It’s no secret that the fitness industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Back in March, when pubs, clubs and restaurants were told to close down, gyms were also asked to shut. When they were allowed to reopen at the end of July, many had lost a significant chunk of their membership – around 28% – and were facing serious financial difficulty. As UK ministers bring in fresh restrictions to deal with the most recent upswing in infections, we asked Colin Waggett, CEO of London health club group Third Space, how gyms will cope with future curbs and controls – and whether there have been any positives to take away from the whole Covid-19 situation.
How have the past few months been for Third Space?
We’ve been open for a couple of months after closing for four, and things are improving. We’re finding that where people live nearby, they’ve been returning to gyms and using them as they did before the outbreak. Humans haven’t completely morphed – many still prefer the in-club environment to motivating themselves to work out from home.
We can’t predict what the future holds. Or how working from home versus going to the office will impact the industry long-term. But it’s reasonable to assume that things will have to be more fluid and flexible. Yes, London’s business hubs are looking less populated right now, but are we headed for a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Probably not. Suburban clubs are faring particularly well, though, as a result of the home-office shift.
‘Come Back Stronger’ has been introduced specifically as part of a campaign to re-onboard people and get them to see the club experience as an essential part of everyday life again.
Third Space has worked hard to integrate new processes in order to deliver a great product to its members. From safety in-club and new remote services. What’s next? What do you see coming over the horizon?
There has been an explosion in digital fitness, with many gyms pivoting to offer multichannel options. We were upweighting that side of our operations anyway – the pandemic merely accelerated our activities. People have always wanted to maintain their fitness when they’re away on business, on holiday or unable to access their local gym. A multichannel approach enables us to facilitate that, and the pandemic gave it extra resonance.
We still believe that the real-life experience is better, but of course we need to embrace digital. Who knows where we’ll be three years from now? People may have completely returned to pre-pandemic fitness routines, or they may prefer a bit of both.
We’re offering real-time live classes where people can work out with their favourite personal trainers, as well as pre-recorded classes.
There’s a lot of competition in the digital space. How can real-life clubs use those channels to keep interest in their brand alive and stand up against the purely digital guys?
We’ve worked hard to create an in-club experience online. Our brand strategy had the flex required to achieve that, so we’ve been able to maintain the points of differentiation that make our members love us – the daily structure, the motivation, our instructors, the personal connection.
The key has been creating a seamless expression of brand throughout our in-club and online activities. Our ‘Training For Life’ brand positioning still holds true – it’s at the core of who we are. ‘Come Back Stronger’ has been introduced specifically as part of a campaign to re-onboard people and get them to see the club experience as an essential part of everyday life again. Club memberships have dwindled. Many ‘sleeper’ customers – those who use the facilities less frequently – have cancelled. We’re focusing on addressing that.
Very few people can motivate themselves to do three workouts a week without any outside encouragement. With membership comes commitment to train for a better, healthier life. It’s important, therefore, that the real-life and digital environments motivate and inspire. The digital element plays a complementary role in enabling Third Space to do that.
If you were advising the government, what would be your approach to social distancing and lockdowns?
We’ve always placed a huge onus on cleanliness, care, space and comfort. Perhaps other, more crowded gyms are going to have a harder job of facilitating that – but they’ll have to because, if Covid-19 has taught people anything, it’s the importance of hygienic surroundings.
Whenever you come in touch with the Third Space brand, it’s consistent.
You’ve mentioned how important creating a seamless brand across all operations is, and how brand positioning is playing a role in your comeback. Can you tell us about your collaboration with your brand partner Without?
We’ve been working with Without for about five years. They helped us pinpoint and articulate our brand proposition and give it a more outer-directed focus, where it had been more inner-directed. So, we’re a club rather than a gym. We’re tuned into London and the specific needs of its population. We’re a best-in-class, multi-disciplinary operation. And we believe in positive fitness for life – not dropping a dress size or obsessing over defining deltoids.
Whenever you come in touch with the Third Space brand, it’s consistent. Whether that’s wayfaring and signage in-club, logomarks, brand positioning, internal comms, or OOH and multichannel expression.
Any advice for people considering moving into the fitness industry, and what would brand play in that advice?
As well as the established clubs, the likes of Apple and Peloton are now your competition. What have you got over those and how are you going to let your target consumers know about it? It’s important to find your niche and express it in the right way through your brand. At Third Space we have a real brand; we’re not going up against Apple in what we’re offering.
What positives do you see emerging from events of this year?
We’ve been forced to shut down and reopen. And during that process, we’ve questioned everything about ourselves. Customer value. Whether improvements or change are needed at any level of our operations. We’re more focused. Leaner. Our digital ventures have been accelerated and are sharper.
Covid-19 has also rammed home the importance of fitness and looking after your health. People are more educated about that, and the risks associated with obesity and diabetes, for example, than ever before.
We’ve been through SARS, MERS, crashes and booms. The next six months will be really hard. But we’ll get through it. We’re pretty fit as a business so we’ve got more than a fighting chance.