Is Gym-provided Virtual Exercise the Next Big Thing?

Gold’s Gym and Crunch are among the first club chains to offer high-quality out-of-club classes for people on the go.

Unless you’ve been on sabbatical recently, you’re well aware that virtual exercise classes have clearly passed the threshold from middling to big. And gym-provided, in-home exercise offerings are poised to become the next big thing.

To help you get a jump on the competition, we talked to a few IHRSA clubs that are already providing high-quality out-of-club classes for people on the go.

A Chain Reaction

This fall, Gold’s Gym International, Inc. (GGI) announced that it was launching Gold’s AMP, a digital personal-training app that features prerecorded video trainer routines and a built-in music-streaming service.

“We decided to create workouts that can engage our members both in and out of the clubs,” Adam Zeitsiff, the Dallas-based chain’s chief information officer, told MobileHealthNews.

The service, priced at $9.99 a month, will be offered both to Gold’s Gym members and to non-members. And remember: GGI has some 740 clubs, in 38 states and 26 countries, serving more than 3 million members.

At about the same time, Crunch, one of the many club brands of New Evolution Ventures (NeV), the Lafayette, CA–based private equity firm, introduced Crunch Live, its own at-home, $9.99-a-month series of exercise options. “No matter where you are, access Crunch Live on any device, including your laptop, tablet, mobile device, and more!” the company encouraged users.

Crunch currently has 60 company-owned units in California, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, and Florida; 250 franchises in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Spain, and Australia; and one CR6Crunch unit in Spain ... which also adds up to an impressive number of customers.

Like Gold’s AMP, Crunch Live will be marketed both to members and to nonmembers.

It seems safe to say that, within a fairly short period of time, every major club chain and/or franchise will be following suit.

Fitness Programming Les Mills Virtual Content Column

Les Mills Live on Demand inspires and instructs at home

The Benefits of Virtual Exercise

That’s not to suggest, however, that the move to provide health, fitness, nutrition, and other wellness services, in digital format, to users outside the walls of a club is limited to “the big boys”—not at all. Many—if not most—of the industry suppliers who have staked their claim, and made their fame, in the virtual exercise arena are now making it possible for clubs to deliver their own online programs.

Prominent among the IHRSA-member actors are Les Mills, FitCloudConnect, Fitness On Demand, Wellbeats, and Wexer. Les Mills, the veteran Auckland, New Zealand–based provider of prechoreographed workouts, and the creator of Les Mills on Demand (LMOD), estimates that 82% of club clients already exercise at home, and that 63% employ virtual apps or digital platforms.

Ask these companies or industry observers what’s propelling the online surge, and the answers they offer echo or overlap with one another.

Zeitsiff, in his comments, sketched a contextual framework for the development.

“If you look at the fitness industry today ... [people] are looking for the utmost flexibility in their workout routine,” he said. “There’s a number of new technologies, disruptive services, and fit- ness apps that have been out there, and they’re finding ways to fill consumer needs. ... These technologies and services are kind of disintermediating our members and our clubs, and we don’t want to do that.”

Among the critical factors active in the equation: Today, consumers want all of the options. They want them to be customized. They want to be able to access them when, where, and how they like. Independent online-ex providers are clubs’ newest competition. For clubs, online-ex is a valuable marketing tool and a new revenue source. It’s a business that can be scaled nearly infinitely, and virtually instantaneously.

Bryan O’Rourke, a multifaceted industry entrepreneur who, among other things, is the president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council (FIT-C), believes club-sourced training is superior to other exercise apps or YouTube videos, and is able to rattle off a list of its unique benefits.

For members, he notes: “It provides a seamless experience, without the interruption of ads. Members can do exactly the same classes they enjoy at the club. They have access to classes they wouldn’t be able to find online. With the live-streamed classes, there also can be specific interaction with, and shout-outs to, members working out at home.”

O’Rourke also is a member of IHRSA’s board of directors.

Club operators, he points out, “can create digital memberships, including high-quality group exercise, which means a far bigger potential market, since geography is no longer an issue. ... Keep the member engaged with their brand: the member’s activity still takes place in the club’s own space, whether or not they’re in the club. And provide members with the best online fitness content on the market, adding value to the membership.”

“The member’s activity still takes place in the club’s own space, whether or not they’re in the club.”

Bryan O’Rourke, President

Fitness Industry Technology Council

And that’s just the beginning. As with all things digital, the possibilities and applications seem endless.

