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a leisure business. Essentially all a club had to do was sell memberships which became the benchmark for success. It was very much an American club model where the focus was on sales to drive customers into large rooms full of the latest fitness equipment, also from America.

The ‘fitness’ craze started to engulf the local authority sector; in came large fitness suites (frequently from converting squash courts) and gradually the community and socially-interactive types of activities were phased out. Licenced bars in leisure centres disappeared because a fundamental change happened in the way leisure facilities were used. No longer was the main customer a club, group or course of people learning a skill, but an individual who turned up, generally on their own, to an exercise class or a gym session. They then leave on their own often without having interacted with anything apart from a machine. So, what we have today is a fundamentally different way of using leisure facilities than we did 20 years ago – certainly in the local authority sector. Usage is characterised by more individual activity and limited social interaction in the 3,516 private clubs and 2,764 public gyms compared to the more club, group and course-based programming of before. This scenario is being exacerbated by the rise of the budget gym model where even gym instructors and receptionists are now few and far between.

Does this mean then that there has been a fundamental shift in consumer demand for more individual type of activities? Personally, I don’t think so. My experience of dealing with groups is that they do respond to activities which are organised and led. This view is borne out by the growth of more class-based activities of people wanting to do things together. To satisfy this demand the fitness market is fragmenting with more niche operators entering the fray. For example, Gymbox in London is becoming the go-to club for young professionals where according to their advertising “making sweating enjoyable drives everything Gymbox does”.

A claim of unique exercise classes and nightly resident DJs is backed up by thinking through the whole product and customer journey based on what the consumer wants. As one member who had the choice of all the different London gyms said to me, “they have considered my needs, for example, when I turn up at 6.30am in the morning the lighting has been dimmed so I don’t feel too exposed having just gotten out of bed and with no makeup.”

Other organisations specialising in more socially-based activities are now filling the gap left by the move to more individually-focused machine-based fitness. An example of this new generation of social activity is GO Mammoth which brands itself as a ‘Social Sports & Fitness Club.’ By providing team activities and social events it taps in to the desire for humans to be led and participate together in exercise while having fun at the same time. GO Mammoth offers a large range of activities which historically have been offered by local authority leisure centres, but who now seem to be more focused on fitness. There is no doubt that leisure facilities both in the public and private sectors have improved dramatically in recent years. The general quality of the built environment and ambience around the centres plus the mixture of facilities for people to participate in a variety activities has, in effect, provided a greater choice for the modern consumer. However, I would argue that much of the new development in recent years has been focused on facilities rather than

Pictures courtesy of GO MAMMOTH

Pictures courtesy of GO MAMMOTH

providing innovative programmes of activity. The rise of specialist organisations such as Go Mammoth is testament to the fact that there is a desire for participants to enjoy a more social aspect to their leisure.

There is one other problem with what has happened in leisure. Twenty years ago there was a particular skill set and culture in organising and delivering good leisure courses and programmes. I’m not sure the skills are as abundant today let alone the willingness to develop and manage these particular activities.

With the rise of more specialist ‘social sports and fitness’ operators, maybe we will see again leisure facilities full of families having fun and joining in exercise together on a Saturday night with the local PTA running a Saturday Sports Night.

Mike Fitch is a Director of body LIFE and holds a Masters Degree in Recreation Management from Loughborough University plus marketing qualification from Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM). He has held senior management roles with several leading leisure and fitness brands in the UK in addition to extensive work internationally. body LIFE 2 I 2015 I 47

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