The Good Soul IHRSA Series - Part 1: The Future Fitness Consumers

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

Over the next three weeks, we’re exploring breaking research that informs what the future fitness consumer looks like, how that affects our industry, and how technology fits in?


These articles mark our roll into IHRSA in Dallas (13-15 October), and IHRSA Smart Summit in Munich (17-19 November), where we look forward to fist bumping you IRL. We’re hosting short, sharp mobile meetings to share the epic shifts in talent acquisition and look forward to raising a glass with you at the bar.


But before all that, let's look at what fitness looks like ATM, 18 months into the pandemic.


Weight, what


“You can’t use an old map to explore a new world”, declared Einstein.


To say that the pandemic has “had an effect” on the fitness sector is the same as saying Thomas Edison’s lightbulb “may have ramifications for the candle industry”.


Let’s just acknowledge that COVID-19 has transformed fitness – from how it’s perceived, to how it’s delivered, to how it’s consumed.


Now, all we need to do is sort out where we fit in the ecosphere and how we best serve this newly transformed world.


Well, that sucked


The events of the past 18 months have ripped through the fitness industry like, erm, a virus. Across the world, health clubs and studios lost big – somewhat dictated by the government’s response – anywhere between 20 percent and 80 percent of their trading days, mainly through lockdowns.


It's been a long road too. A survey by Virtuagym showed that, even during the first three months of 2021, more than two thirds (69 percent) of fitness businesses globally were still forced to keep their doors shut to customers. And even when gyms have been allowed to reopen, they've had to comply with limited capacities and some key activities (such as group classes) being out of bounds.


The US fitness industry alone lost around 58 percent of its revenues during 2020, thanks to lockdowns and closures. The 2021 IHRSA Global Report, published this month, shows that US fitness facilities generated revenues of just US$15bn in 2020 – down from the record US$35bn they generated in 2019. You don’t need to be Einstein to appreciate the magnitude of these economics.


“Last year will go down in history as one of the most challenging for businesses globally, and the health and fitness industry in particular.” concurs Jay Ablondi, IHRSA’s publisher and executive vice president of global products. “The permanent closure of 17 percent of clubs in the U.S. — and even higher in some countries — has left a large segment of displaced members seeking new alternatives.”


10-4, Jay. And it’s in those alternatives that opportunity lives and where the keys to success in a changing world can be found.


So who is going to swoop in and serve the displaced? And an even better question – could that be you?


It’s not all doom and gloom


Bounceback sales and attendance indicate that customers are in a rush to get out of the house and back to the gym. One of the first studies devoted to fitness recovery (May 2020 and two months into the first lockdown) – predicted that in the UK up to 88 percent of gym members intended to eventually return to clubs and studios. While that felt optimistic at the time, it turned out to be pretty accurate. By October 2020, long before any jabs hit arms, ClubIntel reported that the percentage of global member returnees was already at 70 percent.


There’re also plenty of independent club and studio brands which have made a strong recovery. A shining star is the UK’s PureGym (one of the country’s largest chains), which has witnessed the number of members returning post lockdown well beyond expectation. "What's really interesting is that the bounce back is continuing – it hasn't been a case of an initial strong influx of members returning, followed by a slowdown,” says MD Rebecca Passmore. "What we are seeing is that, as each week goes, more and more new members are coming into the market."


This influx of new members is partly due to the industry attracting a new demographic – thanks to the pandemic – the “active health” consumer. This is supported by a number of studies, not least a big data analysis completed for research and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. McKinsey underscores this finding with their own study indicating 40 percent of the general population surveyed now consider wellness a top priority in daily life.


Another thing that clubs (and fitness industry bodies) have rocked at – and which has helped the bounce back – is to shed the perception that gyms are a petri dish for infection. A number of studies have clearly shown that clubs and studios are safe. The Europeans have led the way in producing the evidence, in the form of the SafeACTiVE Study, which showed that the number of cases reported among people who had visited health clubs (prior to testing positive) was 1.12 per 100.000 visits.


As well as making gyms safe, there’s also another, just as welcomed outcome in clubs adopting COVID-19 protocols. Fitness facilities are finally CLEAN. Always one of the most requested feedback points from members – finally delivered.


Another positive from the pandemic was the forced adoption of digital enablement – everything from shopping to socializing. This has enriched our overall health and wellness journey – blending digital touches with bricks-and-mortar experiences in our new hybridized lifestyle.


Tech to the rescue


While the “pivot to digital” has been quoted ad nauseam during pandemic times, there’s no denying that the popularity of live and on demand streaming services, connected in-home devices, wearables, and other fun techy fitness stuff accelerated during 2020 and permanently changed the fitscape forever.


While well-heeled, at-home providers like Peloton were clear winners (a fiscal fourth-quarter sales surged of 172 percent), their success didn’t completely come at the cost of bricks-and-mortar operators. Clubs and studios that held their community close and served digital supplement to ‘business as usual’, also medalled. And rather than throwing shade on Peloton as a perceived competitor, let’s consider thanking them for the hundreds of millions of dollars they spend on marketing to raise the awareness of health and fitness to the 80 percent not walking through our turnstiles. We get to ride on those coat tails and cash in under that halo effect.


Virtuagym research showed that when facilities were locked down, nearly half (45 percent) of health clubs and a third of fitness studios (32 percent) and PTs (36 percent) used technology to continue the workout party at home. In addition, half of studios (49 per cent) and 40 percent of clubs and personal trainers used digital apps to provide virtual training. The same number of health clubs also engaged with members through one-to-one online coaching and live streaming of classes.


The research also showed how tech proved essential in maintaining a sense of community among members. Nearly two-thirds (60 percent) of health clubs and more than half of studios (54 per cent) offered online group classes, while 50 percent of clubs used in-app community features.


To put this in context, consider the 2019 Mindbody survey that reported only 7 percent of its users had accessed fitness streaming services on a weekly basis and this number blossomed to 80 percent by April 2020.


Club is hub


So what will the future fitness consumer look, feel and behave like? A report published on 28 July offers some great insight into this. Compiled by ClubIntel, The IHRSA Foundation and ABC Fitness Solutions, “The Next Fitness Consumer” suggests that a personalized and curated member experience will be at the heart of every successful operator’s business model.


Stay tuned for Part 2 in the Good Soul IHRSA series.


"We believe technology will be a real game-changer for the fitness industry, it can enable operators large and small to deliver varied and personalised experiences to keep clients feeling motivated and ultimately really improving their wellbeing”

– Hugo Braam, founder, Virtuagym

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