Harnessing the health club as a platform for social good

Article reproduced from IL Nuovo Club Magazine, Italy.

Recently, I discovered that Ray Algar, the Managing Director of UK-based Oxygen Consulting was developing a new digital project called ‘Gymtopia’. He describes Gymtopia ‘as a place where clubs do social good’. I was interested to discover more about this project and we caught up with Ray before the IHRSA Convention in Las Vegas.

Davide Venturi (DV): Firstly, summarise Gymtopia so that I understand the big idea?

Brand image for GymtopiaRay Algar (RA): Gymtopia is a digital ‘story telling’ platform for the global health club industry capturing the social impact projects that are taking place. These are stories that explain how health clubs around the world are collaborating with their members to collect food, raise money, donate shoes, and give clothing and many other projects that create a positive social impact. The stories I discover are inspiring and people are often surprised when I share them. The response is often: ‘I did not realise health clubs did that’.  So, the big idea around Gymtopia is to collect all these global social impact projects, these ‘stories’ that clubs and industry suppliers are leading and put them in a single place on the web where they become more ‘discoverable’.

 DV: Why is this project important to you?

RA: I believe it remains far too easy for members to emotionally ‘disconnect’ from their local club and leave, either to join another club or quit the industry. Why is this the case when the club should be at the centre of a member’s life? So, I have been thinking for a long time, how do clubs make themselves more connected to members and the communities they serve? One way, I believe, is clubs begin to use their influence to create more social impact either at a local, national or international level. As they create more social impact, so I believe they create deeper connections, connections between members, employees and all other stakeholders. Suddenly, the club stops just enriching the lives of members, but extends its influence far beyond the club walls.

 DV: You must have many ideas, so why develop this one?

RA: The ‘tipping point’ was a chance conversation with Richard Bilton, President of Companhia Athletica, one of Brasil’s leading health club chains during the recent IHRSA Brasil Conference in Sao Paulo. Richard was telling me about a shoe collection project their clubs had started. The simple idea was to ask members to bring in their old gym shoes when they were about to replace them. The shoes were laundered, bagged and passed to Symap, a Brasilian charity providing running training to individuals who could not affords to buy specialist training shoes. The curious part of this story was that the shoes were hung in the reception area of the clubs. Picture the image of walking into your local club reception and seeing lots of pairs of shoes suspended from the ceiling. Companhia Athletica collected 700 pairs of shoes to kick-start the project and is now collecting just under 4,000 pairs each year.  I was fascinated by Richard’s project for several reasons:

  • How big could this shoe project become if other clubs around the world were inspired to get involved? It does not take long for the idea to spread and create momentum.
  • Clubs are themselves significant and influential communities that can be harnessed to create any type of social impact that they passionately care about. For example, Virgin Active now has more than one million members globally, which is the population of Naples. If you ask one million people to participate in a simple ‘act of kindness’ the result can be very dramatic.
  • Why are these inspiring and socially worthwhile club projects not more ‘discoverable’? I was finding out about them by accident.

So the idea I had that day was to ‘capture’ all these stories and put them in a single place on the web so that they ‘spread’ globally. Gymtopia is the result.

 DV: What difference do you hope Gymtopia will make?

RA: I am hoping clubs from Italy will visit the Gymtopia website and read about the inspiring projects that clubs from all parts of the world are engaged in and say to themselves: ‘Our club can do something, or do more’.

DV: How difficult is it for a club to create a project that benefits the community?

RA: Projects do not have to be complex or time-consuming. For example, The Gym Group in the UK, a fast-growing chain of low-cost gyms decided it wanted to raise money for a range of charities. To keep joining fees as low as possible, all members have to join using the company’s website. So the simple idea was to add one additional question to the sign-up process: ‘Would you like to make a one-off donation to our charity of the month?’

Members then choose how much to donate which is added to their first month’s gym payment. This simple request to members has created a big impact. The company now collects €8,000 every month, which is passed to a Charity of the Month, selected by staff. That is €96,000 over the course of a year. This is all achieved via a simple change to the web sign-up process, which does not affect the visitor’s overall experience.  You can also see how this act of ‘Charity’ is deeply embedded in the business rather than some temporary ‘campaign’. Just imagine the impact if more gyms were to make this simple and permanent change. So, I hope you can see that projects can be quite simple to start.

 DV: How can the Italian fitness industry get involved?

RA: Simply visit the Gymtopia website and read about the projects already underway around the world. This will provide ideas for starting a project. Projects are presently being published in English, but can be submitted to Gymtopia in Italian, which we can translate.

 DV: Why should clubs care when the business environment is so difficult?

RA: I believe that remarkable clubs are those that create a positive impact both inside and away from the club. Yes, clubs must focus on creating an extraordinary member experience but they are also rooted to communities. So, if a health club genuinely cares about its community, then the community will care about the club. The result is the club’s ‘social credentials’ are extended, reputation rises and members feel a greater sense of connection, between themselves and the club. I look forward to reading about all the ways that Italian clubs are ‘doing good’.


Ray Algar is the Managing Director of Oxygen Consulting, a company that provides strategic business insights for organisations connected to the global health and fitness industry and Founder of Gymtopia. Share your club’s story at: www.Gymtopia.org