LONDON, United Kingdom — Despite the coronavirus putting a huge amount of pressure on the UK’s fitness industry, it has also accelerated its migration online, creating new opportunities for fitness trainers to carve out direct revenue streams.
Whole new ecosystems now exist in the digital space via platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, YouTube, IG Live and Facebook Live, enabling individual fitness coaches to build consumer relationships beyond the fitness studio.
As a result, the nation’s activity levels have stayed fairly stable since lockdown was announced on 23rd March in the UK, averaging just over three active days per week, according to Sport England, which has been monitoring exercise behaviours and attitudes since early April.
One in five have been doing home workouts, either online or offline, with YouTube (73%) by far the most frequently accessed online resource, followed by 19% for Facebook and 19% for Instagram. By contrast, just 9% was attributed to a gym’s website.
In the US, meanwhile, according to Statista 16% of adults have taken to using more online exercise videos due to social distancing and self-quarantining practices during the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, as restrictions start to ease and gyms hope to welcome their members back, this shift in consumer behaviour could present new challenges for both physical facilities and digital platforms looking to retain their coaches.
“I have been forced to focus on coaching online to pay the bills”
With fitness facilities having to close and consumers moving entirely online, coaches have had to adapt to offer their services online, so why would they return to their gyms when the lockdown lifts?
“Prior to the lockdown fitness was more of a hobby or part-time second income,” says James Ingham, an F45 coach in London who had been juggling work as a freelance journalist and PT. “But because my main source of employment has completely stopped for now and I don’t qualify for any kind of help from an employer or the government I have been forced to focus on fitness and coaching online to pay the bills.”
Although online coaching provided Ingham with a new source of income under lockdown, he admits the main increase in business has come since restrictions were eased, allowing him to train people one-on-one or in small groups in parks.
“I love coaching Insta Live workouts where I’m giving 100% effort to inspire those working out to also give 100% back. And online coaching has enabled me to reach a much wider audience than before. I’ve had people from the US, Portugal, Australia, Switzerland, Italy and other far-away countries regularly doing my workouts.
“However, I sometimes struggle with Zoom coaching where I am just watching, motivating and correcting form. For me it takes away some of the enjoyment of coaching. I find it a little soulless compared to in person.”
“Staying connected is more important than ever”
When the restrictions were first announced in the UK, yoga coach Ida May, who also delivers yoga classes via at-home workout app Fiit and has over 15 years of experience working on film and TV in front and behind the camera, was quick to recognise the new opportunity to unite fitness trainers online and support the likes of Ingham.
Having lost her work in the film and TV industry when the lockdown was announced, she focused her energy on launching We Move Together, the first donation-based online platform bringing together like-minded teachers, thinkers and movers from around the world.
May mentors coaches to provide their classes online and We Move Together provides the platform to reach a global audience, making sure the teacher gets most of the profits made from their classes, workshops and time.
“At a time when staying connected is even more important than ever, We Move Together is here to support all the teachers, leaders and coaches around the world who want to share their passion for movement and meditation,” says May.
“We want to be open and accessible to all, regardless of physical ability, or economic stability. We want to create a diverse movement platform with a huge variety of disciplines, suitable for all different levels.”
Having witnessed the explosion of online fitness available under lockdown, does she think coaches have been empowered to provide their services independently online rather than relying on access to clients via traditional fitness businesses and boutique studios?
“One hundred percent,” she says. “But I’m sure this hasn’t been an easy journey. You can be an amazing teacher but have no idea how to use all the technology or how to translate your teaching skills online. This is where ‘We Move Together’ steps in.
“We provide a comprehensive guide for our teachers, including how to set up the camera, lighting and sound. We provide links to affordable equipment such as phone mics, lights and tripods and mentor our coaches, helping them find their true authentic voice and equipping them to deliver and excel in their field.”
As the lockdown starts to ease in the UK, May thinks studios will reopen and PTs will gradually return to face-to-face coaching, but as a society we’ll never go back to the normal we knew before.
“I believe studios will slowly shift back to normal(ish) once the lockdown is fully over and PTs will return to their clients,” says May. “There is something special about the real physical connection of having 40 people running on treadmills and lifting weights or doing sun salutations together in the same space. However, I don’t think we’ll ever go back to ‘normal’.
“The magic and the connection that can be felt via online sessions these days is amazing. You can feel safe and comfortable and train from the comfort of your own home. You save money and time not needing to travel from one place to another.”
“Offering online workouts was not only essential for sustainability, it was our duty”
Online competition has grown under lockdown from both individuals and traditional bricks and mortar gyms. Like May, London boutique 1Rebel was also quick to pivot online when lockdown forced its studios to shut overnight.
