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In a career spanning 35-years in the fitness industry, John Oxley has held senior leadership roles at Places Leisure, Active Nation and SLM, affording him a wealth of experience and knowledge of the sector.

During his career, John has seen countless trends come and go, and been involved in tackling some of the biggest issues in the sector around participation, engagement and competition.

The post-Covid landscape is the biggest challenge the sector has faced in decades, but as John notes, with that challenge comes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild better.

In the first of a two-part interview, The Side Hussle picked John’s brains on what he believes will come next as the UK, hopefully, emerges from the disruption of 2020.

What sales and marketing challenges will operators face over the next 12-months as the UK fitness industry recovers post Covid?

John:  Operators remain uncertain as to whether it’s reasonable to expect a return to pre-Covid membership levels, whether they might exceed those levels because the population is taking greater care of their health, or whether membership subscriptions will come in below previous levels as ex-gym goers exercise at home or elsewhere.

Of course, the unique circumstance is that virtually all operators face the same task – they’re neither in the start-up or mature phase of business – every single one is in ‘growth’ mode and will be attempting to put out a compelling ‘choose me’ message.

I suspect some operators will stick to the tried and tested ‘price-led’ promotions, many will shift subtly to a more ‘health-oriented’ message and all will focus on reassurances over cleanliness, while shifting to promote the gym as a space providing social interaction and mental wellness.

Operators will all be under pressure to recover quickly and so sales and marketing teams will be advised to utilise multiple channels to maximise reach. There will three main cohorts of customer that operators must plan their sales and marketing around. Those that retained their subscription throughout closures; those that cancelled their subscription but are being encouraged to return, and new customers. The messaging needs to be nuanced accordingly.

Critically, successful operators will be those poring all over the response; gym behaviour, visit frequency, length of stay, conducting a forensic assessment of which sales and marketing tactics and channels deliver the greatest return.  

What advice would you give to operators focusing on getting back to normal rather than trying to reinvent themselves?

John:  I’m not sure there’s ever has been a ‘normal’! I’ve long been of the view that you’re either going forwards or backwards – there is no ‘status quo’! The issue is how much extra effort will operators put into the development of their proposition and broaden their appeal, without disenfranchising those who value what’s been provided in the past.

Habitual exercisers are still very important to operators – they know the environment they want and how to get a great workout. The challenge is how to refine the proposition to increase length of stay of those that were prone to cancel, while also developing a product for those who previously thought the gym was not for them.

We’ve tended to forget gyms are incredibly versatile places and often sell them as a ubiquitous place rather than a flexible space that can meet a members’ personal needs, whatever they happen to be. The breadth of equipment provided means gyms can be used in many different ways to suit countless different needs and my advice would be to segment members and exercise types to illustrate this far more specifically.  

What are the nuances of these two potentially opposing strategies?

John:   A complete re-invention puts at risk those members that value the proposition as it stands. Similarly, a ‘return to normal’ (or doing nothing) will inevitably see you quickly passed by your competitors.

Sounds simple, but operators need to be very clear about their market and ensure their proposition meets that market’s needs and expectations.

The fitness consumer has a far greater degree of choice than ever before. The motivated have become more resourceful and used a plethora of online content and streamed opportunity to survive without a gym and so, in a market burgeoning with choice, the proposition has to be clear. Access has to be simple, the digital experience intuitive and frictionless, and members must feel valued, and that they GET value, because there are so many alternatives.

In my view, there are no pros to ‘returning to normal’, while there is endless opportunity in thinking deeply about your proposition and continually refining, developing (or re-inventing) it so that it’s more attractive to more people.

If you would like to speak to John about anything in this article, or to find out more about his new venture – Brand Oxley – you can contact him on: