Tag: Europe

Selling normality in Ukraine

Tell us about your club

Formula Wellness & Spa is a large and beautiful club right in the heart of Odessa. It’s a very interesting building architecturally, as it was a theatre until it opened as a health club and spa in March 2006. It was also the first club of its kind in Odessa, with such a wide range of facilities all under one roof, spread over three floors and around 4,500sq m.

We have a 25m swimming pool, a gym and over 30 types of group exercise class, from HIIT to indoor cycling, dance to pilates, TRX to aqua classes. There are also dedicated yoga and CrossFit studios, two squash courts and a fitness café. Alongside this is a separate spa zone with a Turkish steamroom, Finnish sauna and a salt room, as well as spa treatments including medical treatments conducted by doctors.

“Indoor cycling isn’t a big thing yet in Ukraine, but it’s working well for us. Before the war, our cycling classes were waitlisted”

Our members typically live, work or go to school nearby and it’s a very family-orientated club: the average age of our members is around 45 years, as parents come with their children of various ages, many of whom go on to become adult members themselves. Membership, including access to all facilities, costs €1,000 a year.

Sauna
The spa centre and the pool only re-opened in October 2022

How popular is indoor cycling?

Indoor cycling is fairly new at our club – we only introduced it about two years ago – but it’s my favourite group exercise class because the results are amazing. 

Indoor cycling isn’t a big thing yet in Ukraine and it’s quite unusual for clubs in Odessa to offer it; there are only one or two that do. Even in Kyiv, only a few clubs offer indoor cycling classes. 

It’s working really well for us, though. At first, our members were unsure about it: they worried it would be too hard a workout. But then a few people tried it and enjoyed it and the word spread. Before the war, it had got to the point that our cycling classes were waitlisted. We were really proud of that.

Dead weight lift fitness studio Ukraine
Formula was the first club in Ukraine to offer so much under one roof

How has the war impacted your club?

The war has brought a lot of changes. When it started, we had to close our club for three months and stop all our activities. It was only at the beginning of June that we decided to slowly start back up again, with our swimming pool and spa centre only re-opening in October. We’re still offering less group exercise at the moment: around 25 per cent of our usual class schedule. 

In terms of our membership, before the war we had 1,500 members and we welcomed around 450 people a day. Now we have 1,000 members and maximum 200 visits a day. 

Of those 1,000 members, around 70 per cent were our members before the war. The other 30 per cent have either moved over from other local clubs – Odessa might be safer than other parts of the country, but it isn’t 100 per cent safe and many clubs are still closed – or else they’re people who have relocated to Odessa from hotspots of the war, moving to our city for its relative safety.

What we are seeing, though, is that people aren’t committing to annual memberships any more, or even six-month memberships. They’re buying a month, maybe three months at a time – sometimes even just two weeks. 

Pool area in Ukraine formula wellness
Formula Wellness & Spa occupies an interesting building in the heart of Odessa that used to be a theatre

How close to the fighting are you?

Odessa hasn’t been one of the war’s main hotspots so far, but some of our members and team members have gone to the front to fight. It’s impossible to contact them or know where or how they are, but we’re incredibly proud of them and hope they will return safely so we can thank them for their bravery.

There have been times when the war has come very close, though. On 23 July, rockets attacked the sea port right in the centre of Odessa. It was like a horror film. There were fortunately no victims, but children were crying, people were running everywhere, our team members couldn’t remember what to do – where to take our members to ensure they were safe – even though we’d built a shelter on the ground floor of the club before we re-opened. It was the first time any of us had experienced anything like this and people panicked. It was an important lesson in embedding our safety procedures.

“People aren’t committing to annual memberships any more. They’re buying a month or three months at a time – sometimes just two weeks”

Now, I actually feel safer at work than I do at home – ours is a big, strong building with a shelter, which I don’t have at home – but as we speak, the last few days have still been horrible, as our city has been under constant drone attack.

Even now, I find it so hard to believe all this is really happening. I feel like I’m watching a movie, or else I wake up in the morning and feel like it must all have been a bad dream.

Baby swimming
Formula is a family-focused club, with parents bringing children of all ages

Why re-open Formula so soon?

Choosing to start things back up again was the hardest thing we’ve done, and we thought about it for a long time before we actually did it. We didn’t know how many of our members were left in Odessa, because when the war came, many of those who had a chance to move out of Ukraine did so. We also didn’t know how willing people would be to spend their money on fitness.

“No matter what happens now, I will stay here with my team. This is my country and I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

So, we didn’t know if we’d have enough money to pay our team’s salaries or our utility bills. Choosing to re-open could have been more damaging to our brand and our business than staying closed until things were more stable.

We also have a smaller team now as some people have moved away – as indeed I did for a while. I’m a single mother with two children and I was afraid, so initially I moved to Moldova to escape the war. However, I came back when we decided to re-open the club. No matter what happens now, I will stay here with my team. This is my country and I don’t want to be anywhere else.

And honestly, our team has been fantastic. The most positive thing to come out of all this was their response when we told them we were going to re-open. We asked who was ready to work and everyone who was still in Odessa said yes. 

Additionally, not one of them asked about salary. They just wanted to know the schedule and how they could help get Formula up and running again. They’ve been so dedicated and have worked so hard to make re-opening possible. Everyone tells me they’ve really missed having a routine, going to work and speaking to colleagues and members. People are working for the pleasure of feeling normal again.

Our members also tell us they’re so glad we’re open. People need to do something with their stress at the moment, and fitness and sport are the best possible things for this.

“Everyone tells me they’ve really missed having a routine. People are working for the pleasure of feeling normal again.”

Will the war change things forever?

I’ve been at Formula for 13 years now and I can confidently say our club won’t change as a result of the war. We’re confident the business will come back. People need to do familiar things. They need to deal with stress. Our members tell us they’ve missed their fitness and spa treatments. They’ve missed being able to look after themselves.

So for now, we’ll work to build the club back up again, getting memberships and revenues back to how they were before the war. And then, in the second half of 2023, we’ll look to do all the work we had planned for 2022.

Because we had big plans, including building a new reformer pilates studio and launching new spa treatments for face and body. That’s all on hold while the unbelievable horror of the war continues, but it is just a pause. We’ll get back to our plans in 2023.

Formula Ukraine interior
Formula is a big, strong building with a bomb shelter on the ground floor. “I feel safer at work than I do at home,” says Brezytska

What are your hopes for the future?

I always try to think positively, so I look forward to a future – just a couple of years from now – when all our cities have been rebuilt and restored to their former glory. I hope it will be a new era for our country, when Ukrainians return home and we welcome tourists and share our experiences with them.

In the meantime, I simply wish for a peaceful country where I don’t have to worry for my children every time they go to school. My hope and belief is that before the end of 2023, we will have peace.

Information correct at the time of publishing

Tom Moos

When did you launch Holy Ride – and why?

We launched Holy Ride in April of this year, inside our first Saints & Stars club in Amsterdam Oud-West – a club that originally opened in 2018.

The ‘why’ is interesting, because when we went back to our original drawings for the club, it included a Ride studio; even before we launched Saints & Stars, we had always planned to offer indoor cycling.

At the time, though, I thought it might be tough to execute three distinct group exercise formats really well, all at the same time. So instead of group cycling, we created our Personal Training offering – something I felt really comfortable with having worked in clubs for years – alongside boxing concept Holy Box and cardio HIIT bootcamp Holy Shred.

Now I realise we should have done Holy Ride from the beginning! Because it’s what our members want, and that’s how we make all our decisions.

We did an in-depth survey of our members and our former members to understand what more they wanted from us and why they had left. The findings were very clear: people loved our brand but we didn’t have all the concepts they wanted. Specifically, we lacked indoor cycling and reformer pilates – with cycling far and away the number one request – and people were going elsewhere for these two disciplines. The decision to create Holy Ride was therefore a very easy one.

How would you describe Holy Ride?

Indoor cycling is the #1 group exercise format in the Netherlands, and in Amsterdam, boutique cycling is incredibly competitive. We knew we needed to do something very different to stand out in a mature market.

At the same time, though, we felt there was an opportunity to raise standards. Looking across the market, we saw too little focus on performance. Yes, a ride has to be fun and a great experience, but we believe the output is important too. We saw strength tracks that we didn’t think were particularly good. We saw immersive environments poorly executed. We saw inconsistencies in quality within brands.

