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IHRSA Think Tank Event Examines Fitness Industry's Future

The second IHRSA Think Tank event, sponsored by Precor, again brought together senior leaders in the industry to discuss the future challenges, changes, and opportunities.

For the second time during the pandemic, IHRSA hosted its Think Tank event to bring together C-suite level executives for a virtual, small group discussion around the future of the industry and trends. Facilitated by Eddie Tock, CEO of REX Roundtables, and Bill McBride, CEO of Active Wellness and BMC3, this event in particular focused on three topics, with small groups led by a dozen additional industry leaders with excellent industry experiences:

  • Re-imagining the Fitness Club & Hybrid Gym Models
  • Healthy Lifestyles
  • Staffing Changes and Challenges

While conversations carried on about the new topics above, many talking points from the first IHRSA Think Tank, hosted in September, were reborn either with solutions to the challenges, or as recurring industry topics such as:

When the COVID-19 pandemic is over, will health club utilization be higher, lower, or about the same as pre-COVID-19?

The outlook from the group was positive, stating that many people are falling into sedentary lifestyles during this time and the focus on total wellness is heightened. This includes mental health solutions, nutrition, and physical activity. The prediction is that health club utilization will be higher in the long term. The clubs that make it through the pandemic will be successful due to the innovations that they have launched during this time and the challenges they have overcome.

Will greater use of technology reduce the industry’s impact on older Americans?

The consensus from the group is that virtual offerings will simply be an additional offering, knowing that many but not all will take advantage of them. They will be a long-term compliment to the brick-and-mortar facility, allowing for more options for all special populations including older Americans that may prefer the physical club environment over technology. In many ways, the club has become an “a la carte” experience, and this in turn will not deter older Americans from experiencing the club on their terms.

Strategy and finance row of kettlebells Unsplash stock column

New thoughts and changes in perspectives have emerged over the past few months as well. Below are the newer concepts that arose from the discussion on January 7, 2021:

Clubs and their sales teams are taking on a “lifestyle strategy” approach.

It’s understood that the concept of “total wellness” in the club is nothing new. However, clubs and industry experts are seeing this concept woven into the relationship-building process. Generating leads and increasing marketing reach is just the start, and the focus is now on changing someone’s life rather than just selling a club membership.

The clubs now need to hold themselves accountable for the success of the client in addition to holding the client themselves accountable to their goals in order to keep them. Michele Melkerson-Granryd, general manager at Castle Hill Integrative Fitness in Texas, put it well by saying, “...We can help with accountability—that treadmill sitting in the living room can't.”

Brick-and-mortar facilities are continuing to share the fitness space with at-home equipment and resources. When it comes to a big lifestyle change for new or existing members, these commitments to goals are not taking place in their “normal” way when you factor in the in-person environment, the virtual environment, and the other resources a club can provide during this time. Motivation and goal-setting methods are changing, but the connection to an industry professional through the club is still strong. Clubs can leverage this to help the client and their member base, whether that is through virtual check-ins, physically distanced training and more. The club is no longer just a strategy to reach a fitness goal, but a lifestyle strategy as a resource for nutrition, mental wellness, and community connection.

The evolution of communities and the new “accountability buddy.”

Community has always been a crucial and enjoyable element of the physical club space. Micro-communities (or pods) are popping up within clubs as small pools of people take advantage of different offerings. Some have returned to in-person only offerings; some exclusively are working out at home and creating communities virtually; others are a combination of both communities. Regardless, one trend that is emerging is the community as a whole is a resource for accountability.

As we mentioned above in relation to leveraging your ability to hold people accountable for a lifestyle strategy, accountability buddies are not new. These are friends, family, or fitness industry professionals who are helping an individual stay accountable to their goals.

However, the way accountability partners are structured is evolving. Clubs are now approaching the entire community as the source for accountability including staff and other club members, in-person and virtually. It seems that it’s no longer just one “buddy”, but instead a full supportive network within—and outside of—the club.

The purpose of the community has shifted. What was once focused on social elements and basic connection is now the lifeblood to reaching goals. The club has a possible role in becoming a bigger network for support and accountability.

The word “convenience” is now defined as…?

How would you have defined the word “convenience” when it comes to your facility over one year ago? Perhaps you were close to a corporate park and the club was in a convenient location. Or maybe you offered quick and efficient workouts that kept busy people on their schedule. Now, rethink it. What about your offering is convenient now?

The phrase “meet the customer where they are” resounded across many of the small groups during the Think Tank discussions. Yes, we know we need to offer a virtual component in addition to in-person offerings, but:

  • How often do you change your schedule of offerings?
  • What are you charging for virtual or in-person visits?
  • Is it easy or convenient to join or cancel?
  • Are you accessible and are your offerings easy to understand?
  • Are you collecting feedback from members and staff?
Strategy and finance woman headphones elliptical Unsplash stock column

It may seem that you are trying to be everything to everyone by offering so many different programming options. This year and beyond, it will remain crucial to offer many different solutions to members, even if each category only has small takers.

Bill McBride compared virtual offerings to swimming pools saying, “If you tour somebody through a club, and you ask them if they’d like to have a swimming pool, most people say ‘yeah, I’d love to have a swimming pool!’...but only a small percentage of your members use it. I think virtual is going to be that way as well.

“Everybody is going to like the fact that you are cutting edge, that you are outside of your four walls, but you might not have a majority of your members taking advantage of that. It’s still something that is a strong necessity, if not a differentiator.”

Hybrid models are here to stay.

In tune with the conversation around convenience for the customer, virtual options specifically will continue to be expected by consumers due to ease of access and accommodating more lifestyles and scenarios. It is also important to consider those for whom virtual options are least optimal due to a variety of factors such as physical space to workout at home, time and space constraints while many are working and learning remotely, etc. For many, at-home options are not ideal and they may be ready to come back to the club. Have you made it easy and safe for them to return?

IHRSA continues to plan and prepare opportunities for conversation within the industry in order to share ideas, foster industry growth, and protect the success of the industry. If you’d like to be considered for an invitation to our next IHRSA Think Tank, email info@ihrsa.org.

Related Articles & Publications

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  • Talks & Takes: A Monthly Fitness Industry Talk Show

  • 6 Strategies for the Fitness Industry to Survive

Author avatar

Christine Ulatoski

Christine Ulatosk is the Education Manager for IHRSA. She develops educational content online and in person at IHRSA events, as well as manages all event speakers. Outside of IHRSA, Christine can be found teaching or taking group fitness classes, or in the kitchen baking her specialty: chocolate chip cookies!