East Bank Club Stays Ahead by Embracing On-demand Workouts

The Chicago-based health club is beating virtual fitness class providers at their own game by creating their own streaming content—all tailored to their brand.

Not all that long ago, if you wanted food, you went to a grocery store or visited a restaurant. To see a movie, you ventured to the theater. And to participate in an exercise class, you headed for a health club.

Today, thanks to the constant evolution and ubiquitous presence of technology, most of these trips are no longer necessary. Now, almost every product or service can be delivered directly to your home.

While clubs still draw millions of exercisers through their doors, they’re facing increasing competition from streaming workout providers, such as Peloton, Daily Burn, and Beachbody on Demand. These companies cater to consumers with busy lifestyles, who’ve come to expect instant gratification, maximum convenience, and 24/7/365 accessibility.

The Market Potential Is Monumental

According to Club Intel, an industry research and insights firm based in Dallas, Peloton has more than 600,000 subscribers; Daily Burn, 2.5 million subscribers; and Beachbody on Demand, 1 million users.

U.S.-based club chains, such as Crunch and Gold’s Gym, along with boutiques, including Flywheel, Physique 57, and CorePower Yoga, provide their own mobile virtual workout content to their members. Some also market their offerings to non-members. In Europe, budget operators, including McFit and Basic-Fit, offer customized virtual group X content that members can utilize whenever they’re not in the club.

And there’s still plenty of room to grow.

In its 2018 International Fitness Industry Trend Study, Club Intel reports that just 6% of U.S. operators deliver streaming workouts. The figures for Europe and Russia are 12% and 8%, respectively.

Among the recent entrants to the exploding digital space is the exclusive East Bank Club (EBC) in Chicago, a 450,000-square-foot mega-facility that’s known worldwide for its extensive offerings, luxurious amenities, and exceptional service. To complement its premier in-club experience and better serve its more than 11,000 members, the club has teamed up with SweatWorking Inc., an IHRSA associate member, also of Chicago, to create its proprietary streaming service: East Bank Club On-Demand.

Inspired to Innovate Beyond the Health Club

The origins of EBC On-Demand date back to July 2018, when Gretchen Collins, EBC’s director of fitness, and spouses Justin and Jeana Anderson Cohen, the co-founders of SweatWorking, collaborated to host an “aSweatLife” member event at EBC.

Those initial conversations eventually led to the creation of the company’s video platform.

“I was extremely impressed,” says Collins. “Jeana’s passion for fitness inspired me, and I thought that, if she loves it this much, partnering with SweatWorking would be wonderful for EBC. Internally, we’d been discussing ways to stream workouts for members, so this was a natural fit.”

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Founded in 2017, SweatWorking evolved from Anderson Cohen’s initial media platform, aSweatLife, which she used to blog about her experiences attending fitness classes throughout Chicago, and to produce fitness-related events. In thinking about the enthusiastic response of readers and contributors, she and her husband recognized an opportunity to capitalize on the intoxicating energy of group X by providing it outside the walls of clubs and studios.

“When building aSweatLife, we heard from our gym and studio partners, time and time again, that technology was disrupting the fitness and wellness space, and that they were being left behind,” says Cohen. “So, we built a B2B SaaS platform that makes it remarkably easy for clubs to create, distribute, and provide on-demand content as part of the membership experience.”

The SweatWorking platform is a turnkey system that enables clubs to stream proprietary audio and video content on custom-branded channels on their own app. The primary emphasis is on the club’s offerings.

When doing your own research to bring in streaming services to your club, ensure you’re in line with copyright laws. In March 2019, a group of 10 music publishers sued Peloton for allegedly violating music copyright law.

“The platform showcases our partners’ brands, trainers, and unique programming experience,” Cohen says. “Their brands are the stars, which, ultimately, drive usage, engagement, and retention.”

This was a compelling draw for EBC, which has thoughtfully cultivated a reputation for extraordinary excellence over its 38 years in business.

“We looked at a variety of options for providing video workouts to members,” says Mel Kleist, EBC’s executive director. “What we liked most about SweatWorking was the ability it provided to personally develop the content with our instructors and team, thereby reinforcing the relationships between members and staff.”

Inclined to Add Value to Member Experience

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Although EBC’s members hadn’t been asking for on-demand workouts, the club’s leadership team realized that creating and offering them would represent a valuable extension of the club experience.

“Our club is known for the scale and variety of its offerings, but what really sets us apart is our long-standing team of service-minded experts,” Kleist says. “The on-demand app is a means to deliver informative content that taps into the unique knowledge of our staff.”

To create content, SweatWorking records EBC instructors executing staged workouts that replicate actual live classes, including ones for HIIT, boxing, rowing, barre, yoga, Pilates, TRX, meditation, stretch, Tai Chi, and other regimens. More than 40 classes are currently available.

