), is preparing an IPO as soon as this year. SmartFit, the largest Latin American gym brand, just raised $450 million, while F45Training (1,750 global studios) was just valued at $1.45 billion 

 We need to step back. Before the pandemic, one of the most powerful trends was a new focus on communal and social wellness models: wellness club and community concepts that were all about finding creative ways to drive connection between people and make a more holistic wellness center people’s “hang-out center.” Before the pandemic, we were in a tragic loneliness crisis, and the macro shifts that analysts predict for our post-COVID futurewhether a “digital everything” world to working-from-home to an exodus from cities to suburbs/townswill further deprive us of what our world needs most: human gathering and face-to-face connection. That isn’t a “segment” of the wellness market; it’s wellness’s very DNA.  

 We gathered this recent data on people flocking back to fitness studios and spas when they felt they could because it reveals people’s hunger for IRL wellness. And the markets seem pretty clear: The “death of the gym and studio” has been greatly exaggerated.  

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