Wearables, smartphones and apps for health and fitness were all the rage at CES this year. I know because I attended, but interestingly a lot of leaders in the health club industry didn't. Why? I am not sure, but in a recent CNBC interview, Harvey Spevak, Equinox's CEO, touched on what might be a reason and perhaps the biggest elephant in the health club industry room when he answered this question posed by one of the hosts of the show: "In fairness, most training isn't brain surgery. It should be fairly easy to recreate in a semiconductor the type of advice or the type of program your average trainer would give you. Once you can take in the various metrics of how a person is, what their weight is, how they perform, how flexible they are, the information technology should be able to supply the rest possibly in video form. I'm just wondering how that cuts out your premium proposition, which is personal training?"
Spevak replied: "There is absolutely no replacement for hands-on expertise and experience. We think this is all additive and complimentary because our population, the luxury consumer, wants the information to better inform how they should train when they are with us and even when they are without us. So our philosophy is we are going to help our members to be always on 24/7 in terms of thinking about that information."
In referring to wearables and apps specifically, Spevak opined, "We are in the early stage, the software's not there, the hardware's not there and so it's going to take time, but by 2017, they are predicting over 60 million devices will be sold."
Absolutely no replacement? We are in the early stages? Now Spevak is a visionary I deeply respect, and Equinox is certainly a luxury brand with an enviable market position. And although the thinking of creating a fitness experience inside and outside of their clubs is an intelligent realization of what is happening with customers' expectations, the view that "there is absolutely no replacement for hands-on expertise and experience" is one that the health club industry in general better rethink.
Today, there certainly are replacements for personal training in health clubs. These exist in the form of applications such as the dailyburn.com and content providers such as radiusfitness.com. They also exist in new business models such as retrofitme.com and fitocracy.com among many others. Will traditional personal training in clubs go away? Of course not, but it would be naive to think that alternatives for traditional face-to-face training don't exist. In fact, alternatives are growing rapidly and creating a new wave of consumer choice. For a brand such as Equinox, which is focused on luxury consumers, this might not be as big of a near-term threat. For other brands, however, this might be a different story as less expensive digital alternatives could take away business. Mapmyfitness.com has more than 30 million users, and many platforms offer premium services for less than $10 a month with some being free.
So this begs the question: Will digital fitness alternatives grow the pie for clubs or shrink it? Can technology provide alternatives for personal training? I'd love to hear what you have to say. Share with me in the comment section below.
Bryan O'Rourke serves as president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council, is CEO of Integerus Advisors and CSO of the Flywheel Group and Fitmarc. These organizations collectively serve more than 800 fitness facilities in the United States, dozens of global organizations and more than 5,000 instructor professionals. O'Rourke is an entrepreneur, consultant, executive and investor with a 30-year track record of success. As a former club owner, he has worked in the health club and fitness industry for 18 years. IHRSA named him one of 13 to watch in 2013. He has presented at industry and corporate conferences on four continents and is widely published and quoted in periodicals such as Inc. Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. To learn more, visit bryankorourke.com and follow him on twitter @bryankorourke.