WORKOUT: Zivile Miskinyte (center) leads the class at her fitness club, which offers everything from aerobics to art to English classes.
KLAIPEDA - If you are going to beef up a bit, burn the fat and add some muscle tissue to that saggy belly, there are hundreds of sports clubs for you out there, offering as wide a range of services as free weight lifting in Soviet-type cellar gyms, to sophisticated callanetics studios in modern sport clubs.
Only 1.5-2 percent of the Lithuanian population frequent sports clubs, a significant gap compared to Western Europeans, where approximately 11 percent of people attend them. Despite the statistics, many Lithuanian sports club owners maintain that Lithuanians do care about their health, sex appeal and healthiness.
“The numbers mean that we still have room to expand. Generally speaking, the sports club market is still growing, especially outside of Vilnius,” says Rolandas Ceckauskas, marketing and sales department head at Impuls, a sports club chain that runs 8 up-to-date centers in the country.
The Lithuanians’ lag, he says, is not as much due to lack of attention to health issues, as much as about long working-hours in the country, Ceckauskas says.
“Lithuanians are among those who work the longest hours in Europe. Therefore, having got out of work very late, our people hurry back home to their families, but not to a local gym or fitness center,” the Impuls representative says.
On the other hand, he stresses, many Lithuanians, who were hardest hit by the crisis, simply gave up sports club memberships as a part of a family’s austerity measures. However, Ceckauskas notes that sports clubs in smaller Lithuanian towns have been crisis-hit hardest. “That is not extraordinary. We have all seen the larger emigration and more disadvantageous credit conditions in the provinces,” he said to The Baltic Times.
He admitted that the sports club chain has suffered a 40 percent turnover slump throughout 2008-2009.
“We had cut down on our expenses, starting with small things, like switching on less electric appliances and electric bulbs, or getting rid of some less popular training programs. The crisis has made all Impuls employees more expense-conscious,” the marketing head noted.
He says that despite the fall, the chain managed to keep all its 8 clubs running, without having carried out a major restructurization, which is something other sports clubs have done. Ceckauskas stressed that Impuls has managed to turn things around “in a less painful way.”
“We have bottomed out already. In 2010, we managed to offset our balance sheets and, starting this year, we are seeing sales climbing up again. That is a good sign of recovery. However, the trend will be clearer at the end of October – by then most people who attend sports clubs will have obtained our club memberships,” the marketing head noted.
Nevertheless, he says that growth has spiked in recent months, which he attributes to “active” marketing actions. “Albeit compared to the economic peak years throughout 2005-2008, we now see less clients, however, they are bigger money spenders. It is the result of a scrupulous overhaul of our provided services, and a result of the optimization of our chain’s management,” the Impuls representative said.
Ceckauskas relates that the chain has given up some expensive, but loss-generating, services in its sports clubs, but also has introduced some novelties, like physiotherapy services. “In addition, we have invested a lot into improving the qualifications of our specialists,” he stressed.
Currently the chain runs 8 sports clubs in Vilnius, Kaunas, Panevezys and Siauliai. That makes the chain the largest sports club operator in the country. Impuls sports clubs, he stresses, instead of focusing on hard-core free-weight lifting, pays more attention to improvement and expansion of their services in the field of wellness.
“Sure, hardcore lifters are welcome in our gyms; however, we seek to attract more people who care about their wellbeing in the sense of heeding their wellness,” he said.
The Impuls sports club chain, Ceckauskas admits, is planning its expansion already. “We have learnt that the more clubs are out there, the less their management costs are. Therefore, we are eyeing opening a new club in Klaipeda, and possibly several clubs in Latvia. It seems that the Latvian sports club market has large growth potential, larger than in Lithuania,” he said.
When it comes to prices, Impuls offers a one-month membership in its Vilnius-based sports club for 204-349 litas, depending on length of training and volume of desired services. A yearly membership hovers at 2,500 litas (725 euros) for an individual and over 4,000 litas for a family.
Mindaugas Vilkas, owner of Klaipeda-based sports club chain Eola, says that the market still has room to expand. “In comparison to other Western European countries, Lithuania is way behind them in numbers of people who attend sports clubs. Therefore, the business perspectives for the market still seem quite promising,” Vilkas suggested to The Baltic Times.
He says that, altogether, Lithuanians open a sports club’s door for different reasons than do Westerners. “Our compatriots come to sports clubs in hope of shedding some extra weight, relieve back pain and improve their sex appeal, which, as a rule, most are not happy with. Meanwhile, in a Western or Scandinavian country, people come to sport clubs seeking positive feelings, socializing, staying hygienic, and see the clubs as a means to nurture their stamina and self-development,” the Eola owner said.
Asked to point out the particularities of Klaipeda’s sports clubs, the sports buff says Klaipeda residents are too “sensitive” about prices in sports clubs, paying little or no attention at all to the quality of the services the local clubs and their staff provide. “Because of the prevalent ‘low price-consciousness,’ we see many people who, instead of paying more and attending modern air-conditioned and skilled trainer-supervised sport clubs, go to shabby, mildew-stinking cellar gyms offering only a few barbells.”
“Regrettably, there are quite many of this kind,” Vilkas maintains. He adds: “Therefore, the men who go to this kind of club are called cellar-men. Foreigners always get puzzled upon hearing of this kind of weight lifter,” says the Eola owner.
