Using Chatbots, AI, & Virtual Reality in Your Fitness Business

Should your fitness business implement chatbots, artificial intelligence, or virtual reality? Here’s what you need to know.

In just a few years, virtual assistants and chatbots have became familiar parts of everyday life.

Alexa, Siri, Google Home, and other services have been integrated into our daily routines, while chatbots assist us in a range of tasks in our online interactions.

But even though we’re comfortable with this technology, many of us still don’t know the fundamentals of how artificial intelligence (AI) work or how to use these digital tools for our own business purposes.

That’s a mistake, says Fred Hoffman, owner of Fitness Resources in France. “You need to engage and connect with your audience on mobile platforms,” he said during an education session at IHRSA 2019 in San Diego, CA. “You need to see how AI, virtual reality, and chatbots fit into your overall digital strategy.”

Technology drives a lot of fitness content, said Hoffman, and these platforms can support a range of health club business models. Exergames, podcasts, apps, wearables, video content on YouTube and Vimeo—all of these elements are powered by AI and sophisticated algorithms that can be leveraged to create a better customer experience for your members.

Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence

Chatbots are great place to start, he said. “Determine which areas of your business would benefit from chatbots and learn how to start using them,” Hoffman suggested.

First, don’t be intimidated by the technology. “AI is basically computer systems that are designed to mimic human interactions,” said Hoffman. “You can find companies that will help you create a simple chatbot interaction relatively quickly.”

Chatbots can improve daily operations. They save time and money because they automate repetitive work and are available 24/7. Chatbots can be used to:

  • Improve customer support/resolve problems
  • Create personalized messages for members
  • Solicit customer feedback
  • Showcase new products and services
  • Provide tips and programs
  • Provide access to discounts and partnerships
  • Connect to social media
  • Schedule and coordinate meetings
  • Help improve human resources for recruitment and screening

“It’s actually easy to create, run, and update chatbots,” said Hoffman. “Companies that create them can walk you through the process.”

With the right chatbot or other AI tools in place, you can quickly build your revenue streams. Just like merchant sites will create recommendations for “products you may like,” so too can you create a chatbot that will offer services to your members who may not be aware of what’s available at your club. It’s a simple way to open up more opportunities to sell non-dues revenue products to your customers.

“With the right chatbot or other AI tools in place, you can quickly build your revenue streams.”

Hoffman conceded that chatbots are best used for basic interactions. You’ll need assistance from tech experts if you want to go deeper into machine learning and other more advanced tools. At first, go at your own pace and see how much you can get out of the basic chatbot systems available online. (Established companies like IBM and smaller startups can help you build a chatbot. Research it online. You can also review trusted IHRSA supplier members that offer technology solutions on Club Business Exchange.)

It’s important to understand the limitations of chatbots, and create a system where human agents are able to take over an interaction at the appropriate time. Once a chatbot has exhausted its utility for providing information, it’s important to consumers that you follow up with a knowledgeable representative of your business. The benefit here is that many situations can be resolved without human interaction, but it’s important to give your customers the option of a personal touch point. Don’t dead-end them into a chat loop that frustrates them.

The Power of Messaging Apps

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Another technology that’s become a valuable business tool are messaging apps. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and other services have become important communication portals for consumers. The group chat aspect of these apps can open up a lot of opportunities to keep your customers informed and motivated using messages, special promotions, and other communications. Just don’t overload customers with reminders and constant sales pitches.

Hoffman said he believes that the possibilities for using messaging, chatbots, VR, and AI are endless. He cites a number of services that use AI for such things as psychiatric apps, translation programs, and biometrics. Technology is moving fast, and younger generations are early and quick adopters. You need to stay with them.

Understanding what’s around the corner for consumer tech is an essential part of staying on top of trends that can make a big difference in your business. For instance, Hoffman said he believes VR options could soon become important tools for the fitness industry due to such services as Facebook Spaces. Facebook Spaces is a VR app that allows a person to interact with a group of three or four friends in a virtual world via an interactive dock at the center of a table.

“Understanding what’s around the corner for consumer tech is an essential part of staying on top of trends that can make a big difference in your business.”

There’s also a data-collecting benefit to these digital tools, said Hoffman. They not only help you store useful customer information, but they help provide market research more organically, so you can see what your customers desire and what turns them off.

The endless applications of today’s technology are just now being realized. Knowing how chatbots, AI, VR, and other digital tools can support and grow your business should be a priority. Your customers are mobile and connected, and you need to integrate your brand and services into their world. Just ask Siri.

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Jim Schmaltz

Jim Schmaltz is a contributor to IHRSA.org