Jasper McIntosh, Chief Information Officer at The Gym Group, met John Treharne, the founder of the company, in 2011 when he was running a boutique technology company. Treharne set up The Gym three years earlier with a vision to be genuinely disruptive - to create a chain of low cost, no contract gyms open 24 hours a day, making them more accessible to the many people who needed early or late opening hours.
"John had taken some existing technology, like building access control systems and online subscription models, and applied them to the gym business" McIntosh says. "By looking at overseas models he saw that he could reduce running costs by using technology to support the sales process and enable the business to keep the doors open 24-7. This technology enabled low cost model means that more than a decade later membership fees are still on average less than £20 a month."When McIntosh joined the company there were 15 sites. Today, there are more than 180 across the UK. "The model had been proven, so we took the idea and scaled it out across the country" he says.
Up until March 2020 the company had been steadily growing. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, but McIntosh explains that its challenges have led to a lot of innovation. One example of this is their partnership with fitness app Fiit, which McIntosh says, "is really enabling us to expand our health and fitness experience outside of the four walls of the gym."
Additionally, some sites have been trialling dedicated Fiit areas. "These are custom-built Fiit 'pods' where people can experience digital content inside the gym, but individually. We've also converted an area of these gyms to custom-build Fiit studios where we deliver the content in a larger group exercise space, with immersive LCD displays and a fantastic audio experience,” he explains.
"We're coming at this from all different angles - there's the typical in-gym experience, there is bringing a digital experience into the gym environment, delivering a digital gym experience outside of the gym environment, and then there are digital product enhancements that wrap around all these to bring to other areas of people's exercise regime."
While the Fiit pods seem designed for social distancing, they were actually created before the pandemic. "The implementation went live in the post-Covid environment, but the thinking behind it pre-dated the pandemic,” says McIntosh. “The experience of group exercise is really powerful in a group of people, but also has value outside of a group setting. An individual may feel connected and engaged with the content they see on the screen, but may not necessarily want to do that in a group environment, or there may not be a group session running at the time they want to do it. It's about providing the member with options to have that experience in different settings and at a time that suits them."
During the UK's first lockdown period all gyms had to close to the public. McIntosh says this was an extremely busy time for The Gym Group, as they looked for new ways to keep their members engaged. "We closed all our gyms at very short notice and took immediate steps to stop any payments being taken from members and communicate that we were closing and weren't sure how long for.
"We made a price pledge during that national lockdown that we wouldn't charge anyone for a day that the gyms weren't open. When the dust settled on that initial piece of work, we took a multi-pronged approach to how we could manage our membership base through a period of high uncertainty, and also how we could start to build a product we thought members would want when we started to emerge from that first lockdown."
The launch of their Fiit collaboration was brought forward to offer members a high quality, at-home digital experience. Additionally, they leveraged the expertise within their staff to deliver free content on social media.
"While we were closed, we were able to tell members we had content going out on all our social channels that was free for them to access and share with friends and family. If they wanted a more rounded, comprehensive digital package they could try the free trial with our collaboration with Fiit. That really got the ball rolling."
They adapted their offering for the new post-Covid world by freezing membership fees until members were ready to return and implementing a monitoring tool for people to determine when the least busy time of day to visit was. While many public places - such as museums - reopened with a booking system, The Gym Group took this novel approach to ensure members had complete flexibility and a safe exercise environment.
"We built a tool that provides real time information on how busy the gym is, relative to its maximum capacity" McIntosh says. It also has a graph showing how busy it is at different times of day and on different days of the week. We put this information into the hands of members both through the website and the app, giving them the maximum amount of flexibility.
"What we've seen, amazingly, is that the usage patterns in our gyms have changed quite fundamentally. Before, we had evening peaks or morning peaks in some sites, now we're seeing members choose to use gyms at different times of day. This gives them the best possible experience because it fits in with their new lifestyle and enables them to choose times when the gyms are less busy."
Data has been crucial to making these adaptations, however McIntosh explains this focus began some 18 months ago, prior to Covid-19. "Our business model lends itself particularly well to modern data methods, because we generate a lot of data. We're a contract-free subscription model so pricing, tenure and churn are fundamental metrics.
"With an automated access control system, we have something that most people in retail would really value because we know exactly who is in our gym. We can build a detailed picture of member engagement by combining this data with usage data from our digital products. We can understand when people visit, how often, for how long and how their visit patterns are changing.
"As part of our wider digital transformation programme, we created a roadmap to develop a first class data environment, in terms of both the infrastructure we use to capture and process data, and the team we build to create value with it."
This has been hugely valuable to help deal with the challenges of the pandemic. "All of a sudden the business started asking more questions about things we hadn’t previously prioritised, like the maximum capacity of gyms, how many members used to visit but are no longer visiting, and how can we design communications and products to support members in this challenging new environment."
Along with technology, this access to data is helping the company move into new areas and make the business more efficient. They recently implemented Okta to streamline their operations, as McIntosh explains that their growth over the last five years led to an increase in the number of systems that are being used across the organisation. This growth brings new challenges around coordination, synchronisation of user accounts, and the need to continually raise the bar with regards to data security.
"We're bringing Okta in to replace our active directory and other authentication products. It enables us to centralise these critical activities in a way that it makes it much easier for us to manage our people and our systems, and it provides a much higher standard of overall identity management and security. The initial implementation has seen us launch Okta across the business for our priority systems. Over time, in a series of phases, we will implement more of the features of the product to provide granular multi-factor access, implement tighter controls around international access into systems, and provide new security features and services for our staff."
Looking ahead, McIntosh says there is still huge opportunity for growth, despite the uncertainty presented by Covid. "We continue to see exponential growth in fitness and fitness technology, whether that's products like Peloton, innovation from big players like Apple Fitness+, or the amalgamation of technology and fitness through a whole array of new products and services. There's a lot of change happening out there.
"Particularly as a result of Covid, people are looking at their health through a quite different lens and realising that without too much effort they can make a real change. When we look at what we're really good at, which is providing high quality exercise environments, a high quality digital experience, and connecting with many hundreds of thousands of people already on that exercise journey, we see some great opportunities to improve the health, fitness and wellbeing of an ever wider audience. Technology really is at the heart of that opportunity."