Is Today's Fitness Industry The Next Typewriter?

Posted: 23rd May 2016


My grandad fixed typewriters for a living. He was very good at it, they were intricate machines, and in the 1970s and 1980s with so many businesses needing efficient typing pools, he was always in demand. That is of course until the computer revolution kicked in. He battled on anyway, even as the number of people using typewriters dwindled. His house was full of old typewriters that he used for harvesting spare parts once he was no longer able to buy them from manufacturers when they stopped making them. The smell of ink and heavy metal is one I will always associate with his home when I was growing up. He was never a great fan of computers and, of course, I can understand why. But it was only relatively recently I realised it wasn’t so much the widespread adoption of the computer, but in fact the printer, which changed his life. The laser printer in my office can turn out a sheet of high quality print a second. And if I notice I made a mistake, I curse (out loud), throw it in the recycling bin, make my correction and print the page again. What typing pool?

Technology is disrupting the way of business for other industries too...

  • In March 2015 there were 9.6 million log-ins to internet banking a day, a 10% increase on a year before (Source: BBA).
  • According to a 2015 TripAdvisor survey 72% of British travelers (65% globally) booked their last trip online (Source: TripAdvisor)

What happened to the travel agent?

We are also starting to notice a shift in the way that people are interacting with health and care services, seeking health information, booking appointments, choosing services and taking steps to look after themselves better. 49% of UK adults access health information online and NHS Choices receives about 27 million unique visits every month. (Source: NHS England)

Last Thursday, Sport England published it’s eagerly-awaited strategy for increasing participation in sport and physical activity in England. It’s an ambitious plan, it’s well thought through and I like it. As a Behavioural Economist I think it’s great to see them continuing to embrace behavioural science as an approach to get more people more active, and there’s a lot I already admire about their “This Girl Can” campaign. But I wonder if they are underestimating the impact digital transformation will have on the sector (in both contributing and detracting ways) giving it just a couple of mentions and in the context of the way the digital world is right now rather than what it will become. Things might look a bit different in 5 years’ time.

Do you remember ITV’s Britain on the Move campaign to get the nation moving? Back in 2003/2004 They distributed literally hundreds of thousands of small, cheap, simple step meters. They were the kind of cheap device that might or might not work or that you would use for a week but then forget and find in a drawer of random crap a few years later. But things have moved on a little since then. We might not (yet) have available to us the most sophisticated, reliable, accurate wearable monitoring systems, but they are coming. There has been a boom in the wearable fitness market and consumer interest is growing. The global CES2016 show (and CES2015 too) highlighted wearable fitness monitoring as one of the biggest consumer trends to watch. Already the market is full of FitBits, FitBugs, Garmins, Polars, Jawbones, Apple and Samsung smart watches, and more. Reflecting health and activity insight back to us might motivate and nudge us to change our behaviour because we are curious creatures and being able to get an instant stream of continuous feedback and data about ourselves is both fascinating and indulgent.

Very soon the device on your wrist and the smart phone in your pocket (or the smart clothing you are wearing) is going to know more about you, your lifestyle, your behavior, your goals and your progress than any fitness instructor could. Soon these devices will be able to coach us right back in a highly personalised way. That means we will be able to buy ongoing highly-tailored and intelligent personal ‘coaching’ and live monitoring/feedback for the same price or less as a gym induction, a month’s gym membership and a single one-to-one session with an instructor. Is the health and fitness sector ready for this?

Think for a moment about libraries. I love libraries. I love the smell of the books, the silence, the calm spaces. Many are based in beautiful old buildings, often funded by wealthy philanthropists who had an honest desire to further education in towns and communities. They represent an earnestness to gain and share knowledge, to learn and find inspiration. But they aren’t about books. We associate books with libraries because it’s how we used to share knowledge. Books were expensive, and while ordinary people couldn’t afford to buy them they could read them in the library, or loan them for a short time. Advances in printing technology lowered the cost of books and people started buying their own. Then along came the internet with access to just about any information you could wish to find, all from the pushes of a few buttons. Libraries are about information, not books, but we still seem to think they are about books, and they are closing fast, considered a relic of the way we used to do things. Those that have remained viable are the ones which have been reinvented to embrace modern trends and behaviour and provide a more diverse suite of information and services.

Closed Public Library

Let’s go back to what happened to the travel agent. I guess many of them had to find something else to do, but there are two groups who survived. The first are the impersonal, super-cheap operators, those who process volume, pack us in, move us fast and compete on the edges of price. The product is still good but they cut, they bargain, they strip and they outsource to the lowest bidder. They are caught in an ever tighter downward spiral to compete on price to the mass market; a race to the bottom.

The other group that is thriving is the specialist, offering tailor-made trips for the luxury traveler, with in-depth insider knowledge, uncovering incredible hidden experiences and providing thoughtful personal touches. They are in the race to the top, levering demand by adding value and offering services their customers want and can’t get anywhere else, for a price.

If you are a health and fitness operator, it’s time to choose a race...

[Note: Author and blogger Seth Godin says, “the problem with the race to the bottom is that you might win. Or worse, come second!”]


Some Questions:

  • What do you think the future of the health and fitness industry will look like?
  • How do you think any changes will re-shape the workforce?
  • What training and development needs will the workforce have to help them meet these changes?
  • What will happen if we do nothing?


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