He adds that he is not fearful of the growing competition in Klaipeda. “They do their own thing and we manage the things in our own way,” he says, noting, “After three years in the market, we feel quite comfortable with the competition.”
Eola gyms, he maintains, offer the best quality services, ranging from consultations on nutrition, individual training programs and individual trainers. “Besides, our chain is innovation-oriented, and dictates the fashion in this facet,” Vilkas asserted.
He admits that, price-wise, Eola clubs charge “slightly higher” prices than others, but, he stresses, in comparison with other clubs in the quality-price ratio, the Eola clubs score better.
Vilkas says that the downturn has ill-affected the chain, however, he did not elaborate, maintaining, “We have adapted to the economic difficulties.”
Among the services the chain’s sports clubs provide are aerobics, callanetics, pilates - a physical fitness system developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates in Germany, the UK and the USA. The sports clubs also offer yoga, zumba (dance aerobics craze), body-pump, body-balance bike aerobics and martial arts.
All these services in Eola’s 3 sports clubs are provided by 30 staffers who have been, Vilkas maintains, carefully chosen and trained. The chain is looking forward to opening a new sports club in October.
“It will cater especially to women, and be a new, of this kind, club in Lithuania, as we are going to introduce some industry novelties in it,” Vilkas said.
His ultimate rival, owner of the Apelsinas sports club chain and Kitonija Gym, Tomas Kesminas, says that the sports club market in Klaipeda is “quite different.”
“With the bike lanes stretching across the city, many crisis-hit people, who attended sports clubs, have quit them, choosing riding bikes as an alternative, particularly in summer,” he says.
The sports businessman admits he closed down one sports club, at the peak of the crisis, in the city. “The costs of the club’s operation were just too high,” Kesminas says.
Asked about the most sought-after training, the Apelsinas owner says that callanetics prevails. The aerobics program is named after Callan Pinckney, who started an exercise revolution in the 1980s with her introduction of The Callanetics Exercise Method in the United States. “I would say women are particularly conscious about their health, sex appeal and procedures of healthfulness. Therefore, sports clubs for women are popping up, and Klaipeda is not an exception in that sense. Women prefer to exercise in a cozy environment, mingling and socializing while engaged in the aerobics,” Kesminas said.
He is not surprised at women’s whim to sweat it off (or to glow it off) in all-women-no-men clubs. “Well, imagine, a woman comes to a sports club, she sweats hard on the treadmill, her hair gets disheveled and then she sees her male neighbor in the doorway. How can she handle this, looking so bad?” Kesminas smirks. He adds, seriously: “My experience is that women feel much better in sports clubs where there are no men around.”
The sports entrepreneuer says he is not planning a major change in the operation of the chain. “I am not sure what a double-dip recession can bring,” he says matter-of-factly.
Aiste Guste, owner of Stimulus, an aerobics training studio in Vilnius, concurs with Kesminas on the rise of women’s fitness clubs. “No doubt, they are very trendy. Women feel fewer inferiority complexes when training in a man-less environment,” she says, agreeing.
The Vilnius resident opened her women-oriented fitness studio in the crisis years, but managed to go through it with little adverse impact. “It is because the women that attended the studio favored their sports activity over others,” Guste infers.
In the beginning, she says, she catered to both sexes, but soon she gave up her men’s training studio due to an insufficient number of patrons. “It was too expensive to have separate premises for a few men,” Guste said.
The Stimulus owner is planning to open a new training studio in the old heart of Vilnius soon. “It will offer not only regular services, but also ballet exercising – a training method adopted from ballet dancers,” she explained.
Martial arts clubs are also popular in the country, traditionally known for its love for basketball.
“However, there is a different approach to karate in Lithuania and abroad. In Lithuania, people enrolling in karate training want to achieve desirable results – being able to lift their legs over their heads or climb the walls – very fast; meanwhile, abroad, karate learners are eager to open up the secrets of the martial arts little by little, not hurrying. Once people realize they will have to put much effort into the training, they often give up here,” Norbertas Motiejunas, head of karate club Danas, said to Ekonomika.lt. He says that, in this sense, Vilnius’ residents are particularly pampered.
Zivile Miskinyte, owner of leisure center “7 muzos” in Vilnius, notices that Lithuania has very weak traditions of wellness. “We can see them only in the big cities,” she maintains, adding: “Altogether, speaking of sport clubs, the demand equals the supply, even in Vilnius.”
“7 muzos” is a family-oriented leisure center, which offers activities ranging from fitness and aerobics to artistic nurturing. And beyond that – English classes as well.
The family center owner says she enjoys a constant clientele that has withstood the crisis without sacrificing the activities in the center. “The downturn has served well in differentiating the people who want to pay for plush and glitzy fitness studios, and those who want to pay for the quality of the wellness programs and the skills of the trainers,” Miskinyte emphasized to The Baltic Times.
The center, in its four studios, offers pilates, callanetics, classic dance and yoga classes, as well as traditional aerobics and weight-lifting. The prices for most of the training programs average 100-150 litas.
Though sports club owners maintain that they all have chipped away a part of the market, it seems that the prospects for sports club chains and those smaller clubs with niche activities are the best.