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LES MILLS VIRTUAL CASE STUDY: WILLOWS HEALTH & LIFESTYLE CENTRE, TOOWOOMBA QLD

by Les Mills Asia Pacific

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“We've been a long-time Partner of Les Mills Asia Pacific and we’ve had Willows for over 14 years, so it's been a great partnership and we're loving the continuation of it into the Virtual world.”

Willows Health and Lifestyle Centre is a Toowoomba icon, having been part of the community since the 1970s.

“Fourteen years ago, we converted it from an old squash and fitness centre into a more traditional fitness centre by turning the squash courts into specific studios for cycling, yoga and Pilates. We’ve also since incorporated allied health practices (i.e., physiotherapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, dietitians, psychologists), so there’s a real mix of expertise all under one roof.”

Being a community-based centre, Willows doesn’t operate with contracts.

“Pre-COVID we had around 2,500 members, and we’ve managed to build that back up pretty well after the lockdowns. Currently we’d be sitting at around 1,700 base members, and then we have medical centres and schools, which means we see well over 2,000 members coming into the centre at the moment.”

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“We’ve been working on our technology offering for a while now. We really want to use technology as a support system for everything that we do. This is so our face-to-face experiences become much easier for both our coaches and our group fitness Instructors, and so it supports the customers’ experience. We want technology to be part of our members’ every day, which means we need to incorporate more technology into what we offer.”

“COVID certainly accelerated our plans, because the way people work and the hours they work all changed. As a result, the traditional face-to-face fitness timetable just wasn't creating the type of experience that members were expecting or wanting anymore – but Virtual does. For example, on Tuesday afternoon at 1pm I was doing a Virtual SPRINT™ class, and I was joined by someone who was working from home because that was their lunchbreak. Virtual has the power to meet people where they want or need it to; it fits in with how their life now works, which in many cases, is vastly different to how it used to be.”

It’s a fascinating time to see how significantly people's patterns of work have changed. In Toowoomba, there haven't been significantly hard or extended periods of lockdown, but in markets where things have been closed for a long time, or in areas where there are lots of global business headquarters, people's work and life patterns have dramatically changed – they don’t go the gym at 6am Monday to Friday, because their life is no longer structured like that. So there are huge opportunities, but also significant challenges in the short-term for our industry.

“Since implementing LES MILLS Virtual in our cycle room five months ago, visits have grown by 26 per cent.”

“Willows launched LES MILLS Virtual in our main studio in July 2021, after having launched our cycle rooms for RPM™ and SPRINT back in February – which were received really well. The reception to this latest launch was also fantastic, and the key to that was the support and advice provided by Les Mills Asia Pacific. We understand that Virtual should be provided as a supplement to our current fitness offering, rather than as an alternative or something that will take over or replace the existing classes. Once you clearly convey this message and it’s understood by your members, your team and your community, it really works.”

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“For success, it’s critical to ensure you clearly communicate so as to alleviate the fear among group fitness Instructors that they’ll be out of a job – that’s the last thing we would ever do! There’s also often fear from the core group fitness members, who worry that their beloved in-person classes will be replaced by Virtual – again, we’re never going to do that!”

“What we've actually found is that Virtual brings in a lot of new people to group fitness, who weren’t already used to the face-to-face experience. This means we need to educate our personal trainers and gym floor instructors about how to incorporate Virtual into the everyday for members, and how it can supplement what they are already doing.”

“We’ve programmed Virtual into our timetables and it’s surprised us how quickly its popularity has grown, and also how the members have been using it. Once they understood there are timetabled Virtual classes, but that they can actually come in anytime to do any class they want to, we ended up having waiting lists for the Virtual classes. The waiting list is still very full, but it is starting to decrease because they now understand they’re not tied to a timetable and so are coming in at all times of the day to do the classes they want to do. Some people bring in their business partners and they’ll have a SPRINT workout before going off for brekky. Others come with groups of friends or even use it for networking – and all at a time that suits them.”

“We’ve also been really surprised by how encouraging and supportive the local schools have been; they come in with groups of students during the day to experience group fitness, and they absolutely love it; in fact, I hear they love SPRINT so much that they can’t wait to return from school holidays so they can get back into it and other group fitness classes!”

