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Digital Deluge or Delusion

Is the Virtual World Becoming a Real Reality?

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Jeffrey PinkertonJeffrey Pinkerton

As the world cautiously reopens from a global shutdown, the future of fitness seems to be very much up for debate. With an influx of digital platform providers, the industry has been flooded by technology companies sponsoring virtual conferences, contributing to publications and hosting webcasts. It would appear that "everyone" is talking about digital fitness and the necessary and novel pivot of providing both live and digital fitness experiences for your members. It's hard to wade through the muck of the moment and think clearly about what the future might really look like. Maybe looking to other industries could shed some light on the road ahead.

In discussions that I have had with colleagues and customers, one common topic is the WFH (Work from Home) movement and companies that have shifted to move employees to "permanently" office from home. Yes, officing from home is the new term. And, I checked, WFH is a thing. This model provides more flexibility, more autonomy (for better or for worse), and with the right technology of Zoom, Teams, Slack and Chat, employees can still connect and collaborate just like the olden days... or so the theory goes.

However, this comparison has some serious flaws. A better comparison for the health club industry is to look at others in the service industry. One that immediately comes to mind is the airline industry. People are required to socially gather at airports, in terminals, in restaurants and in the plane itself. Traveling is largely about the overall experience and not the event of flying itself. In fact, many people are anxious flying but endure the situation because it is necessary to get where they want to go. But, what if the airline could alleviate some of the struggle and stress and deliver the same type of return and reward?

Enter the scene, Delta's new VFH (Vacation from Home) model, one that, according to their website, allows guests to, "enjoy the experience of travel virtually anytime, anywhere." It's an interesting concept that will open the virtual doors of the world to make travel accessible to anyone with an internet connection and a VR headset (available to rent for a small fee). The theory, at least according to the Reddit thread, is that with more people working from home and more people less inclined to gather in groups, people can experience and explore new parts of the world without the hassle of changing planes or changing time zones. No bags to pack. No airport security to endure. No currency to exchange. No crowds and no customs. The joy of travel without the anxiety of flying. You will even be able to upgrade your next staycation, and through the VFH Concierge Partners rumored to include names like UberEats, Rosetta Stone and Sony Entertainment, have culturally appropriate meals delivered to your door, schedule engaging cross-cultural, multi-language excursions and curate digital destinations that replicate real experiences from past travelers.

There are certainly a lot of unanswered questions about consumers' readiness to go on virtual vacations, but there are also some interesting opportunities. Could travel bloggers elevate their influence (and income) by becoming digital tour guides? Would this new business channel replace travel or simply provide a supplement allowing people to "travel" more? How will other industries pivot to invest in this (allegedly soon to be) emerging market? Does this all sound a little too outrageous? Like a too strange to be true April Fool's joke? That's because it is. Sorry to ruin your screen-cation hopes and dreams.

The role of digital fitness has dominated the collective conversation of the industry over the past few months. A year ago, the fitness industry needed digital solutions to meet the unexpected and unimaginable challenges of a global pandemic and mandated government closure. Without any real notice, doors were closed, and members needed a way to keep connected and keep moving. It would make sense that video fitness would experience an unprecedented growth when there was no alternative. However, fitness by video has been around for almost 40 years (and on demand virtual fitness providers for health clubs for over 10 years). Since 1982, people have been able to work out at home with a VHS tape and a TV. But, many chose to join a health club because of the social experience. Now, the videos are in high definition and the apparel is different, but you can still work out at home. Now, it's with a computer connected to the cloud. But, is the future of fitness video? After a year of Zoom meetings and Facetime family gatherings, the future is more screen-time? I don't buy it.

With vaccines steadily rolling out and government restrictions lifting, we believe that, more than ever, people will search out live, social, shared experiences. In fact, more people are already starting to travel. Were they inspired to travel somewhere new because of something they saw online? Possibly. Did photos and reviews online get them excited about their upcoming trip? Or, maybe even take out some of the fear and anxiety? Probably. Could it ever replace the actual event of leaving home, being with other people and sharing in an experience? Probably not. But... could it help inspire them and encourage them to take the first step on their journey? Most definitely.

People travel for some of the same reasons they work out... because the results are worth the effort. For some, it's a sense of adventure and accomplishment; for some, it's a way to escape, destress and relax; and, for others, it's as simple as having dedicated time to reset and regroup. Like traveling, a high-quality, live, social, group fitness experience can't and won't ever be replaced by a screen.

If you are looking for ways to reengage your members, reenergize your team and reboot and relaunch a high-quality member experience, we'd love to talk. Learn more at www.mossa.net.

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