“Across the fitness sector, the advent of the boutique studios has forced big box gyms to up their game,“ says Rick Crawford, head of fitness at Nuffield Health, the UK’s leading not-for-profit healthcare organisation. “The boutiques threw a spotlight on the weaknesses of the larger operators, highlighting where they simply weren’t up to scratch when it came to group exercise.
“In terms of cycling, for example, it’s no longer enough to have a group of bikes in a traditional studio. That isn’t what people want. What people are looking for now is an immersive experience.
“In fact, thanks to the boutiques, this isn’t just what they’re looking for. It’s what they now expect. If we don’t have the right product in our gyms, our members want to know why.“
He continues: “All that said, our innovation in this area hasn’t been a knee-jerk response to the boutiques. Cycling has long been our most popular group exercise class at Nuffield Health: across our 112 consumer clubs, it accounts for around 15 per cent of all classes – that’s over 2,000 group cycle classes each week. Within this, we’ve always placed huge importance on staying ahead of the game.
“We were one of the first operators in the UK to introduce the concept of wattage onto gym floors, for example, working with Wattbike. Now everyone has it, but when we started five or 10 years ago, people were joining our clubs especially for this. Cycling as a whole was enjoying a boom, driven by the likes of Team GB’s Olympic success, and there was suddenly a demand for science to be brought to indoor cycling: wattage, marginal gains, technique to maximise power. A new generation of indoor bikes that far more accurately replicated the experience of riding outdoors only added to this momentum. And what we were doing at Nuffield Health met all those needs, allowing cycling enthusiasts to train with us in a way that complemented what they were doing outdoors.“
gym floors aren’t just about equipment. they’re about experience and social connection
Nuffield Health’s gym floor model has since continued to evolve, as Crawford explains: “We’ve made ongoing investments in transforming our fitness spaces, adopting new layouts that encourage people to find the experiences that best suit them.
“Within that, there’s a big focus on creating different zones: cycling, rowing, running. We did our first ever zone – which was a cycling zone – around seven years ago and now we’re creating them in every club we can, because gym floors are no longer just about equipment. They’re about the experience too, and about social connection. People don’t want to train alone any more.
“Each cycle zone holds between three and eight bikes – typically Wattbike or Technogym’s Skillbike – and can be used for individual training. However, the primary focus is small group training, with typically three or four instructor-led sessions on offer every day. These classes are built around the training modalities of speed, stamina and power, with all of the data from the bikes projected onto a big screen.“
He adds: “To work to their full potential, the zones need human interaction. That’s why small group training is so key. But the other vital aspect is the need to offer a variety of class types to appeal to different members. Gym floor classes are a great way to get new people to try cycling, so while all the technique and data-focused classes appeal to cycling enthusiasts, we also offer things like HIIT classes for those who just want a workout that will burn through the calories.“
You can’t just do one standard cycling class and expect it to appeal to everyone
This diversity of class offering has also extended into Nuffield Health’s group exercise studios, by way of its NuCycle portfolio of programming. Originally launched in 2017, NuCycle will be available in around 40 of Nuffield Health’s clubs – both consumer and corporate – by the end of 2019.
“Cycling needs to do fitness, performance and exertainment,“ explains Crawford, as an introduction to the NuCycle concept. “You can’t just do one standard fitness cycling class and expect it to appeal to everyone. You need a breadth of classes for different types of customer.
“Based on customer research, we came up with six distinct programmes that were not only deemed ‘cool’, but that were also inclusive – very important for an operator like Nuffield Health, where 45 per cent of the membership is aged over 55 years.
“All six programmes are available in all clubs with NuCycle, and start with NuCycle Edge at the performance end of the scale. This class is all about data, efficiency, power, heart rate, competition.
“Then there’s Les Mills’ SPRINT, a 30-minute HIIT class on a bike that’s ideal for anyone looking for an intense workout in a shorter timeframe. Les Mills’ RPM is also in the mix, catering for members who want a traditional fitness cycling class.
“And then we have NuCycle Rhythm, which is most easily explained by comparing it to SoulCycle. We turn off all data, all power monitoring, and there’s no hint of competition. Instead, it’s all about fun, great music, an enjoyable 45–60 minutes of cycling. It’s entertainment. This is where the growth is, attracting new audiences who just want to have fun.“
He continues: “The final two classes are NuCycle Baseline and NuCycle Escape. Baseline is there to onboard beginners, getting them familiar with the product – it’s a great, inclusive way of getting people started. But equally importantly, Baseline involves a fitness test. If you’re going to do training that’s based on power, intensity and threshold, you need to do a fitness test to know where you stand. Baseline is therefore worth doing periodically too, to see how you’re progressing.
