Following a year of rapid change, much has been said about the future of fitness. While no one could have predicted the events of 2020, many agree that the pandemic simply accelerated trends that were already underway in the health and fitness industry. But the conditions of pre-COVID will never return. So, for gyms preparing to reopen, we wanted to find out what is really the key to survival over the coming months and years. We spoke to Ian Mullane, the founder and CEO of Keepme, a business dedicated to increasing the revenue of fitness operators using artificial intelligence, about his new whitepaper called The Fitness Future: Rules of Engagement. We spoke to Ian about:
- Why the future will be about ecosystems, not hybrid fitness
- The threat and opportunity of the mobile phone
- How to tap into your club’s data to succeed in the “new reality”
- The risk in thinking AI is something for the future
So many reports talk about omnichannel or hybrid fitness as the future of the industry. But you have a slightly different view in that the future is all about ecosystems. Why is that?
The term hybrid has dominated conversations across the sector since COVID-19 first forced gyms to close. But a hybrid model is a huge oversimplification of what is actually needed. It encourages operators to think about their digital offering as an island, when in fact, it needs to be part of an overall experience.
Consumers are now more aware than ever of what action is meant by wellness. Attending the gym three times per week is just not enough. There is more awareness now around the role things like sleep, recovery, hydration, mindfulness and mental health all play into a person’s overall wellness so because of that, the ecosystem has extended beyond the physical gym. The challenge now is for operators to figure out what role they play in that ecosystem.
As an operator, you cannot control the entire wellness experience, and that’s OK. You now need to figure out where you stand alone, and where you can integrate with others’ content that allows you to better play your part in the overall ecosystem.
One of the points you make is that Peloton or Apple Fitness are not in fact, the greatest digital competitor for operators. The biggest threat comes from the mobile phone. Can you explain this a little more?
It is both the biggest threat, and the biggest opportunity. What Peloton and other digital players are going to do is present the concept of fitness to cohorts that haven’t been touched by fitness before. There are 1.6B mobile phones being used and that can be a catalyst for a whole new category. The mobile phone presents an opportunity for personalisation beyond simply getting the member’s name right in the weekly newsletter. A person’s mobile phone can give us a better understanding of the ambition and the condition of the member. The health data on someone’s phone provides data far beyond what even a GP gets to work with. Add a wearable and the combination provides a veritable laboratory of the human condition. From accelerometers to sensors that measure exertion through heart rate, it’s possible to track more than 50 variables for review. If you can combine all this data with your digital offering, you have the capacity for a tailored experience without a third party having to do it for you. You can draw data from all spokes of the ecosystem into prescribed, personalised plans.
The reality is that someone will own this relationship with the customer and gyms have the credibility in this space to do so. The likes of Apple and Google would seem like strong favourites, but they do not currently hold that position of authority with the consumer.
You talk about how data can be the key to helping operators reposition for the “new reality.” And encouragingly, you say that all the data a club needs is already within their business. How do they tap into this effectively?
The data that exists within many organisations may not be complete or perfect, and that’s OK. The tools exist today that still make this data valuable. My call to action to operators is to collect and collect with discipline. What we can do now is only mildly impressive compared to what we will be able to do in 2-3 years’ time. Don’t just assume you don’t have good data. Allow a data expert to tell you the value of the data you have now.
You make quite a bold suggestion that operators stop spending their time and money on creating their own on demand content. Instead, you suggest focusing on customisable experiences. Can you explain this a bit more? What about operators who have already invested heavily here?
Operators need to consider the difference between keeping members engaged in the short term vs. the cost of creating content for the long term. Do a reality check and consider first the challenges of creating a weekly, diverse and effective social media calendar. If this is already a challenge, consider how much more difficult it will be to create a weekly production schedule with the variety and quality content required to compete in this space. There are brands that are strong enough to do this and maintain it, but you have to ask yourself why you’re doing it. If it’s to keep people engaged, make sure you have evidence to show this is a successful strategy. Consider what has been the incremental cost in doing so and going forward, consider if the return has been sufficient to justify a continued investment. This is especially important at a time when all focus and concentration should be on the physical assets that operators own. Unless you are driving significant financial returns from your digital content, you may want to reconsider.
A word of caution: the competitive environment in digital delivery outside the top tier is already seeing a rush to the bottom in terms of subscription incentives. Very rarely does price recover in an upward cycle.
Many operators think AI is for the future or is not something the fitness industry will be able to leverage due to shortcomings in their data. What is the risk in thinking this way?
The risk is simply that opportunities will pass you by. We’ve gone from a place where tools with AI were only for a very advanced organisation to now, where AI or some form of machine learning is included in even the most benign products.
What customers are looking for now is an experience vs. a product. Consumers will not want to continue attending a one-size-fits-all facility where the only differentiator is proximity to their home or the quantity of kit. When you look at the new entrants to our sector, whether they be existing tech players like Apple or the likes of Peloton, let me assure you of this: AI is at the heart of their product development, customer experience and business operators. It can and should be for all operators too.
Of all the opportunities identified, what do you think is the one operators should pay the most attention to?
The one thing operators should pay attention to is the opportunity for providing personalisation at scale. The largest outcome of the pandemic is that the fitness community is now more aware of what is possible to deliver at scale in a digital format, and alongside that, a better understanding of the price points in that area. There are a lot of opportunities for operators to position their offering in line with the new consumer mentality and in line with the expanding market coming from digital players. Those that do, will find more members, higher lifetime value and lower attrition.
Personalisation will develop better relationships with members vs. the current approach which is based on aspirational images, location and quantity of kit. As great as these things may be, they will not be sufficient to protect an operator from the inbound winds of the digital revolution. It’s no longer a case of if it will happen. It’s now a case of when it will happen.