We therefore talk about Holy Ride as ‘Redefining the Standards’, because we’ve taken all of this and turned it on its head in our concept.

We use bikes where you can track all your data and we deliberately make our workouts a little tougher. It’s OK not to be for everyone. We format all our classes, minute by minute, because we believe a strong brand comes from providing the same experience and quality across every class. And we’ve spent €100,000 on the Holy Ride audiovisual system alone, for an immersive experience like no other.

That makes it the most expensive AV system we’ve ever installed, but we had the luxury of the new studio being the conversion of a pre-existing space. The club also already had members, so Ride classes were full the moment the studio opened. We expect to achieve ROI in three months.

Over and above all that, you only have one chance to make a good first impression, especially in a mature market. We were never going to cut corners or skimp on the investment.

“Holy Ride classes were full the moment the studio opened. We expect to achieve ROI in three months.”

Tell us more about the AV.

We knew we wanted to create something really special, so we went outside the fitness sector and spoke to Awakenings Festival – the best festival producer in the Netherlands. It had previously used our studios for smaller events, so we’d seen the incredible lighting and sound effects they could create just from their laptops – far better than anything we’d ever done! We were therefore really keen to work with them, and they were excited by the chance to think outside the box and work on a brand new, small-space concept.

The result is exceptional. We have lasers and LEDs. We have ‘moving heads’ – the tool we use most, which allows us to create all sorts of shapes and effects with our lighting, flooding the space with light and movement.

We have water-based smoke, which is really cool. In a cycle studio, you’re part of a pack, but you also want your own space to focus on yourself. The smoke helps create that sense of personal space, which is impressive given we have 60 bikes in 130sq m of floorspace. I’ve never put so many people in a room

And because our classes are formatted, we know exactly what’s coming, so the sound and light all comes together perfectly with the class content. In a climb, for example, we use music and beams of light to build the ‘scenery’ of a climb. In a sprint, the lighting is suddenly very quick, with lots of colour and lots of white, culminating in a blinding flash of light at the end – done! – and then a sudden plunge into total darkness and silence before slowly building back up again.

The instructor also has the best seat in the house when it comes to the sound. This isn’t the standard approach, but it ensures they’re absolutely on-point in their delivery

Are your stars OK with formatting?

A lot of people say formatting kills creativity, but I disagree. All our classes are formatted, not just Holy Ride, and I believe it’s a real strength for us.

It certainly doesn’t mean the experience is repetitive. Our members typically do around three classes a week, and we change formats regularly enough that you’d be unlucky to do the same class twice. This isn’t hard to do, either, because there are moves in indoor cycling that you always do in every class. If you move sections around to be in a different order, change the music and the lighting, it’s instantly a very different experience. Even just changing 15–20 per cent of a cycling class makes it feel totally different.

Then consider that even good instructors elsewhere might use the same playlist multiple times… I don’t think it’s formatting that makes the experience boring!

The challenge was persuading star instructors of this –because as with all our concepts, I wanted the absolute top indoor cycling instructors in Amsterdam to come onboard and deliver Holy Ride.

We’d done our research and we knew who we wanted, but getting them onboard was the toughest part of the whole project. The secret – other than paying them well and continually training them, which is something we’ve always prided ourselves on – was to get them involved early. We invited them to help develop the concept and the formatting, creating the product they would deliver, and we got the instructors we wanted.

Holy ride class instructor

“Our member base grows each time we add a new concept, so it makes sense to make our products as ‘whole’ as possible”

So, you have seven concepts now?

Yes, we have Holy Ride, Holy Shred, Holy Box, Holy Booty, Holy Build – a small group technique-based workout for members only, not those on class packs – Personal Training and our Open Gym.

Holy Shred is the only concept that’s currently on offer at both our locations, because our clubs only about 10 minutes’ cycle ride apart. It’s easy for people to use both of them, depending on which workout they want to do that day.

Our members typically each do three or four of our seven concepts. There’s one cluster who veer towards Personal Training, Open Gym and Holy Build – typically members who like gym workouts but who want a more experiential environment. The other cluster is more group exercise-focused, whereby people mix and match between Holy Ride, Holy Shred, Holy Box and Holy Booty.

When we first set out, I feared that if we offered too much – too many concepts – we might dilute the brand. I no longer worry about that, though, and in large part that’s because our marketing is higher level, focusing on our overarching purpose at Saints & Stars. Particularly for an audience of Millennials and Gen Zs, that’s really important. They want to know why you do what you do.

It’s also the case that our member base grows each time we add a new concept, so it makes sense to make our product as ‘whole’ as possible.

Will you launch more Holy Rides?

We won’t retrofit Ride into our other existing club in Amsterdam Oud-Zuid. The club is large enough to house another studio, but our members spend lots of time in our communal areas and we don’t want to detract from the experience by cramping the space, especially since the 30 per cent growth in membership.

We are, however, opening a new club in Amsterdam in early 2023. If Ride is still in our top three concepts when we design it, it will probably have a Ride studio!

As I say, we respond to what our members want, so in any new club we’ll put in the most popular concepts. We might even introduce an eighth concept in the next one, which at this stage would most likely be reformer pilates. But we’ll always have flexibility in space and mindset to change things in the future if needed. The Gen Z mindset changes all the time. You have to be ready to change with them.

The Holy Ride studio has 60 bikes in 130sq m of floorspace

“We respond to what our members want. The Gen Z mindset changes all the time. You have to be ready to change with them.”

Any other plans you can share?

The boutique sector remains challenging, with studios sadly still going out of business since the pandemic; I imagine there may be opportunities to grow further by acquiring and converting existing studios. I’d also love to take Saints & Stars beyond Amsterdam.

The pandemic changed my outlook in other ways, too. For example, I always said we would never do digital content, but in lockdown it was one of the many things we did to keep our community and our instructors engaged with our brand. The content was free to use at that point, and accessible to everyone, and it was great for brand awareness.

Moving forward, although I’m still not 100 per cent sold on digital, I have to recognise that hybrid lifestyles have embedded themselves. It won’t be this year, but at some point in the future I can see us doing some sort of paid-for digital offering.

What’s the future of indoor cycling?

In Amsterdam, which is the market I know, I believe indoor cycling will become increasingly immersive and experiential. There are still a lot of dark boxes at the moment!

We’ll see the technology that customers experience at festivals, for example, becoming affordable for smaller-scale delivery in fitness studios. Operators will need to keep their fingers on the pulse to find the next exciting thing that will engage people in their studio experiences.

We looked at holograms for Holy Ride, for example. In the end, the technology was still too expensive for our business model – for now anyway – but things like this will continue to come through and we need to be ready to embrace it.

“I believe indoor cycling will become increasingly experiential. There are still a lot of dark boxes at the moment!”

What drives you in all of this?

A business like ours isn’t based on spreadsheets or business models or trying make the most money possible. The only way to build a business like this is to do what you love, focus on what you can be really good at, add your own flavour – because a copy job will never, ever work – and then put your whole soul into it.

I love fitness – I train every day – and I love looking for new trends and creating new things. This is my passion and I love the fact that it’s also my job.

United Fitness Brands

Why did you create UFB?
Even pre-COVID, businesses in our sector struggled: there were record attendances at boutique studios, but head office costs made it hard to make money. We realised there was an opportunity to drive significant economies of scale by joining forces, allowing each brand to continue to operate with autonomy but with head office functions centralised.

“Our strategy is to be the #1 destination for boutique fitness and wellness, with each brand the best at its own discipline”

Our conversations began during COVID, and in October 2020 we agreed heads of terms to join KOBOX and Boom Cycle, creating a new umbrella company – United Fitness Brands – of which Joe is CEO, Robert COO and Hilary marketing director.

KOBOX and Boom Cycle officially joined forces and launched as United Fitness Brands in March 2021. The following month we heard that Barrecore was on the market. We’re fortunate to have a strong team behind the combined business, with a very supportive board on which our backers Pembroke VCT, Nectar Capital and Dominvs Group all sit. Through these channels, we were able to raise funds to acquire Barrecore in May 2021.

There are now five Boom Cycle studios in London (all photos and videos ©Getty)

What is the vision for UFB?
Our strategy is to be the number one destination for boutique fitness and wellness, with each brand the best at its own discipline. We want to provide our customers with the best overall industry experience.

