When lockdowns were announced at the end of March as the spread of the coronavirus intensified, Enee Udo, an Olympic Gold medalist and Founder of Fitness Options, did not envision that it would drag on for months. Five months since then and business is only back to about 50% of what it was pre-COVID at its public and closed centres around Lagos. 

“We didn’t expect things to last this long,” Udo tells TechCabal. 

As with many activities, fitness sessions moved online although not quite quickly for most. This is because the success of physical gyms and personal trainers often rely on proximity to their clients. 

“Personal training implies something intimate. If they’ve had a bad day at work and come to train, it’s a different kind of session and if they’ve been happy all day, the session might be altered a little bit,” Udo says.

But the virtual world presented other challenges with physical fitness training.

“It is difficult to monitor and control the environment when you’re online,” says Udo and this can range from not being able to extricate them for half an hour from crawling toddlers to not being able to correct form when exercising or ensuring that the space is safe and free of potentially injurious items.  

However, what has posed the greatest challenge has been the thousands of YouTube videos, social media content, self-organised Zoom sessions or fitness apps providing these services at no cost. To keep up activities with clients during the better part of the last five months, Fitness Options has created specialised classes and courses during the lockdown which Udo says was successful in terms of interest and attendance. Business-wise, not many were willing to pay for these classes and sessions. 

Nonetheless, the potential of the virtual world to greatly impact the fitness industry is immense.  

Fitness in the pandemic 

Tari Solomon, a personal fitness trainer whose business took off as a result of the coronavirus pandemic says her first class was not so well attended. Like Udo, the inability to monitor exercise forms and other fitness parameters closely have been the most challenging aspects of trying to build a virtual fitness business. But the reach has been encouraging. More than half of her class attendees were out-of-state, people she would not have been able to reach if her classes were solely physical. 

ManyActive, a Kenyan Uber-for-wellness-type fitness startup, set to launch when the pandemic hit, causing them to pause and innovate faster than they would’ve. It is one of the platforms that have tried to help gyms and personal fitness/wellness service providers move their activities online and offers a promising revenue model. By aggregating fitness and wellness services around Nairobi, ManyActive proposes to reduce the monies lost by users via underutilised gym memberships.

“One of our users called Rasugu lives in an area known as Kileleshwa in Nairobi and works at an area known as Thika Road. Rasugu buys a gym membership near her house hoping to pop in in the mornings or in the evenings, however, for over six months she has only managed to attend the gym at most three times a month if she really tried,” co-founder Evalyn Oloo explains to TechCabal. 

With one subscription, someone like Rasugu, who is up early tending to her home or work and too tired in the evenings to be at the gym, can access a wide range of gym classes or personal trainers at her convenience. And she can do all these within her preferred vicinity without having to forfeit a gym membership payment that has not been fully utilised. 

In addition to these, she can also access yoga classes, spa services and even therapist appointments close to her through the ManyActive mobile app. A bouquet of physical and mental health services if you may. 

With subscription fees costing between US$25 to US$120 for 30 days, ManyActive’s rates are quite competitive compared to the average gym memberships in Nairobi — which costs anything from Ksh 3,000 to Ksh 13,000 (US$28 – US$122) or more for a month — especially when you consider that ManyActive’s monthly subscription can be used for a bundle of services. 

With the onset of the pandemic, the startup included video streaming and conferencing capabilities into its platform. Gym owners or personal fitness/wellness service providers can create or stream their classes and have users pay to access it via a 30-day subscription to ManyActive.

“A user can also opt for pay-as-you-go where they just pay for each booking they are making. This would however be more expensive than if they had a membership and paid through the access pass,” Oloo says. 

ManyActive receives a 14-20% revenue share depending on the volume the provider is processing.  The more transactions a service provider has, the lower the percentage the company earns and the more the commission that goes to the provider. 

The ManyActive business model is similar to ClassPass, another fitness company. Now present in 28 countries and having reached a US$1 billion valuation mark in January to become a unicorn, ClassPass offers a subscription-based bouquet of fitness classes to users who do not want to be restricted by monthly gym memberships that may or may not be utilised fully and offer no variety of exercise activities. On the other hand, ClassPass subscriptions increase the chances that gyms can fill up their class spots which would otherwise have incurred losses for being half-full. 

The potential downsides to subscription-based fitness

Discounted or digital subscription-based services like ManyActive often face a three-fold dilemma: maintaining fair and competitive rates for users, offering service providers commissions that are substantive to their businesses and finding the right revenue cut for their own coffers. 

Like ClassPass’ credit value system that allots the subscription fees into renewable credits for gym classes, when a ManyActive user pays for a membership subscription, the amount is turned into an access pass which they can use to book for their desired services until the amount is exhausted or the 30 day subscription timeframe expires. 

On questions about sustainability and finding the right balance between all three legs of the business to keep users and service providers satisfied as well as generate revenue for the business, Oloo says the variety of services users can access stands the ManyActive model out because various price points for the various services eventually balance each other out. Gyms, spas and other service providers can also utilise the opportunity to cross sell other exercise or wellness paraphernalia providing extra revenue sources for themselves.

To sweat it out on Zoom or with your gym buddies?

Given, many countries have lifted lockdowns and businesses are returning to some semblance of normalcy. But returning to gyms is a bit dicey because bodily fluids and shared equipment can be a very quick way to transfer disease-causing germs. While experts say lots of sanitising, social distancing and even more sanitising of equipment surfaces and handles (particularly the dicey crannies) can help, there is a chance that a lot of fitness enthusiasts might still opt to continue with their free YouTube classes at home for the time being. 

“Yes, you could say that,” Oloo agrees, “But what we’ve seen is that people still yearn for a personal connection or a personal touch.”

“For example, while I can follow a YouTube video and break a sweat, you can’t compare it to an interactive Zoom session with a trainer.”

ManyActive went live in August and has over 150 service providers (80% of which are personal providers) and 200+ users at the moment. Oloo says it is the first of its kind in Kenya and they hope to launch in Nigeria sometime in the future. They are also adding telemedicine and mental health consultation services to offer users real value for their money when they subscribe to the platform. 

According to Udo, the future of the fitness industry will be a mix of physical and virtual attributes but there must be a lot of thought towards what this innovation looks like in a way that ensures revenue generation. And this is what he is now trying to work out with his staff. 

Overall, as more people ease into daily life amidst the pandemic, confidence to return to the gyms, as with churches, markets and work, will increase. Physical gyms will only now have to review their operations to incorporate safety measures prescribed by the state government and health regulators.  But in the meantime, fitness may largely remain online and startups are positioning themselves for the opportunity it brings.

Kay Ugwuede Author

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