Matt Harras, Head of Fitness at Virgin Active UK

Virgin Active

In this Q&A you’ll hear from Matt Harras, head of fitness at Virgin Active UK, operator of 30+ health clubs. Matt discusses the chain’s £23M investment to transition from fitness to social wellness brand and the programming adaptations made to meet members’ changing needs.

How are you aligning with a holistic-minded consumer?

Matt Harras: At Virgin Active, we are passionate about changing our members’ lives for the better through wellness, so we’re currently shifting our focus from pure fitness to becoming a social wellness brand.

Fitness and nutrition go hand in hand, and in 2023, we launched nutrition coaching and added health food café Kauai to six clubs, with a further 13 opening throughout 2024.

Another key wellness area where we can support our members is recovery. All but one of our clubs have a swimming pool and spa area for unwinding, and over the past year, we launched Reformer Recovery and Sound Bath Yoga across our clubs.

In 2024, we’re further enhancing our recovery support with the integration of Hyperice stations.

How do you reach new members?

MH: A significant proportion of our new members have been recommended by existing members. We also gain members from the various events we attend throughout the year, such as the Balance Festival and the National Fitness Games, where non-members discover that we’re muchmore than just a gym.

We also run Club Crawls in May and September, where members can invite their friends to attend three group exercise classes in three different Virgin Active locations, with a run in between each club. This is one of our most-loved events, and non-members often enquire to join after feeling the community vibe and shared sense of achievement.

What keeps them coming back?

MH: Members tell us our team is the friendliest and most welcoming out there — and we purposely invest in that sort of talent, elevating training for our teams through our Academy. From the first person that greets you as you walk into one of our clubs to our swim instructors, group exercise instructors and personal trainers, everyone is there to help members reach their goals and give them the best club experience.

We are constantly innovating, evaluating what we offer and evolving to meet members’ needs. In the past year, we have added nine reformer Pilates studios, launched dance and calisthenics  group exercise classes, revamped our Cycle product and launched our six-week Lift Club programmes in 10 locations.

We’re always moving forwards, and I think that’s why our members keep coming back.

How are you approaching expansion?

MH: We’re currently focused on making our 32 clubs in the UK the best experience for our members.

Over the past 12 months, we have invested £23M on updates, adding new top-of-the-range gym floors kitted out with Technogym and Eleiko, revamping group exercise studios and introducing reformer Pilates. We’re proud to be one of the few clubs in the UK that offers unlimited reformer Pilates classes for no additional cost.

We’re constantly working with new partners that align with our brand and bring our members a new experience. In partnership with British Weightlifting, we’re working closely to educate our teams and ensure the gym floors are suitable for all levels of lifters, from beginners to advanced.

We are always seeking partners who can help us to elevate members’ experiences, whether its education on particular wellness topics to workshops, fitness competitions and holistic retreats.

What’s on the roadmap for the next six months?

MH: In the next six months, we’re excited to launch our new app, which will reward members for their loyalty. For example, a member who visits their club twice a week will be able to redeem for a free coffee or smoothie at their club. Trying out a new group exercise class or taking up personal training may trigger exclusive discounts with like-minded brands.

Looking ahead, we’re expanding our UK offerings with new concepts like sound bath yoga and will continue rolling out Lift Club and reformer Pilates as well as Kauai restaurants.

Another key focus will be developing products and initiatives to support women’s and men’s health in later life.

What trends are you most excited about in 2024 & beyond?

MH: In 2024 and beyond, there are several consumer trends in the fitness and wellness industry that excite us at Virgin Active.

We are particularly enthusiastic about the growing interest in strength training. Our recent refurbishments and the introduction of Lift Club put us ahead of the curve in this area.

Another trend we are embracing is reformer Pilates, with 19 dedicated studios already in operation and more to come. Additionally, the focus on recovery is gaining momentum, and our aforementioned Reformer Recovery classes, Sound Bath sessions and partnership with Hyperice are at the forefront of this trend.

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