Meanwhile, for the businesses within UFB, it’s about building a single operational platform to achieve economies of scale for multiple brands and accelerate revenue.

We have four brands now, with Triyoga also part of the UFB portfolio since January 2022, and will bring in more over time; from the outset, we envisaged building a group that spanned six or seven different disciplines, as well as continuing to grow within each of those verticals.

UFB currently offers cycling, boxing, barre and yoga. Other potential disciplines might be dance, reformer pilates, non-yoga stretching. We’re looking to capture as much share of a consumer’s annual wellness spend as possible, by offering services within our portfolio that complement each other and that give consumers the products, services and content they’re looking for.

We’ll assess each opportunity as it comes, and it doesn’t just have to be bricks and mortar. It could include digital brands such as content providers, for example.

How do you explain UFB to consumers?
So far, United Fitness Brands hasn’t been consumer-facing. KOBOX, Boom Cycle, Barrecore and Triyoga each have their own passionate team and fans, so it’s important that each brand retains its autonomy.

However, we have been looking closely at how we explain UFB and the relationship between our different brands to consumers, because we’re launching a new Studio Pass membership option this month.

“We’ll assess each opportunity as it comes, and it doesn’t just have to be bricks and mortar. It could include digital brands.”

When customers log on to their favourite UFB brand website, they will have the option of sticking with the existing price structure to use that brand only. Alternatively, they can purchase a Studio Pass membership, with the benefit being that Studio Pass credits can be used at UFB partner brands as well – currently just KOBOX, Boom Cycle and Barrecore, but we will bring in Triyoga too.

The new pricing will make it advantageous to take up Studio Pass membership. There’s a one-week introductory offer priced at £30. Four classes a month is £60, eight classes a month costs £110, 12 classes a month is £150 and for unlimited classes it’s £180 a month.

We hope this pricing will woo people away from the aggregators. Data shows that on average, people visit three studios for three different disciplines a month, and it’s really exciting to offer that variety within our own group of brands. With our Studio Pass membership, you get to be a member of three – and soon four – best-in-class boutiques, all offering something different in terms of workout but all promising you the best 45–75 minutes of your day.

KOBOX has created a ‘boxing in a nightclub’ vibe

Upper body, lower body, cardio, calmness, flexibility, major muscle groups, smaller muscles… We’re making it easy for people to switch it up in their workouts and reap the physical and mental rewards.

And you have a new booking system…
Yes. Launching this month, it will allow Studio Pass members to book classes at Boom Cycle, Barrecore and KOBOX – and in time also Triyoga – all through one system. It will also be the gateway to live and on-demand digital content, starting with Barrecore.

Then behind the scenes, it’s about insights that allow us to improve the customer journey and run the business more efficiently.

“When we expand outside of London, we’re likely to build multi-brand locations”

Across UFB’s four brands, we have close to half a million customer accounts. That gives us an amazing opportunity to extract good insights into our customers and aggregate all this data in one place. In turn, that allows us to communicate in a more efficient, targeted way, offering our customers more of what they want: the classes they want, when and where they want them, as well as sending relevant offers for apparel, say.

For the business, then, this new system is about securing more accurate, current data, allowing us to make faster, more informed decisions: adaptations to our packages, our timetables or our staffing to improve the customer journey, for example. It will certainly present ecommerce opportunities, too, and could even give us insights into where we might expand physically.

In January 2022, Triyoga became the latest boutique brand to join UFB

It simply wouldn’t be possible to invest in something like this as separate entities – we’re talking a five-figure investment and a system that’s taken many months to build – but together as United Fitness Brands, our distinct boutique operations are able to benefit from the sort of insights that normally only large businesses can afford.

Tell us about your multi-brand studios.
We opened our fourth KOBOX studio at Boom Cycle’s Waterloo location in July of last year, and when Barrecore’s Chelsea lease expired, we moved it in alongside KOBOX on the Kings Road.

Of course, with 23 sites across London, we already had a number of studios in striking distance of each other – and a good number of customers who already visited at least two of our brands – so it will be interesting to see what incremental crossover these multi-brand studios generate. It’s certainly too early to tell at this stage: people still aren’t really coming back into offices to work, so visit numbers remain down in locations like Waterloo. We’ll need more time to assess the impact of multi-brand studios in London.

What we do already know is that when we expand outside of London, which we expect to do towards the end of 2022 and into 2023, we’re likely to build multi-brand locations. Each will have a shared communal area, two or more studios and perhaps some wellness services – massages, for example.

Barrecore has 10 London studios plus three franchised sites

This will, of course, all be data-led. We know who our customers are and we know the perfect customer for each brand, so we’ll be able to identify which street in which city would work for each. And the great thing about UFB is that each brand can roll out independently or we can group them together to suit each location.

What are your growth plans for the next few years?
We now have 23 owned locations – four KOBOX, five Boom Cycle, 10 Barrecore and four Triyoga – as well as two Barrecore franchises in Manchester and one in Leeds, and thus far there’s been sufficient funding to grow the business through our own board.

“We have international growth aspirations, with our eyes on the Middle East in particular as an exciting opportunity”

In time, though, we will need to look at financing options for the next big step: we’re always having conversations and looking at potential sites, and there’s sadly lots of market opportunity post-COVID. That said, we are looking to embed our four brands before we make any further bricks and mortar acquisitions.

We will grow our number of brands and locations per brand in London, however, as well as outside of London, including multi-brand studios in smaller cities across the UK.

With these multi-brand studios in mind, we’re also starting to think more about branding. United Fitness Brands is rather corporate-sounding, so in time this name may disappear in favour of a new, more consumer-friendly name as yet to be decided.

Finally, we have international growth aspirations, with our eyes on the Middle East in particular as an exciting opportunity. There are lots of areas opening up to women in that region; if we could put something like boxing out there, we feel that would be a big step forward.

Boom Cycle is well-known for its ‘party on a bike’ vibe. Get a taste of the action in this video!

Activism at Virgin Active

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.

We have lift-off

How did you come to host the Swedish Olympic team’s training camp?

We’ve had a strategic partnership with the Swedish Olympic Committee since 2013.

The Committee helps us secure Olympic training standards for our hotels’ sports and fitness facilities, ensuring everything is good enough for an Olympic training camp. In return, we help them with their Top & Talent programme, whereby we host training camps for their existing and up-and-coming stars at two of our hotels: Playitas Resort and Sivota Retreat – powered by Playitas. When it opens in May 2022, Porto Myrina – powered by Playitas will also host Olympic training camps.

“We host training camps for the Swedish Olympic Committee, for existing and up-and-coming stars”

The camps can be week-long pre-camps for the whole Olympic team to prepare for the next Games; cluster camps, where a few different sports come together to train and learn from each other; or individual camps, where between one and three athletes come to use our facilities for pre-season or pre-competition training.

For example, Playitas Resort recently hosted the Swedish handball team for a pre-camp before the Tokyo Olympics. And the full Swedish Winter Olympics team stayed and trained at Sivota Retreat in May 2021, the first week we opened.

Daniel Giray
Daniel Giray is sports director for Apollo

Tell us more about Sivota Retreat – powered by Playitas.

We took over management of the hotel during COVID lockdown, renovating the whole of the existing sports infrastructure as well as building new padel courts, a large gym, a group cycling space and a WOD Box for functional-style training. We also refurbished all 151 guest rooms and the common areas, and built a new à la carte restaurant.

The hotel was then relaunched as ‘Sivota Retreat – powered by Playitas’ on 17 May 2021 – two days after Greece re-opened for tourism – making it one of Apollo Sports’ five concept hotels. [See The launch of Apollo]

“We host professional athletes every week. Guests find it inspiring to holiday in the same place as their heroes.”

Sivota Retreat – powered by Playitas offers a wide range of land- and water-based activities that include fitness, padel, tennis, group cycling, mountain biking, road and gravel cycling, waterskiing, wakeboarding and wakesurfing, stand-up paddleboard (SUP) and kayaking.

We have three tennis courts, three padel courts, and our location in the mountains means we’re surrounded by perfect tracks for running, hiking and biking. There’s a pool area with separate children’s pool, but the sea is also crystal clear and ideal for open water swimming, SUP and kayaking.

