By Tracy Morrell, Director of React Fitness

Never has there been a more challenging time for the fitness industry. Confronted with a third national lockdown, members are once again having to adapt their fitness routines – heading back (if they ever left) to the platforms, apps and other means of staying active that had served them during the previous two lockdowns. 

Without any clear evidence that gyms spread Covid, yet a clear lack of acknowledgement from our government regarding the vital role our sector can play in helping people to fight the physical and mental effects of the pandemic, it revealed a painful fact – physical activity is arguably one of the most overlooked and underappreciated areas of preventative health. 

The closing down of our industry on multiple occasions, even though temporary, made it loud and clear – we have more work to do to convince, lobby and educate our bureaucratic leaders to demonstrate the wide-ranging benefits of everything we do and the positive impact we make across our society.  

Without this support, and to survive the pandemic, many brick and mortar facilities in the UK and across the world have adopted a hybrid model, with some brands, like Orangetheory Fitness in the US, even managing to expand, despite the soaring cases; a result of its successful streamlining and pivoting – mixing in-studio classes, outdoor classes and OT Live (it’s hi-tech, high-touch virtual coaching service). As a result, and rather impressively, 90 per cent of its global network remains open in some fashion. 

A lifeline to many brands has been this ability to adjust and optimise products, services and operating models to engage customers, both digitally and phygitally, within the constantly changing landscape and “new norm.” 

But Covid has brought to the fore an even deeper-running issue that the industry has been quietly ignoring for years. Pre-Covid, the number of UK gym members sat at 10.4 million, according to The Leisure Database Company. Despite being a record high, this means a whopping 76.9 million were without memberships.

But why does this matter? 

It’s all about market penetration. According to Deloitte, about 90 per cent of adults own a smartphone, with around 95 per cent using them daily. And a quarter (25 per cent) of Brits are now regularly engaging in-home workouts – far above the 15.6 per cent gym penetration level. 

While annual reports may have painted a rather rosy picture of the sector’s year-on-year growth, it could be said that we got complacent, failing to address the biggest threat of all – the untapped 84.4 per cent of non-gym-goers that are now primed for the taking.

Enter the Apple and co…

In 2020, many of the world’s most influential technology brands made their moves – looking to capitalise on the growing digital and at-home fitness markets and capture their share of the open audience mentioned above.

We saw the launch of Apple Fitness, Amazon Halo and Sky teaming up with Fiit – offering consumers new digital and virtual ways to exercise and keep track of their health and fitness metrics. Then, throw into the mix that Peloton purchased Precor, gearing up to make a play for the commercial sector. The fitness space is changing.

So, what does this all mean for our industry?

Firstly, it demonstrates that health is making its way up the agenda and is becoming an even faster-growing market. 

It’s clear that health awareness has risen dramatically as a result of Covid-19. But even before the pandemic, med-tech, health-tech and fit-tech were forecasted to grow exponentially from a compound annual growth basis over the next four years; Covid has provided the fuel to accelerate that. 

The stats show that diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity and the related respiratory issues and cancers, are going in the wrong direction because of people’s lifestyles. Global brands, like Apple, can potentially help to progress positive change in these areas, as they can reach and influence billions of people at the click of a button. And who’s better at getting us hooked on behaviours (good and bad) than these trendsetting tech giants?

According to Joe Gaunt, Founder and CEO of hero, the award-winning health-tech and well-tech firm, “Technology is transforming the health space in two ways. The first is building efficiencies. Think about telehealth, for example, where you can book an appointment and see somebody in a short space of time and in a more efficient way than sitting in a waiting room. The second is scalability. The ability for a technological intervention to be scaled to millions of people and be impacting their health, versus in-person services that only allow you to reach a certain level of scale.” 

In short, Apple and the other big players can reach further, faster and more cheaply into the market than traditional fitness brands. Just think, there are 1.4 billion Apple devices in the world, meaning there’s a high chance that Apple is already in your home and part of your life. You’re already captured and under the “Apple spell.” 

As well as having an instant, global customer base, Apple can offer amazing value at a low cost, which will likely propel it into the single largest fitness company on the planet. And with its ability to provide on-screen health metrics on your phone, tablet, computer, and wrist (who knows what’s coming next?!), Apple offers the ultimate connectivity. 

In terms of content, Apple doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel but, instead, simply borrow from the best. Popular offerings, like yoga, HIIT and Pilates may not be enough to impress the “fitness maestros,” but will be enough to engage – and stick with – the masses. Reach is the name of the game, and Apple could take a big bite out of that 84.4 per cent! 

