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Following his keynote speech at the Les Mills Fit Business Live event in Cologne during FIBO, technologist Marcus East spoke to Jak Phillips about how health clubs can harness technology to increase their presence in both physical and digital spaces.
What’s your background, Marcus?
I’m unusual in some respects in that I’m a technologist, but I’m half business and half technology. So half my career has been spent working for big tech companies. I spent six years in IBM and four years at Apple, while the other half of my career has been helping consumer-facing brands really harness the power of technology to build great consumer experiences. I’m now Executive VP of Product & Technology and CTO at National Geographic, leading the digital teams responsible for making it the #1 ranking brand on social media.
How can local health club owners tap into the Silicon Valley-led innovation around customer relationships you talk about in your presentation?
Nevermind robots and biometric scanners, the real technological benefits, certainly for the next couple of years, are going to come from using some of the solid and basic business-as-usual technology well. Personalization is something I talk about a lot as it’s really important. That can be everything from making sure emails are personalized, to only sending things to people that are relevant to them. Making sure that anything you do is mobile friendly is really important – up to 70 per cent of internet traffic now comes from a mobile device so you can’t afford to miss out.
What must health clubs do to stay relevant in the face of increased competition from digital fitness offerings like Youtube workouts?
I think making sure that there is a means to reach someone with your content over the internet is important to have that presence. But ultimately, we are driven by human connection. Watching something on Youtube is a very impersonal experience, whereas working out with others in a physical space is a much more personal experience. So it’s key that fitness centre operators always think about what their customers need and play to their strengths.
What can the fitness industry learn from other sectors?
I’ll come back to this idea of personalization – some companies are finding incredible success by changing their website interface and using chatbots, driven by artificial intelligence, to be more responsive. I’ll use the example of Icelandair, who now let you search for and book trips using a chatbot on Facebook messenger. I think there are enormous opportunities for people to be able to go to a chatbot and say right, ‘What classes are available to me today?’ Get the list back and say ‘Great, book me onto the BODYPUMP class at 6pm.’ Those sorts of things don’t have to cost a lot of money. They’re not super technology heavy, but they are very powerful in terms of driving consumer engagement.
What are the key things club owners should know about Millennials/Gen Z and their consumer habits?
You’ve got to be mobile first – Gen Zers and Millennials haven’t got time for sitting in front of a big computer screen, so if you’re not reaching them on mobile, forget it. The second thing is they’re not typically reading email or going to websites – they’re on social. You have to be on Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram to reach those individuals, so finding ways to build those third party platforms into your strategy is important.
The other thing that’s really interesting is they don’t like spending money on things they feel are a diversion of their resources. This is the airbnb and Uber generation. They don’t want to own things and they don’t necessarily want to get into subscriptions. And for the fitness sector this means introducing new business models that have different pricing for these people, maybe pay for as much as you use. These are people who aren’t very good at committing to things, don’t have a huge amount of money, but there’s large numbers of them.
There’s a lot of discussion about robots taking over people’s jobs. If fitness operators can free up their staff from menial tasks, how should they then deploy them to enhance the customer experience?
It’s a good opportunity to enhance the roles of those individuals – you can use the technology to take the menial things away from them. So in five years time I might expect to see a robot in my gym cleaning the equipment, but not necessarily leading a BODYCOMBAT class. So I am a technologist, but I can tell you I wouldn’t trust a robot to lead my class. I would always trust a human being that can react to my feedback over any automated device. But automation can provide tools to your gym staff to help them do a better job. Maybe they have member data on an iPad so when they arrive, staf instantly know when did they last come into the gym, what sort of things did they do. Providing that kind of information helps staff to provide a much better experience for the customer.
What impact will automation have on the importance of wellness and people being able to easily access health services?
In five years time, there will be far fewer people involved in menial activities, so it means there’ll be potentially more leisure time for people. I think the idea that we’ll have more time to focus on our health and fitness is exciting. The downside is that with many of those jobs changing or going away, it may mean that there’s less money available for people and more challenges in terms of how we structure society. But I think what it means for the fitness industry is thinking about how do you accommodate potentially large numbers of people that have time, but don’t have a huge amount of money? And is there a model that makes sense? None of us want a world where there are fewer jobs, but we have to accept there are going to be different jobs companies have to be agile to react to this.
Wearable tech - passing fad or a fitness gamechanger?
I would say that wearable tech is only just at phase one of what we’re going to see when it comes to the human integration of technology. This week the first trial is being done around swallowable devices, that will allow you to monitor, very accurately, the calories you are consuming, plus all of the different nutrients in the food you’re eating. That is probably the future of technology when it comes to monitoring humans. So wearable tech – you FitBit and such-like – is phase one, but now you that type of technology being put into rings and soon we will start to see the technology become almost invisible – I think that’s when more people will adopt it. And when there’s more opportunity for us to incorporate that into our daily routines this improves our interactions with personal trainers because it helps them do a better job for us. But we’re in the early stages. There’s a lot more exciting stuff to come.
Club owners are faced with myriad technological solutions, are there any they can do without?
I know a lot of interest is being applied to this world of automatically detecting people as they go into a gym and they walk up to a machine, and it says ‘Oh, it’s Dave. Great, we know Dave is tall and he’s super muscular. So let’s put the settings in place for Dave.’ Some of that can work, but there is something in tech that we call the creepy line, where you start to use the data and personalize the data so much that it becomes a little bit uncomfortable. And as we are seeing in the discussions about Facebook right now, people are starting to feel uncomfortable with how much data is known about them, and how much data is available. With big data, comes big responsibility, and sometimes it can be tough to know where the line is.
If I had US$20m to create the gym of the future, what should it look like?
There are people that will tell you the gym of the future is fully-automated, biometric scanning and texting people as they move around the club. I wouldn’t advise that you spend your money on that right now. I think the most important things in your gym are a really great, welcoming environment – making sure that as people walk up to your gym, they want to go inside it. You learn from the best in physical and retail spaces, and I would use Apple as an example. They have a lot of staff in their stores, and there’s a reason for that. We make decisions based on human connections. So I’d encourage you to spend as much of your US$20m on getting the right staff at your gym. Because fundamentally, we make buying decisions and we make personal decisions based on those sort of personal relationships. Technology is only useful if it’s appropriate, and it’s only appropriate if it serves human beings and if it delivers some value to them. So don’t get carried away on too much technology. Think about your customer, think about your staff and think about how you can enhance the relationships between them.