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    Acquisition & retention

    Survival of the fittest: How to reinvent your gym brand

    As Managing Director of Virgin Active SE Asia, Christian Mason has spent the last five years launching the global gym giant into exciting new markets, while simultaneously reinventing the club proposition to counter new challengers. He shares key learnings on scaling a gym business in a foreign environment and how big box gyms can fight back in battle against boutiques.

    Les Mills

    How would you describe your career in fitness?

    I started on the shop floor doing personal training and what have you, before progressing into management and a variety of roles across different markets. I cut my teeth in the UK with Holmes Place, then moved into the Virgin Active business, where I got great exposure to a range of different challenges learned a lot. This held me in great stead for my next role, which saw me move back to my native Australia to help set up Virgin Active there. Starting from scratch with a blank canvas was really exciting – it gives you the opportunity to be totally accountable for what you’re doing, which has always appealed to me. More recently, I've moved to Asia to do the same thing, launching 14 clubs across Singapore and Thailand over the last five years as Managing Director of Virgin Active SE Asia.

    Having started from scratch, what have been the biggest surprises you’ve encountered launching in the South East Asia market?

    We did our homework, including a lot of market research to understand the cultural norms, expectations in the market and particularly attitudes to exercise. So we went in fairly well-briefed, but as good as that research is, there’s nothing better than being on the ground yourself. The key piece was getting to grips with where the talent lay and how we could grow and nurture that talent. The Virgin brand is all about employee empowerment – we’re not strong on lots of MOPs and SOPs to tell you what to do and be rigid – we want people to bring their personality to work and be themselves. And that’s probably been the main challenge, because the expectation from our teams here has been the opposite; it’s been ‘tell me what to do, so I know that I'm doing things right’. We’ve had to really focus on building the trust, so our teams feel confident enough to do what they think they should do and realise that’s okay. One of our business mantras is that it’s not a mistake unless you do it twice. Our emphasis is all about training and growth, plus learning from when you do make mistakes, and that’s been a big journey for sure as we’ve built up the South East Asia business.

    Christian Mason, Managing Director of Virgin Active SE Asia

    What are the biggest mistakes that you've learned from during this time?

    Lots! Some embarrassing one’s really, typically around people not being open-minded enough to realise them. Fortunately, I've done quite a bit of travel, so my mindset when I'm in any foreign country is that you've got to swim with the current. Whether or not it’s different to how you see things and how you were brought up, you have to recognise you’re not going to change that so you figure out how to adapt your own behaviours to mould into that. This could be around punctuality or absenteeism – a good example is how it’s a badge of honour in Western society to have never had a day off work. It’s the exact opposite in Singapore and Thailand, where the idea that you come to work with a sniffle or illness is actually really rude and disrespectful, because you’re going to spread the germs and make others unwell. That’s an example where you've got to learn pretty quick, because you can build trust with all the things you say, but you can completely demolish it in an instant if someone says they’re going home for the day because they’ve got a sniffle, and you look at them in a condescending manner because it’s not what you’re used to. That kind of thing can undo all the good you've achieved in building a relationship, so it’s about being culturally aware and demonstrating strong emotional intelligence.

    How have the Virgin Active clubs you oversee evolved in the last five years, in response to shifting trends and challenges?

    It’s the are I'm most passionate about – relentless focus on our product and never stepping very far away from that, even in my role now as MD – because fitness is in my blood, always has been, always will be. It’s been great as I've had the opportunity to come into the market and look at how we can innovate. We’re sitting at the premium end and we’ve been able to bring new concepts to life, whether that’s altitude training, some of the exercise programming we’ve put in place, or the size of our studios relative to the size of the club.

    We’ve responded to the emergence of boutiques coming in by developing our own array of boutique-style offerings that sit together under one roof, including premium programs like THE TRIP™. We’re constantly looking to evolve, but the most important thing for me is making sure that what you do actually delivers on its promise. Yes, it’s got to be on trend, but it’s also got to work, because if people aren’t getting results then you've wasted everyone’s time.

    What are the big opportunities for big box clubs over the next few years?

    The key to success is to be resilient, work out where you’re strong and don’t be afraid of making bold decisions to take your business forward. We’re all aware of how important the member experience is, and I think the emergence of boutiques has been an important wake-up call to the industry – a reminder that you can’t be complacent. I've never supported the notion that ‘the best gym members are the ones that pay and don't come’, it’s always been the opposite for me. And by creating this smaller tight-knit community environment, boutiques have forced us big boxes to pause and reflect on how we step up our game, how we offer that level of personalisation and how do we create an awesome experience? And that will always come back to how well you invest in your training and education of staff, what programs you’re offering and who you’re partnering with.

    How would you describe of role of group workouts within Virgin Active?

    It’s enormous for us. We’re sitting at 60% penetration rate for group exercise across our membership and it’s not lost on me how important that is for the broader product offering. Personal Training is pretty strong for us as well, but if you want the best retention tool in the business then it’s always going to be group exercise. We know the members that do group exercise come to the club more often, they’re our best referring members and they give us the best NPS scores as well, so it’s a pretty obvious tick, tick, tick. It’s very short-sighted if you see group exercise as a cost base. It’s a revenue driver because it’s about the reputation of your club. The pull factor of being able to attract rockstar Instructors – you can’t put a price on that.

    How did you strike a balance between your own in-house programs and licensed programs?

    You’ve just got to find the right blend. You know what people are coming in for and you shouldn’t overlook the benefit of the branding and the investment your partners have made to create credibility and authenticity in the programming. Our goal as an operator is just to make sure our guys who teach those programs are the best they can be – that’s how you differentiate.

    Obviously you want to have your own elements as well – we have The Grid for example, a circuit program based on functional movement. It’s something we’ve developed and evolved over time and we’re bringing all of our global expertise to ensure it’s a great product that’s delivered consistently well in all our clubs worldwide. So that’s an example of our innovations, but it’s never going to be replacing the Les Mills programs we’ve got. They sit very well alongside each other and it’s a symbiotic relationship between our own programs and those that we license which ultimately results in a great experience for our members – and that’s the key.

    Virgin’s a huge global brand with strong values. How do you ensure you stay true to the essence of Virgin, while at the same time driving innovation and taking bold decisions?

    Fortunately, one of our core values is around innovating and doing things differently to make a difference – that's been the pedigree of the Virgin brand since it began. There are numerous examples of how Richard Branson’s done that and his approach is always to ask “What’s the situation and how can we shake things up to make it better for the customer?”

    So it’s great to be in an environment that endorses a bold approach. And the important thing in our industry is to make sure you don't get carried away with chasing trends that are going to be pretty short-lived. You have to make sure the science stacks up, the concept will deliver results, and that it will inspire people to come to the club more often because they love to, not because they have to.

    Finally, what’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you in the fitness industry?

    Look after today and tomorrow will take care of itself. That came from Ross Faragher-Thomas, who was MD of Virgin Active in the UK at the time and it’s advice that’s always stayed with me. It’s really about leadership and not focusing too much on where you think you need to get to in your own career growth. Instead, you should look after today, deliver results for the business, for your members, for your staff and if you do that, then opportunities will afford themselves to you.

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