Rick Berks, a former Gold's Gym franchisee and co-founder of Planet Fitness, started Youfit in 2008 as a no-frills alternative to traditional gyms. Youfit clubs have no long-term contracts, pictures of perfection on the walls or even mirrors next to the equipment.
The St. Petersburg chain is enjoying a surge in demand for fitness centers nationwide, from 24-hour budget gyms to boutique studios specializing in boxing, ballet barre and CrossFit classes.
"Consumers are coming to the realization of what clubs can do,'' said Melissa Rodriguez, senior research manager for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
Last year, U.S. health club membership rose 5.3 percent to 52.9 million members, according to the IHRSA, a nonprofit trade association that represents more than 10,000 health and fitness facilities, gyms, spas, sports clubs and suppliers worldwide. Since 2008, gym membership has grown by 16 percent, with more than 18 percent of Americans ages 6 and older belonging to a health club.
Reasons range from an improving economy and declining unemployment rate to greater awareness about the problems of obesity. The diversity of clubs, from $10-a-month gyms such as Youfit to luxury fitness centers such as $140-a-month Life Time Athletic, makes it possible for anyone to get in shape. Insurance companies provide free memberships to seniors through SilverSneakers and other programs.
"During the recession, some people dropped out or traded down,'' Rodriguez said. "Now that their income levels have improved, they have been able to return.''
Youfit looks for sites in highly visible shopping centers that draw from a large population. Especially desirable are former drugstores, supermarkets, laser tag businesses and gyms — sites that can accommodate 16,000 to 17,000 square feet.
The chain succeeds on volume. A typical Youfit location has more than 5,000 members paying $10 a month for a basic membership or $19.99 for a Lime Card membership, which includes access to other locations and unlimited guest passes when the member is present. Most customers come three days a week for short amounts of time, allowing for a larger membership base without overcrowding the facilities.
To better compete with other clubs, Youfit has started group fitness classes at some of its gyms at no additional charge, and several locations are open 24 hours on weekdays. Treadmills have fans, TVs and plugs for iPhones. The company emphasizes cleanliness.
"We're trying to give our members the best there is for $10 a month,'' Creegan said. "Competition drives everyone to be better.
Gyms and health clubs are increasingly taking over traditional retail space. Thanks to the consolidation of retail and a shift to online buying, shopping centers once filled with stores now have gyms, medical clinics and financial planners.
"The occupancy of shopping centers has evolved,'' said Gary Ralston, managing partner of a Coldwell Banker commercial brokerage in Polk County. "It's not just core retail anymore. It includes a broad range of services that serve a need for the people who live in proximity to the property.''
Fitness centers are considered good tenants for shopping centers. They pay the equivalent in rent as stores and restaurants, and they create a customer base that comes to the center a few times a week. As retailers downsize, more gyms are filling the space.
"The users for those spaces are starting to change,'' said Tyler Peterson, a retail services associate for Colliers International Tampa Bay. "There aren't a ton of retail users for 10,000 to 20,000 square feet that are active right now.''
Peterson is working with Crunch Fitness to bring several locations to the Tampa Bay area. A club opened recently in Valrico in a former LA Fitness, and another is planned along S Dale Mabry Highway as an anchor for a small shopping plaza.
As interest in health and fitness has grown, so has the number of clubs. According to the IHRSA report, the number of U.S. fitness centers reached 32,150 last year, up from 30,500 the previous year.
It's not uncommon to see a boutique club next to a budget Planet Fitness, the IHRSA's Rodriguez said. And given people's different preferences, both can survive. Most clubs draw from within an eight- to 10-minute drive.
Specialty and low-cost, 24-hour clubs are the fastest-growing segments. Fitness devotees want something new and different to keep them motivated. People bruised by the recession don't want to overpay.
"Consumers are very picky nowadays,'' Rodriguez said. "Variety is booming.''
In less than two years, Elle McComb and her daughter, Lauren, have opened Pure Barre studios in Tampa and St. Petersburg, and have another in the works in Clearwater. Finding the right location takes time. Not everyone can be next to Starbucks or Fresh Market, and many landlords don't allow more than one gym-type business in the same plaza.
"You want visibility, a great location, a lot of parking and to be in the best part of town,'' Elle McComb said. "It's like a puzzle. It's challenging.''
Youfit has several employees devoted to real estate and is busily looking for growth opportunities. It doesn't have a set number of locations in mind, but has been adding 12 to 17 gyms a year and now operates in nine states. The bright green and purple clubs are gaining notice.
"We think people today, more than ever, are realizing that exercising and fitness are something they need and want to do,'' Creegan said. "We think the tides are changing, and we want to be there for them.''