The Swedish Winter Olympics team are put through their paces at a training camp hosted at Sivota

Our fitness offering includes a brand new Casall PRO gym that’s been equipped to the Swedish Olympic Committee’s standards for Olympic training, with extensive resistance and cardio training options.

What about group exercise?

We have a very busy group training schedule, regularly running multiple classes at the same time, so there’s plenty to choose from. We do have space to move things indoors on particularly hot or rainy days, but other than gym-based training, much of what we do is delivered outside. Being outdoors is, after all, why people come to us – it’s a lovely climate to train in.

Sivota has a busy group training schedule, with most classes taking place outdoors

Classes include functional training, yoga, dance, cardio and group cycling, to name just a few. Our cycling classes are already really popular and with just 15 bikes they’re always full, so we’ve had to add more classes to the timetable and now run several every day.

At Apollo, we have a strong focus on sustainability – including, when not restricted by COVID measures, no single-use plastic – so we’ve installed BODY BIKE OceanIX. These are manufactured using recycled plastic fishing nets, so they’re a great fit for us.

Which of your facilities did the Swedish team use?

This was the Swedish Winter Olympics team, so it was very much pre-season training, building endurance and strength in preparation for Beijing 2022.

They did a lot of group cycling, mixing it up so different sports teams were training together. They loved our outdoor cycling space, enjoying the beautiful views over the crystal clear turquoise sea and green island beyond.

They also did lots of Olympic lifting and technique training, as well as general team-building. By the time athletes get to the Games, they’re so focused. Training camps are the perfect ice-breaker – a chance to get to know your team-mates ahead of the Games.

The Swedish national team enjoyed Olympic-standard facilities at their recent training camp

What’s the balance between elite training and holidaying enthusiasts?

Although we host professional athletes every week – not just the Swedish Olympic team, but all sorts of elite sports professionals – they only make up around 5–10 per cent of our total guest base. They’re also self-sufficient, in that they bring their own coaches and programming, so our in-house coaches can still focus on our other guests.

Occasionally, a team will take over the whole hotel; that was the case with the Swedish Winter Olympics team in May. But generally, elites and holidaying enthusiasts are here at the same time and there’s no problem giving them all a great experience. In fact, guests find it really inspiring to be holidaying in the same place as their sporting heroes.

What’s special about your sports and fitness experiences?

Our guests take their sport seriously, and so do we. There’s none of that animation team stuff, with entertainment organised in the evening. We’re about sport, pure and simple, with high-quality facilities and professional instructors: PTs, group exercise instructors, cycling and triathlon coaches, tennis trainers and so on. We also pride ourselves on our high service levels and great F&B. It all leads to high levels of customer satisfaction.

“Training camps are the perfect ice-breaker – a chance to get to know your team-mates ahead of the Games”

Is it all-inclusive as far as activities go?

Our Sports Inclusive concept – which is enjoyed by all guests – means all activities other than one-to-one training, motorised watersports and premium bike hire are included in the price.

The philosophy of ‘powered by Playitas’ is that everyone who wants to do so can train freely, trying out new sports and sharing the joy of training without worrying about the cost.

The May 2021 training camp – hosted at Sivota Retreat-powered by Playitas on behalf of the
Swedish Olympic Committee – saw the Swedish women’s ice hockey team preparing for Beijing 2022

Are guests’ expectations changing?

We’ve certainly evolved the formula of our gyms over recent years, moving away from big, fixed gym equipment and towards Olympic lifting and functional training. Our WOD Box is hugely important, for example.

We’ve also put Zwift areas into our gyms in response to guest demand. And ever since COVID, guests are keen to train in smaller groups – even though, with all our outdoor training options, we’re now are allowed to bring more people together. That’s fine with us, though, because smaller groups means more personal attention from the instructor, and that fits well with our premium approach.

Are there new resorts in the pipeline?

In addition to the opening of Porto Myrina – powered by Playitas next May, we will also open another resort – a 250-room hotel in a brilliant location in Europe – in April 2022. That’s all the detail I can give you right now though: it’s still top secret! What I can say is that indoor cycling will absolutely be on the agenda there, too.

Third Space

What are your signature cycle concepts at Third Space?
SM: We have three distinct studio concepts, as well as two small group training concepts for the gym floor.

The first studio concept is POWERIDE: a results-orientated class with a slight element of competition, but without being intimidating. We use ICG’s Coach by Colour for live visual data and we focus on improving power output by working through the zones, all to the beat of the music.

The second is JUST RIDE, which is designed for those who simply want to switch off, enjoy the music and ride. It’s music-led, but there’s no choreography, stripping cycling back to its foundations and focusing on endurance.

The third is HARDCORE CYCLE, a HIIT-based class that’s all about max intervals on a bike. We don’t ride to the beat in this class, but we do use the phrasing of the music to initiate the intervals.

Between them, these three studio concepts account for 20–30 sessions a week from a total timetable of 180–260 classes, depending on the club.

CS: We didn’t want to create six, seven or more different cycle classes. We wanted a smaller programme of exceptional, clearly distinct concepts that between them still offer something for everyone. I believe it’s the right approach, and certainly, in terms of participation, cycling is in the top three most popular group exercise activities at Third Space.

It all sounds quite performance-centric?
CS: Certainly on the gym floor, our small group cycle training is performance-based, with two separate programmes: Wattbike is about enhancing your FTP (functional threshold power), while Wattbike Sprints is about anaerobic power, anaerobic capacity and VO2.

We’ve tried to bring elements of this into the studio, too: power-based training in POWERIDE, for example. The secret here, though, is to hide the science in the experience. It’s why we use zones rather than hard data in POWERIDE, and why the instructor also plays a pivotal role, bringing their own unique flavour to the delivery of every experience.

We have a very fitness-savvy audience. Our members are looking for fitness with a purpose.

We do have a very fitness-savvy audience at Third Space, though, with highly educated members who are looking for fitness with a purpose. All our concepts are therefore underpinned by science – not just physiology but also the science of music, behavioural science, social science and so on.

SM: All that said, JUST RIDE is a great entry-level class. Although the training focus is endurance, we don’t talk about it in great depth as we would in POWERIDE, for example. The language we choose is specifically designed not to put people off. We talk about how things feel, but actually, there’s minimal chat: it’s about letting people switch off and connect to the music.

Third Space City’s enticing gym floor complements its studio spaces.

What ethos underpins all your programming?
CS: Identity and consistency are key. We have a growth mindset – we’ll be opening three more clubs in London this year, in Mayfair, Moorgate and Wood Wharf – and everything has to be scaleable. This means clear templates for each programme, into which instructors can inject their own personalities and knowledge.

SM: We’re also very strict about not allowing class creep, ensuring each concept has its own distinct identity. That’s the case not only between our three cycling concepts, but between all our signature disciplines, so there’s never any confusion as to which class you’re participating in.

With cycling, for example, you’ll know the moment you walk into the studio which class is about to start, whether it’s the pink light at the beginning of JUST RIDE, using the Coach by Colour mode for POWERIDE, or the music you’ll hear that’s specific to HARDCORE.

What is the vibe in your studios?
SM: There’s a welcoming, clean, happy vibe when you walk into the studios across our six clubs, but each club is also unique.

In non-socially distanced times, Canary Wharf has 85 bikes, with an incredible eight-speaker sound system. At the other end of the scale, the Tower Bridge cycling studio would normally have 21 bikes, so it’s more of an intimate feel. Marylebone doesn’t have a cycling studio, but we do offer Wattbike sessions on the gym floor.

We aim to have consistent lighting and technology systems across all clubs, though, so instructors can create exactly the right mood at the right moment, as well as a different atmosphere for each class.

How aligned are your gym floor and studio offerings?
CS: As I mentioned before, there are definitely elements of performance working their way from the gym floor and into the cycle studio, but I think there’s more we can do to collaborate moving forward.

There are two performance-based gym floor small group cycle programmes.

At the moment, there are lots of members who do Wattbike but not studio classes, and vice versa. We need to find the link – the common thread – that will encourage more crossover. This is something we’re actively investigating.

How have you adapted to COVID-19?
SM: We went online during lockdown, as so many operators did, with a filming studio created in our Canary Wharf club. However, cycle is quite a new addition to our online offering, so of the 350+ classes available on the Third Space app, only a handful are currently cycling. Participation in these classes obviously requires significant investment in home equipment, and there’s already so much competition in this space, not least Peloton.

