Exploring ideas for my next health club industry report

Five years ago, I was invited to speak to Swedish health and fitness operators at a conference in Gothenburg. My presentation was called:

What does your fitness clubs stand for?

You can read the presentation here:

The themes in this presentation were:

  • Proliferation of consumer choice and growing sense of ‘choice trauma
  • Clubs beginning to look and feel the same
  • Clubs competing using pricing promotions
  • Fitness becoming commoditised in the eyes of the consumer
  • The health club experience drifting towards ‘mediocre’ from the consumers perspective
  • At the same time, budget or low-cost gyms begin emerging in the UK
  • Also, digital and the web begin offering health and fitness substitutes to the gym. Consumers embrace them, but clubs are unsure if they are an opportunity or a threat.
  • I sense that clubs are losing their way and are unclear of their core purpose. As Malcolm X, the Civil Rights Leader once said:

 ‘Stand for something or fall for anything’

  • I try and argue that clubs need to start competing for a member’s heart and not just their wallet. Members need to feel a strong sense of belonging and connection but clubs seem unaware, or unsure, of how to achieve this.

Over the past five years, I have seen low-cost gyms that stand for ‘democratising fitness’ go from strength-to-strength. They have created a brand story that resonates with consumers, employees, suppliers, investors and other stakeholders. In contrast, the brand story for much of what I describe as the ‘legacy’ club industry remains relatively unchanged. Their story feels out of synch’ with how consumers are changing, riddled with inconsistencies and operational practices that are disliked.

I am thinking of:

Legacy industry  v low-cost gym sector

  • 12-month contract versus join month-to-month
  • Publicly disclose no pricing information versus publish prices on web
  • Restrict opening hours versus open 24-hours
  • Manage and ‘control’ brand communications versus a more open and collaborative approach by leveraging social networks. For example, just under 39,000 people now ‘like’ The Gym Group’s Facebook page with just under 1,800 people talking about the brand. In contrast, the larger LA Fitness has just under 21,000 ‘likes’ and 347 interactions (at December 2012).

Sometimes resulting in:

Legacy industry: Negative on and off line sentiment about the gym experience

Low-cost gym sector: Positive on and off line sentiment about the gym experience

The strategic response

The strategic response from the industry to the arrival of low-cost gyms and an array of digital health and fitness substitutes is muted due to a number of reasons:

  • Blissful ignorance: Perhaps a belief that the core fundamentals of the traditional health club remains fit for purpose and all will be good again when the economy is ‘fixed’.
  • Sit tight and do nothing: Why? Because they believe low-cost gyms are a short-term fad and the status quo is resumed when consumers feel more prosperous and people begin to reject ‘self-service’ gyms.
  • Sense of denial: Belief that the health club retains a monopoly on health and fitness and remain the primary source of expertise and support. While this may once have been the case, consumers now have alternative ‘authorities’ to turn to.

Building a stronger sense of connection and community

One of the areas I am thinking is how clubs can remain relevant to consumers. The dictionary definition of relevant is:

‘Closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand’

Staying relevant to me means discovering a way for members to feel they:

  • Belong to something they care about and value
  • Belong to something that works – it delivers results
  • Belong to a club that ‘cares’. Cares in both a member-centric and community sense.

Caring taps into my belief that clubs need to become stronger community partners. There needs to be a wider acceptance that clubs become ‘net givers’ rather than ‘net takers’ in the communities they operate in. This is why I am developing Gymtopia, a digital platform that captures and shares the wider social impact projects that the world’s health clubs are currently involved in. This involves harnessing the ‘giving’ disposition of members to collect, food, clothing, raise money and generally do all types of social good. The idea is to get more clubs thinking about taking a community leadership role in a series of diverse projects that matter to members, staff and other business stakeholders. This is driven from the insight that clubs through their members have considerable social influence that can be harnessed to create dramatic impacts either at a local, national or international level.

Research focus

So, the research focus for me can be captured in the following:

  • How do clubs re-discover their sense of place and belonging as part of a digital future?
  • How do clubs remain relevant to consumers?
  • How do clubs identify and pursue a compelling core purpose?
  • How do clubs become a valued part of their community?

I would appreciate any comments on the above and how this might be sculpted into a new research stream.