| Natasha Khan |
HONG KONG (WP-BLOOM) — Just down the road from Hong Kong’s popular night clubs dragon-i and Tazmania Ballroom, another venue opened last year with the same booming music and strobe lights. Here clients sweat in lycra rather than designer clothes.
The latest trend sweeping Hong Kong isn’t leather handbags or frozen yogurt: It’s intense fitness. After years of limited options, people in Asia’s financial capital can now pay HK$2,000 (US$258) a month or more for workouts with an edge, amping up the sweat factor.
Studio Fitness, the club-like gym that opened in April and offers drills with names like “Get Ripped,” broke even in May and plans to expand to a new floor, says co-founder Justin Wills.
Wills and other proprietors settling into some of the world’s most expensive real estate say clients are waking up to the appeal of fitness that blurs the line between exercise and entertainment — even if the fees are as demanding as the workout.
Some are building their brand with a view of taking it to mainland China to tap growing demand for wellness.
“Never have I seen this kind of interest in getting healthy in 13 years,” said Colin Grant, who in 2002 co-started Pure Group, one of the city’s biggest premium gym operators with five central venues and another seven in the periphery. “People just want to exercise.”
Hong Kong’s growing economy — gross domestic product is forecast to expand 2.8 per cent this year — combined with a high life expectancy are making it a prime fitness market. More entrepreneurs are introducing trendy alternatives to lure the city’s affluent expats as well as local residents.
Dozens of new outlets have sprouted up in the past year, with owners preparing to rent out some of the poshest real estate to add more. Pure plans one of its biggest openings yet in April: A six-floor gym in California Tower, an entertainment behemoth in the centre of Lan Kwai Fong, which houses many of the city’s bars and clubs.
The change is visible: People walk around the streets in active wear, they carry yoga mats, and at parties it’s no longer unusual to compare workout plans.
It started with gyms like Pure, which gave locals a taste for the modern studio — high tech, fun and central — and the influence of a handful of expatriates and fitness buffs, who introduced Hong Kong to alternatives like CrossFit, a concept that combines cardio workouts, gymnastics, weight lifting and core training.
Grant, who plans to open two more outlets in Hong Kong’s central business district this year, says it’s not just that new people are signing up: Existing customers are more driven as well. His gyms and yoga studios saw a 14 per cent increase in usage last year compared to 2013. He figures Hong Kong’s fitness market will double in the next five years, with gyms like his and boutique operators like Studio Fitness complementing each other to drive growth.
Pure’s California Tower venue will feature a virtual reality room. Existing classes include body combat training, pole dancing and boxing, with about 20 participants on average for individual attention.
“It’s really like traditional phones versus smartphones,” says David Chang, a former banker who has opened two CrossFit gyms in the city since 2013.
He says fitness in the future will be done “outside the traditional gym in our natural habitat and involve actual human interaction.”
Like Wills, Chang entered the industry when he got frustrated by a lack of options in Hong Kong. He was a fan of CrossFit when he lived in California. After a run-in with staff at his old studio, where he was told he used too much space to exercise, he decided to start his own facility with a friend.
Their first gym, called 852 after Hong Kong’s area code, opened in 2013. It now counts 260 members in two locations: One in the financial district and the other in Causeway Bay, the entertainment and shopping area where retail rents rival those of New York City’s Fifth Avenue.
Chang, who funds startups when he’s not building his CrossFit business, is looking to settle in three more locations this year, including one in the business district four times the size of his existing gym, and another in Taiwan.
By 2020, he aims to have as many as 25 studios across Asia.
For Chang, Hong Kong could be the springboard to leap into China when Asia’s biggest economy is ready to embrace that type of intense fitness — but that’s not the case just yet, he says. Half of the world’s 10,000 CrossFit gyms are located in the US China has fewer than 10.