Ray Algar discusses Gymtopia, his new digital project

Brand image for Gymtopia

Adriano Zanni recently contacted me about an article for Fitness Business Magazine Brasil. He wanted to know more about Gymtopia, which launches during May 2013.

Adriano Zanni (AZ): How and why did you start to think about Gymtopia?

Ray Algar (RA): For many years I have been thinking about how the fitness club can become an important and valued part if its community. Valued in the same way that the community view the local school, library or football team. In other words, a fitness club that is embedded into the centre or ‘heart’ of the community rather than seen as sitting on the edge and perceived as simply ‘taking’ from the community.

The idea for Gymtopia came to me when I was speaking with Richard Bilton, President of Companhia Athletica at the 2012 IHRSA Fitness Brasil Conference. 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. 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, Planet Fitness, the US-based budget gym operator now has more than 3.5 million members, which is larger than the population of Uruguay. If you ask 3.5 million people to participate in a simple ‘act of kindness’ the result can be extraordinary.
  • Why are these inspiring and socially worthwhile club projects not more ‘discoverable’ by others around the world? 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 travel globally. Gymtopia is the result.

AZ: How do you to define Gymtopia?

RA: Gymtopia is a digital ‘story telling’ platform for the global fitness club industry capturing the social impact projects that are taking place. These are stories that explain how fitness 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 fitness 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’.

AZ: How can the Brazilian fitness industry get involved?

RA: A club visits the Gymtopia website and completes a free one-time registration. Once registered, a club can then submit its project.

Gymtopia wants to publish projects or stories that possess the following qualities:

  • It focuses on improving the lives of a community.
  • It has an external focus that benefits a community, not members of a fitness club.

There is a short online form to complete that explains the club’s project and how it has helped a community at either a local, national or international level. Some of the questions we ask the club when writing their project story are:

  • How did the project start?
  • What were the project objectives?
  • Why is this project important?
  • What was the impact of the project? In other words, what difference has the club made to a community?

We also ask for some photographs as this helps to tell the story and bring it alive. I receive the project via Gymtopia; proof-read it to ensure it reads well and then publish it on Gymtopia for the world to see. Other clubs around the world will then read about it and be inspired to start their own project. Clubs of all sizes will have a project they are proud of, so please share it with us on Gymtopia.

Brasilian clubs can choose to write their story in Portuguese or English. Over time, we would ideally like all projects to be published in Portuguese, Spanish and English, as we want the stories to travel globally. However, to be clear, the club submits the story just once and we will organise any translation.

AZ: Do you believe that ‘social marketing’ can help to develop a health club’s image or reputation? How is it possible?

RA: I do and let me give your readers an example. During October 2012, the East Coast of the United States was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, causing more than $71 billion of damage. Residents in New York suffered flooding and loss of electricity in their homes. This made keeping warm difficult and many people had no hot water. How did the fitness industry respond? Equinox, a well-known, premium club chain charged New Yorkers $35 to visit their clubs to charge mobile phones and have a hot shower. Word quickly spread online that Equinox was profiteering from the community at a time of need. Newspapers published stories criticising the company for making money in the ‘Hurricane economy’. At the same time, MySportsClubs, another New York fitness chain invited the community to use their clubs, free of charge. This is what they published on their website:

All of our clubs are opening their doors to Hurricane Sandy victims allowing full use of our facilities. If you need a hot shower, charge your cell phone or re-charge your body with a stress-reducing workout. Our club is your club’

So, a completely different response from two businesses in the same industry to the Hurricane. Has reputation been affected? Absolutely, and I know which of these two clubs I feel more inclined to join.

 AZ:  In Brasil and in Latin America, we have a lot of social initiatives. How do you analyse the importance and the influence of wellness industry in this area?

RA: This is a great question and illustrates why Gymtopia is needed. Presently, there is no simple and accurate way of aggregating the social impact projects undertaken by fitness clubs in a country, a region or globally. This means the social impact generated by more than 15 million Latin American members and 46,000 gyms that are donating money, toys and clothes and many other projects that benefit communities are not being combined. Through Gymtopia, I want to bring all these inspiring projects together and shine a light on them.

AZ: What difference do you hope Gymtopia will make to the lives of health club owners and their members?

RA: I am hoping that everyone feels more ‘connected’. Members feel more connected to staff and the club, while the club feel more connected to its community. Feeling genuinely connected really matters because relationships are deeper. Connected members will care more about the club, keep their membership for longer, attend more often and spend more, over time. Give me to the end of 2013 to research this and I will come back with some evidence to support these claims.

 AZ: In 2012, you were speaking at the Fitness Brasil Conference in Sao Paulo. What did you learn from your visit to Brasil?

RA: This was actually my first visit to Latin America so I was very excited to participate in the IHRSA Fitness Brasil Conference. I saw an industry in a state of rapid expansion, embracing ideas quickly from other parts of the world. For example, I have been researching low-cost gyms for many years and Brasil was very quick to see the potential to embrace this trend as a means to allow more consumers to join a gym for the very first time. Smart Fit opened its first club in 2009, which was only one year after the sector gained momentum in the UK. This tells me that the Brasilian industry is connected at a global level and quick to embrace new business ideas. Brasil is also leading the way in driving environmental awareness through clubs such as Eco Fit in Sao Paulo. Also the idea of clubs acting as ‘community champions’ such as the Cia Athletica Institute, a non-profit organisation that promotes social-cultural projects with the purpose of improving lives. Brasil is learning from other parts of the global fitness industry, but we are also learning from Brasil. This is how I like to view this new ‘connected’ world in which we now live; a world powered by the concept of reciprocity and mutual cooperation.


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