SLC_LINKDINI’ve just been to the gym. A solitary run in an uninspiring environment, with no human interaction whatsoever. I had no programme, have set no goals and apart from ‘feeling good’ after my workout, have nothing else to show. I’m pretty highly motivated as regards looking after myself having played competitive sport most of my life. If I’m struggling to get excited about the gym, what about the vast majority of users and potential users?

At The Sport, Leisure and Culture Consultancy we come across a lot of gyms. We review them, we plan and work with those who design them, we business plan them, we use them. We work with operators who claim to be experts in gym management. However, their attrition levels and general market penetration has remained at the same level for years. Why?

We believe there are three key reasons why many local authority Gyms are stuck in a rut.

1. Design and layout

2. Environment

3. User experience.

Design for life

Traditionally it has been the fitness equipment manufacturers who have designed gym layouts. i.e. fill them with as many expensive pieces of kit as possible, line them up like dominos and optimise every square metre. Raised platforms and steps are also often used to show equipment off better with little consideration of how this creates hazards and limits access. If I was selling gym equipment, I’d do the same.

Paul Weston, Architect highlights that the majority of fitness equipment ‘designers and suppliers’ only work in 2 dimensions, often not visiting sites at all before submitting their layouts. There is no 3 dimensional concept considered, so often the equipment is too big for the space resulting in costly building adaptations to accommodate the equipment.

But is this linked to demographics, user preferences, competition, and the target audience of the client? In our experience, we rarely see evidence of this. Those facilities with integrated services on site, including access to health professionals, support a more holistic approach to an individual’s health and wellbeing.

Nuffield Health, for example, offers Fitness and Wellbeing memberships that include ‘Health MOTs’ and personalised exercise programmes and incentives to maintain or improve your health. With increasing innovation in areas such as functional training, the need to fill gyms with bulky weight stacked equipment is long gone. Use of bodyweight is clearly the way forward for the vast majority of users – but it needs to be managed and developed carefully with user education a key factor in supporting change to more functional training.

People like to exercise together and have fun. Group sessions in the gym are increasingly proving to be a hit, but in the UK, many operators’ approach to programming appears tired and static. We have consistently seen that there is insufficient group exercise space in local authority leisure facilities causing programming log jams, user dissatisfaction and loss of potential additional revenue.

Some gym providers encourage their personal trainers to call together groups of casual users to offer instant shared workouts such as circuits or weights. However, this is the exception rather than the rule and requires more extra open space and flexible space with body-weight equipment within a gym than is typically currently available. It seems to us there is a real opportunity to take a fresh look at gym and group exercise layouts driven by the need to maintain and develop your customer base.

Chris Wood, Architect, observes we are yet to see changing village-style design for gyms. This could in some instances optimise space and enable more floor area to be used for revenue generation and activity.

The wrong pong

Many gym environments tend to suit males, have one ‘look’ and feel that is fixed. There are no mood swings in these gyms, e.g. a daytime feel, and evening feel, a weekend feel. This, we believe, creates a ‘Groundhog Day’ experience for users. The environment, particularly in older gyms, is often tired, dull, a little shabby and not appealing to anyone other than a committed gym user. For many potential users, privacy screens in gyms for some individuals would encourage those intimidated by exercising in public. These could be built into an integrated design to be used at programmed times in the day.

Let’s face it, many gyms are often dirty and smell of sweat. Fine if you’re a sweaty bloke who doesn’t mind, but not great if you aren’t. Many people are put off entering the gym by smell alone. Although many inductions will have mention of a gym towel, the basic wipe down rule of gym etiquette is all too often ignored by users and not enforced by staff.

Zoning (despite the challenges in smaller gyms of limited space) is rare, consideration of lighting, air management and conditioning almost non-existent. Music consistently seems to be based around the instructors’ tastes, rather than linked to the typical demographic of users. Despite the success of ladies only gyms and classes, the concept of a ladies only zone is virtually unknown.

Those gyms that can personalise the audio / visual experience through technology are reaping the rewards. One such gym is the Withdean Sports Complex, operated by Freedom Leisure on behalf of Brighton and Hove City Council. For its daytime users the gym has a mellow feel that reflects the intensity of the workout of more middle-aged profile of users. For the evening sessions Freedom  has set up a high spec, nightclub style lighting and sound system in its main gym and spin room to produce a high energy atmosphere for its patrons, who typically include young professionals.

Whilst there are some really well designed gyms that create a positive environment and tailor their environment to the target user demographic, we are concerned that there is little shared best practice across the sector that would enable us all to benefit from more of the right customers and increased revenue.  

