Wellness is on the rise in Singapore. International brands like Virgin Active are honing in on Singapore as a South East Asian launchpad, boutique studios are providing springboards for regional athleisure labels to penetrate the market, and healthy eating presents a lucrative opportunity. For entrepreneurs with a presence in the island’s vibrant wellness scene, the growth in such opportunities has been palpable.
“We really did not have much competition back in 2011 – but things have come a long way since then,” explains former England rugby player and UFIT Founder James Forrester. He’s seen the market develop dramatically since moving to Singapore in 2010 after a career-ending knee injury. Originally he noticed a gap in the market for personal training, now his 85-strong team provides bootcamps, CrossFit classes and personal training across seven facilities in the region.
Government statistics confirm overall demand is on the rise with annual gym visits increasing from 1.8m to 2.5m in the five years to 2015. “Our health promotion board has been quite aggressive in asking people to get fit, and pushing out programmes that reward increased health,” explains Ileane Ng, Founder of boutique studio PoleFIT, which she began in 2011 after noticing existing studios were at capacity.
And with a quarter of the country’s 5.7m population expats, it’s no surprise that wellness trends from the US, UK and Australia, as well as other parts of Asia, are also diffusing into the market. Australian fitness franchise F45 opened its first studio in 2016, while Virgin Active has launched two clubs since 2013. A further 8-10 outposts are earmarked for the next six years, with the gym operator planning to invest the equivalent of £50m in expansion.
With growing consumer awareness of the importance of health and fitness coupled with rapidly rising wealth expected to drive demand, CEO Matthew Bucknall believes the brand can build its Asian presence to the same level as that of Europe and South Africa.
A handful of globally recognised brands have already managed to develop a strong presence in the region. American sportwear brand New Balance boasts eleven stores across the island, whilst Lululemon has expanded its footprint to three stores since launching in 2014. Most recently, Australian activewear brand Lorna Jane opened a showroom, in a bid to capture a share of the growing market. Triple Pte, which owns exclusive distribution rights for Under Armour in Asia, has also managed to penetrate the market, operating five stores across the city. And, after taking a minority stake in Every Second Counts in March 2017, the sports retailer plans to expand the British athleisure label’s presence over the coming years.
With the city’s real estate some of the most expensive in the world, many of Singapore’s savviest wellness entrepreneurs are combining studio space with athleisure boutiques. Shops at three of Pure Group’s yoga and gym spaces in the city stock the company’s own athleisure lines, while boutique studios like Barre2Barre sell Indonesian brand Raquel and Hong-Kong based eco-wellness label Rumi X.
Jessica Felicia, who co-founded the company’s first Singapore location in 2016, says that tie-ups like these are good for marketing as well as space utilisation. “We’ve got good press from collaborations with other boutique brands,” she explains.
Currently, Barre2Barre’s sites in Singapore and Hong Kong are the only places in Asia to offer BarreAmped classes. “Yoga is very popular; pilates and pole fitness are at the next level,” says Felicia, while “barre is relatively new so there is more room for growth.”
Expats like the studio’s Los Angeles-born co-founder may be leading the way when it comes to boutique fitness, but as Felicia explains: “cities like Hong Kong and Singapore still look to the west for inspiration in the modern fitness and wellness scene.
“And on the flip side, Asia has a deep heritage in martial arts; so plenty of people abroad look for inspiration here too.”
Certainly, both for fitness and at a competitive level, the scene is booming. CNN labelled the country the “MMA capital of Asia” in 2012, and serial fitness entrepreneur Arlene Lim has been able to grow her latest venture, martial arts site Trifecta, to 1000 members across three sites in as many years.
However, one of the biggest challenges these entrepreneurs face is the risk of copying, in a domestic economy characterised by caution to new ideas. “When I first opened my previous venture back in 2003 we were actually one of the first martial arts gyms,” explains Lim.
“Everyone was telling us: you’re going to fail. In Singapore people tend to copy and do what’s been done, they don’t tend to innovate. We’ve had to distinguish ourselves from our competitors, and that’s involved implicating more mindfulness in our training – making it less about working out and more about developing an internally reflective mindset,” she adds.
Yet, for businesses looking to mitigate the risk from copycats, the burgeoning wellness entrepreneurship community provides a much-needed boost. “There is a small but growing ecosystem of supportive wellness practitioners we can tap into for topics like nutrition, functional movement and anatomy, and meditation,” says Felicia.
Bridging the gap between barre, pole and martial arts offerings, and highlighting the healthy investment ecosystem on the island is GuavaPass, a studio booking platform covering 10 cities across Asia. Taking inspiration from the ClassPass model, unlike its American counterpart, GuavaPass continues to offer unlimited class subscriptions, and in November 2016 closed a $5m funding round led by Singaporean VC fund Vickers Venture Partners. VP of marketing and branding Emma Harris believes this is down to the company’s regional coverage which is a key part of the proposition. “People are interested in trying a variety of exercises, and living in such transient cities they naturally need flexibility,” she argues.
In contrast with this buoyant fitness landscape, healthy eating in Singapore, which has the second-highest rate of diabetes in the developed world, lags behind, with Euromonitor data revealing that the category grew by just two percent last year. Forrester points to local hawker centres, which sell cheap regional cuisine alongside drinks like sugar cane juice, as part of the problem. “The food tastes great but is not so good for the waistline,” he says. “It’s challenging as they’re a way of life in Singapore and a real community thing. And although health and organic products are becoming more available, they are very expensive still.” Yet, uptake of the UFIT clean and lean four-week nutrition challenge has been positive, with 290 participants in January alone.
Change might be slow, but where visible it’s being led by innovative startups such as The Whole Kitchen. Founded by two Australian expats in 2015, the brand caters to those with organic, paleo -friendly, raw, grain-free and dairy-free dietary needs, at events as well as through a smattering of the island’s independent supermarkets. So, whilst the lack of healthy options can present a challenge for brands operating in Singapore, it also provides a big opportunity for those in a position to respond.
Similarly, simmering under the surface of the Singaporean market is also the potential for wellness services targeted at older people.
Currently 12 percent of the island’s residents are above retirement age, with that figure set to rise significantly. Alex Phua, who manages a nonprofit community gym in the suburb of Ulu Pandang, says he has been able to attract a clientele consisting of 40 percent over the age of 60 by offering affordable memberships priced from $400 Singapore Dollars (£200) per year. And Alan Tan, the Marketing Director of OSIM international, a regional wellness conglomerate that owns the GNC franchise in Singapore, argues that the current demographic provides growth opportunities for powders, vitamins and supplements too.
“Like in all markets with ageing populations, the awareness of good nutrition and the need for supplements is high, more sophisticated, and growing all the time,” he explains.
These demographics bode well for wellness tourism too, with consultancy Horwath HTL citing older travellers’ demands for wellness as one of the top ten global long term trends in the industry.
For now, despite Changi airport boasting one of the only wellness lounges in the world, Singapore lacks the internationally-recognised spas and healthy holiday reputation of its neighbours. But with Ipsos figures showing that half of the island’s residents have ‘staycationed’ in the last year, the huge gap for retreats marketed at the domestic market is clear. This is something Lim sees a lot of potential in, explaining: “People go to Bali, Indonesia or Thailand to relax, but the greenery here is fantastic – you don’t have to go far away to find centeredness.”
With Indonesia and Thailand seeing wellness tourism growth of 40 and 17 percent respectively, and Chinese consumers’ appetites for health-focused trips “huge and growing,” the opportunity for Singapore to rise to prominence in the wellness travel space is one that’s likely to present huge opportunities.