One of the hottest topics in our industry right now is "the new normal" — with discussions focused on how facilities will look and operate in a post-COVID-19 world.
Prior to the pandemic, if I had suggested you take my group exercise class from your living room via Zoom, you would have thought I was crazy. Today, not so much. During government-mandated shutdowns, many facilities pivoted to virtual programming, as it was one of the only options facilities could offer.
In most places, closures lasted long enough for members to engage with virtual programming and form new behaviors and habits. Exercising via Zoom has become completely normalized. It's now a thing. And while I don't believe virtual services will ever replace the brick-and-mortar variety, I believe that if done well, they can have a positive impact on the member experience and be very valuable to a facility.
Here are five suggestions to help you maximize your virtual programming's impact.
1. Do it well
At the beginning of the pandemic, consumers were hungry for anything they could get. Quality didn't matter. It does now. With so many options, including big players such as Peloton and Apple Fitness, if you are going to do it, you have to do it well.
Invest in quality technology such as a camera, wireless microphone and mixer, as well as great staging in terms of backdrop and lighting. Make sure you have a strong Wi-Fi connection. Start with a proper introduction, and cue effectively throughout class.
Virtual teaching requires an increased proficiency when it comes to cueing. Throughout class, make sure to engage with attendees (if it is a two-way platform) and encourage them to invite friends. Make sure to thank them for attending and subsequently connect with them on social media platforms. Look at every touchpoint during the customer journey and make them as user-friendly as possible.
Bottom line: Virtual programming should feel like its own purposeful experience, not something you are doing because you simply can't be in person.
2. Position as value added
Whether or not members take advantage of it, virtual programming can be an added benefit when selling a membership. Think of it as offering 24-hour access to your club. Most people won't work out at 3 a.m., but they appreciate the flexibility. Likewise, consumers may never use virtual programming but will enjoy hearing about the option.
Virtual programming also gives facilities the opportunity to position it as part of a tiered membership at a higher price. Whether the virtual programming part is used or not, people will perceive that tier of membership as more valuable. In that sense, virtual can help with membership sales, and potentially be an additional source of revenue. Clubs will have people who use it and love it, and those who perceive value in it despite never using it.
3. Facilitate connections
Use virtual programming intentionally as an engagement tool. Encourage members to participate in virtual sessions when they are traveling, busy with work or when their schedule won't allow for in-person visits to the club.
Getting members to participate prevents gaps in attendance, which leads to improved results, higher satisfaction and greater retention. Engaging members via multiple platforms makes it easier for them to stay on track with their health and fitness goals.
When members go on extended vacations, they can remain connected to the facility through group exercises classes. Busy clients no longer need to miss sessions with personal trainers, as these can be conducted via Zoom. Conversely, when members are unable to use the facility — for whatever reason — the likelihood of cancellation increases. Thoughtfully designed virtual programming encourages more consistent attendance and effective member engagement.
4. Use as feeder program
Virtual programming can be a great lead-in to in-person programming. Doing something virtually can be a lot less intimidating for people — all you have to do is turn your camera off and you are totally anonymous.
I have heard countless stories during the pandemic of people who were willing to try fitness programming for the first time simply because there was an unintimidating virtual option. Virtual classes can give members the means to develop enough competency and confidence to try in-person programming.
It's worth noting that if a member only uses the treadmill or an elliptical as a part of their membership, the odds of cancellation are high. Research shows members who participate in programming attend more often and are less likely to cancel. Virtual programs can be a powerful tool to encourage members to try new and different things, thus diversifying their engagement with the facility. These actions can instill, improve and maintain brand loyalty.
5. Take it beyond exercise
Virtual doesn't need to stop at personal training and group exercise classes. Many facilities have hosted creative and engaging virtual events throughout the pandemic, and will continue to do so as society moves forward.
Happy hours and comedy nights are a great way to have fun and bring members together. Other events have included charity fundraisers, wellness seminars, cooking classes, children's programming and other "outside of the box" occasions. These events can set your club apart and provide value independent of health and fitness.
While facilities return to more in-person events, continuing non-fitness-related virtual events can be a real asset. They are inexpensive, convenient and add another level of engagement and fun.
Virtual programming is here to stay. You now have to decide what and how much of it you do based on your facility's size, goals, demographics and budget. Virtual can be a standalone for some, complementary for others, and simply an added value in certain cases.
At the end of the day, virtual programming is no different than any other program you offer. To realize the benefits (and there are plenty), design and execute a well-thought-out program, market and position it properly, and — as with everything else you do — focus on the member experience.
This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Five ways to make the most of virtual programming." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.