Building a Successful Digital Fitness Platform for the Coronavirus Era and Beyond

((Photo by jacoblund/Getty Images Plus.)) The move to online options for health club members occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic likely will leave a lasting impact on the fitness industry.

Fitness facilities across the globe have closed their doors amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 public health emergency. And even as some states plan for reopening that could include health clubs, the protocols for social distancing will likely remain, requiring owners of fitness businesses that will soon reopen or those who must remain shuttered for now to consider two optionsgo digital or possibly disappear.

The good news is that technology-forward fitness professionals have been using digital tools to engage with members outside of brick-and-mortar locations for a long time. The industry has also seen a recent explosion in the number of digital fitness tools available to help health club operators deliver and monetize digital fitness content.

A successful digital fitness business begins with a plan for content and delivery. The best digital fitness platforms allow operators to quickly launch branded digital fitness products with the right content delivery and community engagement tools in place. Before deciding on a digital fitness platform, be sure to consider the content you will deliver and how it will continue to support your physical locations when doors reopen.

Live streaming, on-demand programming and one-on-one coaching are the three core types of content that comprise a robust digital fitness offering. It’s not always necessary to offer all three right off the bat. Start by tackling the type of content that is most accessible and attractive to your client base, then add the others as your abilities expand.

Live Streaming

Live streaming allows exercisers to stream classes from home as if they are attending an in-person class. It attracts exercisers who are routine-oriented and enjoy the consistency and accountability provided by a familiar programming format and schedule.

To make live streaming successful and profitable, the content and communication strategy behind it must differentiate it from thousands of existing on-demand fitness options available on the Internet for free.

“I see this as the same way full-service gyms and studios compete with low cost gyms,” Gympass US CEO Marco Crespo said. “The answer is in creating an experience that is unique. How can you translate as much as possible the experience in the offline world into the online environment?”

Successful streaming programs incorporate familiar instructors, music and social media to make users feel like they are engaged in a special experience. Production quality is important. Some clubs start by charging half-price for online classes or offer donation-based classes while working out any kinks.

“Although we are in isolation, we feel more connected than ever,” Crespo said. “People need this. If the brand can provide this connectivity with the users, they can sustain this online relationship. After this, they will come back, and they will have both online and live options.”

With live streaming, the audience isn’t limited to the number of people that can fit in a physical space, so a brand’s reach can expand beyond its geographic area by leveraging its own unique fitness experience.

“The brands that will succeed will talk to people outside of their geography restrictions,” Crespo said. “Think about how many people you can reach. You can have a class with more than 30 people. We will see a reduction in price per class, but it could be that total revenue could be higher than before.”

Gympass has launched a platform that allows its gym and studio members to produce and stream live classes that can be accessed by members in the same way they use Gympass to access in-person classes. The service is free to member facilities.

Popular low-cost or free platforms for live streaming include Vimeo, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Facebook Live and Instagram Live.

On-Demand

Most of the digital content available to at-home exercisers is in the form of on-demand workouts. On-demand will appeal to two types of gym usersthose who enjoy group exercise on a flexible schedule and those who work out individually.

In addition to recording original group workouts for on-demand content, operators can connect their members to an exercise platform. Familiar programming helps the user feel comfortable and connected to the club.

Les Mills US CEO Sean Turner suggests club operators explore having their instructors and personal trainers create online challenges to keep members and staff engaged with the facility. This allows operators to create an on-demand fitness option and community engagement without the burden of creating all the content themselves.

“To step into the content creation space, you have to ask yourself how much time and resources you have to consistently provide this type of content to your members,” Turner said. “We recommend not only leaning on this but also having multiple avenues for engagement, so you don’t take on the full weight yourself.”

During the COVID-19 disruption, Les Mills is offering free on-demand workouts to members of its affiliate clubs through its On-Demand Club Affiliate program. Club members can access more than 100 workout programs on-demand including familiar programs from the company.

Industry data reveals that only 20 percent to 30 percent of health club users regularly take group exercise classes, which means club operators need to find ways to digitally connect with other types of exercisers.

“The member that’s coming in and not working out in classes is the riskiest member you’ve got as a club operator right now because you don’t have your hand on them,” Dave Hannum, CEO and founder of digital fitness platform Functional Solutions, said. “You don’t know their pulse about why they are coming in and what they do. They are not engaging in something; they are just using the equipment.”

