One of my very first jobs, as a recently appointed ‘policy geek’ at the old FIA in 2007, was to research the options for the UK fitness industry to have a greater influence and impact in Brussels. A hospital pass if ever I’ve seen one. After all, rarely does the word ‘European’ come up in British discourse without being closely followed by the word ‘exit’.
So when I was invited to spend three days with the leaders of the European health and fitness industry in Vienna in June – at the European Leaders Forum hosted by EuropeActive – I naturally had to think about whether this was the best use of my time.
But attend I did, and what struck me was how far EuropeActive has come in those seven years. Some of the largest operators in Europe – including Basic Fit, Health City, Pure Gym, Migros, VivaFit, Fit for Free and many others – joined the EuropeActive team for three days of networking, debate and discussion.
What surprised me was how closely shared the views were among operators across the continent regarding the challenges and opportunities for the sector. Every single one was facing up to the new dynamics that have emerged in the European market over the past few years: the boutique, niche, specialist providers able to charge a small fortune at the top of the market; the low-cost, high-value operators engaged in a brutal battle for membership at the opposite end; and squashed between these dual pressures, the ‘squeezed middle’ with an ever decreasing slice of the pie as operators strive either to bring value into their product – and with it charge a premium – or else strip back to be able to compete at the bottom.
Beyond our four walls
By far the most fascinating aspect of the agenda, however, was the half-day spent looking at trends in data and technology. We heard from a range of experts, such as professor Evgeny Kaganer from IESE, and were treated to valuable insights into the wearable technology market – not least with an extensive review of the future of the Apple Watch.
Operators in Europe are already confronting their own existential crisis, trying to establish the future role of facility operators when personalised programmes can be delivered to a consumer’s wrist – linked to heart rate and with instructional guides and motivational support – without the consumer ever needing to go anywhere near a facility. But instead of seeing this as a risk, operators at the EuropeActive event discussed the role technology will play in the sector’s future.
Delegates were inspired by the tale of Mercedes purchasing German-based taxi company MyTaxi as a result of its sector-leading navigation technology. Why did Mercedes do this? Because it sees itself as being in the business of transportation, not selling cars. Transportation of the future, in an age of driverless cars, will not be about car ownership. It will be about getting from A to B. Acquiring a company with specialist technology that means it delivers this exceptionally well will, Mercedes hopes, give it the head-start it wants on its competitors. Thinking without boundaries, or fitness facilities’ walls, came up again and again.
Drowning in data?
The discussion centred for some time on the ‘end of the internet’. The view from experts is that the delineation between our online and offline selves is going to disappear as devices become increasingly linked through their core functions. The discussion led to a conclusion that the operator of the future will have to fit seamlessly into this connected world, in which the Internet of Things determines the way consumers run their entire household, let alone their fitness routine.
This trend is going to lead to organisations potentially drowning in data, and failing to reach their potential as a result. The organisations that successfully create a role for themselves in this new connected world, and march ahead of their competitors as a result, will be those that are able to extract insights from the data they possess – those that can see the pictures this data can help them to draw.
This was a debate that only just got started and will no doubt be a defining factor of what the physical activity sector looks like in five years’ time.
Winds of change
The speed of change in the technology world can render entire categories of product, and even total industries, obsolete; I struggle to comprehend sometimes that it’s only seven years since the first iPhone came out, given the level of disruption and enhancement it has brought to everyday life. A conversation with any of the major equipment manufacturers will tell you this is something they’re grappling with on behalf of the industry.
This technological change also helps create an environment in which breakthrough innovation can happen in our sector – anywhere in the world.
That’s why our sector needs a strong infrastructure through which best practice and knowledge can be shared. We truly have a European market in the health and fitness sector – one in which operators freely move across borders and ideas move even quicker. If only we could replicate that globally, I’d be one very happy policy geek.