All that said, online is here to stay and I would love to develop more online cycling content, and potentially some live streaming going forward.

We also have two pop-up outdoor venues at the moment, where classes are free for members and £20 for non-members. The Tower Bridge venue is running HIIT/strength-based classes, while at Canary Wharf, it’s cycle, yoga and HIIT/strength.

What will be the longer-term impact of COVID?
CS: In terms of member behaviour, it will be some time before we fully understand the impact of COVID. We only have a few months of insight to draw on so far, from when we opened last summer, so it’s really hard to predict what will happen.

Online coaching is about telling. We believe great coaches listen, and this is easier in-person.

What we do know is that members are asking for group exercise, both for the in-person coaching and for the social aspect. I personally believe that, once people re-engage in our live classes, they’ll realise what they’ve been missing over recent months. Online is great, but online coaching is about telling. We believe great coaches listen, and this lends itself much better to the in-person environment.

However, some behaviours will inevitably change as a direct result of changed working patterns, and that’s significant for us: we do have some residential developments in all our catchment areas, but many of our clubs are heavily corporate and we will need to continually re-evaluate. We’ve been speaking to lots of CEOs who are keen to have their teams back in the office, and whose teams are equally keen to be back for the interaction, but we’ll have to see how it goes.

SM: One other notable impact of COVID has been on the way we approach instructor recruitment and training.

It used to be that we’d run extensive auditions followed by full-day, in-person workshops for each programme. COVID has forced us to change this approach, with auditions via video and training done independently and online. Much of the onus is now on the instructor to work through all the materials we send them.

Of course, in-person is nice, but this new way of doing things is so efficient that I think we’re unlikely to go back to our old way of doing things.

What other initiatives are you working on?

CS: When it comes to innovation, a lot of people talk about the product. However, perhaps particularly when it comes to group exercise, we believe you have to start with an understanding of member behaviour and build your classes around that.

In the aftermath of COVID, people will still train from home, but they’re bored of screens and they want a social outlet. We’re therefore looking at apps and software solutions that will allow us to link our live and virtual experiences. We want to make sure that, through our app, we can become the hub for our member community wherever they are.

The future is about separating things out more, creating distinct concepts with unique identities

SM: I don’t believe the experience of in-person group exercise can be replicated online, so I definitely see people training in-club still. I think some elements of the online experience will work their way into the studio, though, which goes back to what Chris is saying. People have found a new love for data and app connectivity over the past year of lockdown training, and we need to reflect this in our offering.

What’s the future of indoor cycling?
CS: I see a number of different factors playing a role. The first is identity; you can’t have a generic cycling class any more. The future is about separating things out more, creating distinct concepts with unique identities.

I also see the emergence of even more expert coaches – instructors who are able to deliver an enhanced member experience based on the application of knowledge and an in-depth understanding of people’s behaviours.

And then there’s connectivity, which can enhance the member experience and allow you to scale what you create. You might create an ecosystem that uses technology to link from club to club to club, as well as into members’ homes. You might set up team challenges or mass virtual events, introduce gamification, track performance via specific metrics, forge online communities. COVID has accelerated our sector’s investigation of what’s available and possible, and I see this being redefined quite quickly.

Finally, there’s collaboration. This will be key moving forward, whether that’s a technological collaboration or acting as a gateway to other ‘real world’ opportunities – outdoor cycling clubs, for example, which might appeal to our members. I think operators have to recognise we can’t do everything any more. But if we get it right, we can be the hub.

Puk Lyng Thomsen

For how long have you been playing golf?

I’m now 22 years old and I started playing golf when I was seven years old. I was in the garden with my parents and took a couple of swings with a golf club. They looked at each other in a way that said “wow, that was really good!” A couple of weeks later, I started at the local golf course and just got more and more interested in the game.

At the age of 13, I was picked for the national team. It was still the junior team at that point, but I moved across to the ladies’ team before I turned 18.

Probably my biggest career highlight to date was competing in the World Championships in Mexico in 2016, when I came second individually and helped the Danish team secure fourth place.

Puk Lyng Thomsen professional danish golfer

I had the same operation as tiger woods. i find it helps people understand if i say that.

How did you get injured?

I started feeling pain in my back six years ago, but the specialists said I only needed to go back and see them if / when I started to feel pain in my leg. Apparently it’s a condition I could have had since I was born, or from a young age, and in most people it doesn’t develop too quickly. It might never have got to the point of leg pain.

Sadly, the condition progressed rapidly with me: by March 2019, while I was at college at Florida State University, I started to feel nerve pain in my leg. It’s hard to describe, but I couldn’t actually feel my leg: just a burning pain inside it. By summer of that year, the leg pain was so bad I couldn’t even feel my back pain any more.

Puk Lyng Thomsen about her back pain and surgery

I’m on a full scholarship and I didn’t want to let the university down by being injured and unavailable to play, so I carried on playing. I also spent an hour to an hour and a half every day at the university’s rehab centre. They have great facilities there for the student athletes and I think that’s why I managed to keep going for as long as I did.

But ultimately the pain spread through my whole leg, hip to toe, and by May 2020 I couldn’t even walk. By this point I was back in Denmark, having flown home in March due to COVID.

I knew there was no way out of it: it was time to have an operation.

What did the operation involve?

I had the same operation as Tiger Woods – I find it helps people understand if I say that – so it wasn’t without risk and I was quite nervous about it.

The surgery was designed to stabilise the lower part of my back: L4, L5 and S1 for those who know their way around a spine. My L5 in particular had moved so far out of position – 21mm – that they had to stabilise it from both directions, putting screws in through my back and through my stomach.

they had to go in from both directions, putting screws through my back and through my stomach

Puk Lyng Thomsen professional golfer
“I used to rotate too much in my swing: having my lower back pinned could be a good thing!”

How is your recovery going?

I had the operation on 30 June 2020 and, while we have to wait and see how it goes from here, so far it’s been 100 per cent successful.

My leg pain was totally gone the moment I woke up from the anaesthesia and my six-week check was also very positive: having initially been told I wouldn’t be able to start putting until three months after the op, in fact I was allowed to do small amounts after just six weeks, provided I felt no pain. I also started some easy rehab work to get some mobility into my back. A couple of weeks later, I started doing small chip shots around the green and now I’m up to 60m pitch shots. I can start full swings on 30 December.

Alongside all of this, I was keen to start rebuilding my fitness levels and I knew cycling – as a low-stress option for the body – would allow me to get my heart rate up far earlier than running would.

Very kindly, BODY BIKE gifted me an indoor bike to support my recovery. I started cycling as soon as I started rehab in mid-August and I’ve tried to cycle every day, even if just for 20 or 30 minutes. I’ve complemented that with some balance pad work, resistance band and Swiss ball exercises. I’m very happy to be able to do some simple workouts in the comfort of my own home to boost my recovery.

Indoor cycling helps Puk with her surgery and back pain
“Cycling has been a great way of optimising my recovery, building fitness in the early stages of my rehab” – Puk Lyng Thomsen

How important is cycling to your rehab?

It’s been a great way of optimising my recovery, building fitness in the early stages of my rehab while minimising the risk that something might go wrong.

It’s been great mentally, too, to get going before I slipped into a habit of not training. I feel like I’m in a better place already, back in an exercise routine, and that’s thanks to cycling.

my goal is to be ready to play by march 2021. it’s ambitious, but i think it’s possible.

It’s a mental boost too, and that also benefits my golf: the better shape I’m in, the easier I find it to focus on the course. I think it would have been much harder had I been trying to get fit at the same time as trying to properly focus on my game again.

Puk Lyng Thomsen

Is cycling something you’ll continue to do once you’re fully recovered?

Absolutely. My physio told me many years ago that running wasn’t the best option for me, so I’ve always favoured cycling or cross-trainer workouts over running, just because they’re low-impact.

I will probably start going for a couple of runs a month when I’m fully recovered, as I did before, but I think – and this goes for everyone, not just me – it’s good to choose forms of exercise that protect your body and minimise risk of injury. We all want to be here for as long as possible, so we need to take care of our bodies.

