SINGAPORE (Sept 17): Charlie Temple and Max Johnson, the Hong Kong-based owners of newly minted fitness brand Platinum Fitness are not daunted by the staggering number of gyms in Singapore. From ActiveSG gyms in the heartlands to mega chains such as Fitness First to boutique yoga studios, there are no less than 320 gyms and health clubs in the city state. That is almost on par with the tally in Hong Kong and just under half the number in Malaysia, says market data firm Statista. “It just shows that people here are willing to spend on health and fitness,” says Johnson, a 33-year-old former investment banker. “We definitely see a rising trend in wellness in Singapore as well as the rest of Asia.”

That wellness wave is something that Johnson and Temple are planning to ride with Platinum Fitness, which debuted in Singapore on Sept 5. The gym sits in the basement of OUE Downtown, where its squat racks and cardio equipment are a short walk away from gourmet cafes and lifestyle shops in the revamped CBD tower. This is the third opening for Platinum Fitness, which rolled out its inaugural gym in Manila, Philippines in January this year. Following the success of the first location in the Makati district, Platinum Fitness opened a second outlet three months later in Bonifacio Global City, also in the capital city of Manila.

To stand out in Singapore’s fiercely competitive fitness market, which is buffeted by fresh fads such as Piloxing (a mix of Pilates and boxing) as well as a spike in scepticism, following the closure of high-end gyms such as California Fitness, Platinum Fitness is dangling a combination of affordability and flexibility to draw both fitness enthusiasts and professionals.

“Personal trainers say one of the biggest problems they face is finding places to train their clients,” says Temple, who has worked in the fitness industry for the past 10 years. Trainers are often exclusively tied to a gym or have to arrange sessions at their clients’ homes or condominium gyms. Platinum Fitness aims to bridge this gap by catering to freelance instructors who need the space and resources to train clients but do not want to be bound to one fitness centre or are put off by the prohibitive cost of renting a space.

At Platinum Fitness, freelance personal trainers can buy a package of hours, which is priced at $20 an hour. They can bring their clients for training sessions at the gym and are free to charge what they want. It also gives them automatic membership to the gym. Clients will need to buy memberships, which start at $80 a month. “Nobody is offering this personal training co-working model,” says Temple. “We’re very excited to push the boundaries of the existing fitness scene by introducing this concept.” Presently, Platinum Fitness has between 20 to 30 certified personal trainers at its gyms in Manila.

Meanwhile, gym members have the option to train with a coach of their choice or on their own. There is also no pressure to sign up for a hefty training package, common at many other big box gyms. “Our selling point is flexibility,” says Johnson. That applies not just to how people want to train but when. Platinum Fitness’ doors are open 24 hours, making it ideal for night owls and early birds who want to hit the treadmill or lift weights at will simply by tapping a key card at the entrance. “There is clearly a market for people who want 24/7 fitness,” notes Johnson.

No doubt about it, 24-hour gyms are in demand. Nowhere is this more evident than at Anytime Fitness, which has mushroomed across the island in recent years. A franchise of 24/7 gyms that began in the US, Anytime Fitness has expanded at such a rapid-fire pace globally that it has been ranked the fastest-growing fitness franchise of all time. In Singapore, Anytime Fitness tested the waters with one gym in Woodlands in 2013. It currently has 49 across Singapore, with several more in the pipeline, located mostly in HDB neighbourhoods and suburban malls outside the CBD.

Its formula of convenience and palatable prices — it has a tiered membership that ranges from $88 to $138 a month depending on the duration one has signed up for — has struck a chord with consumers, particularly as the gig economy grows and pricey, mega gyms struggle to stay in the black. In mid-2016, California Fitness closed its four gyms in Singapore without warning, drawing the ire of members. Some had even been sold lifetime memberships. The company, which already stood out for the high number of complaints filed against it with the Consumers Association of Singapore, could not pay its debts.

Temple (left) and Johnson: Flexibility is our selling point.

Back to basics
In June last year, another well-known fitness chain abruptly shuttered its outlets, this time in Thailand and Malaysia. True Fitness, a Singapore-based company, said those businesses were no longer financially viable but that its eight gyms in Singapore would stay open. These prominent closures have made gym goers leery of being locked in for lengthy periods and of hefty upfront fees.

Temple, who spent seven years with Pure Fitness in Hong Kong and witnessed California Fitness’ demise in Hong Kong and South Korea, has had a front-row seat to the industry’s struggles. “California [Fitness]was a big box trying to be low-priced by undercutting brands such as Pure [Fitness] and Fitness First. The business model was not sustainable. They had big overheads,” he explains. Striking out on his own, he is mindful of keeping costs in check. Platinum Fitness runs on overheads that are 5% to 10% of those at large-format, premium gyms, he says.