Is going to the gym getting people results?

In many gyms we find collection of data is inconsistent – no regular interface with customers to monitor goal achievement. We estimate up to 70% of gym users just ‘go’ rather than work towards a goal or programme linked to clear, measurable targets.  Are we actually getting results?

We’re not convinced and want to promote a debate on how Gyms can optimise their potential – both financial and importantly from a health and wellbeing perspective. It is probably the case that the technology is still not there yet to be adopted by the vast majority of users and providers.

Early innovations by gym equipment manufacturers have had mixed levels of success and they are to be commended for continuing to invest in technology that promotes greater visibility of results and retention. Recent developments such as Splashpath and the SwimIO Motion App for Pebble are starting to make waves with Apps that actually drive participation.

One example of a relatively low tech solution to helping patrons get better results from their work out is Freedom Leisure’s risk warning function on their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) database. When a member swipes into the gym the CRM system flags their recent activity, with those who have not been to the gym for a week as being at ‘high risk’ of discontinuing their exercise regime.

Staff are encouraged to have informal chats with these members, asking about their goals and perhaps setting them a short-term target. They then log these conversations on the system. The ‘quality’ of the conversation is also measured by whether the member increases, maintains or decreases their usage following an intervention This system has not just been found to help encourage greater usage but also helped to foster a more friendly atmosphere within the room as staff do not only talk to the regular users but seek out less consistent members and try to improve their experience of the gym.

A healthy workforce for larger employers is an issue they are increasingly taking more seriously. Workforce offers from our sector (apart from ‘corporate membership’ offers) are limited and we are of the view this presents a real opportunity. Companies such as Pru-Health are looking to “prolong life through exercise” (and reduce their claims).

Through smart data collection customers get premium reductions and rewards if they can demonstrate a certain level of activity. This once again presents a significant opportunity for the sector to develop integrated solutions with other providers to provide consistent credible data that supports the evidence needs of insurers, health professionals and commissioners.

Time to change?

At SLC, our public health experts, designers and consultants are getting increasingly frustrated at the lack of vision being demonstrated by some parts of the sector. What other industry would give so little thought to its major revenue generator other than desperately trying to sell harder to the same market with increasing price competition and new entrants to the market?

With local authorities increasingly needing to focus their priorities on target populations, leisure is at real risk of falling between the funding cracks and not being seen as a major contributor to strategic objectives. We believe new public gym developments or refurbishments need to ensure that they are aligned to the future needs of a broader base of customers, but also better aligned to supporting public health interventions. That means better trained staff, different gym equipment and layouts, a smarter approach to monitoring and evaluation and a proposition that appeals to a number of market segments outside of the traditional demographics that currently use gyms.

It links to a more proactive role in supporting members with dietary advice, general support for a more active lifestyle and showing leadership through demonstrating its commitment to healthy eating. Many operators are uncomfortable in experimenting with their food and beverage offer due to challenging profit margins, but some are starting to explore if this is an opportunity to differentiate their brand in a busy market. Financial drivers and providing ‘choice’ is often the excuse for not being bold and walking the talk. Similarly, local authority clients need to take the lead and specify provision of healthy food within contracts, going so far as to restricting operators in selling junk food and high calorie drinks.

As one operator put it, “until we are evaluated and can gain market advantage through providing a more prescriptive healthier food and beverage offer, we will seek to provide our customers with what we believe to be a choice of food based on what they want including healthy options.”

When challenged on why its main leisure centre’s food offer focused around deep fried products such as gargantuan portions of ‘cheesy chips’, the response from a Client Officer we spoke to recently was that reduction of the management fee was the key driver for the authority.

Coca-Cola UK’s recent £20 million investment in physical activity initiatives in the UK’s cities facilitated by UK Active has in the eyes of many senior leaders damaged the credibility of the sector in the eyes of Public Health professionals permanently, flying in the face of a whole system approach to public health.  

You cannot be serious!

How will our sector be taken seriously as a partner that is committed to public health if we continue to adopt the attitudes above?  It sadly will not. And as public funding for universal leisure continues to be reduced and in some cases cease altogether, Operators will become increasingly vulnerable and risk losing contracts. These are contracts they should and could have secured with some intelligent adjustments to their proposition.

We believe that by doing better research into non users’ and users’ needs, a more holistic approach to design, environment and user experience, Operators can optimise their revenue and be valued partners of local and national government in improving the nation’s health. What’s not to like?

Lead author: Duncan Wood-Allum

SLC Associate Contributors: Mike Piet, Chris Wood and Paul Weston

The Sport, Leisure and Culture Consultancy 01444 459927

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