I enjoy cycling, too, both indoors and outdoors: I do it because I like it, not because I have to. Golf has always been my ‘me time’ – a chance to clear my mind of the other stresses in my life and just focus on my game – but in fact, I’ve found cycling is giving me the same feeling. I can either sit on my bike and think the day through as I ride, or I can put my music in my ears and cycle as fast as I can!

Puk Lyng Thomsen talks about indoor cycling, back pain and her surgery

Will you recover fully?

The fact it was my lower back that was operated on, rather than up towards the shoulders, should mean my swing is less affected.

In fact, I used to rotate quite a lot in my swing: too much. It could even be that having my lower back pinned and stabilised is a good thing, reducing my rotation!

What are your goals now?

I don’t have a specific tournament in mind at this stage, but my goal is to be ready to play by March 2021. It’s ambitious, but I think it’s possible. I’m pretty stubborn: if I think there’s a chance, I’ll go for it. My ethos throughout this whole thing has been: ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’

Puk Lyng Thomsen concentrated professional golfer

The three arenas of ACTIC

What is your role at ACTIC?

I joined ACTIC in April 2019, originally responsible just for the Swedish clubs. In September 2020, I took on responsibility for Norway and Germany too, becoming group training product manager for the whole group; we do also have clubs in Austria, but they don’t offer group training.

Given those dates, you’ll appreciate that a lot of my time in the role – in fact, with ACTIC in general – has been spent with projects on-hold due to COVID. Things haven’t moved on as far as I would have liked… yet!

ACTIC ropes
Jessica Tito Martins: “People came to really value their time outdoors during lockdown”

What have been the highlights so far?

We’ve already been working on a series of 11 concept classes. These are pre-choreographed class formats that we develop centrally, based on market trends and customer demand, and test in Sweden – where most of our clubs are –  with a view to rolling successful programmes out across the estate.

We were also very quick to move online during COVID, especially when you consider that we didn’t offer any online training before. We took this a step further in December with the launch of a new ACTIC ANYWHERE app, designed to support our members with their gym-based and at-home workouts: it offers on-demand group exercise as well as workout plans – using bodyweight-only or equipment – where you can, for example, search by body part for your perfect workout.

we found those who already had an exercise habit wanted to get back into it

Initially driven by COVID, online fitness – and therefore the new app – is nevertheless something we’re excited about for the long term.

The ACTIC Anywhere app

How hard were you hit by COVID?

In Sweden, other than a few locations with pools, we were able to keep our gyms open throughout the crisis, albeit with restrictions in place: social distancing, extensive cleaning, a 50 per cent reduction in class capacity and so on.

Things were tougher in Norway and Germany, where clubs were closed throughout the first lockdown and where, as we speak [interview conducted on 19 November 2020], many are once again closed.

Even in Sweden, though, there was a lot of uncertainty among the members at first. Some even cancelled their memberships, simply because they didn’t really understand what they were allowed to do.

We spent a lot of time speaking with other big operators in the market – SATS and Nordic Wellness, for example – to make sure we were all acting in the same way, so consumers had a sense of consistency from us.

By summer/autumn, members were returning. It wasn’t so much about brand new joiners – I’m not sure gym membership is the obvious first step for someone who was previously inactive – but we found those who already had an exercise habit wanted to get back into it.

ACTIC girls with weights
Indoors, online and outdoors – ACTIC embraces its expanded role

A 50 per cent reduction in class capacity, you say?

Yes, and as a result classes were very busy, averaging 86–87 per cent of max capacity. Across ACTIC, only 22 per cent of our members take part in group fitness – it’s something I’m keen to improve, getting more people involved – but they’re heavy users and classes were in high demand.

i see online as one of three actic ‘arenas’: indoor, online and outdoor. we won’t just be a gym any more.

In spite of the restrictions, we therefore tried to keep offering our members the things we knew were important to them. Some classes weren’t possible: classes with shared equipment; boxing classes involving work in pairs; all our senior classes, of which we usually offer a lot. That was tough for those members, because the classes provide their social contact as well as their fitness.

But generally, we offered what we could, with adaptations where needed: in our cycling classes, for example, we took away every other bike. Cycling has been quite good during social distancing, actually: members feel safe on their bike, because they know nobody can inch closer to them during class.

We also innovated, not only in online training as I’ve already mentioned, but also growing our outdoor programme. People really came to value their time outdoors during lockdown.

Outdoor programme
ACTIC will be further expanding its popular outdoor offering

How do you see the app fitting into your long-term plans?

Online coaching is absolutely here to stay: people have already got used to the convenience of it.

Moving forward, I see online as one of three ACTIC ‘arenas’, all of which will be important to the overall member experience. We won’t just be a gym any more: we’ll have indoor (our club), online and outdoor.

Our outdoor offering is something we’ve already expanded during COVID, as I say, and we’re now looking to do even more of it, even better. We’re already exploring new concepts – outdoor group rides and a cycling club, for example – and we’re about to make an exciting announcement about the future of our outdoor group training. I wish I could tell you more now, but the news will be out soon!

What’s your group cycling offering like at the moment?

This is one of the areas I identified early on as something we can improve: at the moment, our cycling classes are essentially cycling choreography set to music, and I think we can do more to diversify the offering and bring new people into cycling.

As with all our plans, COVID has put this development work on-hold, but we’ve already created a high-intensity, 30-minute concept class called Explosive Ride. We started piloting it at a few sites in January 2020. Then COVID happened, so it hasn’t rolled out to the rest of our estate yet, but that’s something we’ll look to do in 2021.

Tell us more about your concept classes.

We have 1,300 instructors just in Sweden and it’s very important – to them and to the members – that they are allowed to inject their own style. I don’t want to take away their chance to be creative and don’t want every class on our timetable to be the same.

However, I was keen to create a collection of pre-choreographed signature classes that will be bespoke to us and consistent across the ACTIC estate. Even then, each instructor will have their own style of teaching, but it allows members to take part in a class at any of our clubs and have, in terms of the workout itself, the same experience.

We’ve launched 11 concept classes so far (see ‘A New Concept’). These were first introduced to our members in January 2020 and will be rolled out in 2021, with a fresh programme created three times a year for each concept class. As I say, we build current trends into these classes: at the moment, there’s a lot of functional training, heart rate training and shorter classes for an efficient workout.

We also have guided class formats: either track-based, where instructors choose their music and exercises but every track has to have a specific focus; or time-based for interval training, again with flexibility around the music and exercise selection.

Using the ACTIC Anywhere app
People have already got used to the convenience of online coaching, says Tito Martins

What do you see as the future of indoor cycling at ACTIC?

I see data as being very important moving forward, so we’re planning to introduce more tech into our cycling studios and build new class formats around this. I’m talking about heart rate, RPM, power… I think people who do cycling classes tend to be the sort of people who are into progress tracking and data. More so than those doing a dance class, for example.

But at the same time, I want to broaden the appeal of indoor cycling. There are lots of people who feel it isn’t for them, so I want to make our product more accessible and edgier at the same time.

I’d like to explore opportunities to bring virtual into our cycling studio, too. It won’t replace our live instructor-led classes, but it will mean we can offer cycling classes throughout the day. I think virtual might encourage people who don’t usually cycle to give it a go, too.

And I want to offer our instructors more training, so they can expand beyond track-based choreography and into formats like interval training, heart rate training and power training. Some of them are already doing this, but not consistently. I want to give our instructors the tools they need to build diverse styles of cycling into our studio timetable.

In fact, if we start to do this – more tech, more instructor training, more diversity, more accessibility – I think we’ll improve our whole group training offer, not just indoor cycling. There’s a lot to do and I’m excited to get more people into group training!

A New Concept 

ACTIC Group’s signature group training collection currently spans 11 concept classes.

 

Explosive Ride – 30 mins

Music-based, emotion-led, but also short, swift and sweaty to boost fitness levels. 

Power – 55, 45, 30 mins

Whole-body strengthening using a barbell, free weights and bodyweight as resistance.

PowerStep – 55, 45 mins

Simple, efficient cardio and strength class using a step, barbell and freeweights.

Functional Strength – 55, 45 mins

Strengthening and toning class that brings in elements of cardio, balance, flexibility and agility, working through the basic movements and planes of functional training.

Core – 30 mins

Strengthens the core, developing good posture and balance, through a series of functional exercises.

BootyWork – 30 mins

Tones the legs, buttocks and hips via a series of functional exercises.

