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In a career spanning 25-years in the fitness industry, Paul Woodford has held senior roles at DC Leisure and OTB Group.  He is now Director of Marketing and Partnerships at TA6 – the marketing and training brand of Alliance Leisure Services, providing impactful branding, sales, marketing and customer engagement services to over 300 leisure facilities across the UK. 

During his career, Paul has seen countless marketing trends come and go, and been involved in some of the sector’s biggest campaigns, including the ‘Make the Comeback Campaign’ offered by CIMPSA to its members following Lockdowns

The Side Hussle picked Paul’s brains on how he sees the challenging post-Covid landscape panning out, and how he believes operators should tackle the new different, rather than the new normal.

Paul, what sales and marketing challenges do you see gym operators facing during the next 12-months as the UK recovers post-pandemic?

Changing, developing, growing and moving your sales and marketing on will be crucial; operators who just go back to their pre-Covid acquisition strategies are going to struggle and even fail.

The fitness sales marketplace has changed dramatically; consumers have had more than a year to reflect on where they direct their spend, if indeed they direct it our way at all.

For too long our sector has focused on short term, price-led promotions to drive interest. It’s time to step up and develop brand-led, inspiring campaigns that focus on why your facility is the right fit for the target market you’re trying to attract.

Think of your brand as a person, with a clear personality and passion. Your brand values are like that person’s DNA – the commitments they live by. Your brand vision is what drives and defines that passion; use this vision to create the energy and clarity your team need to deliver.

For operators who wish to revisit their brand, where should they begin?

When we build/develop brands we focus on vision, mission, goals, values, commitments and messages. We use these triggers:

  1. The Why – what’s your purpose? What impact do you want to have? Who are you aiming your offer at?
    2. The What and the How – this is all about your venues and your products … what you offer, and your people and your pricing
    3. Identity and Personality – what’s the essence of your brand? What are your core values? These needs to be relatable, believable and unique to you
    4. Tone of voice – what emotions and passions are you looking to evoke in your customers with your messaging?

The key here is to ask: does your brand make a difference to customers’ wellbeing? Your facility is just one element of your product that contributes, but there is so much more you can offer. Customers need to feel they are part of something bigger than just a club.

The marketplace is noisy and marketing spend is lower than ever. Rather than the ‘outside to in’ marketing approach most take, focus on an ‘inside to out’ campaign, using real member stories to inspire new customers, using your community as a lure.

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

Consumers have so much more choice on where and how to be physically active now. Since the pandemic, quality at-home fitness options have proliferated and venues have upped their game to attract customers back to bricks and mortar facilities in person.

On top of this, as reopening continues and ‘Freedom Day’ has now arrived, people’s lives are busier than ever. Consumers want flexibility and fitness options that fit seamlessly into their schedule.

The key here, therefore, is to forget ‘normal’. Of course, a high percentage of people will want to get back to pre-Covid normality, but expectations have changed and operators need to change with them. Standing still isn’t healthy, evolving is.

Going back to the way you were before will of course reassure customers that were previously engaged, but be honest, how many of these have left?

I’m working with more than 60 operators on their post-Covid proposition – the key message I have given each one is don’t be delusional about how great everything was before.  Delve deep into your brand, be crystal clear on who and what you are.

If you previously accepted a high percentage of sleepers, now’s the time to stop. Were you obsessed with promotion/offer-led marketing?

Now is the time for truly inspiring campaigns – the new different, not the new normal. Embrace the things you’ve put off, be brave on pricing and customer engagement strategies, empower your teams by brand-led standards and invest in targeted, data-driven marketing campaigns.

Lastly, work hard to create an engaged community who see your value. Poor customer engagement when people join won’t cut it anymore. Start with a solid customer engagement strategy that flows from enquiry handling, to purchasing, to onboarding.

From here you need strong bespoke customer pathways; your priority is to deliver incredible service when customers are with you, so you can you make a difference to their lives when they’re not.

In five-years’ time, do you think the sector will look back on 2020 as a year that damaged us irreparably accelerator much-needed innovation?

Our sector was fundamentally broken before Covid. We accepted, even embraced, high levels of sleepers. Customer engagement strategies were, generally speaking, tokenistic, and we were obsessed with price-led offers for acquisition.

If we learn and adapt, we will see this year as the shot in the arm we needed; a very painful shot maybe, but something that inspired our sector to put the customer central to our business. If we don’t embrace these lessons, then the in-club offer as we know it could well be under threat.

Do you think there will be a segment of gym operators that will make significant market share gains in post-Covid and, likewise, do you think there’s an operator segment likely to decrease in market share?

The effect on market share from budget gyms had already happened for most of our clients. Over the last few years, the mid-level market has been squeezed hard by the prolific growth of low-cost chains, but we’re not seeing any evidence that they’re gaining even more from the lockdown impact.

Our advice for operators that sit in this mid-price bracket – both pre-pandemic and now – is to focus on the differentials and come out fighting; it’s your time to gain back market share. The key is having facilities that compete and, above all, gold standard service delivery.

Your brand needs to provide exceptional service and your people need a passion to engage. Your customers need to see that for £20 per month they get a cold and soulless budget gym; for slightly more they get staff that care and a facility that offers them a cut above.

Your brand needs to have complete clarity on where it sits within the market, who your target markets is for each of your products and how you adapt your approach to suit the clients you attract.

Be totally clear on who you’re targeting. It’s impossible to market to everyone.