Fresh from the hotel industry, Robert Cook is not shy about admitting he has many changes planned for Virgin Active UK. And – perhaps unsurprisingly, given his background – top of the list is broadening the brand’s offer.
“I came in just as Virgin Active was selling 35 clubs to Nuffield, and then six months later we sold 14 to David Lloyd,” he says. “We were already going through a lot of change and so we had to get that calmed down. But it was the right thing to do, and it also gave me a bit of time to really understand the market and where we were going.
“We took the team away for three days and asked them, ‘what does the future look like?’ What we came up with was a 360-degree wellness concept.”
The concept, says Cook, consists of body maintenance and rehabilitation, nutrition, mental wellbeing and movement. The first component, called Beyond Movement, has already been launched in several clubs, which now provide physiotherapy, sports massage and reformer pilates for members and non-members.
“The whole premise of Beyond Movement is ‘moving freely’,” says Cook. “If you join us because you want to run the London Marathon, we can get you fit for that. But we also think we’ve got a responsibility to keep your muscles and your body in great shape.”
DEVELOPING MENTAL FITNESS
With Beyond Movement already making an impact, nutrition and mental wellbeing are next on the agenda.
“We’re working with some nutritional companies to come in and give advice that can be passed on to members through our PTs. And similarly for mental wellbeing, it’s early days but we’ll be looking to work with various companies on ways to develop mental fitness and agility, as well as cultivating a good state of mind.
“It’s never going to be a white coat and stethoscope kind of thing, but we’re looking at what kinds of interventions we can offer, whether it’s through social interaction, buddying up, different forms of exercise, meditation or live chat lines,” Cook says.
Movement, the “core pillar”, is also being evolved, with an intensified focus on group exercise.
“We’ve got a lot going on there,” he explains. “We’ve launched Punch – our boxing class – and Run Tribe and Ro – our respective running and rowing group classes. We’ve also brought in Israel Rivera – a big hitter from the US, who’s going to be heading up the group exercise team.”
LESSONS FROM THE HOTEL WORLD
With a hospitality career spanning 30 years, Cook is well placed to bring fresh ideas into the company. “I was brought up in hotels,” he says. “My parents had hotels in Aberdeenshire. I lived in a hotel bedroom until I was 18, when I went to university to study hotel management.”
The Scot spent the early years of his career launching, working in and leading some of the UK’s biggest hotel companies, including Intercontinental, the Balmoral Hotel, Malmaison Hotels and racing car driver David Coulthard’s Columbus and Dakota Hotels. After seven years as CEO of Malmaison, during which time he oversaw the acquisition of Hotel Du Vin and grew the business from 12 hotels to 28, Cook moved to De Vere to run the Village Group.
“The Village Group has a big fitness component with some 80,000 members. That was my first foray into health and fitness in the real world. Hotel fitness is quite different – fewer metrics and smaller in size.”
He went on to run Macdonald Hotels, the UK’s largest private hotel group, with a large health, fitness and spa component. “And then I turned 50. Life begins at 50, so I thought it was time to do something different,” he says.
Not knowing exactly what this change might be, Cook was unaware he would be returning to his first passion.
“I always loved sports and being active. Funnily enough, I’d planned to study PE at Jordanhill College in Glasgow, but a car accident in my final year of school left me needing back surgery and there was no way I could go. So the obvious thing for me to do was to get into hotels.”.
After the first year of his hotel management degree, however, Cook found himself enjoying the field. Playing volleyball and golf satisfied his interest in physical activity, so he decided not to transfer to the PE course. Thirty years later, the opportunity to rekindle this interest arose.
MAKING THE CHANGE
“I’d gone to a couple of agencies and told them that I wanted to do something different. I got a call one day saying there was an opportunity at Virgin. I was excited, because I think Virgin is a very quirky, very cool brand. And when I found out it was running the health and fitness business, it sounded perfect.”