CardioFight – 45, 30 mins

A fun fighting class influenced by various forms of martial art.

CardioHIIT – 30 mins

High-intensity, cardio-based class using bodyweight and plyometrics, and incorporating elements of functional training.

Dance – 45 mins

Each track of this dance class adopts a distinct dance style – but fun is more important than getting the steps right!

Dynamic Flex – 30 mins

A low-intensity stretching and body awareness class.

YogaMotion – 55, 45 mins

Featuring easy flows and moves inspired by different yoga styles, physiotherapy and biomechanics, this class is about flexibility, stability and posture.

Humphrey Cobbold

PureGym operates in the budget sector, but a few years ago you launched a cycling boutique. Why?
Being quite honest, I think we were slightly seduced by the boutique sector. We were all seeing the success of brands like SoulCycle, and PureGym had a US investor at the time who was very interested in that. Allied to that, our founder and chair Peter Roberts felt there were lots of property opportunities for reasonably priced 6,000–7,000sq ft sites in London.

This was also a time when, although I certainly wouldn’t say we were mounting up on our own hubris, we were perhaps a bit flushed with the success of PureGym. I had recently joined the company, we had acquired LA fitness in the UK, the business was developing well… And as I say, we could see the beginnings of what was happening in the boutique sector. So in January 2016, we decided to test the waters of this emerging sector for ourselves, launching cycling boutique Pure Ride in the Moorgate area of London, UK.

How did Pure Ride fare?
It was a bit of a reality check, although I don’t regret it for one minute. It was a relatively low-cost lesson in sticking to what we were good at: recognising what we couldn’t do and respecting what we could.

In fact, more accurately, it’s not that we couldn’t do it: we could potentially have grown the Pure Ride brand to six to 10 sites in London, which as boutiques go would have been a significant portfolio. It was more a question of whether it was worth it for us. Even then, we had around 150 other clubs to run and about 40 new locations opening each year. That one Pure Ride site was taking up a disproportionate amount of our management team’s time.

Because running a successful boutique is a lot harder than it looks on the surface and a lot harder than even we – as a subscription- based budget operator coming in to this new market – expected.

Cost of acquisition and retention is very high in the boutique segment. Where at PureGym, someone who’s paying us membership now will typically continue to pay us membership for another six to eight months, with Pure Ride we effectively had to sell each seat in each class on a one-off basis. Very few people would buy monthly packages; they would pay per class for their favourite instructor – and those instructors commanded high fees. Yet people are also fickle. Favourite instructors or not, they’ll go where the offers are. That’s a tough model.

Added to that was the power of the aggregators, which is vitally important to understand in an expired inventory market like this – by which I mean, the moment a class starts, the seats in it no longer hold any value. If you aren’t careful, the aggregators begin to control the market – and the pricing of your product. We found we could either have some yield and empty-ish classes, or we could use ClassPass and have much fuller classes but suffer a material decline in yield. You can’t let yourself be overly reliant on the aggregators.

The fit-out was also more expensive than we expected, because it isn’t just about front-of-house ambience. It’s about back-of-house too, ensuring there are enough showers and hot water to get people moving through quickly at peak times, for example.

PureGym’s larger clubs include a dedicated cycle studio

Cycling legend Sir Chris Hoy (front right) is an ambassador for PureGymCompounding all of this, there wasn’t actually the vast surplus of 6,000–7,000sq ft property we had thought, and the sites that were available were getting bid up quite strongly in price as competition grew and landlords became savvier to the income-generating potential of these studios.

Of course, these challenges weren’t specific to Pure Ride. These are the challenges facing the whole boutique sector, and all credit to those who make it work. It just wasn’t the right move for us, so we ended up selling our studio to Digme Fitness. I’m happy to say it seems to be working for them in a way that it didn’t for us.

THE UNiTED STATES IS TOO BIG A MARKET TO IGNORE.
We’ll open a couple ofsites in the us this year

So, your focus now is exclusively on PureGym?
Our focus is on PureGym as part of a multi-brand group, because we’ve just acquired Fitness World to become the second largest health club operator in Europe. That brand is so strong in its home territory of Denmark – where 10 per cent of the entire Danish population, and 45 per cent of all health club members, are members of Fitness World – that at this stage I really can’t see us changing the brand there.

Meanwhile, PureGym remains the UK’s largest operator – we’ll have reached around 275 UK clubs by the end of April 2020 – and I see tremendous opportunity to continue our growth. That’s been boosted by our new formats, including smaller footprint clubs which are allowing us to go into many more locations: we can now build PureGyms in sites ranging from 6,000–26,000sq ft. We opened 41 UK clubs in 2019 and will open even more in 2020, and long term I see scope for around 500 locations across the UK. So really, we’re only about halfway there with this market.

We’ll also do 20–30 major refurbishments in the UK in 2020, and all of these will involve significant upgrades: we’re heavily focused on evolving the product as we expand and refurb. That’s something the boutiques have certainly done: they’ve raised consumer expectations across the sector.

So, we’re looking at ways in which we can introduce a touch of the boutique feel into our sites, while at the same time keeping costs under control. Our view: if we can enhance the offering, delivering more for the same price, then people will reward us with a bit more loyalty. In some cases, we might be able to capture £1 extra on the membership, and that pays for a lot, but we aren’t doing it in order to put up prices and we certainly don’t want to drift in to the mid-market.

I’m not so unrealistic as to suggest people might now drive past another budget club to come to us – convenience remains a key driver – but they might drive a few kilometres past a premium club to come to us if they feel we’re offering value and meeting their needs.

We’re looking to introduce a touch of the boutique feel into our sites, while keeping costs under control

Can you tell us more about your international expansion plans?
We have aspirations to be a strong, ambitious player around the world, and with that goal in mind the US is too big a market to ignore. Our main financial backer, Leonard Green & Partners, is also US-based, and we can afford to invest a bit to dip our toe into the US water. So, we’ll open a couple of sites in the US this year and we’ll see how they go.

The dynamics will of course differ from state to state, and it will also be interesting to see how our highly-automated model will be received; even the low-cost operators in the US don’t do it quite like we do, with exclusively online joining for example. So, we’ll see how it goes. We’ll see how we stand up against the likes of Planet Fitness and the whole thing will be a voyage of discovery. If it works, great, we’ll roll out more sites. If it doesn’t… Just as I don’t regret giving Pure Ride a try, I just think we’d be mad not to try PureGym in the US.

New formats mean PureGyms can range from 6,000–26,000sq ft

Then with Fitness World, I don’t think we’ll grow hugely in Denmark – a few clubs here and there, but that market is about 90 per cent built out and we have an enviably strong position within that. However, Fitness World acquired BaseFit in Switzerland not long ago – a business we had looked at ourselves – and it also has an embryonic position in Poland, so both those markets now offer us significant growth prospects.

We’re looking at other markets too, whether by organic growth as with the US or through acquisition as with Fitness World. I don’t think we’d try and go head-to-head with BasicFit in Belgium or the Netherlands, nor McFIT in Germany, but there are plenty of other European markets to go after.

Our investors understand the need to invest in experience, particularly when it comes to group exercise

And tell us how you’re adding a ‘boutique feel’ to your own clubs…
Our investors understand the need to invest in experience, and this is particularly important when it comes to group exercise – that shared experience which demands an environment that engages you mentally as well as physically.

In our big box clubs, we typically have two studios, of which one will be an indoor cycling studio. In some locations, there’s even a third studio for virtual classes. We’re investing in all of these to ensure they deliver the best studio experience in the low-cost sector, turning what would otherwise have been a plain and admittedly somewhat bland white room into something a bit cooler. It’s about helping people get in the zone.

That might mean painting the walls black, installing LED lighting, putting backlit motivational signs on the wall, adding in podiums for the cycling instructors… We aren’t trying to be something we’re not, and we’re doing all of this at relatively small extra cost. We’re just trying to offer people a bit more without affecting our value proposition.

Do you offer indoor cycling in all PureGyms?
In our smaller clubs, where we only have space for one studio, it has to be a floor-based studio as that’s what’s needed for the majority of the classes we run. We are, in a few clubs, trialling having a dozen bikes that we wheel in and out of the space for indoor cycling classes, but it isn’t ideal.

