Fitness Brands Innovate As Sector Braces For Second COVID-19 Lockdown

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  • UK Boutique fitness studio Digme has partnered with Keiser to provide at-home cycling classes, in direct competition with rival boutiques 1Rebel and SoulCycle.
  • In the US, where most gyms are restricted to 25% capacity indoors, Equinox, Pure Barre, Physique 57 and SoulCycle have launched open-air facilities for members.
  • As of 13th September, 78 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been reported from more than 22 million visits to fitness facilities since reopening on 25 July, according to ukactive. 

LONDON, United Kingdom — UK-based boutique fitness studio Digme Fitness has enhanced its at-home workout versatility by launching a bike rental option for its members. 

From 12th October, Digme customers will be able to buy or rent a Keiser lite exercise bike from £79 per month, to use in conjunction with the brand’s revamped “Digme At Home” live and on-demand exercise classes. 

Digme has also developed an interactive iPad app allowing members to sync the bike with their user profile to track workouts both in the studio and at home. 

The company was forced to temporarily close its eight UK studios, including two recently acquired from Another Space, when the nation went into lockdown in March. 

And co-founder and CEO Geoff Bamber acknowledged his team had to innovate and adapt to future-proof itself from further COVID-related restrictions if it was to survive. 

“Lockdown forced us to rethink and remake our business,” Bamber told Welltodo. “We needed to adapt. 

“[It taught us that] we need to be omnichannel. We cannot predict customer behaviour from week to week, let alone for the months ahead. Patterns of behaviour are changing all the time. We are future-proofing Digme by becoming a genuine omnichannel business.” 

By entering the at-home cycling race, Digme will face stiff competition from rival boutiques, including 1Rebel’s partnership with Technogym and SoulCycle, as well as smart bike specialists Wattbike, Echelon and runaway sector leaders Peloton. 

However, Bamber believes his company’s cost-effective and flexible rental option will give Digme the edge.

“Digme at Home is disrupting the at-home fitness market by being the first content provider to offer a uniquely flexible bike rental model. 

“In the same way pay-as-you-train studios are winning from big-box, inflexible gyms, Digme is offering ground-breaking flexibility in the at-home fitness market. 

“Our business, our brand values and our community culture fit really well with at-home fitness, so we are really excited about the opportunity to take our brand to the wider world.”

Fitness industry on red alert
Digme’s launch comes as the government in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland announced tighter regionalised restrictions to help control the escalating spread of the virus. 

Under a new “three-tier” system, gyms would be ordered to close in areas with significantly higher rates of transmission than 100 per 100,000. 

In the week ending 6th October, Liverpool recorded 600 cases per 100,000, the BBC reported, while the average for England was 74. 

The rising cases have put the fitness industry on red alert, with most operators continuing to provide their members with at-home digital workout classes they first rolled out under the lockdown earlier in the year. 

In the US, luxury chain Equinox revealed a creative solution to circumnavigate impending restrictions, by unveiling two new open-air gyms in Los Angeles and New York City. 

The new locations, called Equinox + In the Wild, include treadmills, ellipticals, rowing machines, weights, exercise studios, bathrooms – and, crucially, heaters – all housed under a tent with open sides to encourage airflow through the space. 

Pure Barre, Physique 57 and SoulCycle (also owned by Equinox) are also experimenting with open-air facilities in the US. 

In the UK, leading leisure operator Everyone Active, which boasts 190 centres nationwide, is launching a new e-commerce retail site to diversify its revenue streams and make it more resilient to a second lockdown. 

The new site will offer exclusive discounts to members on fitness kit, apparel and aquatics brands including Reebok, Under Armour, Gympro, Kitbrix, TKO and Yogi Bare.

“If we have to close our doors again – and we hope we won’t – at least we know our members will be well served with the largest selection of on-demand workouts on the market via Everyone On Demand, as well as having access to all the equipment and clothing they could possibly need to stay on track with their fitness goals,” Duncan Jefford, regional director of Everyone Active told Welltodo. 

Fitness Brands Innovate As Sector Braces For Second COVID-19 Lockdown

Image: Equinox

“Disadvantaged unnecessarily”
Were further restrictions imposed in the UK, Justin Rogers of Ten Health & Fitness is optimistic the fitness studio chain would be able to continue to deliver 1:1 PT and physiotherapy sessions alongside live and on-demand services but concedes its group classes would take a “severe hit”. 

“If fitness providers are forced to close, it will be the second time that our sector has been disadvantaged unnecessarily,” the creative director told Welltodo. 

“I am not currently aware of any reported cases of COVID transmission within UK gyms, and globally there has been an incredibly small transmission rate through gyms and fitness studios. 

“It is a shame that exercise studios are targeted in the same way as hospitality services during these added restrictions and measures, even though they are clearly not comparable. 

“Because we’re diligently following government, ukactive and Chartered Society of Physiotherapy guidelines, we hope that in the case of a second lockdown, our clients will continue to feel confident coming to our studios for 1:1 sessions, and to return in the future when group exercise is allowed again.” 

Les Mills has also launched a raft of initiatives to support its global fitness partners, including online training for instructors, enhanced livestream workouts and a new Les Mills On Demand Affiliate Programme.

This last scheme has proven especially popular with major UK operators, including Nuffield Health, Bannatyne’s and Everyone Active, enabling them to transform their member offering, while boosting revenue and customer retention.

“We continue to hope that classes will remain accessible for all where possible but these provisions we’ve introduced will ensure clubs and gyms are able to continue supporting their members and generate revenue in spite of further lockdowns,” Les Mills CEO of Europe, Martin Franklin, told Welltodo.

An essential health service
On 19th September, ukactive published research that found the number of COVID-19 cases in England per 100,000 visits to gym and leisure facilities since 25th July is just 0.34, showing that protocols for monitoring and reporting the virus in the sector are helping to reduce the risk to visitors. 

Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, said: “These findings show that the number of people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 visiting gyms remains extremely low, which is evidence of the huge efforts being made by gyms to ensure people do not visit if they might have the virus. 

“Our sector is helping to get the nation fitter and better prepared to fight the virus as we enter the autumn, providing an essential health service to the UK.”

Adding: “The fitness and leisure sector has a vital role to play in fighting this health crisis, and its role will become even more important over the coming weeks and months.” 

Ultimately, Digme’s Geoff Bamber believes fitness companies will have to grow and consolidate if they are to emerge unscathed from a second wave of the pandemic. 

“Scale was important before, but the pandemic has made the need to acquire scale even more acute,” he said, hinting that Digme will continue to eye consolidation across the sector. 

“Whether it is negotiating with landlords, bearing the additional cost of making spaces safe, driving down costs or investing in a digital product – all of these things are easier to manage the larger you get. 

“Our feeling is that the crisis will drive the industry to consolidate in order to drive scale efficiencies, consolidate supply and invest sensibly. There will be far fewer operators coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic than there were going in.” 

According to the Guardian, the government is considering a £500 million package to save grassroots leisure facilities from closure in the UK, while in the US, a new Health and Fitness Recovery Act has been tabled, which would include a $30 billion recovery fund for the sector. 

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