“The classes led by our group X instructors utilize formats that are similar to those of our in-house offerings, and the trainer-directed workouts are similar to our small-group sessions,” says Collins.

EBC On-Demand also features audio workouts; how-to videos on topics such as how to execute specific lifts and use the Power Plate; and healthy recipes and nutrition tips from the club’s dietitian. Approximately five new content segments are introduced each month.

“We want to add value by being an informative resource for our members in all areas of health and wellness, and to expand our reach beyond the club’s walls,” says Kleist.

The club has promoted EBC On-Demand via its monthly newsletters, emails, social media, in-club signage, and instructor and trainer announcements. More than 1,000 EBC members are already using the streaming workout app, which is a complimentary feature of membership.

“We expect to double that number by the end of 2019, and to keep adding members to the platform over time,” says Kleist. “We see this as a perk that many members will appreciate, including group X enthusiasts, or those who are interested in mindfulness, or making healthy meals, or in spicing up their routines.”

“We want to add value by being an informative resource for our members in all areas of health and wellness, and to expand our reach beyond the club’s walls.”

Mel Kleist, Executive Director

East Bank Club - Chicago

SweatWorking provides EBC with user and technical support, along with monthly data that allows it to evaluate the efficacy of the service.

“Reporting and analytics are critically important to building a successful on-demand program,” says Cohen. “We’re proud to provide our partners with customized dashboards and thorough, actionable metrics—including ones on what type of workout is performing best, how users are rating their experience, and what percentage of members are returning month over month.”

Collins and Aida Johnson, EBC’s director of group exercise, manage the EBC On-Demand program, with oversight provided by Kleist and Nathan Aydelott, EBC’s director of marketing.

The club’s staff has noted that collaborating with SweatWorking has been much easier than anticipated, particularly given the fact that new content has to be created constantly.

“I can’t stress enough how professional and responsive SweatWorking has been from Day 1,” Collins says.

SweatWorking sees its partnership with EBC as foreshadowing the future of fitness.

“Forward-thinking clubs such as EBC embrace the fact that members enjoy having programming at their fingertips,” Cohen says. “Our ultimate goal is to provide tools to every club owner to make on-demand a delightful part of the membership experience.”

Assessing Digital’s Impact on the Fitness Industry

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All of this begs the question: As streaming workouts continue to proliferate, should clubs be concerned that on-demand content might reduce actual foot traffic?

It seems unlikely, some industry experts say.

“No hard data exists in this regard,” says Stephen Tharrett, the co-founder of Club Intel, and a former president of IHRSA. “However, some digital content providers report that virtual fitness actually improves in-club retention, because it supplements and enriches the experience.”

In addition, streaming workouts provide broader and deeper exposure.

“In interviewing a dozen operators last year, we learned that those who partnered with custom platforms that stream the club’s content, not only to its members, but also to the rest of the world, found that it made them a few more dollars,” Tharrett says. “Perhaps more significantly, it exposed them to a larger audience. For example, one operator described a gentleman who took classes online, but didn’t live locally. Whenever he was in town, he attended live sessions at the studio.”

In Tharrett’s opinion, club operators who fail to offer digital workouts may ultimately lose members to those who do.

“SweatWorking sees its partnership with EBC as foreshadowing the future of fitness.”

Clubs that produce and stream their own content may enjoy a slight advantage over those airing generic content, he speculates. “These tools will eventually be a required part of the value proposition for most operators. However, the differentiator may be club-specific content.”

Cohen agrees that clubs should capitalize on the many benefits of on-demand content. “For traditional players, the future of fitness requires a dual-pronged approach with bricks on the ground, plus a digital strategy. The winners will embrace the digital trend and put their brand into the hands of their members wherever they are—ultimately increasing engagement, mindshare, and retention.”

That’s exactly what EBC is doing right now.

“Our goal with EBC On-Demand is simply to serve our members well with something that makes their membership even more valuable,” says Kleist. “With our own highly trained and experienced instructors and trainers leading these sessions, members can get a great workout while traveling; when work or home obligations prevent them from getting to the club; or when they just want to acquire new skills. We see a lot of value in adding this to the EBC member experience.”

As for SweatWorking, it’s deliberately and diligently striving to transform the industry. “We’re putting the power back in the hands of the brick-and-mortar players—equipping them to stay relevant in this ever-changing world,” says Cohen.

“We’re putting the power back in the hands of the brick-and-mortar players—equipping them to stay relevant in this ever-changing world.”

Jeana Anderson Cohen, Co-founder

SweatWorking - Chicago

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Julie King

Julie King is a contributor to Club Business International.