Where we can’t offer indoor cycling classes, generally what we do is have an enhanced cycling area on the gym floor. There aren’t any screens in there, nor do we run classes in there, so we don’t over-state what it is, but it gives indoor cycling enthusiasts access to something more when tough decisions have to be made and a full indoor cycling offering isn’t available.

It is a tough decision though, because I personally love cycling. I do a lot of it myself and think it’s a tremendous cardio workout, especially as you get older, because the workout can be as intense as you like but still be low impact.

I think the needs of older people in particular – including older athletes whose joints are shot from all the impact of their sport – will mean cycling continues to have a very strong, positive role to play in people’s cardio fitness regimes.

Cycling legend Sir Chris Hoy (front right) is an ambassador for PureGym

Do you have any other predictions for the future of indoor cycling?
I’d be surprised if it developed massively from where it is now. How much more can you do with indoor cycling besides give people good instructors, great environments, maybe some videos for at-home or in-studio use?

I certainly think the early wave of indoor cycling becoming part of the fitness landscape has happened, and it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea either so you have to have realistic expectations. My view is that indoor cycling has reached critical mass. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t retain that into the future, and some new studios will also come out I’m sure. But I think predicting lots of future growth would be misleading. I think we can expect steady, not spectacular, growth in this field.

Esben Dalgaard Andersen

Esben, let’s start by you telling us a bit
about yourself…

I was educated at Odense theatre school in Denmark, graduating in 2008, and have worked as an actor – across TV, theatre and film – ever since.

When you start out as an actor you need a bit of luck to come your way, and fortunately that’s what happened for me: I got a good gig on a TV series in Denmark, a police drama called The Protectors, with the first series airing in 2009. Since then, I’ve regularly appeared on television as well as on-stage as part of the Royal Danish Theatre.

I won’t try and mention everything I’ve been in, but one TV series that received international acclaim was 1864, which was a big budget production centred around the Danish war of that year. I played a miller, and he was one of those stereotypical millers: huge and strong but also a bit overweight, eating too much of his home-made white bread.

When I first auditioned for the role, I was told I was far too small and they went away to try and find someone bigger. But they kept coming back to me and in the end offered me the role provided I gained 32kg. So, I did – I got up to 120kg – and then filming was delayed by four months, so I had to keep that weight on!

Other roles people might have seen me in include The Stranger, which was a really interesting, boundary-pushing film that won the main prize at DOC NYC, New York’s documentary festival. And then The Good Traitor will be out next year – we’re shooting that film at the moment and it’s due for international release.

Then there’s one that readers in Denmark will be very familiar with: our Christmas calendar TV series. For anyone not in Denmark, these are family-friendly stories that are screened on prime-time TV every year – half an hour every day from 1–24 December – and that pretty much the whole country tunes in to watch. I was in Tinka three years ago, and by the time this article is published will have appeared in Tinka 2, in which I play a big elf who wants to become king of the elf kingdom. And yes, when I say ‘big elf’, I mean I had to gain weight again – I needed to be 118kg for that role.

esben algaard andersen gain weight
Esben’s secret to putting on weight for roles: lots of chocolate! / © Photo Anders Heinrichsen – 1864

How often do you have to gain and lose weight?

I’ve had to go up and down quite a lot. For example, for 1864 I had to gain weight, then immediately afterwards I had to lose 25kg for another role. And recently I had to gain weight for Tinker 2 and, again, immediately lose it to film a TV series, Hand in Hand.

So far, it’s been a case of gaining weight and then coming back down to somewhere around my natural weight, which means fluctuating between about 85-90kg and 120kg.

I’ve never had to be super-skinny, although it might be interesting to try that some time; I find it very interesting to explore different weights, as it allows me to explore my range and versatility as an actor. Changing shape allows you to take on new roles; people actually approach you differently, perceive your personality to be different, depending on your size.

It probably isn’t healthy to keep shifting weight up and down so dramatically – I don’t suppose a doctor would approve, as obviously I’m putting fat on around my organs too – but as an actor, I think changing shape is a good thing to do.

What’s your weight gain formula?

Weight gain is the easy part – it’s just about over-eating. Lots of chocolate, white bread and butter, sauce on everything, potatoes every night. I’ll even set my alarm for 2.00am, get up and eat some bread and drink a hot chocolate, then go back to bed again!

I do also try and gain muscle though: my characters, even when I’ve been bigger, have tended to be strong and muscular as well as overweight. When I’m preparing for these roles, I do lots of weight training and very little cardio.

And what’s your secret when it comes to weight loss?

The challenge really is how quickly I have to do it, as I often don’t have long between roles. So, my secret – and please note, I wouldn’t recommend this for everyone, it just works for me – is that I simply stop eating.

Normally, when people say they’re fasting, they’re talking about the 5-2 diet. My approach is different: I don’t eat at all for 72 hours,
just drinking water and coffee. And then for the rest of the week, I eat very little – some meat,  vegetables, Skyr yoghurt… Then I repeat that the following week, and so on until I get to my goal weight.

I also train, of course. Ideally I’d be weight training, building muscle to drive weight loss, but sadly I rarely have the time for that. So it tends to be about cardio: running and Indoor cycling.

if it were down to willpower, i would find weight loss as hard as everyone else

I can lose at least 2kg a week by doing this, and I manage to do it without getting moody or losing concentration. I can still work and train. I don’t know how, but it just works for me.

What I would say, though, is that if it were down to willpower I would find weight loss as hard as everyone else. It’s only because I have that cross

in my calendar – that date by which I have to be ready, by which I have to deliver the right look – that I can do it. That cross means I’ll go through hell to do it!

weight gain weight loss esben algaard andersen danish actor
©Viaplay/TV3

Is indoor cycling something you do just for weight loss?

Not at all. I first discovered Indoor cycling maybe 15 or 20 years ago when it first really started making waves in Denmark. My friend and I went to try it out and we managed to get ourselves into the high-performance class. We’re quite competitive, so we really pushed ourselves and when I got home I collapsed!

I’m hooked on indoor cycling. if the instructor is at the front shouting at me to push myself harder, that’s perfect.

That might sound like a cautionary tale about Indoor cycling, but it isn’t at all. It was my own stupidity. I was taken to hospital for an ECG and there was nothing wrong with me, other than I’d pushed myself so hard that my body had produced too much adrenaline to be able to then cope with! Basically, I over-trained, and I’ve been teased about it ever since. But that’s me, that’s my psyche when I work out. I like to be really pushed and to beast myself.

I found myself totally hooked on Indoor cycling and have done it ever since. I know not everyone likes this style of coaching, but for me, if the instructor is at the front shouting at me to push myself harder, that’s perfect. I like to really sweat. I also like going for a run, but I’ll only go in the heat of the day when I know I’ll sweat straight away.

I have an indoor cycling bike at home, too, and have had for several years. I prefer live classes, but I can’t always make it. Having my own bike means I can do a class whenever I like – I just find one on YouTube, so there’s still someone shouting at me, and put my headphones in. I’ll then feel good for the rest of the day.

So that’s my routine really: cycling, running and weights. I did take part in Dancing with the Stars last year and came third, but I aconfess I haven’t carried on with that!

esben algaard anderson on indoor cycle weight gain weight loss
Esben has a Body Bike at home, for when he can’t make it to the gym

Have you passed your exercise enthusiasm on to your children?

Healthy living is an important topic in our household. My eldest daughter is 14 and she’s really into training. She and I go running together – she’s faster than me, I’m better at endurance, but we find a way to make it work together. And my wife runs every day.

But my little one… we have to be quite careful with her. She doesn’t exercise as much, but it’s the eating we’re really focused on with her at the moment. She’s only seven, but she’s already talking about wanting to go on a diet. It’s very difficult, because of course she sees her dad dieting, and pretty dramatically at that. There’s no hiding the fact that I fast for three days straight, because I’ll be at the table with them but not eating. But we don’t want her to get the wrong ideas about food. We want her to know it’s OK to eat. We’re having to find the right way to talk about food and exercise, about healthy eating.

This is a side-effect of my regime – the weird stuff I have to do – that we hadn’t thought about before. I don’t want to be a negative role model for my children. Women in particular have enough pressure as it is, with the skinny images they think they have to match up to if they want to be the perfect woman.

It’s really hard when my appearance, my weight, is so important, but I want my girls to grow up knowing that happiness comes from within.

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