“Finally, NuCycle Escape is virtual cycling: virtual classes led by an instructor, as well as Les Mills’ immersive experience THE TRIP. This is a great category for so many reasons: you can run it all day if you need to, which means far less dead time in your studios; it attracts beginners because it’s less intimidating; and in our corporate sites especially, where people might be on shifts that mean they can’t come to live classes, it means members get to train with the world’s best instructors – even at very much off-peak times.
“Interestingly, we’re finding Escape also helps us fine-tune our schedules. At one of our big corporate sites, for example, we found so many people coming in for a 3.00pm cycling class that we’ve now turned it into a live instructor-led class.“
Linking all of these distinct programmes together, the NuCycle umbrella brand is important, says Crawford: “It’s not often that Nuffield Health allows for sub-brands to be created, but the business absolutely saw the value of this when it came to NuCycle.
“In a way, it goes back to the boutiques. It was important to create an identity for our cycling offering, with a coolness about it that would stand out in the market.
Nucycle is definitely one of the coolest things we’ve done over recent years
“And NuCycle is definitely one of the coolest things we’ve done over recent years – not just the programming, but the studios too. We’ve worked with AV specialists to install fantastic sound systems, plus lighting that responds to the music and the workout intensity. Design has gone far beyond the traditional wooden floors and mirrors too, with inspiration coming from all sorts of unusual sources. Some of our studios make you feel like you’re cycling on the road, for example, with hi-vis strips running down the walls and dark floors that look like tarmac.
“It all comes together to create a fun, flexible environment that allows our instructors to deliver great classes.“
Speaking of instructors, has Nuffield Health found the types of instructor they recruit changing in response to the new class formats? “Certainly different instructors perform better in different types of class,“ agrees Crawford.
“Edge, for example, requires someone who’s very technique-focused and data-savvy, while Rhythm needs the instructor to be an entertainer. We’re proactively going round our teams looking for highly interactive individuals, who we then train up to be cycling instructors for our Rhythm classes.“
He adds: “I’d actually love all of our fitness staff to be teaching group exercise, whether small group training or studio classes. In my view, while personal training is still important, the days are gone when you could say ‘I only do one-to-one’. One-to-many is the way things have to be now. All trainers need this skillset.“
So how has NuCycle performed so far? “Exceptionally well,“ says Crawford. “In all the clubs where it’s launched, we’ve seen our Net Promoter Scores rise, the number of leavers fall and the number of new joiners increase, with great feedback from staff and members alike. But it’s not just about member satisfaction – we’ve also seen cycling class occupancy levels go up by around 14 per cent.
“Unsurprisingly, then, all the other clubs in our estate are keen to have NuCycle too. We’re looking at how we can roll it out to as many sites as possible over the next few years.
“It’s also entirely possible that we’ll expand the programming choices within NuCycle. There’s so much we could do here, and this is only going to grow as the fitness demographic continues to segment, with ever more diverse needs that have to be met. Provided we’re able to tap in to a large enough group of members, with a compelling proposition that’s relevant to them and that delivers good outcomes, I see huge scope to launch new classes.
“I can easily see how we might introduce a meditative NuCycle class, for example, targeting emotional wellbeing – this is a huge focus for us at Nuffield Health, where we will have an emotional wellbeing expert in every club by the end of next year. We could have NuCycle Recovery. We could have a joint pain class. We could have a NuCycle class for those with diabetes. We could do something even more targeted around active ageing, as cycling is great for this audience: non-weight bearing, fun and social.“
He adds: “With our medical expertise and direct links to Nuffield Health hospitals, we could work with physios to create programmes for pre- and post-operative patients too. This is where live streaming technology could even come in, putting our classes direct into patients’ homes.
“While we aren’t currently looking at implementing these ideas, there are so many possibilities. I’m always looking for the next thing to ensure we keep up with customer demand across all segments of the population.
It’s all about content nowadays, making your content available digitally
“In fact, as a charitable organisation, one of Nuffield Health’s key principles is social impact: how we can reach more of the people who need us. And in this respect, in this digital era, it’s all about content. Not everyone wants to come to a gym, so you have to look at how you can make your content available digitally. Of course, there are only so many new initiatives you can introduce at any one time, but this is definitely something I would like to do.“
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