A plug-and-play app with a library of professionally designed workouts can help reach individual exercisers at home. Functional Solutions offers a customizable digital fitness platform that includes app and QR code solutions for at-home workouts. Within the app, fitness professionals can create workouts from a library of thousands of movement video snippets. Trainers can also upload their own videos and create personalized workouts to send to their clients.

“We give the operator the ability to create any workout they want and get that out to members as the workout of the day,” Hannum said. “It’s important because you can give variety on a daily basis and keep that touch with members that aren’t normally doing a class in your building.”

Once the COVID-19 crisis ends, clubs can deploy the same technology onto TVs for small group training within their facility.

One-on-One Coaching

Another way for clubs and studios to keep revenue flowing during a closure is to facilitate a digital connection between personal trainers and clients.

Trainerize CEO Sharad Mohan recommends creating a variety of one-on-one digital coaching offerings to cast a wide net and engage more members. 

“What we are seeing is that a lot of gyms and clubs are wondering how to keep personal trainers employed,” Mohan said. “A club is going to need personal trainers to manage interactions with members. You don’t have to stick to just exercise programming. If I am at home and I am getting food planning, habit coaching and exercise, I am engaged with my gym 24/7, and that is fantastic.”
The Trainerize app also enables the creation of workout groups that can be managed by personal trainers. A trainer can pop in and give a daily motivational message or kick off a challenge. The group can engage with each other, offer virtual support and social interaction.

A dedicated app keeps client/trainer communication all in one place, so clients don’t have to go searching through email and text messages for their latest communication. It also makes it easier for them to maintain an emotional and psychological connection that keeps the client coming back for more.

“As operators of brick-and-mortar facilities, we have to remember that online or remote training is nothing new,” Adam Janke, vice president of personal training studio chain Innovative Fitness, said. “The COVID-19 crisis may have caught us off guard and forced many of us to close our doors, but we have two choices—stick our heads in the sand and hope it passes quickly, or adapt.”

After 25 years with an in-person business model, Innovative Fitness has changed up its plan with trainers pooling resources and re-applying technologies they have used for digital meetings to adapt to a digital training model.

“We have to remember that just about anyone can download a training program from a multitude of websites—for free no less—on any given day,” Janke said. “So, why have they been coming to us for personal training? Because they value our knowledge and expertise, of course, but they also value the relationships they've established with their trainers and the coaching they receive when they're with us. Coaching is highly kinesthetic through the cues and feedback we provide, but that's not all it is. There is an emotional and psychological aspect to coaching, and we must remember that.”

Choosing The Best Delivery Platform For Your Business

Without the right delivery platform, even the best content is likely to lose the battle for your members’ attention. Digital fitness platforms range from plug-and-play apps to 360-degree business management platforms that include multiple app integrations, membership management portals, social communities and digital shops.

If a complete digital fitness revolution is too much for your club, start simple with a branded app used as a central hub for communication and for all the digital fitness offerings from your club. Link to live-streaming events and create on-demand workouts within the app to give members a single access point for all assets.

“The biggest problem I see with everyone embracing tech right now is they are doing it in a very mismatched way,” Hannum said. “You’ve got something on the YouTube channel over here, something on Zoom over there. You’re sending the user everywhere to consume the content. When it’s all inside your app, you can show your clients that you are the ones giving them content, rather than sending them to a place where everyone else has something on the web.”

If your club is ready to take on the digital revolution in full force, consider more comprehensive platforms such as Pear Sports, Virtuagym or Trainerize. It can be worthwhile to hire a consultant to help narrow down the perfect platform and set up strategies for success.

Endorphinz CEO Mike Hansen likens the changing fitness landscape to the e-commerce revolution when a major consumer paradigm shift forced big box stores to adopt a new business model that required a new skill set. Some made the transition successfully, but many didn’t.

Endorphinz helps businesses strategize how they can layer in digital content and services with a strategically placed paywall to create a profitable digital fitness business that they can use even after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.  

Ten years ago, the road to creating a profitable digital fitness business was difficult and long. Today, health club operators have the resources and tools to hit the ground running. When we come out the other side of the COVID-19 health crisis, doors will reopen, exercisers will return to the health clubs and digital fitness likely will continue to play a prominent role in how health clubs do business.

[Editors’ Note: For more on virtual solutions, watch this free, on-demand virtual town hall, “How to Engage Members with Virtual Solutions During the COVID-19 Shutdown.”]

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