‘Give me a thumbs up if you can hear me!’ – How the fitness industry went digital in a week (and who did it best?).

What a statement from our PM!

“We are collectively telling cafes, pubs, bars and restaurants to close tonight as soon as they reasonably can and not to open tomorrow. We are also telling nightclubs, theatres, cinemas, gyms and leisure centres to close on the same timescale.”

Paying close attention to Boris Johnson’s announcement 20th of March, I listened intently for the words ‘gyms’ and ‘leisure centres’. I thought, I can get by without hospitality venues for a few months and I can top up the fridge with wine during my essential visits to the supermarkets, but how am I going to stay active without my beloved gym? 

As someone who is not an independent exerciser, and spends little time on the gym floor itself, I rely heavily on group exercise classes to keep fit and healthy. For me, group exercise brings the biggest sense of achievement. I know when I have had a great instructor-led workout, when I have been pushed hard, and had fun doing it with my friends.

What was I supposed to do now? I started searching online for inspiration and found many clubs had already started live streaming their classes. This had been in response to having to limit class capacity in the days immediately before lockdown. As I widened my search, it was clear more and more content was becoming available. YouTube channels, Instagram, and Facebook Live sessions gave me a sense of relief and I knew I would still be able to enjoy the group exercise experience from my own home.

Like all sectors, the fitness industry was under intense pressure as the Covid-19 situation evolved. It is understandable some clubs might have been in denial about the fact they might be forced to close. After all, who had ever faced anything like this before? This meant that some brands and some clubs were more ready than others. Nevertheless, the industry successfully pivoted and went digital in a week.

As it became clear the fitness industry was changing before our very eyes, at Proinsight we had a light bulb moment and decided we had to measure it.

We quickly teamed up with two of the industries finest fitness experts with an aim to review as many operator’s responses to Covid-19 as possible. We looked at one hundred and forty-four (144) operators’ offerings and discovered 35% of them had created online content of their own, either live streamed or pre-recorded.  As a team of four and we set out to take part in all fifty workouts in a very short space of time! On a personal level, I have taken part in twenty-five different organisations online classes and it has been a fantastic opportunity for me to try to new things and challenge myself. As someone who had felt too intimidated to join a HIIT class at my local gym, I now can’t get enough of it!

What I have discovered over the last nine weeks is that operators broadly fell into three categories:

  1. Those who seemed to surrender to lockdown, closed their clubs, froze memberships, and seem to be waiting for it to all be over.  
  2. Those who acted fast and put an instructor in front of a camera with what looked like little guidance, seemingly hoping for the best.
  3. Those who considered their product within the context of their brand and customer demographic. It was this group that truly thought about it through their customers’ eyes and created a slick online class experience.

We are in no way being critical; this happened fast against the most difficult backdrop imaginable. It is however our job at Proinsight to measure and provide valuable insight.

We saw instructors conducting workouts in cluttered garages and those rearranging dining rooms to create a space with that studio-like feel. In contrast, we saw others with immaculate staff, professional lighting, and branded roller banners. We really have witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly. The customer journey starts with the online search and on one hand we saw polished timetables positioned front and centre on Instagram accounts – a good solution. As a contrast we saw websites that would make you think COVID-19 did not exist with no online classes and no reference to the crisis at all.

‘Give me a thumbs up if you can hear me!’ This is an essential question for any instructor going out to a live audience. In some ways this has replaced the commonly heard phrase ‘can everyone hear me at the back’. It sounds simple but failing to say this in the new digital era risks an entire class being conducted in complete silence. It is obvious when you know but remember these are unchartered waters we are sailing.

The big question now is are online classes here to stay? I for one, most definitely want my local club to continue offering online sessions that make it easier for me to exercise wherever and whenever. From the numerous industry surveys, it seems lots of people think the same, and digital is here to stay. Now is the time to take stock. What might have been alright as a quick lockdown response may not stand the test of time. In lockdown you may have offered your digital service free of charge, but what now if you need to monetise it?

Here at Proinsight we can help. To get your hands on Proinsight’s full insight report into the fitness industry’s digital response to Covid-19, please fill in your details below and we will send you our benchmark report.

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Finally, a huge thank you to my work buddy Hannah Weekes and Tamara Bailey and Rachel Young from Myzone for taking part in this project, it has been a pleasure working out with you all. However, I am sure you will all agree that is quite enough burpees for now!