Three members come to you and ask you to start offering a Pilates class at 2 p.m. on weekdays, a normally quiet time of day when your group exercise room is empty. They say the time is convenient for them to attend a class, and they stare at you waiting for an answer. How do you reply?
The demand of three people typically is not enough to schedule an instructor to teach a class, but what if you had another option that would enable you to offer the class and make these members happy?
Well, the reality is that you can do just that, whether they want a Pilates, yoga, cycling, dance or just about any other type of class programming. You can offer these classes at the touch of a button if your club has virtual fitness technology.
Virtual fitness systems, which are offered by companies such as Wellbeats (formerly Fitness on Request), Wexer Virtual and Fitness on Demand, use audio and video technology to offer virtual group fitness instruction. When you have one of these systems installed in your facility, your staff or members can select the exercise program of their choice from the library of classes displayed on a touch-screen kiosk, and a virtual instructor appears on the projection screen and "leads" a class. Think of it as on-demand fitness programming.
What types of classes are offered? You can choose the content that is right for your facility.
Wellbeats, for example, offers Fusion, Vibe, Les Mills, Zumba, Pregnancy Express, Silver and Fit, and other options. Wexer Virtual offers two packages: The Wexer Bundle provides more than 500 videos of classes such as Pilates, yoga, dance, and race-simulation, high-intensity cycling; the other includes Les Mills group fitness classes. Fitness on Demand offers more than 600 videos, including Les Mills, kettlebell classes, cycling, fusion, yoga, slide and glide, cardio sports drills and more.
ClubSport San Ramon in California installed its Wexer Virtual system last November, and Fitness Manager Jon Westmoreland says that, as of early February, the system had had about 500 uses. The screen is fixed to the wall of the club's group cycling room, meaning most of the uses have been for virtual cycling classes. However, the system's flexible setup has meant that about 100 uses have been for other programming options, such as yoga and weight training.
When ClubSport administrators had the virtual fitness technology installed, they rearranged the bikes into an arc so all cyclists would have a clear view of the screen. They also moved bikes away from the front of the room so a small group of members could select another type of virtual class in the space when the room is otherwise free.
The Minot Family YMCA, Minot, ND, installed two Wellbeats systems in January, one in the group cycling room, the other in the group fitness room.
"Now we have virtual cycling classes running all of the time in the cycling room," says Cindy Mueller, director of program services for the Minot Family Y. "And in the group fitness room, members can choose among more than 100 class formats, including, for example, Fit Pregnancy, youth classes, high interval training and senior fitness. It's a great benefit for members to be able to offer them a flexible class schedule to fit their needs."
Equipment and Space Considerations
The vendors in this space offer turnkey systems that include touch-screen kiosks, speakers, projectors and HD screens. Review with the vendors your exact component needs. If you want to designate a portion of your facility for the virtual classes, you can set up fixed screens and kiosks; if you prefer to have some flexibility in the space, opt for a portable kiosk and pop-up screen.
Last year, Wellbeats introduced the Studio Server, a system that has no-user interface, similar to Wexer Virtual's Basic Player.
"All the scheduling is done online by an administrator, so participants don't have access to the schedule," says Michelle Cook, marketing manager for Wellbeats. "This is ideal for dedicated rooms such as cycling or yoga studios where the activity has been pre-defined, or a space where the club needs strict control over the schedule."
Lotte Esbensen, marketing manager for Wexer Virtual, says it's crucial to select the right videos, have a clear marketing strategy and have the right studio setup. Users will need sound (the existing sound system usually works), a visual display (often a projection package) and the Wexer Virtual On Demand player, which often hangs right outside the studio, she says. Controlled lighting in the space also is beneficial so the projector's image is clear and crisp.
"The studio setup needs to be right in order to provide members with a cohesive and engaging virtual experience," she says.
Costs for these systems generally are dictated by the room setup, type of equipment chosen and installation needs. Esbensen says that complete equipment costs for the Wexer Virtual system normally range from $3,000 to $8,000 per studio setup, and installation typically costs $1,000 to $2,000. Also, there may be monthly fees.
Supplement or Replace Live Instruction?
Virtual programs likely won't replace live instruction.
"I don't think that anyone needs to fear that," says Laurie Cingle, president of Laurie Cingle Consulting and Coaching and a member of the leadership team at Akron General LifeStyle in Ohio. "Live instructors can correct form, give coaching and tailor their classes. Plus, there's the interaction of members with one another."
That said, Cingle noted that virtual fitness programming does have its place.
"On the rare occasion when an instructor calls in sick at the last minute and can't find a replacement, someone from the facility can choose from the virtual fitness library a class with a similar format, so that your members are at least semi-satisfied," she says.
Additionally, clubs that currently don't offer any group fitness could install virtual and add another layer of service to their offerings, says Cingle.
Cook says virtual fitness also may be appropriate for members who are intimidated by the pace or choreography of live instruction. Other potential audiences for virtual include members who belong to a unique demographic, such as older adults, kids, people recovering from injury and elite athletes. Virtual programming provides club operators with a way to offer safe and appropriate training for such populations, thus helping member retention efforts.
In fact, a recent report from Wexer Virtual states that virtual classes feed members into the live classes, so it may not come down to an either/or decision, but rather a decision about using both.
When shopping for a virtual fitness system, Westmoreland advises club operators to know their options.
"You have the basic content, and then there are upgrades in programming," he says.
Also, you must determine the appropriate screen size for the room in which you will place the system. Westmoreland's club initially ordered a 220-inch screen, but that turned out to the wrong size for the room, so they switched to a 164-inch screen, he says.
Determine if you will need a fixed screen or a mobile one, and "definitely get a professional audio-video installer to put in your system," he says.
Cook says it's important for club operators to consider their group fitness programming goals and know their desired outcomes before deciding on a system.
"For example, if your club is looking to use virtual programming to support and feed into a thriving live group fitness program, we would suggest a scheduling and marketing strategy that may differ from a club whose aim is to spread out participation, help increase personal training revenue, foster new affinity groups, reallocate resources or simply close more membership sales," she says.
Esbensen notes that virtual group fitness works best when club operators have a clear vision of the added value it will provide members. They need to consider what is working in their current group fitness programming, where they want to expand and the demographics of their club.
"The more information we have on exactly what the club operator wants to accomplish, the better we can guide him or her through audio-video selections, installation and content decisions, as well as implementation and marketing," she says.
And that 2 p.m. Pilates class? Schedule it virtually, and keep those members satisfied by knowing that you heard and acted upon their request.