Asked about the advantages accruing to clubs, Brad Weber, the CEO of FitCloudConnect, based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, says, “Perhaps the top three, in my opinion, would be (1) new revenue streams, (2) improved retention, and (3) the ability for the club to expand their brand.” But he quickly goes on to list 23 other ways to leverage online-ex.

One tantalizing aspect of the process is that digital programming is able to generate data—lots of it—which, utilized intelligently, can prove valuable in countless ways.

Equipment manufacturers, it seems clear, also will be studying and responding strategically to this emerging trend. Many already offer similar services—tutorials, coaching, virtual programs, interactive activities—on their commercial cardio machines, and it’s likely these will proliferate on their consumer units. Conversely, Peloton, a leading manufacturer of personal exercise bikes that access programming via the Internet, has opened a bricks-and-mortar studio in New York City.

“They’re going to be a very big problem for clubs starting in 2018,” says Weber.

Fitness Programming Wellbeats Column

Wellbeats offers exercise options in comfort

Online-ex in Action

Among the commonalities of club-provided, online-ex programming: It may consist of prerecorded sessions or live-streamed classes. It may feature professional trainer-performers or the instructors and classes at one’s own club. It’s generally offered both to club members and to nonmembers. Clubs may assess a fee or offer it as a value-added perk.

The content can be accessed by virtually all common digital devices, e.g., computers, tablets, smartphones. Most firms offer a large variety of classes, which are updated regularly. Additional club-level technology and staffing requirements are nominal. The systems are cloud-based.

“Offering streaming workout options gives your members the convenience, flexibility, and instant access they desire, and have become accustomed to, in today’s digital age,” says Garrett Marshall, the divisional CEO of Fitness On Demand, in Chanhassen, MN, a virtual-exercise pioneer.

Pure Fitness, a San Diego, CA–based chain that operates facilities throughout Asia, has begun airing online classes for MyYoga, using Fitness On Demand, and is pleased with members’ reactions and the results.

“It’s been well received, especially among busy professionals and business travelers,” says Meech Apsden, the director of group fitness for Pure Group International, in Hong Kong.

The company charges an additional fee for the service.

“It’s all about accessibility and providing added value to our members, and another touch point with our customers,” says Apsden. “The digital world is all about being able to stay connected with our customers—anytime, anywhere, and everywhere.”

Jen Zygmunt, the senior vice president of sales and marketing for Wellbeats, based in Maple Grove, MN, notes that, “Members are more loyal to a club when their membership extends outside its four walls.” And that’s true even when the clientele consists of doctors and nurses.

Agnesian HealthCare, a nonprofit integrated healthcare system in Fond du Lac, WI, maintains a gym for the hospital’s staff, and provides them with Wellbeats options—both on-site and online.

“They absolutely love it,” says Wellness Coordinator Janelle Baldwin. The offerings, she reports, provide users with a consistent, high-quality, professionally sound, and rewarding exercise experience.

The on-demand version, she indicates, is particularly popular with working moms on the staff—“if they have to stay at home with a sick child, for example, they don’t have to miss a workout—and [it’s used] by all team members when they’re traveling or on vacation.”

“The digital world is all about being able to stay connected with our customers—anytime, anywhere, and everywhere.”

Meech Apsden, Director of Group Fitness

Pure Group International, Hong Kong

Paul Bowman, the CEO of Wexer, one of the earliest prophets and popularizers of virtual exercise, makes use of much the same playlist of the advantages of online-ex as O’Rourke, saying, “It provides a seamless experience ....”

But Bowman goes on to explain that “Wexer Mobile is a digital extension of the club’s offering. It allows the operator to maintain its relationship with members 24/7, while also expanding the reach of the business by engaging a new cohort of non-gym-goers.”

Wexer, headquartered in London, offers hundreds of on-demand classes via its mobile platform; its app also hosts a workout builder, class bookings, challenges, and other features.

Simon Flint, the CEO of Evolution Wellness, the parent company of both Fitness First Asia and Celebrity Fitness, is clearly a convert.

“Fitness First understands that, in today’s busy life, there may be occasions where members won’t always be able to make it to the gym,” he says, “so we want to provide tools and content that will allow them to stay on track with their fitness regimen.

“We’re keen to continue to help keep people inspired wherever they may be— at home, at work, or while traveling— through fitness-rich experiences,” he says. “That’s why we’ve chosen to partner with Wexer in this unique way.

“Our key objective,” says Bowman, speaking, it seems, for his fellow online-ex providers, “is to help clubs stay relevant in a world where consumers are increasingly looking online for fitness inspiration and content.”

Craig R. Waters

Craig Waters previously served as the Editor-in-Chief of Club Business International.