Virtual Fitness: Here to Stay

Virtual classes have been adopted by most of the world’s top 25 health club groups. So what’s led this drive into the mainstream and what comes next? 

Few people would argue that building beautiful group exercise and cycling studios and then not running classes in them for the majority of the day makes good business sense – which is one key reason why, over recent years, a growing number of operators have turned to virtual classes.

One of Wexer Virtual’s UK partners, Martin Seibold, managing director of Fitness First UK, explains: “We’re constantly pushing the boundaries of our member experience and virtual helps us do this; it adds value to our studio space and gives members flexibility and more varied training. We see the investment return through its marketing value and improved opportunities to retain group fitness users. Additionally, our club managers are reporting that virtual feeds a lot of new people into our live classes, which increases the value proposition of virtual still further.”

One of the largest club groups in the world and one of our partners in US, 24 Hour Fitness, has recently started implementing virtual across its more than 650 studios. “Virtual enhances the overall member experience and is a highly effective member acquisition and digital marketing vehicle,” says executive vice president Tom Lapcevic.

“We use virtual for many different applications. Firstly, virtual classes introduce our members to group exercise in a non-intimidating, fun and convenient manner. Second, virtual injects audiovisual energy and powerful member marketing and messaging into our live classes. Third, virtual is the ideal platform to uniformly and simultaneously train our 20,000+ employees scattered across the country. And finally, virtual is a powerful communication platform for our third-party sponsors and advertisers.”

Virtual success
As with all new technologies, getting the application right is a challenge. Although virtual is now fairly widespread and growing fast, there are still significant differences in terms of the level of participation across clubs offering virtual classes. So what do the operators with the highest participation levels do differently from those with lower numbers?

Club groups that use virtual as a tool rather than a product are significantly more successful, as they understand what’s required to integrate virtual into their member journey. They recognize that the tool is dynamic and ever-evolving, and therefore embrace this with a clear integration and execution strategy.

One of our content partners, Les Mills International, is both a provider of virtual classes and a club operator. Phillip Mills, CEO of Les Mills, has implemented virtual programming in his own New Zealand clubs and observed the growing momentum of the trend around the world.“It’s actually been the low-tech stuff that’s been holding adoption up – the ability to get the studio properly dark and so on”. But when it’s done well, the impact can be significant. Usage of Les Mills cycle studios has gone up 50 per cent by adding 30 virtual classes a week to the timetable.”

Enhanced content
But it isn’t just about the environment: high quality content is also critical. When virtual emerged, classes were often fairly low-budget productions or re-use of DVD productions meant for home usage. But as virtual has grown, production budgets have increased and with it the quality of the content, which is now developed specifically for virtual.

Virtual future
Virtual was initially thought out as a studio-optimizing tool – but some operators are now taking it to the gym floor. “We’re seeing first-movers using a virtual set-up on the gym floor to give members programming when fitness instructor interaction isn’t possible.

Virtual is also expanding outside the four walls of the clubs, with more virtual class suppliers offering – or preparing to offer – streaming services that allow members to do classes online and through apps. This out of the box thinking is a natural development, with clubs already coming up against external technologies: wearable devices, fitness apps and streaming services. “Not only are virtual classes here to stay, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg,” concludes Mills.