Gyms are getting ready to reopen after being shut for many months. Socially distanced equipment, enhanced cleaning routines and reduced capacity are just some of things we can expect, but what about group exercise? Is there a way to bring back the community and connection that so many people have missed over the last year? We spoke to Martin Franklin, CEO for Europe at Les Mills International about what gyms can do to future proof their group exercise experience. We spoke to Martin about:
- How operators can create a meaningful digital and in-person connection with members
- How important it is to feature your own instructors in your digital content
- Trends related to group exercise from around the world
- Lessons about group exercise from the global landscape
Omnichannel or hybrid fitness is being touted as the future of fitness. When gyms reopen, how can operators create a meaningful digital AND in person connection with their members?
Overall, we’re seeing that the appetite to return to in-person fitness is very strong. Of course, attendance will be decreased in the short-term, but operators have already been through this for a few months last year, so they are already aware of how to safely operate within the guidelines.
We’re seeing many of our partners approach re-opening in an agile way, especially from May – July. They’ll continue to make changes to enhance the experience while doing it in a safe and effective way.
The key word in this question is “meaningful.” This applies to both in-person and digital fitness, and this is what we’ve always talked about with our products, long before COVID. Our research shows that people enjoy both online and in-person experiences. Looking at a study of 9,000 Les Mills on Demand subscribers, of the ones who were not members of a facility, over three quarters of them say they want a live experience when gyms reopen. This applies to other businesses too. For example, research shows that 88% of Peloton users actually attend in-person classes as well. Instructors who haven’t worked in a year have had to be really adaptable and inspirational. Creating credible, meaningful, connected experiences that complement what is happening in your facility is absolutely what the customer is demanding right now.
How are operators creating these meaningful experiences?
Firstly, it’s important to make sure it is a consistent approach. How you engage is important. Through April to June, we are working with partners to do live streaming and in-facility events so they can engage more people. With social distancing, you can’t get as many people in the facility, but this will help create more of a connection. The real connection is with the instructor and this is a really important part of how you retain your members. If you make it meaningful and make it operationally effective within the guidelines, you can create a solid offering.
By definition, digital is safe and flexible. Don’t see it simply as something you need to do. It’s an amazing, enabling thing that can help you create meaningful experiences with your members, especially if they can’t be there in person. A great example of this is the blended timetable we’re seeing from our partners across Asia. Is the industry at risk? Of course not. The government continues to promote the importance of health and getting out and exercising. When have we ever had this groundswell of activity and wellness before? It’s a hugely positive thing. Engage with it, make it relevant and make it part of your ongoing customer journey.
Many people predict that the traditional monthly membership model is dead. Could digital only memberships be the way forward? Why would a consumer choose this option over, say, a fitness app or even a YouTube video?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Listen to your customers and navigate the best way forward. Test and learn. One thing is for sure: the delivery of content – whether a gym’s own studio or a Les Mills class – is going to be digital. But there will always be a place for in-person fitness. We are social animals. We crave social connection. You don’t hear anyone right now asking if people will ever go back to festivals or sporting events. Of course they will. We believe the same to be true for fitness. We’re an entertainment business and people want to be together.
Awareness of the industry as a membership model hasn’t actually been around that long. 40% are leisure centres running a pay-as-you-go model and boutiques also operate differently. The membership model has always been adaptive and will continue to evolve. And now, digital will become another element of choice in terms of how you deliver your content.
People are now more aware of what quality content looks like. Operators that own their content and make it meaningful will thrive.
Is it important for gyms to feature their own instructors in their on-demand content?
We’re really only in our first year of data on this topic, but I can provide some insight. We’re seeing that the usage of on-demand vs. live fitness content is greater. When you’re at home, things happen. You can easily get distracted. Our data shows that people prefer to consume fitness content at a time that is convenient to them more often than a live digital experience.
To make that experience as meaningful as possible, we’ve worked with our music producers to enable our partners to have access to quality music they can record and save onto their systems. Music licensing is a relatively new area for many instructors, so we’ve worked hard to make it easy for them. Overall, it appears that a blended approach works best: some live content from your instructors, some pre-recorded and some content from industry experts.
In markets where gyms have already reopened, what trends are you seeing related to group exercise?
The data we’re seeing is encouraging. In Asia and Australasia, gyms are now near pre-COVID levels with upwards of 95% attendance even with social distancing in place. There has been a definite boost in the last two months alone. Research and consumer insight shows there is a demand to return, but with more variety and more flexibility. For example, we’re seeing a demand for shorter workouts: 30 minutes vs. 45- or 60-minute classes. There has been a positive return to group exercise and feedback is that people are craving that social environment. Digital provides a useful operational workaround: if the class is full, join virtually.
What lessons are you learning from the global fitness landscape?
One thing we’re seeing that is surprising is how fragmented the decision making is around social distancing in different markets. Some markets will allow group exercise to go ahead, and some won’t. I feel very positive about the industry in the UK. With the ukactive guidelines in place, everyone is aligned.
One takeaway and key learning is that the digital disruption of COVID was slowly happening in the industry anyway and it’s amazing how necessity creates invention. When we look back on the last year, the digital industry grew out of necessity, but it will be a reality going forward. Now, we need to start thinking about what the next innovation will be to help people consume fitness. What is going to get 25% of the population who are regularly exercising to 100%? There are 400 fitness facilities in the UK that won’t reopen their doors. What we’re trying to do is use the last year as a real eye opener in terms of how we can develop our content to be more agile.