The Digital Age has been upon us for a while, and yet, as an industry we have been slow adopters, dipping the toe in the water with technology rather than being bold and diving in. The pandemic has been the catalyst that has forced the world’s fitness industry to embrace the possibilities on offer and adjust to meet the needs of the consumer. However, the increased consumer engagement with digital fitness, accelerated by global lockdown restrictions, has also awoken the sleeping giants of Silicon Valley.
Waking the Giants of Silicon Valley
As an industry, we have been caught on the back foot by tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, Mirror and Tonal who have been alerted to the consumer’s appetite for home fitness and fitness tech, recognizing the commercial opportunity, and have launched their own tech-driven fitness services and products. With bigger budgets, seemingly endless resources, established brand loyalty and a global audience, these newcomers to the fitness space have placed a huge amount of pressure on our industry, forcing us to expand digital offerings, enhance quality and meet customer demand in a fast-changing marketplace.
The biggest brands in technology, now with their sights firmly set on the fitness industry, will take no prisoners. How can club operators fight back in a David and Goliath style battle to win over consumers and secure their industry place for the future?
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
Anything that gets the population moving is a good thing. Getting more people more active more often is the whole reason we all work in the fitness industry. We all have a passion and drive to improve people’s physical and mental well-being through activity. So any new solution that promotes this is positive.
The focus that big players have placed on the fitness industry drives more investment, awareness and interest in exercise, creating a much bigger potential net of customers. As they say, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” It is also the case that as digital solutions help more people work out from home, confidence and ability increases, and these people may soon seek a facility or club as their next step.
Friend or Foe?
More people engaging in activity is a good thing. The data that digital brings also allows companies to analyze at a whole new level, adjusting offerings to meet real-time engagement. But as a business in the fitness industry, recent moves by these companies have the potential to “steal” customers from facilities, tempting them with more accessible and affordable digital offers. They can rapidly develop new technology and new high-quality content, and they have the ability to stifle any creative moves the fitness industry makes to open new revenue streams through digital delivery.
An argument exists that some of these companies, including Apple and Google, are operating with a conflict of interest, as they can self-promote their own product, hold data from devices pushing their own product and operate in a developer-locked environment.
Facilities Fighting Back
Health club operators offer fitness experiences, not just a workout. In-club activity offers a social aspect that can’t be replicated through virtual experiences, and the four walls of a facility act as a cathartic change of scene, a space away from both work and home.
Many clubs also offer a range of activities, including spas, work-spaces, cafes and restaurants, sport facilities and child-care, as well as the unrivaled access to experienced professionals and support and a wide range of equipment options that cannot be matched by at-home gyms.
Digital fitness often offers no personal accountability, individual goal setting or performance reviews. This brings a risk of injury or a lack of professional support with no one focused on the assessment of technique. The nature of the digital fitness scene also highlights trainers with perfect bodies, the “fitness ideal,” but this is an unrelatable and unrealistic representation, especially to those new to fitness, which many of the home-fitness users are, and can have a negative impact on mental health, self-confidence and self-esteem.
Create and Embrace Communities
In the United Kingdom, we know that roughly 16 percent of people participate in gym or fitness classes at least on a monthly basis. But these tech giants will attract to fitness a whole new consumer group, reaching a greater percentage of the population, not just in the United Kingdom but globally. Yes, this will grow the interest in fitness and in turn, the industry but—and this is a big but—unless we can compete we won’t get a slice of this pie. When Silicon Valley does something, it does it well. The quality of this product will not be substandard, and we need to up our game with quality content and member engagement in order to remain in the game.
One thing the fitness industry does have to its advantage is community. Despite the exciting appeal of some of these new developments, there is still something to be said for working out with people from your local area, socializing with them as a community, training with your trainer who knows you and your goals, and having loyalty for your local gym chain. No one wants to be a faceless number at the back of a digital class when they can be seen and heard, surrounded by a supportive community of people they know.
The Omni-Channel Hybrid Model – Best of Both Worlds
Digital is here to stay. But there is still a demand for the personable experience that in-club activity can deliver—real people delivering real experiences. Therefore, the hybrid model, a wrap-around combination of both in-club and digital on-demand offerings, is the perfect solution to meet consumer demands, providing personalization, accountability and connection to others while allowing the user the ability to select when and where they train.
Digital cannot replicate the in-person experience and community creation that drives a sense of belonging and the feeling that “we are in this together” or the face-to-face access to professional support. But digital options can supplement the in-club experience and help consumers integrate their fitness journey into their lifestyle, giving them the ability to train anywhere, anytime.
To date, Silicon Valley does not have the assets to deliver the in-person experience. As long as our sector has brick-and-mortar facilities, this—and the communities we create around them—remain our standout unique selling proposition.
Become Essential to the Health Agenda
There is a lot of talk in the United Kingdom about the missed opportunity of our sector to be considered by government as essential to a preventive health care strategy. Currently, gyms are classified with pubs and cinemas. To protect our market position, we need to think much wider than the fitness outcomes we deliver and focus more on the wider health outcomes. We need to talk more about protection against infection and disease and prevention against long-term health issues such as diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer. Our language needs to shift from “COVID secure” to “regulated.”
If we shift into the health space and start to link our services more to government prevention rather than cure health care strategies, we create an opportunity to serve a much bigger segment of the population. Most people seeking health outcomes from exercise are likely to be deconditioned non-exercisers who need help and support from professionals to be able to train smart and safely toward personal health outcomes. This will require an in-person service. This is where the opportunity lies for our sector. Let the tech giants support the “fit-natics” and the health conscious who want to track and monitor health indicators; we will deliver the in-person exercise prescription. I honestly can’t see our GP service ever moving online because people need and want a face-to-face consultation. Yes, digital services can enhance and support this, but I don’t ever see the personal in-person consultation vanishing from our health care system. This should be the same in the prescription of physical activity plans for a healthy, fulfilling life.
Create Our Own Niche
The sector now needs to re-evaluate our market position and ambition for the future. We need to unite via our trade associations—IHRSA, Europeactive, UKactive. The case for change is well established. The positive impact of regular activity on health has been proven time and time again. We don’t need any more evidence to support the case for change. What we do need is a joined-up strategy to drive the charge.
Digital will undoubtedly play a part in this, but the ability of brick-and-mortar clubs to deliver an outstanding in-person physical experience remains our biggest selling point. Tech giants from Silicon Valley can’t compete with us on this. In fact, we should be collaborating with them rather than competing with them. Their health monitoring and tracking technology will be useful as we move into the health space. If we try to compete with them like for like, we will struggle. Instead, we need to create our own niche in the market.
We must focus on the delivery of an outstanding in-club experience, a unique selling point that Silicon Valley cannot yet match, supported by a quality digital provision. The two together will create a future-proof, closed ecosystem, enabling club operators to become an integral partner in a person’s health and fitness journey.
Rob Lander, CEO of Fisikal, has more than 20 years of experience in the health and fitness industry, as a former personal trainer who built a successful business of 50 sessions per week. Lander has also spent many years as an international presenter lecturing on technology in the fitness industry. He started with little knowledge of technology other than the vision that one day we would all be using it for many areas of our lives. Organizations all over the world now come to Fisikal seeking our advice on how systems and processes can be optimized. Lander’s experience working in all areas of the fitness industry gives him multiple perspectives to help advise on how solutions can be created. His advanced knowledge of technology also gives him insights into what the future holds and how we can adapt internal processes so they can leverage technology efficiently.