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Joint director of the active leisure sector’s leading customer insight and business intelligence brand, Leisure-net, Dave Monkhouse has 36 years experience under his belt, specialising in the improvement of the customer experience, change management and the annual business networking event, active-net.

Dave, who once shared the stage with Brittas Empire’s Gorden Brittas, as a wet-behind-the-ears 23-year-old centre manager at a healthy leisure awards ceremony, shares his thoughts on the sector’s Covid recovery prospects with The Side Hussle.

What do you see as the main sales and marketing challenges for gym operators over the next 12-months as the UK recovers post-lockdowns?

Changing behaviours and the language of our teams will be a challenge for operators as we move forward. Staff have been used to talking about memberships to people who are already into fitness. Their language and their behaviour will need to be very different with people who are nervous, making that first step into a facility because Professor Witty told them to or they’ve put on weight over lockdown or tried cycling and want to give exercise inside a facility a go.

The language can’t be about ‘smashing this’ or ‘beefing up’, it needs to be empathetic, much like talking to a parent or an aunty, to find out what they want from the club or centre.

There are so many new ‘demographics’ to consider as well. There will always be a need for bricks and mortar facilities; many public leisure centres are at the heart of deprived communities and offer a lifeline to many customers.

Sport England’s Moving Communities platform, which was launched to assess the impact of the Recovery Fund on public leisure facilities, surveyed 50,000 users that had returned to their centre between May and June 2021, and found there was a huge amount of ‘affection’ for the local leisure centre, with 86% of people saying they preferred exercising there compared to a more informal environment.

We also have evidence around the value customers put on staff, with more than three quarters, 77%, saying they felt centre staff gave the guidance they needed to be more active.

However there are also an awful lot of people who are not confident to return yet or have found other ways to exercise. The challenge now is how do we encourage them to be part of our brand, knowing they may never cross the threshold of our facilities?

For example, people working from home may still want to exercise and enjoy regular interaction. Some will have bought home gym equipment, a bike or a pair of running shoes. Operators need to consider how they can support the non bricks and mortar customer, enabling them to engage with the brand and achieve their physical activity goals without stepping foot inside a facility.

Many operators only think of customers as people who cross their threshold, but if they broaden their approach – look at opportunities for outside classes, visiting care homes, offering digital options etc – they can engage with a wider section of the local community without them ever coming in.

How does someone with a leisure centre branded t-shirt help me to use the dumbbells I bought during lockdown? An instructional video could be viewed by 100 people, all paying £10 per month. These ‘customers’ may not pay as much, but they also don’t cost a lot to look after, so the return could be the same.

Insight from our second post lockdown survey in November 2020 found 69% of respondents had bought home fitness equipment in the previous eight months. Don’t let it be the most expensive coat hanger they ever bought – helping them to exercise at home is still helping to improve the health of the local community.

What advice would you give to gym operators opting to focus on ‘getting back to normal’ rather than ‘trying to reinvent themselves’?

I’m not sure there ever was an industry ‘normal’, but the most important thing is to understand, through insight, what the customer wants and whether what you were offering pre Covid delivered that. Operators that already understood that, through feedback, insight, surveys, focus groups, regular Net Promoter Scores and exit surveys etc, should repeat this work to be sure there’s still a market for their offer.

The best piece of sales and marketing advice I was ever given was to define your market, understand the need, deliver on that need and check you achieved what you set out to do. So I really hope operators will make more use of data and insight, talk to existing customers about what they do really well, as well as what they don’t, so they can create offers that are based on consumers’ wants and needs.

However, if we are ever going to get past 15% penetration, what’s most important is what’s going to attract those still in the ‘contemplation’ phase.

I started a focus group on Facebook recently with a group of Mum’s who’ve never used a leisure centre before. There are real opportunities for organisations to make use of social media to gain insight from people that don’t usually use our services.

One thing to consider is that so many more people now have physical activity on their radar, and these people, that have never used a facility before, won’t know what ‘normal’ is, so why simply go back to what you did before? This could be an opportunity to do something completely different.

If we get this right, as a sector, we could look back on Covid as a catalyst for positive change. Many outliers were already offering much of what the majority pivoted to during lockdown; their normal was already creating experiences outside of the four walls of a club, delivering an experience tailored to customers needs. I believe innovation will continue at pace and my hope is that it’s targeted at those traditionally not taking part.

What do you see as being the main ‘friction points’ between customers and gym operators?

The way some operators promote their facilities; the images and tactics they use, can make many people feel ‘its not for me’. If you’ve never exercised before you’re unlikely to decide on the spur of the moment; to enquire, sign up and pay in the space of 15 minutes.

Operators need to consider a longer ‘hand holding process’. A lot more empathy is needed around why they may not make up their minds immediately – part of this will be financial too, as they may not know if they’ll even have a job next month, for instance. We need to show them what we have to offer, give them the best deal we can and then leave them a good few days to make up their mind before we start bombarding them with follow up messages.

Once the initial post-lockdown ‘bounce’ of new member acquisition fades away, do you think it will become easier or harder to acquire new members in future?

The bounce will only fade if we stop trying, innovating and listening to why customers are not getting what they want and leaving – there’s a huge population out there! There must be something to cater for everyone. How do we find out what that is and understand what they want? Let’s leave those who really don’t want to exercise within our facilities. Even if that’s 20% of the population, it still leaves us a huge market to target.

Most operators should make gains, as more people have exercise on their minds now it’s clear Covid has a worse impact on people who are less fit and healthy. But just as pre Covid, others will fail because of the customer experience.

Although we quote 85% of people not engaging with our sector, before Covid people were being active, they were just running, jogging or cycling etc, outside of our facilities, so I need to reinforce the message about engaging with the community outside of the four walls. If they interact with you one day a week or one day a month, even if that’s a Facebook message read or reacted to, they are still interacting in some way.

Why not simply share some exercises on social media that people can try next week? My daughter’s school sent home a six-week exercise programme for the holidays because they know children are generally less active at the moment. The school is interacting with every single one of their pupils and many of the parents too.

If 100 people saw your Facebook post and used it, they’re not necessarily traditional customers, but you’re still helping them. And next time they see an offer from you they may be more inclined to take part as you’ve given something they’ve valued for free. Plant your brand in people’s minds, so when they’re ready to purchase you’ll be the one they purchase from.

Do operators need to perform a root-and-branch reassessment of their engagement and retention strategies to ensure they are modern and fit-for-purpose?

Absolutely and continually. They should be listening to the 20% of members who turn up every day regardless, as well as creating a strategy around identifying behaviour change to flag up those whose visits are slowing down or those who are preparing to leave.

In the past, many operators were happy to have sleeper members, who generated a lot of revenue for no cost, and so were terrified to wake them. But I think Covid means customers are more aware of direct debits leaving their accounts now, and also wanting more flexibility in what they do decide to pay out for.

Previously, very few people drove past a gym or pool to get to another one for the experience it offered; they usually chose on location. Now that will have changed and people will differentiate through the experience.

They may pick multiple locations for different experiences and be happy to pay a premium to choose when, where and how they use a gym. For instance swimming at the leisure centre on a Monday, Spin studio Tuesday, lifting weights Friday and boot camp in the park on Saturday.

This is where I believe Hussle comes into play as it enables customers to try out different experiences and activities before potentially joining.

Thanks David

If you would like to speak to David about how he can support your fitness business growth, you can contact him on:


To find out more about how Hussle could provide you with a low-cost, new member joining channel, click here.