A bodybuilder performing a deadlift.
  • South Africa's biggest gyms say their recent promotions aren't to regain memberships that lapsed during lockdown.
  • Instead, they say membership numbers are looking healthy, and deals like these are not uncommon throughout the year.
  • Even so, now appears to be a pretty good time to sign up - and an even better time to negotiate joining and membership fees, free months, and added perks.
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Although gyms in South Africa were among the businesses hardest hit during lockdowns, two of the country's biggest fitness companies say they're not struggling to get new and lapsed members to sign up after the fallout from the pandemic.

This is despite promotional campaigns that seem to suggest the opposite - with benefits like several months of free workouts for friends, fee-free months, and the waiving of joining and rejoining fees that can total more than R1,200.

In the immediate aftermath of the initial Covid-19 hard lockdown gyms worked hard to persuade the South African government - and the public - that returning to clubs was safe. They also initiated extra measures to protect members, including stringent sanitisation processes and reduced numbers.

And with general hesitancy still an issue, some gyms also allowed clients to freeze their memberships, rather than cancel outright, in the hope that they would eventually have renewed confidence in working out in confined spaces.

But despite a few difficult months, both Virgin Active and Planet Fitness say they are starting to see a healthy return to their clubs - and the specials currently in place are not necessarily due to any fallout from the coronavirus.

"We run special promotions that vary throughout the year to motivate South Africans to live active and healthy lifestyles, while also rewarding members with reduced fee structures, waived activation fees or kit to make their in-club experiences even easier," Nikki Cockcroft, Global Chief Marketing and Technology Officer at Virgin Active, told Business Insider South Africa.

Virgin Active has recently run an email campaign targeting lapsed Discovery Vitality members that offered to scrap the R1,200 re-joining fee and include the rest of the month free, which suggests they are somewhat eager to tap their lost membership database. A similar offer is also open to people joining the club for the first time.

Planet Fitness says its current promotions have nothing to do with Covid-19, and instead say winter is a difficult time to make it to the gym - and presumably convince people to sign up. For this reason, it's allowing new and existing members to bring a friend to train with them free of charge, as a way to stay motivated to exercise during winter.

Planet Fitness Marketing Manager Gillian Elson says the club has, however, seen "record numbers" of members returning to the gym and first-time members signing up.

Virgin Active is slightly less bullish about their situation, with the company saying it has seen "a steady improvement" in the usage of their facilities, with approximately 70% of their members having returned to training since August 2020. 

"We experienced some short-term obstacles to bringing members back in 2020, but as we continue to adapt to living within a Covid-19 world our long-term prognosis is that the pandemic will be positive for the industry. It highlighted the importance of fitness in maintaining a strong and healthy immune system as the first line of defence and fitness providers are best placed to serve the market," says Cockcroft.

Planet Fitness also believes a renewed interest in health and wellbeing following the impact of Covid-19 is driving an increase in its membership numbers.

"People have realised that in order to build up their immune systems to combat the virus, whilst they wait for the vaccine, they need to be fit and healthy and we believe that this has created an upsurge in demand for our services and for the brand-new club that we have opened recently," Elson said.

Although both clubs deny that the latest campaigns are trying to get lapsed members to rejoin and new members to sign up for the first time, it does appear as if the onset of winter, and the fallout from Covid-19, make now a particularly good time to negotiate a good package with either gym brand.

And gym membership fees and privileges are, historically, one of life's unknown negotiable costs. Most gyms are willing to entertain a discussion about joining and membership fees - and those that aren't may be willing to tack on freebies like access during peak times, or access to premium facilities like tennis courts or swimming pools, or to multiple branches, which are sometimes reserved for higher-tier memberships.

But to cash in discounts and promotions - even those widely advertised - you'll need to claim them at the time of signing up or rejoining. And as both Virgin Active and Planet Fitness point out these come around frequently enough, which makes paying full price for your membership seem like something of a bad deal.

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