‘Crisis’. That was the word on most operators’ lips when the pandemic suddenly shuttered gyms in March 2020. But for the Greater Philadelphia YMCA, crisis quickly gave way to an outlook of ‘opportunity’.
With a diverse background not only in the Y, but also in television, banking, retail, the seasoned senior leadership team at Greater Philadelphia YMCA had long been discussing how to future-proof the Association and serve a wider audience by truly taking the Y beyond the four walls of its facilities. Amid the chaos of COVID, the team saw an unprecedented opportunity and so dived headfirst into creating a truly omnichannel fitness experience for members.
“Having seen how technology had disrupted the industries we’d all come from, we were eager to apply these learnings to our non-profit model in an attempt to safeguard its future and provide a better service to the communities that depend on us,” explains Henry Vazquez, Greater Philadelphia YMCA’s Creative Services Director and a former TV Executive.
“We serve a quarter of a million people per year across our 15 branches, so when COVID struck, omnichannel quickly shifted from a lofty ambition to an essential need among our community. So Marketing and Operations teamed up and got to work on launching our digital product – securing a library of top-class on demand content from Les Mills and setting-up a studio to begin livestreaming classes.”
The result was PhilaYathome – a digital platform offering a mix of on demand and livestream workouts, as well as coaching, health tips and nutrition advice. By June 2021, the platform had racked up 39,000 unique users, 600,000 pageviews and had helped the Association to become a top performer for both online and in-facility offerings. So what’s been the key to this success and how is the Association leveraging its digital footprint to enhance the health of its facilities?
An agile mindset
Whether it’s been supporting members to access PhilaYathome – even those still using dial-up internet – or starting to shoot content in a matter of days, one of the central themes of the Association’s success has been a commitment to innovating and adapting fast.
“We certainly didn’t let perfect get in the way of good and we made use of whatever we could to get up and running. Our whole filming set-up cost us only a few thousand dollars and it’s served us extremely well,” explains Henry.
“We’re a whole life-cycle fitness provider and our community spans all ages, so those livestream sessions – particularly in the early stages of the pandemic – were invaluable for bringing people together and providing a sense of connection,” says Lauren Bacigalupi, Greater Philadelphia Y Chief Marketing Officer. “The senior population, in particular, suffered from isolation during Covid, and our livestream sessions allowed them to interact and talk with their friends from the Y. That’s something we’ve carried through to strengthen our offering – it doesn’t matter if for whatever reason members can’t make it to our facility, now we can go to them.
“And as someone with a background in production, it was clear from the start that we couldn’t afford to not have Les Mills workouts for PhilaYathome,” says Henry. “The quality of the content is breathtaking and our Customer Experience Manager Meredith Elumba was a fantastic source of advice on everything from developing the right workout mix to navigating the complexities of music licensing. She’s been a huge help in finding solutions to the various challenges we’ve encountered. She was a true partner and worked hard to help us stand up our on-demand offerings.”
Going up a gear
Having developed PhilaYathome as a minimum viable product (MVP) in response to COVID, the team is now focused on scaling up the solution to serve an even broader section of the community. Applying learnings from leading digital fitness products and harnessing member feedback, the plan is to build on the initial wins by developing a comprehensive omnichannel offering to stay ahead of the competition.
In the studio, the team is spending the summer shooting sharper content and developing four-week digital fitness programs for users to follow. They’re also doubling down on their talent, working out which Instructors are best-suited to livestream and who prefer to be leading live classes at their facilities. The Instructors who shine in front of the camera are receiving extra training in how to deliver a dynamic digital experience, as well as advice on how to grow their social media followings to help attract wider audiences.
The commercial model for the platform is also under focus. Having initially offered PhilaYathome as a membership value-add to all Y members – while standalone access was available to non-members for $20 per month – the team is exploring which aspects should be included as standard for all members and which could constitute part of a premium add-on.
“We’re committed to creating a high-quality digital offering for our members because we can’t afford not to,” says Henry. “What we’re seeing now in the club industry is reminiscent of what’s happened in the television industry over the past decade as powerful digital players have come to the fore."
“Every fitness facility is a content provider and having a digital component to this offering is now table stakes,” explains Lauren. “It’s what consumers expect and operators who ignore this are at risk of having their members leave them. But at the Y, we are more than just a gym. We are a community center, where connection lies at the heart of what we do. So being able to connect to our members, where and when they need us is invaluable.”
One of the strengths of PhilaYathome is that the workouts reflect the live offerings available in their brick and mortar facilities. Not only does it aid digital adoption among members by providing the workouts members already know and love, it also helps to drive digital fans to the ultimate experience of live workouts in Y facilities.
This has been reflected in the Greater Philadelphia YMCA’s strong post-COVID recovery compared to similar-sized Associations. By March 2021, the Association had already recovered to 61.3 percent of pre-COVID billing levels – while branch utilization was at 58 percent despite ongoing restrictions – and the numbers have continued on a strong upward trajectory since.
“As a category, group fitness is huge for us,” notes Zeffi Angelikas, Greater Philadelphia Y VP of Operations. It’s the number one determinant for keeping members longer and having them advocate on our behalf. So apart from the fact that it’s incredibly popular and our classes are always packed, it’s important for our members because it's where people make friends and form their own mini-community within the Y – and that’s what we’re all about. It’s where the brand of who we are, meets the services we provide.”
“Where Les Mills fits in is by keeping us current and ensuring we have a roster of high-quality programming on the timetable,” says Henry. “People know we serve so many children and seniors at the Y, but there’s also large sections of our community who want a challenging workout that’s going to deliver results. We also lean heavily into the Les Mills launch events and marketing assets as a means of promoting our branches and building a buzz around them.”
“And much like PhilaYathome, outdoor workouts have been a very positive by-product of the pandemic that’s now helping to fuel our recovery,” adds Zeffi. “If you drive by one of our branches and see 80 people in the parking lot rocking out to BODYCOMBAT it definitely leaves an impression. Outdoor workouts are a fantastic shop window for our facilities and what we have to offer.”
Henry’s top tips for driving a digital strategy:
- Identify your core audience and ensure your digital offering meets their needs. It’s vital to bring the core with you to achieve critical mass.
- Don’t overthink and don’t overspend. There’s an awful lot you can learn by doing, and a surprising amount you can achieve on a shoestring budget with the right mindset.
- Know when to tap into the experts. A lot of live content you can shoot yourselves, but it’s vital that the backbone of your offering is truly world-class to enhance the member experience and elevate your brand.
- Commit to the future. Offering an omnichannel fitness experience is table stakes for the modern operator. We’re all content providers and we have to deliver to our audience across all channels if we want to engage them.