When the lockdown was announced on the 20th March 2020, the stark reality of freezing 10.4m gym memberships hit home to fitness operators everywhere. The immediate question was, how could the sector – which is so crucial to so many people – stay relevant with the doors shut?
Almost without missing a beat, many operators started up a programme of online classes. Luckily for them a lot of their younger staff are digital natives and understood how they consume content. What followed was an object lesson in rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it, with the majority pivoting to digital.
Hatching a plan
After the initial shock of having to manage the lockdown of my own business had passed, my colleagues put forward the idea of mystery shopping the wide range of new digital workouts that were coming to market.
We realised we had a unique opportunity to ‘live test’ the response of the industry and to gauge how customers were feeling to capture this moment in time and learn from it, so that we had insights to share.
We all wanted to keep fit during lockdown, so it was logical for us to tackle online workouts and at the same time, generate information that would be of use to our clients and to the the wider health and fitness sector.
Our report on how the market reacted – The quickest pivot in business? – is aptly named – we were astonished at how quickly health club operators responded and ultimately, we were able to test 50 classes in all.
Before we started mystery shopping, we evaluated the digital landscape for the industry prior to COVID-19, so we could make comparisons. Before lockdown, there was a lot of content freely available, mainly on YouTube and Facebook, while some of the better-known brands in the sector offered paid subscriptions. However, within our large client base of operators, the provision of remote or online classes was either a long way down the development pipeline or just not considered a realistic part of the strategy, making the speed of the pivot even more astonishing.
About the mystery shops
One of the company benefits we offer to our mystery shoppers is a free Myzone belt and this proved to be very helpful in our quest to understanding the digital offerings we were going to be testing.
Our mystery shop of online classes covered things such as class instruction and provision – in the same way we do with on-site classes, but with the addition of obvious questions about getting online. There were also a number of Myzone-related questions which were developed in collaboration with the team there.
When it came to choosing operators to mystery shop, there were two caveats, they had to be offering their own original content and it had to be either free for our mystery shopper or they had to already have a membership with that health club brand.
Getting down to it
Four mystery shoppers were used, to help with consistency – three men and one woman. All were young, were experienced fitness class users and they each wore a Myzone belt for every class.
Out of the 50 operators we mystery shopped, 17 had the Myzone system. All the classes tested were either HIIT, boxing, circuits or body weight training and all were booked using the means available to general consumers.
The biggest section in the mystery shopping process related to the instructor and we can see now how important this is from the Joe Wicks phenomenon; Wicks has a natural warmth and inclusive style that comes down the line, straight to the person doing the class and really resonates with people.
How instructors performed
Their engagement scores were high, but there were also areas for improvement and it was clear more can be done to improve instructor orientation with digital.
Some were not briefed up to prompt on technique or to share information about the muscle groups being used, while others missed opportunities to extend the connection with consumers by giving shout outs or inviting them to attend future classes. Many did not invite consumers share their experience on social media.
If operators are to develop a hybrid offering that includes digital classes alongside their in-house classes, there is a need to review, learn and look at the specialist skills set required by the new breed of instructors that will be involved in delivering the online classes.
Lockdown made finding professional environments to film in a difficult challenge for operators. Going forward it would be advisable to consider some basic guidelines about audio, lighting, branded clothing and clean and tidy spaces. The branding of these classes represents a huge opportunity to cement identify with new customers.
Before I go into the detail about overall performance, some honourable mentions: Two operators scored over 90 per cent – BOX12 and David Lloyd Leisure – both performed well across the five sections tested. For context, the average score was 62 per cent across the 50 operators. Third place was tied between Myzone’s own virtual classes and Rowbots, both on 87.8 per cent.
The first key finding is one that relates to the inclusion of the Myzone technology in the process. The mystery shoppers wore their belts for every class, not just for the 17 operators that utilise Myzone in their programmes.
This turned out to be an inspired move, as it allowed comparison of class intensity using hourly averages in three key metrics; Myzone MEPs, heart rate increase and calories burned. This protocol was underpinned by checking the resting heart rate for comparison.
We found a correlation between mystery shopper score and the intensity of the class. Classes in the top quartile had an average intensity of 198 MEPs per hour, while those in the bottom quartile were 142 MEPs per hour.
The same applied for average heart rate increases and calories burned, with top quartile classes displaying, on average uplift of +16 bpm and +161 more calories burned when compared with the other classes.
What does this mean? Do well-run classes achieve more for the consumer by giving them the results they want? It looks that way from our findings, although more data would be welcome to test this hypothesis further and to extend into other types of user groups.
Another key finding relates to the thorny issue of payment for online content. As referenced, there was a lot of free content available and produced by instructors and brands from around the globe. You can do a HIIT class with a funky New York instructor, or a yoga class with a yogi based in India, all at the click of a button.
Results were valued
Shoppers said they would pay more for classes they felt they were getting more out of – those of higher intensity.
The average our shoppers were willing to pay for content was £15 per month. For the better-scoring classes in the top quartile, the shoppers were – on average – willing to pay £4.73 more per month than for those in the bottom quartile.
What can we draw from these initial findings? First that we need more hard data on how customers are feeling about online classes, as this survey did not check every class type, workout type or consumer type.
There are many more questions to be answered: Does a pre-recorded library of content fulfil members’ needs, or do they crave the interaction provided by live broadcasts? Do consumers see digital as a part of their ongoing health and fitness journey, beyond lockdown? How should operators position their online offering – as a pure retention tool, or as a commercial proposition? Should operators train staff to become superstars, or should they revert to using third party providers?
We don’t have all the answers, but we’re committed to supporting the industry on the new path to normality.
● You can access the report in full here: www.HCMmag.com/mysteryshop