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As Director of Membership and Sector Development at ukactive, Steven Scales leads the organisation’s relationship with its members and is responsible for all aspects of the member experience, marketing, events and campaigns, as well as executive ownership for a wide range of programmes that support the ongoing development of the sector.

These programmes include infrastructure, health, inclusion, digital and children and young people. Steve also leads a number of key stakeholder relationships including with the members, Sport England, the NHS and other strategic private and public industry partner organisations

The Side Hussle picked Steven’s brains on what he sees as the main challenges for gym operators over the next 12-months as the UK recovers post-COVID and how he feels the sector must evolve.

“Whilst the market recovers from a truly unpredictable year, two historic challenges will remain – understanding of the consumer and the ability to retain them.”

“The rhythm of the sector – peak January sales, September spikes and traditional seasonal offers to incentivise – is way off kilter.”

“Each and every operator, thanks to limitations placed on opening, enforced closures and footfall restrictions, isn’t just on a break from the norm; they are, as each day passes, building a completely different path to walk on.”

“Now isn’t the time to listen to the commentary; operators must use quantitive and qualitative insight to understand their customer base. That customer base will inevitably evolve, but remember, very rarely is a brand all things to all people. The operation you’re providing – your brand, workforce, programming, environment, destination – it all comes together to form your USP.”

“Is now the time to focus on ‘getting back to normal’?  Or time for operators to ‘try to reinvent themselves’?  Without being too philosophical, the answer to this is about the decision maker’s ability to maintain a level of perspective. What I mean by that is perspective around who their target customers are.”

“To continually improve requires neither a whole scale reinvention or sticking to ‘normal’. If you feel you must reinvent, why is this? An evolving customer base? Poor processes? New markets? Unless as a business owner you are aware of where you can improve, and importantly why you should do it (without bias) a reinvention could lead to a recurrence of the problems that made reinvention a necessity.”

Shared vulnerability
“In five-years’ time, I believe the sector will look back on 2020 as an accelerator for much-needed change and innovation. A key driver for this is the shared position of vulnerability.”

“Every operator, regardless of sector channel, has been in exactly same position. Of course access to capital and funds differ, but across the board the ability to change and adapt, paired with collaboration at the right times, has been the difference between significant success and failure.”

“Shared vulnerability allows us to learn and improve and has improved significantly during the pandemic, for natural reasons. It will be easy for the sector to revert to type, however, and this is one fallout from COVID I’m hoping will remain.”

“The legacy of 2020 will be a much clearer definition of opertors’ market position. Everyone has stronger contingency plans and has checked every single detail on insurance documents. There’s more clarity on rental and asset finance terms, and a better awareness of the means of the business.”

“There will inevitably be an opportunity for some to capitalise on the emerging post-COVID market, but it will all come down to a clear product and proposition.

“I think which operators make market share gains won’t come down to their sector channel, it’ll be about how people’s behaviours change now restrictions are loosened. How operators that rely heavily on a travelling working population will fare remains largely unknown, for example, whereas we can already see operators in residential areas benefitting from pandemic-related change.”

“The key is really understanding the needs and expectations of your current customers as well as the needs and expectations of those you wish to acquire.”

“The threats posed to bricks and mortar gyms don’t necessarily come from new trends created during the pandemic though; those trends are only a threat if a business can’t evolve to remain valuable to a customer.”

“For example, personally I have a Netflix account, but I go to the cinema. I have a Peloton subscription and a Crossfit membership. It’s about where I chose to spend my money.”

“To explain further, regardless of knowing better(!), I didn’t train as regularly as I could have pre pandemic. I only used my Crossfit gym of about five times a month, but didn’t cancel, mainly because I told myself next week or next month I’d have time to use it more.”

“Flash forward to now, I have began to use it more, but my activity levels have been increased by supplementing my activity with convenient, low price point additions. They haven’t replaced my gym, they’ve made me appreciate it more!”