Operating Virtual Fitness
Virtual fitness is a rapidly growing trend as technology becomes a bigger part of the fitness industry. Consumers crave the accessibility to watch their favorite shows, shop for groceries and pay bills anytime, anywhere, at the push of a button. Fitness classes are becoming no different.
“Club owners and operators should be paying attention to the fact that virtual fitness options are necessary in their clubs, especially as technology continues to advance so quickly,” said Erin Kelly, the chief strategy officer at Brick Bodies. “Members want to consume their preferred type of fitness when and where they want to — not necessarily within the hours of our preset live scheduled [classes].”
Martin Johns, the general manager and owner of Raintree Athletic Club in Fort Collins, Colorado, echoed this sentiment. “Members like the convenience of being able to go in the club anytime and take a class, but maybe with a different atmosphere than having a live instructor,” he said.
In light of the digitization of everything, health clubs that properly execute virtual offerings as a complement to group fitness can generate more revenue, improve retention and take a step forward into the future of the fitness industry.
Digitization. Not two decades ago, digital technology was considered a luxury and came in the form of bulky computer monitors. Today, digital technology is commonplace, with countless people carrying supercomputers around in their pockets.
Technology is everywhere, and it’s only becoming more prevalent. “Younger generations are growing up with screens in front of them,” said Johns. “Technology is where everything is going.”
The fitness industry has had to adapt as well, with technology being integrated into every aspect of a health club. Programming, however, is the one major area in which many clubs struggle using technology to successfully engage members. Because your average member is already so plugged into his or her devices, the opportunity is there.
“If you take a look around your clubs, you will see members on their phones or tablets, following various workouts online,” said Kelly. “The virtual content quality continues to increase, so a great experience can be delivered virtually when a live option is not available.”
Consumers can already find specific exercises on YouTube or subscribe to home workout services, so keeping them engaged with your gym relies on your ability to provide convenient classes that deliver the desired results.
Proper Execution. Getting the most out of virtual fitness depends largely on the classes you’re offering and what service you use. “Great content comes first and foremost — if the program experience is not exceptional, members will not utilize it,” said Kelly. “Offer content that complements the live experience, particularly in its quality.”
Examples of brands helping clubs offer virtual fitness include FitnessOnDemand and Wexer, which both boast a full library of virtual programming and the ability to customize class schedules.
After you’ve settled on your specific programming, it’s time to set up your virtual fitness space. This is not the time to become a minimalist. You wouldn’t buy the cheapest flooring for your group exercise space, so you shouldn’t just mount a TV on a wall in an empty room and call that your virtual fitness room.
“Studio set-up is critical — a large screen as big as you can accommodate, a darkened room and a quality sound system are all non-negotiables,” said Kelly.
In other words, your virtual fitness offering needs to be a complete experience. “We have two studios that have three-by-three video walls — it’s not just a screen we pull down,” said Johns, when describing Raintree’s virtual fitness space. “The experience for the member has proven to be very positive and something we continually get positive feedback from.”
It’s also important to maintain a consistent in-club schedule of virtual classes. A major perk of virtual fitness for consumers is being able to take it anywhere, but you want to keep your members coming through your doors.
“Pre-schedule most of your virtual programming options versus giving an on-demand option,” said Kelly. “Members will be more likely to show in larger numbers when they know what will be offered. This also allows you to market a much more expansive schedule of offerings across the week.”
Purposefully designing your virtual fitness space and making a schedule that makes members’ favorite workouts convenient to attend will improve your member engagement and retention.
Maximizing Your Investment. Proper execution is essential to maximize your investment in virtual fitness. And money isn’t your only investment here — you’re also investing in your club’s culture and ability to retain members.
“Virtual fitness allows you to better program and utilize that designated real estate, as well as allowing you to give your members more programming options, more often,” said Kelly.
There are only so many hours you can offer live classes and pay instructors to teach them. Offering virtual fitness increases that number of hours you have classes available and the amount of opportunities you give your members to have a great experience.
“The more members we can engage in socially assisted exercise, the better retention will be — this also helps increase profitability,” said Kelly. “Higher engagement leads to higher retention.”
Putting together the most engaging experience you can is critical to maximizing retention and profitability with virtual fitness. “If you’re going to do it, do it right,” said Johns. “I believe it’s an investment, from an infrastructure standpoint, to do it right. But the return on that investment, if done properly, will well outweigh the initial costs of putting together the programs.”
The Future of Exercise. With all this talk of technology and virtual fitness classes, it can be easy to forget about the most important component of a health club: its people. Even the most engaging virtual technology can’t completely replace the impact of human interaction.
“Virtual fitness is not a replacement for live programming — it should be a complement,” said Kelly. “It gives a club the option to offer a great group exercise experience at 9:00 p.m., when a live class may not be an option. It’s a very cost-effective way to maximize studio real estate.”
The most successful clubs will deploy a healthy mix of live and virtual classes. “For the foreseeable future, full-service health clubs or clubs that have had live classes will use virtual classes as an added value,” said Johns.
As the technology itself continues to improve and clubs find creative new ways to integrate it, member experiences will be enhanced and clubs will be able to generate more revenue.
“Virtual fitness gives clubs another opportunity to engage with members on their time and with programming that can offer a lower barrier of entry,” added Kelly. “We need to meet members where they are and give them multiple ways to engage comfortably with your team and facilities.”