“Virtual has brought us unexpected opportunities that have grown out of programming Virtual into the everyday; for example, one school has signed up all their boarding students for weekend memberships. So they bus them up to use the Virtual studios at 1pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

Despite their other services operating with booking systems, at the moment Willows offers Virtual classes on a first come, first served basis. “What we’ve found is that people are actually quite happy to wait or jump in halfway and then do the group fitness class they wanted to do after that. With the SPRINT cycle classes, most people are quite happy to just join in, spin the wheel until the other person’s class is finished, and then go again in the class they want. And even if they don’t book in advance, members still need to scan in so we are still collecting numbers around usage.”

Willows has 22 bikes in the cycle studio, and with COVID restrictions the group fitness room currently has a 30-person capacity (or 25 for BODYPUMP).

“We are very data-driven, so our technology ecosystem is designed to track everything. This enables us to identify and monitor the ‘stickability’ of a member once they start to use more of our services.”

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“Since implementing LES MILLS Virtual in our cycle room five months ago, visits have grown by 26 per cent. So it will be interesting to see what happens in the long term, with Virtual in our group fitness room.”

In the Les Mills Asia Pacific Group Fitness Management Training Course, we talk about “building the stadium”, meaning creating a place where people want to come and show up to; and there, you deliver great content to keep them coming back. Part of Willows’ “stadium” is the screen they use in their Virtual studios.

“The screen and the content are really important because it has to be different from your normal group fitness experience; and we really market that cinematic experience. So when you enter the group fitness room there are theatre curtains on the windows, so it’s dark. It’s very immediately different to the usual face-to-face group fitness experience. Similarly, the sound needs to be great, as does the lighting. The screen is a sizeable investment but it pays off because of the major role it has in creating a different experience that is unlike any traditional group fitness experience – which it needs to be. For Virtual to really work, it can’t just be four white walls with a data projector.”

Addressing pushback or misconceptions from members or staff was another critical element for the successful introduction of Virtual.

“It’s great that our members are very loyal to their favourite group fitness Instructors but of course with such enormous change, comes an element of fear. Recognising this, it was very important for us to convey a very clear message that for those who are used to face-to-face classes, nothing has to change – the timetable remains the same; and this was very important to emphasise – particularly at the start.”

“Equally important is a really big engagement piece for our instructors, explaining how it will enhance their programs because more people are open to group fitness and moving into face-to-face classes when they’re ready (which we’ve seen occur in our cycle classes). It was great to see at our launch, the BODYPUMP and BODYBALANCE Instructors all being a part of the experience by doing the classes with members and helping them out.”

“We had one member, who was steadfastly devoted to face-to-face classes, tell us in no uncertain terms that offering Virtual cycling was the worst thing we could do; only to come back three weeks after it launched to tell us that it was the best thing we’d done in 14 years!”

“The key is to incorporate Virtual into your overall offering and clearly conveying exactly how that actually supplements what your members and staff are already doing.”

"Keep.me [CRM software] took 14 years of our data to create algorithms to risk-stratify our membership base. This enables us to track the habits of every single member and even predict when a member might leave us, before they do so. We can also predict which areas of the business centre will keep our members longer."

When it comes to Keep.me’s risk-stratification scores, the closer to 100, the more likely a member is to stay.

“The data showed us that Willows is actually a very strong group fitness centre. Our score across the centre average is 60, but with group fitness our score is 78. Before this, I hadn’t realised exactly how strong or how much longer those members were staying – up to 18 months longer, in some cases. So this data has really driven our investment in our group fitness offerings and particularly with Virtual; because we know that we’ll get a return on investment because of that impact that group fitness has on a long-term member value.”

“The satisfaction of our members is really important for us. NPS (net promotor score) data can also be kept in the Keep.me system so we can also see that member satisfaction is high among group fitness members. The data really identified for us that we are, in fact, a group fitness centre, more so than a cardiovascular and weights room.”

Final thoughts from Troy?

“When considering LES MILLS Virtual, don’t make it an afterthought. Use the expertise of Les Mills Asia Pacific, who will help you identify the right marketing lead up, the messaging, and how it can incorporate into your whole system and business.”

To find out how LES MILLS Virtual could help you better engage your members and attract new ones, speak to your local Business Partnership Manager in Australia or Southeast Asia.

Keep an eye out for future updates on the impact of LES MILLS Virtual on membership, retention and attendance at Willows Health & Lifestyle Centre.