How Technology Will Help Health Club Operators Meet New Consumer Expectations As The Sector Starts To Reopen

This article is sponsored by Fisikal.

One thing is absolutely clear: data and technology will play a key role in how successfully the global fitness industry returns to business.

There have been many, excellent studies conducted by various organizations, assessing member attitudes and behaviors pre-lockdown and during lockdown and predicting behaviors as populations start to emerge from lockdown.

These comprehensive studies offer useful insight and highlight the value on data collation and interpretation. Understanding the physical activity habits and attitude of members through surveys and data analysis enables facility operators to establish market potential, providing solid rationale for reopening strategies that have a higher likelihood of success.

In this article, I explore some of the key learnings from various studies and highlight the vital role technology will play in steering the industry successfully through reopening and beyond. At the time of writing (end of June) the United Kingdom was still in lockdown and awaiting a sector reopening date.

How Technology Will Help Operators Welcome Members Back Safely

As gyms around the world start to tentatively open their doors, evidence suggests there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful with surveys evidencing a consumer enthusiasm for a return to a physical training experience.

In the United Kingdom, there is a little trepidation with 23 percent of members less comfortable returning to a gym than other leisure facilities such as libraries and museums, according to Post Lockdown Recovery Survey by Leisure-net Solutions UK. But this won’t stop 87 percent of members returning to their training facility once doors re-open, according to the National Fitness Survey, TA6, Alliance Leisure.

 In the United States, members are a little more cautious. Here, 65 percent profess to be “likely” or “very likely” to return, with 68 percent of this group saying they will be back within four weeks of reopening,  according to Club Intel’s report, “What Members Say Is Important.” Of those returning in the United Kingdom, 88 percent said they will use their facility the same or more than they did pre-lockdown, the Post Lockdown Recovery Survey found.

These findings are fantastic news from an economic perspective, but this presents operators with an immediate challenge—managing demand while adhering to imposed facility capacity restrictions. Restrictions will also need to be applied to activities within the facility, such as group exercise classes. How will this be managed?

Fortunately, technology is available to enable the implementation of remote slot bookings. This solution enables members to book their visit in advance via any remote device. If a session is full, the member can be notified and advised to try an alternative time. Solutions can be set up to display the number of slots per session and availability so members can gauge for themselves how busy the facility is likely to be at the time they plan to visit. With so many people working from home, traditional peak and off-peak times may no longer apply, so it is important that operators implement a means of tracking footfall across the entire period the facility is open.

Some operators in the United Kingdom, for example, The Gym Group, plan to manage capacity through software-controlled facility access systems. Once a set number of members are clocked in, access will be denied to others, moving to a one in, one out scenario. Although this addresses capacity restrictions inside the building, there is a danger this will cause frustration to members who have made the journey to work out and are literally left outside in the cold. A remote booking facility avoids this scenario and ensures that, when members turn up at a pre-booked time, they will be able to train.

Once inside the building, operators will be required to apply new capacity restrictions to specific activities, such as group exercise and gym floor training, in order to maintain social distancing recommendations. Thirty-four percent of UK members have cited the implementation of activity capacity restrictions as key to their decision on whether to return, according to Club Intel’s report.

In most cases, a remote booking system will already be in place, and it is important that the software enables quick and easy amendment to capacity levels to avoid traffic jams on the gym floor. Our software now also offers room mapping. This enables members to view a virtual map of a training space and select a specific piece of kit they wish to occupy—for example, a static bike, Pilates Reformer or a suspension strap. This will help members to further increase comfort and confidence levels.

With regards to the application of heightened hygiene routines, technology can also support this. In the UK, a third of members have cited cleanliness as being the most important factor in their return to a gym, according to the Leisure-net Solutions UK report. Member training apps can be pre-programmed with regular reminders to wipe down kit and wash hands, helping everybody take responsibility for the safety of all.

These measures will, of course, be supported by a wave of other provisions, such as social distancing markers, the wearing of PPE by staff members and adjustments to the way people are encouraged to flow through a facility, but technology will be instrumental in the provision of a safe environment where both members and staff feel comfortable.

How Lockdown Has Influenced Behavior

Being forced to follow a stay-at-home government directive for months has had a profound effect on all walks of life, including physical activity habits. In the United Kingdom where outdoor exercise has been encouraged throughout even the most restrictive phase of lockdown, an encouraging 60 percent of adults professed to having been as active or more active during lockdown compared to pre-lockdown, according to the Leisure-net Solutions UK report. In addition, 35 percent of adults classified as inactive by the chief medical officer’s definition claim to have increased their physical activity levels, according to the National Fitness Survey.