Brick and mortar facilities, in particular, will be hoping that the new apps and gadgets developed by Apple, Amazon and the rest of the tech-brigade will be moderately successful, rather than completely dominating. But waiting to see what will happen is part of the danger. To stay ahead of the charge and avoid being muscled out, you’ll want to focus your attention on three areas of your business. So, let’s dive in…

The three-step battle plan to remain competitive in 2021 and beyond

  1. Create a connected experience

The line between home and gym has all but gone. It’s more apparent than ever that we need to find ways to engage members both inside and outside of our facilities. Or, to borrow the words of our friend, Jeff Esswein, Vice-President of Strategic Accounts & Digital Content for Freemotion Fitness, we need to create “clubs without walls”.

Making digital a major and integrated part of our services and customer experiences is the road to achieving this. It’s the way we can stay connected with members in the days and hours between them leaving the facility and returning for their next sessions. It’s also the way we can keep members thinking about our facility/brand – etching it into their subconscious – while allowing them to take full advantage of the products, services and support we offer. This, in turn, will encourage them to retain – and possibly even expand – their memberships. 

There are some great platforms that enable this “hybridization” of fitness – joining the dots between home and gym. iFit – the world’s leading on-demand fitness streaming platform – is one of those. Available on both commercial (Freemotion 22 SERIES) and consumer (NordicTrack and ProForm) equipment, iFit users can seamlessly transition from home to gym and never miss a beat in their workouts/programmes – exercising where, when and how they like. 

According to Esswein, this acceleration of technology provides a great opportunity to maximise results for our customers and reap the rewards. “If a Freemotion facility is able to provide immersive, content-driven experiences that engage, excite, and motivate its members, then stay connected with them at home through the members’ own iFit-enabled equipment, consistency is maintained, members achieve better results, and fitness becomes a habit. This ultimately leads to greater member engagement and retention and an improved bottom line.” 

iFit is already enjoyed by millions of users across the world, who have successfully utilised it to improve their health and wellbeing and enhance their lives. You only have to look at the Official iFit Member Page on Facebook, which is constantly being flooded with the personal stories of raving fans who can’t live without it – amounting to over eight million workouts being streamed monthly. 

We all know that engagement leads to more retention. Today’s biggest challenge is to add value for your members after they leave your facility. But with platforms like iFit, it’s now possible to create a truly connected, end-to-end experience that enhances exercise adherence and, consequently, the lifetime value of members. 

  1. Put health screening at the heart of your service

The pandemic has laid bare how much more fatal a deadly pathogen can be if you have underlying health conditions; the wake-up call many people needed to get their health and fitness back on track. Alarming statistics from Public Health England show that the risk of dying from coronavirus increases by 40 per cent for someone with a BMI between 30 and 35 (obese) and by 90 per cent for those with a BMI over 40 (severely obese) when compared to those with a healthy weight and BMI. 

With this renewed sense of health-consciousness, how can you support your members to fight against obesity and other lifestyle-related conditions – lowering their chances of suffering the more severe complications of illnesses and diseases (including Covid-19) while growing your customer base and profits? 

3D body scanners, such as Styku, can show people their risks of obesity-related disease and how those risks are changing over time in response to health and fitness programmes/interventions. 

People don’t have commercial-quality 3D body scanners – with all the additional capabilities and benefits – at home, so investing in this type of technology and performing health screens as a service could become an important, new profit-driver for your facility by appealing to the new breed of consumers who are becoming increasingly focused on their holistic health and wellbeing. 

For example, always sell two or three scan packages to guarantee they show up for their follow-up scan. This creates another opportunity to engage with them and upsell your other products and services, to enhance their experience and results. Market “3D health assessments” on Facebook and Styku becomes a strong social media hook and lead generator.

  1. Build a VIP experience with technology 

In a world where people want personalised data, automation and connected experiences, investing in the right mix of technology can help you to stand out from the crowd and deliver a VIP experience that your members crave.  

Whether that’s implementing the leading heart monitoring technology (e.g. Myzone), creating a recovery programme with percussive therapy (e.g. Therabody), buying interactive, content-driven cardio equipment that allows your members to become world-wide explorers without leaving the gym floor (e.g. Freemotion 22 SERIES), or using body scanners (e.g. Styku) to not only go beyond the weight scale but to actually show people how their shape is changing – technology can be the key to unlocking your facility’s potential. Once again, offering members experiences they can’t get at home and which they are prepared to pay a premium for. Another bridge back to your facility. 

The fitness sector is not going anywhere. But for businesses to survive, recover and succeed in the years ahead, it’s essential to recognise and adapt to change while actively challenging the status quo. Leading the way starts by adopting a growth mindset, keeping a finger on the pulse and having an eye to the future. So, what type of business will you be?

Need help actioning your three-step battle plan? Let’s talk. Contact: tracymorrell@react-fitness.com

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