Whether you are ready for it or not, a wave of virtual technology is sweeping over the fitness industry. Ever since the days of Richard Simmons and Buns of Steel, health seekers and fitness enthusiasts have had options for workout instruction outside of traditional gyms and fitness facilities. But, over the last decade these options have grown more numerous and more sophisticated than ever before. Today, people can video chat with a trainer half a world away in real time. Virtual gyms, with no physical facility at all, now offer custom workout plans, nutrition tracking and live-streaming fitness classes. There is a myriad of workout videos such as Beachbody, P90X and The 21 Day Fix that people can use to get fit in the comfort of their own homes.
Do these new technologies signal the decline of traditional gyms and fitness centers? A number of factors would say no. First, these products are not cheap – Virtual Personal Trainer, for example, charges $240/month for a subscription! At an even more fundamental level, these “at home” solutions can never offer the equipment, accountability and sense of community found in brick and mortar facilities with face-to-face interactions with real fitness professionals.
In fact, rather that fighting the virtual revolution, many forward-thinking fitness facilities are harnessing its power to draw new members, give them greater flexibility and increase their member retention rates. “Virtual membership” is rapidly becoming an industry buzzword. But, here’s the catch, for many, the idea of “virtual membership” goes no further than enabling a member to access streaming group fitness videos, or interacting with a coach over their mobile device. But, that is just a piece of the puzzle. To reap the full benefits of the recent technological revolution, fitness center executive and directors need to think bigger… and broader.
In order to fully utilize this technological revolution, here are three critical questions you need to be asking:
- How can I think outside of our four walls and make the whole world my fitness center? In other words, how can I take all of a member’s fitness activities, such as walking in the park, riding their bike to work, or pumping iron in the gym, and integrate them all as part of the member experience at my facility?
- Millennials grew up using social media, smartphones, tablets and instant messaging. How can I leverage these technologies that they are already using to create a virtual community with my fitness facility as the hub?
- Finally, since mobile devices, such as tablets, smartphones and wearables are so pervasive, how can I use that technology to create an interactive experience at my facility?
As we look ahead, there are a number of exciting technologies that are here, or on the horizon, that will allow you to answer those questions in ways that have never been possible before. Here are five things industry trends indicate are worth paying attention to as you seek to differentiate yourself and stay ahead of the curve as you move your fitness center into the future. We’ll take a look at them from 30,000 feet today and then break them down in more detail in future posts.
- It all starts with an app. As you seek to create a virtual community for your members, it is vital to have an app that they can use as a hub for social activity, logging workouts, finding information about your center, and integrating with their wearable devices. Information about the member’s overall wellness comes from a variety of different sources: cardio activity from their Fitbit, diet information from their nutrition app, and group challenges from social media. The vast majority of these separate applications share data. The idea is for your fitness center app to be a place they can come and find all these slices of their fitness pie compiled together in a single location.
- Make your facility an interactive experience. Beacon-based technology already exists that welcomes members via their smartphone whenever they enter your facility and allows their wellness coaches to know they are in the building. This same technology gives them information on upcoming classes as they approach the group fitness area and passes on information and a tutorial video for each piece of fitness equipment as they prepare to use it. The next generation of this technology will be even more sophisticated in its geolocation and will be able to automatically log group workout sessions, machines use, and sets and reps on those machines.
- Allow Virtual Participation. Skype and similar services now make it possible for Wellness Coaches to interact with members while they are traveling or homebound. It is also becoming feasible to live-stream group fitness classes so members can participate at home. While this is not a desirable solution on a permanent basis, many fitness centers are putting together virtual packages that allow such remote access, but require in-person gym visits at least once a week.
- Use gamification. Your ultimate aim as a fitness center is to help people reach their goals. And one of the most powerful behavior modification techniques to help people do that is gamification, applying gaming principles to fitness activities. Technologies are becoming available that allow members to “level up” when certain milestones are reached, open up new workout templates as a reward for consistent gym visitation, or even offer rewards such as apparel or a free month of membership if long-term goals are achieved. These principles, when incorporated into your technology are a powerful tool for member exercise adherence, engagement and retention.
- Use Technology to Build Social Connections. For millennials, community is key. You can foster a virtual community with online staff-to-member interactions, creating discussion forums, and groups for members with common interests (cycling, nutrition, etc.) or demographics to interact. You can do this with a dedicated social platform within you app, or a plugin on social media sites, such as Facebook.