In the United Kingdom, the most popular activity has been walking with almost two thirds of adults taking part. A fifth of adults have been enjoying home workouts while cycling is rising in popularity as lockdown progresses, moving from 8 percent of adults participating at the start to 16 percent by the end of week seven in lockdown. according to Polling, Sport England and Savanta ComRes.

It’s also interesting to look at how individuals have been consuming their digital workouts. In the United Kingdom, an overwhelming 73 percent found content via YouTube with 19 percent relying on Facebook. Disappointingly, only 9 percent of members engaged with content streamed by their affiliated gym or club, according to the Covid-19 Impact Report from ukactive.

This is clearly a missed opportunity by the sector and one which operators need to address moving forward if they are to remain central to a member’s fitness and well-being journey.

What This Mean For Clubs

Lockdown has introduced a new audience to physical activity. Clubs need to capitalize on this through the ongoing provision of a digital offer. Consumers have developed an appetite for working out at home, but those used to visiting a club still crave the physical training experience. Sixty-nine percent of members state that a digital offer is a key influencer in their decision to return to their club, the ClubIntel report found.

In response to this insight, operators will need to provide a blended solution that extends access to fitness content, coaching and community way beyond the walls of a physical facility moving forward. This is where a quality, digital solution will be key to success.

There is increasing competition for consumer attention and spend in the home workout space. Samsung recently announced the expansion of its fitness content available via its Smart TVs, and Sky now offers a dedicated fitness channel. In order to grab a piece of the home fitness pie and to maintain relevance of the physical training offer, operators must build a digital experience that reflects the in-club experience, focusing on extending brand influence and creating an environment that supports the sense of community.  Moving forward, it will be the digital offer that becomes the major differentiator in the market. Members will want to engage their favorite and familiar instructors not just in the club but also in the living room. Therefore, it makes sense that this is the area where club owners should be allocating major investment.

Content Consumers Want

Right now, the majority of fitness content streamed into homes is one way and a mix of pre-recorded and live sessions. Most operators are choosing to stream directly via generic social media channels. During lockdown in the United Kingdom, the channel of choice has been Facebook followed by Instagram and then YouTube, according to Proinsights’ Class Benchmark Report.

These channels offer a quick and easy means of uploading content and broadcasting live, but they also offer only limited analytical opportunity and scope to bespoke the experience.

Moving forward, clubs should aim to offer on-demand and live streamed fitness content that is integrated either with the club’s website, a custom-branded app or both. This provides more opportunity to collate valuable insight relating to member habits and usage patterns. Key performance indicators can also be customized to provide the operator with an instant, real time snapshot of performance, helping to shape future programming to ensure it continues to match the needs and preferences of the membership.

A digital platform also enables personal trainers to maintain 24 hour contact with clients, creating a wraparound care provision. During lockdown, 46 percent of members said what they missed most about not being able to visit their club was the motivation provided by instructors, according to the Post Lockdown Recovery Survey from Leisure-net Solutions UK.

A digital provision can enable the maintenance of a relationship between trainer and member despite geographical separation. Workout plans can be shared and updated remotely with video exercise demonstrations available to help coach the member in the execution of correct technique.

Ensuring contact takes place within the confines of a custom-branded app is a constant reminder to the member that the club is intrinsic to their training experience and that their relationship is as much with the club as it is with the trainer.

How Clubs Move Forward On A Digital Journey

Every club will be at a slightly different starting point, but one thing is for sure: most are only at the beginning of their digital journey. As a sector, the lockdown experience has accelerated our appreciation of the role digital technology can play in delivering a service aligned to consumer demand. This in turn will  support future growth and sustainability both for individual operators and the sector as a whole. The world is evolving and all aspects of life are being affected by digitalization. We have to embrace the opportunity and invest in creating an out-of-club experience that reflects the in-club experience, enabling the member to flow effortlessly between the two.

To move forward effectively, health club owners need to truly understand their starting position and their end goal. The statistics quoted here are collated from thousands of consumer responses commissioned by numerous organizations across two continents. While they provide an interesting and, hopefully, thought-provoking overview of behaviors and attitudes, club owners should seek to truly understand their very localized community. Survey members. Ask them what they want from their club and a digital provision moving forward. Do they prioritize pre-recorded or live workouts? Would they prefer HIIT sessions or yoga? Build a provision that is member-centric. Once this is understood, it’s time to plan a digital integration.

If you would like to discuss the introduction or enhancement of your digital offer, visit or email: [email protected] for a no obligation initial consultation.

The editorial staff had no role in this post's creation.