After nine interviews, Cook stepped into the role and into the industry on 20 June 2016. “It was quite a hard transition, because for 30 years – my whole adult life – I’d been in hotels. And I’d always had a massive advantage because of my upbringing. My father and mother were fantastic hoteliers and that gave me a great start, which continued through my life, allowing me to become sort of an industry leader. When I came into the health and fitness industry it was a completely new world. It was a lot more complex than I thought it would be.
“I did a lot of listening, which was unusual for me. I was lucky I had Paul Woolf and then Matthew Bucknall as CEOs, particularly Matthew who has seen 20 years of cyclical trends and changes in this industry.
“But to be honest, most of my listening happened internally, to the product guys, the PTs, the operations guys, just to understand what it was all about. I did a lot more listening than I usually would have done and learned a lot. But, I was hired for a reason, so it’s now time for me to start taking action,” Cook says.
PUTTING CUSTOMERS FIRST
Now he’s got the lay of the land, does Cook anticipate any significant threats to the business he’s taken on?
“I think the diversity and speed of the competition entering the market is a huge concern for everybody,” he says. “Inflationary pressures are also an issue for all businesses – the cost of fuel, utilities, rents and rates. We’ve just got to be smart about that, property-wise and people-wise, but at the same time, nothing should get in the way of the customer experience.”
And it’s customer experience that Cook hopes will differentiate Virgin Active from its competitors.
“I’m focusing on the first five minutes – reception, changing facilities, and so on. Those interactions are just as important as time in the gym,” he says.
“Where I think boutiques let themselves down is the experience outside the class. In time, the consumer will be saying, ‘great class, but I want a better shower than I have at home, I want great F&B’. That’s the boutique of the future, and I think we’ve got the basis of that in play.
“I believe that we’ve got to be as good at delivering the 20 minutes that members spend off their bikes after their classes as we are at delivering the 20 minutes they’re on the bike. That’s really, really important to me.”
BOOSTING DWELL TIME
That, according to Cook, means creating clubs that function as more than just gyms – clubs that serve as lifestyle hubs for socialising, working and relaxing.
“My utopia would be to see a number of group exercise classes all finishing at around the same time in the evening and then seeing a big spike in the lounge and people dwelling longer in our clubs. And yes, we want them to spend more money, of course we do, but I want them to spend more time with each other. I think creating social hubs is really, really important.
“We put a lot of effort into how the lounge looks and feels. We want to make sure the Wi-Fi is good so people are able to work in the club. We’ve got to have good mobile signal, good papers, good magazines and great coffee. The lounge should be a comfortable, quiet space, and also an interactive space. It’s a bit like the American country club model,” he says.
THE COOL FACTOR
Cook believes another strong differentiator for Virgin Active is the very thing that attracted him to the role – being part of the Virgin brand, which owns 20 per cent of the health and fitness business.
“We have a massive, massive leverage against the leisure industry because we work for arguably the UK’s finest brand. Virgin has a massive following. That’s fact. We’ve got the data to show it,” he says with a smile.
“When I came in, I went out of my way to build on our existing relationship with Virgin and now I work very, very closely with the people team, and the values and brand team at Virgin. I also work a lot with my Virgin contemporaries in the other businesses.
“That was an area that I saw as an opportunity for us. We’ve got the Virgin RED loyalty programme, which means Virgin Active members get great deals with Virgin Experiences, Limited Edition, Airlines, Trains, and so on. I think that’s a great point of difference.”
THE RIGHT DIRECTION
After a year and a half in the role, Cook’s enthusiasm for the sector has continued to grow, and he’s now looking to build on that by making a splash.
“Fitness is going through a revolution at the moment,” he says. “It’s reaching the top of more and more people’s agendas, as well as the top of the governmental agenda. I think the industry’s becoming more aware, more professional and, as such, a bigger contributor to society overall.”
“We’ve scaled down the Virgin Active business, so I now want to concentrate on getting the jewel we’ve got properly polished. I also want to give myself a bit of time to see where the industry’s really going. There are a lot of question marks around what the next big thing will be. We’d like to lead that, obviously.”