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Activism at Virgin Active

With its clubs now re-open, Virgin Active UK is unveiling a series of signature group exercise concepts, including new cycle classes created by cycle ‘activist’ Sarah-Jane Aboboto. She gives us a sneak preview.
Published 8. September 2021

Hot off the heels of a restructuring plan approved in May, Virgin Active is coming out all guns blazing in getting its clubs ready to welcome back members. There’s new equipment, hints at upcoming new launches and a raft of new programming – led by specially recruited ‘activists’ – across what it terms the ‘big five’ of group exercise: indoor cycle, yoga, reformer pilates, athletic training and boxing.

“If you consider the word ‘activist’, it means someone who brings about change,” explains Caroline Macklin, head of brand for Virgin Active. “We’ve listened to our members, upped our game and hired the best of the best to channel their vast knowledge into bringing about change in our group exercise offering.”

Sarah-Jane (SJ) Aboboto is the cycling ‘activist’ for Virgin Active in the UK

“In other companies, you have a head of group exercise,” adds SJ Aboboto, Virgin Active’s cycle activist. “Virgin Active has done things differently, bringing in expert instructors to each dedicate themselves to one of the ‘big five’ disciplines. It’s about getting the very best out of each product, raising things to an experiential level that heightens member satisfaction and encourages people to try new things and mix up their workout routines.”

Here, Aboboto tells us about the new group cycle programmes she’s created for Virgin Active, with a roll-out that starts this month.

MOVE – which will launch in the coming months – is all about choreography and cycling to the beat

What’s the rationale behind the new programming?

We’ve set out to define who we are – to define the Virgin Active experience across all our disciplines – so whichever club you go to, you know exactly what you’re going to get.

Within that, it’s important that the experience is unique to us – that we own the product and are able to keep evolving it – so each activist has been busy creating signature classes that bring the boutique studio experience into our clubs.

“We’ve set out to define who we are, so whichever of our clubs you go to, you know exactly what you’re going to get”

What this means is that, while instructors of course inject their unique energy and personality into their classes, the formats themselves will now be consistent – and classes of a consistently high quality – across all our clubs and studios.

This is an important change from where we’ve been up until now. In cycle, for example, all classes have historically just been called Group Cycle, with the style and format varying from instructor to instructor. Our new programmes will ensure a consistent, and consistently great, member experience.

What cycle concepts have you created?

I’ve designed four new signature classes: MOVE, TEMPO, POWER and PRO.

MOVE is a boutique-style concept that’s all about cycling to the beat: lots of choreography, upper body and weights. We don’t use the console at all in this class.

POWER is a performance-based class that’s similar to outdoor cycling, with an emphasis on technique and moving in and out of the saddle. The console is very important in this class, focusing on data as you push towards benchmarks and goals.

“I’ve had lots of instructors initially tell me ‘I only instruct power’, but by the time they’ve done the training, 90% have changed their minds”

TEMPO is a hybrid class that fuses power and rhythm cycling: some sections are simply to the beat, others are more focused on the console. There’s an option of upper body movement, but it’s more basic than in MOVE and if it isn’t your thing, that’s cool – just ride.

And then PRO is all about a connection between the bikes and a big screen at the front of class, with a heavy focus on data.

Each class has a blueprint, a journey to follow, with instructors able to inject their own musical choices onto this. Anyone wanting more guidance can access monthly templates with suggested music tracks – mixing genres, tempos and RPMs so there’s something for everyone – and more details on choreography.

What does this variety achieve?

First of all, it’s about inspiring new people into cycling, as well as keeping existing cycle fans happy with different styles of class: some like data and pushing themselves hard, others like to be distracted from the workout with music, choreography and upper body work. You have to ensure there’s something for everyone.

It’s also about ensuring instructors are happy, with a class style that fits the way they like to teach. If we want to deliver the best possible experience for members, they must be comfortable with what they’re teaching.

TEMPO is part of this month’s eight-club launch. It will then roll out across the estate.

That said, the training process has been really interesting. I’ve had lots of instructors initially tell me ‘I only instruct power’, but by the time they’ve done the training – I train everyone in both programmes – 90 per cent have changed their minds.

Even if they don’t teach both, it’s really important to have a knowledge of both programmes, to answer member questions and to understand there’s no right or wrong. As long as everything you do on the bike is safe and has a purpose, it will bring something to the workout.

For example, the upper body weight track is something a lot of people question, because the weights aren’t heavy and the wattage not high. That’s true, but it brings fun, rhythm and co-ordination. It has its own benefits, so I’m keen that everyone is educated across all formats.

Really, my advice for members and instructors is the same: Just come and try it!

Tell us more about the training.

Even if you instruct at Virgin Active already, these are new products, so we’re supporting instructors with two weeks of e-learning followed by four weeks of face-to-face practicals and webinars. Finally, before go-live, there’s an assessment where you deliver a 20-minute ride including intro and outro.

“I constantly have an eye on how I want to evolve the product – where we can take it, what trends we can explore, what trends we can create”

We also take instructors to our Aldersgate club, our first full-experience studio, to get a real sense of how an immersive boutique experience should feel for our members.

Alongside this, we’re also developing our own Level 2 indoor cycle qualification, which we’ll release in Q4 of this year and run through The Virgin Active Academy at our Mansion House head office.

What’s the roll-out plan?

We’re initially launching TEMPO and POWER, with MOVE and PRO to follow shortly after.

TEMPO and POWER will launch in eight clubs this month and then roll out from there. In the classes I’ve been instructing recently, I’ve effectively been instructing TEMPO and I’ve had amazing feedback, but it’s still been under the Group Cycle label.

Launching this month, POWER is a performance-based class with an emphasis on technique

How about online classes?

We have a purpose-built studio at Mansion House where throughout lockdown, us activists have been filming classes for Virgin Active’s app; I’ve been doing cycle and dance.

This started during lockdown, but digital content was always part of our strategy and feedback from our members has been really positive. Club+ members have access to all our digital content included in their membership. Online+ members can get a free 30-day trial and then pay £9.99 a month, or £99.99 for 12 months upfront, which also gives them access to club passes: monthly Online+ membership gives you one club pass, an annual package gives you four, and you can buy more to suit your lifestyle.

We’re trying to provide complete flexibility in how people work out with us.

What does your typical day look like?

It’s totally different every day. I design programmes, instruct live classes, film on-demand content, run masterclasses, upskill instructors, develop the core team and nurture members who want to become instructors. I support clubs in achieving good levels of occupancy, retention and experience. And, of course, I constantly have an eye on how I want to evolve the product – where we can take it, what trends we can explore, what trends we can create. It’s a busy role!

“Music should be a driving force across all products, not just rhythm cycling but power-based classes too”

What’s your secret for a great class?

When you’re cycling outdoors, you have the scenery to inspire you. In the studio, it’s all down to the instructor and the music.

Music should be a driving force across all products, not just rhythm cycling but power-based classes too. Get it right and it enhances performance as well as the experience: your body naturally matches itself to the beat.

Music is an energising force and it sits at the heart of every great class.

Published 8. September 2021


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