The trend towards virtual fitness is here to stay. Initial virtual offerings featuring low-cost video productions on a home projector screen found little popularity among members. But over the past two to three years a host of providers have jumped into the market offering professionally produced products hosted by globally renowned fitness teachers. Wexer Virtual, Fitness On Demand, Fitness On Request, and MyRide are just a few suppliers offering catalog and equipment to several thousand facilities in various countries.
Says Wexer Virtual CEO and long-term Scandinavian club operator Rasmus Ingerslev:
“What started for us as a way to fill studio downtime in our clubs has become a serious business with a lot of clubs globally jumping on the trend. We’re currently supplying virtual programming into 14 countries and from a pretty modest start with one or two people attending sessions at first, clubs are now reporting up to 20 people in their virtual classes. Surprisingly, some members are saying they prefer classes delivered virtually by famous presenters to the real thing. But this is a minority. Virtual is still no competition for a great live class and we've learned some hard lessons along the way. It basically boils down to the fact that success depends on getting the details just right.”
According to New Zealand club manager Richard Harvey, the keys to a successful virtual timetable are great content, reliable technology, a huge projector screen and a great sound system played really loud.
“This sounds simple, but setting your studio up for great virtual takes some work”, says Harvey. “For daytime classes you have to be able to darken the room or the image on the screen will be washed out. We had to install pull-down blinds in our main studio for daytime classes – the spin studio was easier as it was basically dark already. But it’s great for us because we are open 24 hours most days and we can run virtual classes at times when it wouldn't be worth paying a teacher.”
What started for us as a way to fill studio downtime in our clubs has become a serious business.
Screening out daylight is a major problem for clubs that are using projectors. Technology developments may save the day – LED prices are coming down and there is talk of high-end clubs installing TV screen mosaics. But with an ideal screen size of at least 10 feet x 7 feet, these are still prohibitive options for the average club and many are opting to dip their toe in the water with cycle studios, which are a relatively easy installation and often empty all day.
“We are finding that a lot of beginners prefer to start in a virtual class as it is less intimidating than a live class,” says Ingerslev.
“In that sense virtual classes act as a stepping-stone and for those people it is actually more comfortable to have a darker room, as it reduces their self-consciousness. Some clubs say they have learned a lesson from this and are choosing to lower the light during their regular live classes.”
Some teachers were initially intimidated by virtual, says Harvey.
“They thought it might put them out of a job. But I don’t think we will ever replace live classes with virtual, in fact I think teaching alongside the world’s best onscreen has lifted our team’s overall performance.”
Rene Moos, owner of European chains Health City and BasicFit says there are a lot of nuances to virtual:
“At our BasicFit budget clubs, many people are trying group exercise for the first time and they need much simpler content than experienced members at our high end Health City clubs. We believe in the value of virtual, but it is taking us some time to perfect. Will it be big for the fitness industry? Who knows; it’s a disruptive technology and as with any disruptive technology, you can’t tell where it will go.”