Why customers are still more important than technological innovation

There was a time when operating a gym was a simple affair; you took a room, filled it full of fitness equipment and you charged people money to use it. But those were simpler days with simpler needs and they appealed to a niche audience who wanted to work out.

As time has gone by, demands have become more sophisticated. The role technology plays has exploded and even the concept of basic exercise has diversified into a whole range of specialisms: circuit training, aerobics, functional training, wellbeing, Barre and high intensity to name but a few. On top of this, customer expectations are higher than ever before.

At Virgin Active we have been through this journey. We opened our first club in 1997, giving more people access to fantastic facilities. Nearly 20 years later, the industry has transformed, countless fads have come and gone and the number of other operators in the market has grown exponentially. Yet what remains unchanged is our position as the leading international health club brand, and one that our members love.  

The secret to our success has been a simple one: we have always put our members’ needs first. 

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Customer first, technology second

It’s easy to get carried away when a new shiny piece of equipment or tech launches in the market – it’s exciting, fun, and everyone is talking about it. The immediate reaction is to want it. You want to show your customers you’re relevant, up to date with all the latest trends and one step ahead of competitors. But investing in tech in this way is a mistake.

Our starting point has always been our members.

Earlier in the decade we knew one of the top interests of our members was tracking their fat and muscle composition, so we invested in technology that measures and analyses body composition. Our members also told us they wanted to be able to track their progress better when swimming, so we brought in innovative technology that logs strokes and provides deeper analysis of swimming performance. We also identified that a barrier to using running machines was the fact that it could become a bit monotonous, so we brought in new kit that allowed members to browse the internet while they run, keeping them entertained.    

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Innovate to enhance the customer experience

In recent years we’ve also seen a big shift in the number of members using apps and fitness tech in their daily lives to help them track their health and set fitness goals. But it’s about more than just viewing numbers on an app; people are broadening what it means to “achieve” in fitness. For example, we’re seeing a growing trend around competitiveness, where consumers are using apps to compete with friends and motivate each other to keep on track.

We’ve been working hard to deliver a fitness experience in club that complements this, motivating members and rewarding them for achieving their goals. Our two new London clubs at Walbrook and Merchant Square are our first steps along this journey, providing our first ever fully connected digital fitness experience.

These two clubs are part of our Collection portfolio and are among the best health club facilities in London. They have technology wired into their core, and importantly each piece of tech has been designed to answer a customer need.

Instead of a membership card, we issue a band that has NFC technology. Not only do these allow members to access the club and operate lockers, they also let members log on to the fitness equipment to allow for a personalised interaction and activity tracking. 

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We’ve enhanced the entertainment available on our gym equipment too - our interactive touch screens allow access to a range of information, trailers for classes and promotions. Members can even access the internet and Skype a friend whilst they train, if they like. 

We’re giving our members the option to literally rise above in their training at our Walbrook club with the installation of the cutting edge altitude cycle studio that allows members to train at 2500m and 3000m. Boasting a 6ft high video wall that uses technology to visually immerse members in different training locations from a Canadian forest to a snowy mountain in the Alps. Throughout the classes, instructors will guide members through the programs, tracking heart rate training zones with Polar Heart Rate monitors, perfectly synced to music that has been specially developed for the Apex altitude training programs.

But these are just the start. The opportunity to bring together all this data and the fitness goals of the members represents a massive opportunity to truly enhance the member experience. We’re currently developing our member mobile app with this ambition at its core, and new versions of our iOS and Android apps are due later in the year.

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Don’t innovate for the sake of it

At Virgin Active we have a huge range of expertise to help people achieve their fitness goals. Doing this in a way that is relevant to our customers is what has been fundamental to our success over the past 19 years. This approach is true for any business. Innovation in technology is hugely exciting, but only when it truly enhances the customer offering.

Technology is a tool to help businesses build better relationships with their customers. Used in the right way, it can be hugely powerful. But never lose sight of the fact it is customers that catapult a business.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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