Recognising the challenge to both deliver for its members and provide a revenue stream for its coaches, the company launched Rebel TV, an online hub of fitness classes ranging from HIIT to yoga, as well as Rebel PT to offer 1 to 1 virtual coaching.
Within 24 hours Rebel TV received over 1,000 sign-ups and has since been viewed in over 70 countries, 1Rebel co-founder and CEO James Balfour tells Welltodo. “It has been a fantastic platform for both the 1Rebel community and our industry-leading instructors,” he says.
“Pivoting our business to offer online workouts and launch Rebel TV was not only essential for the sustainability of 1Rebel but also our duty as an extension of the health system to support the national effort in keeping the public fit, strong and healthy.
“We now have a customer base that doesn’t rely on the physical locations and giving us a solid potential new revenue stream for the future. We definitely see Rebel TV in our future business model.”
Although Balfour admits it has been a very challenging time, he believes 1Rebel has gone above and beyond to look after its instructors financially and give them earning opportunities which will keep their coaches engaged once they can reopen their studios.
“I think most people want things to get back to normal as quickly as possible,” Balfour explains when asked if it will be difficult to retain their talent now the tools and consumer experience exist for them to offer their classes privately.
“Rather than this being a retention issue I think this just means there is now more we can offer our existing team through both digital and physical offerings.
“Whilst the crisis has accelerated the online ambitions for many gyms, I believe in the future, they will complement rather than compete with the existing business models.”
“Adapt and innovate to survive and thrive”
While established digital platforms such as Fiit have prospered under lockdown, with +378% active users and +1,663% subscribers, the question remains for how they will keep their coaches on board when they could reasonably offer their services independently to their individual online following.
Sammi Adhami, co-founder and COO of Fiit, says some boutique studios and traditional gyms will suffer as a consequence, but the ones that adapt and innovate or find the right partners will be the ones that survive and thrive.
“Supporting talent is crucial for this to happen,” he says. “Great coaches are the lifeblood of these businesses and finding a solution that supports them through this period of learning what the new world looks like is key.
“There might need to be an acceptance that if those businesses can’t provide enough paid working time they will need to accept exclusive relationships may not be feasible in the short and medium-term until they recover.”
While Fiit has seen increased competition in the online space since the pandemic pushed businesses online, he believes the dramatic increase in fitness instructors coaching online has a limited shelf life.
“There are only so many Zoom classes with fluctuating video quality that people can enjoy,” he says, adding that without extra features for clients such as a training plan, workout data or a library of content to choose from, this solution is limited.
“I think [individual run online fitness classes]have a place for more 1 to 1 or 1 to 3 or 4 users who are paying for a more personal service.”
To ensure the brand’s high profile coaches stay engaged, Adhami says Fiit has a very exciting roadmap – “both locally and internationally, from class content and feature development to engagement with major brands and partners” – and they involve their coaches in all areas of the business.
“We are working on ways to allow our talent to benefit from our growth and success and plug them into all the amazing opportunities along the way,” he says. “Our coaches are key to our success and we know that.”
Earlier this year, Fiit announced it will be launching into The Gym Group, where it will offer members access to digitally-powered studios to join large group Fiit classes as well as smaller one-person pods, for members to take part in solo sessions.
“The home is now a serious competitor to the studio”
While Balfour and Adhami believe their businesses will be stronger for the lessons learned under lockdown, confidence that the nationwide fitness sector will bounce back isn’t held by everyone.
According to a new report by Balance Festival in partnership with Allegra Strategies, which was compiled from 3,187 consumer surveys and 427 industry interviews, just 53% believe their business will eventually emerge leaner, smarter and stronger.
More than two thirds (69%) believe the biggest challenge after lockdown will be a fear of shared public spaces, which could have a profound impact on the leisure, hospitality and travel sectors.
Along with whether consumers will be happy returning to the gym floor, another issue for the fitness industry at large is how much consumers will need expert support from either their gym or independent online coaches post-Covid.
Ludovic Rossignol-Isanovic, Director of Events for Balance Festival, believes the lockdown will have pushed consumers to develop a higher level of self-discipline.
“As a result, consumers have become a lot more versatile, self-motivated and self-sufficient in their approach to embrace wellness,” he says. “The home has become a suitable environment for working out and is now a serious competitor to a studio.”
Whatever the future looks like for coaches, gyms or online platforms going forward, it has been dramatically shaken up over the past three months. Competing for a share of the new engaged digital audience will now be crucial for any business to succeed in the post-Covid world.