To do this, its gyms are kept compact. Bells and whistles are kept to the minimum. At its OUE Downtown branch, cardio machines and strength equipment are packed into 400 sq m of space, leaving only a small area for group classes of about eight. Classes fall into categories of HIIT (high-intensity interval training), boot camp or TRX suspension training. Shower facilities are limited, with three for the ladies and two for the men. Staff numbers are skeletal, with just two full-time personnel per gym.

However, Temple and Johnson stress that there has been no skimping on gear or furnishings. “We’re back to basics. Something that’s convenient, affordable but doesn’t feel cheap,” says Johnson. Fitness apparatus is sourced from Matrix, a leading brand in the commercial fitness equipment industry, and accounts for about half of the fit-outs at each gym, making it the single largest-cost item. At $80 a month, the price tag at Platinum Fitness is half to a third less than the kinds of fees charged by global players such as Virgin Active, which offers frills such as hydrotherapy pools and salt inhalation rooms as well as a smorgasbord of classes from aerial yoga to kickboxing.

Try everything
Aside from being less keen to commit to costly clubs, consumers are leaning towards the freedom to sample new and varied workouts. Boutique studios specialising in Pilates or rebounding have sprouted up. Smaller gyms focusing on HIIT, such as Ritual Gym, or CrossFit, a hardcore strength and conditioning regime favoured by military units and elite athletes, have muscled onto the scene.

Interest in mixed martial arts has skyrocketed and Singapore has emerged as the epicentre for MMA in Asia, driven by its popular ONE Championship, amateur leagues and numerous combat sport gyms. In June, Ultimate Fighting Championship, the Las Vegas-based MMA organisation, unveiled an aggressive plan to set up 15 franchise gyms here over the coming decade.

The marketplace has also been disrupted by internet fitness start-ups. There are now apps that let users tap a spectrum of classes, stretching from Barre, a ballet-inspired workout that is gaining mileage with women, to Pound, a cardio exercise based on drumming. For a monthly fee, these digital fitness passports, which include Singapore-based GuavaPass, Malaysia-based KFit and newcomer ClassPass from the US, let users attend classes not just in Singapore but in other cities across Asia-Pacific when they travel.

On top of all that, there are plenty of cheap or free wellness choices. Anyone with a WiFi connection can follow a celebrity coach or Instagram star’s bite-sized sessions on YouTube. Alternatively, folks can join a free K-pop dance class or circuit training session organised by the Health Promotion Board, which is stepping up efforts to get Singaporeans to lead more active lives. These sessions are held at public parks as well as gyms, such as Fitness First, that the HPB has tied up with.

Temple and Johnson are aware of the competition they are up against. However, they reckon that developments such as multi-activity passes and new fitness trends complement their gym model. Someone might buy a package at a yoga studio then want a gym where they can go to on other days, Temple notes. “We’re not revolutionising workouts. Videos have been around for 20 years,” he points out.

And yet, many people still need the discipline of a brick-and-mortar gym or a real-life coach. So far, response to Platinum Fitness’ two branches in Manila has been really positive, says Temple, adding that they have over 1,000 members now. A third location is on the way. The Philippines was chosen as the entry point, as Manila did not have a lot of fitness concepts, Temple notes. Singapore was next, as it was seen as a test bed for the Malaysian and Indonesian markets and further out, Vietnam.

The near-term plan is for two to three gyms in the Lion City and 10 in the Philippines. The numbers could go higher if they opt for a franchise model. Currently, Temple and Johnson are the sole investors in the business, putting in US$300,000 ($412,780) to $400,000 per branch, which they target to turn cash flow positive within the first two to three months.

The two fitness junkies met in Hong Kong, where Temple was born and bred. Temple, 28, spent much of his youth playing on the tennis circuit, where he was ranked within the Juniors League of the International Tennis Federation. He began his career at The Pure Group in sales and marketing before moving to other gyms such as TopFit, a fitness centre in Hong Kong that runs classes and rents space to freelance trainers.

Johnson found his way from England to East Asia when he decided to study for an MBA at Tsinghua University in Beijing after completing a degree at the University of Oxford. On graduating in 2009, he worked for commodity trader Wogen Resources in Beijing before moving to Hong Kong, where he spent four years at Goldman Sachs. He has long been passionate about martial arts, particularly judo, capoeira and Muay Thai.

These days, Temple has swapped his tennis racquets for boxing gloves, while Johnson has moved up to blackbelt status in taekwondo. They still spend a lot of time in gyms, although as full-time fitness entrepreneurs, they now view them through a commercial lens. They are also finding themselves increasingly on the road, as they take a stab at Southeast Asia’s growing and fragmented wellness market. “We basically live on a plane these days,” laughs Temple. That has entailed getting accustomed to red-eye flights — and the parallel need for a 24/7 gym with a shower cubicle whenever he lands in a city at some unearthly hour of the morning.

Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, needs to go to the gym more frequently.