Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Leisure is dying. But something new will emerge. Part 2.

For part one go here

So in part one we looked at some of the problems facing the industry, now we have to ask some tough questions and be open to new answers.

Sacred Cows and Lost Opportunities.

The most important thing we can do to find new solutions is break out of the old model of doing things. And the first way to do this is in the way we listen and really go back to the basic fundamental question of why does this business exist and who is it for?

U Lab and Otto Scharmer talk about 4 levels of listening. Most listening we do in meetings is at the basic level 1, this is where everyone sounds the same, talking nice and saying what the boss wants to hear, we are not learning anything new. Even at the next level of debate, all we are doing is listening and reacting, trying to defend our position, not getting beyond our point of view.

Scharmer gives an example of when American automobile executives visited Japan in the 1980's to look at the they way they were producing cars. When they returned they were  convinced the Japanese hadn't shown them the real factory as it was too clean and organised. They couldn't get past their own perceptions of what their industry should look like even when presented with evidence there was a different way.

To really move on we need to go to the next level of reflective dialogue and collective creativity. We need to ask genuine questions, to move away from blame and not just defending view points and excepting all the sacred cows we cannot change.

Here are a few leisure industry/ fitness industry sacred cows and trite statements and products that we persist with, that we all buy into:-

  • Of course no one is in this industry for the money
  • Swimming pools are a money pit but we can't get rid of them
  • We have a sauna and steam room that most customers don't use
  • We have a monthly membership
  • People buy PT in blocks
  • Of course we need to have PT
  • Why do studio instructors get paid 3x more than lifeguards
  • We have to open at 6am, 7am, 24 hours to compete
  • We have to have student discounts even though this group is already spending £9000 a year minimum on education and is therefore willing to get into massive debt
  • We have to have discounts for the over 60's even though at the moment this age group have more disposable income than people in their late 20's
  • We have to keep running kids birthday parties even though they are a massive hassle, we can never find the staff to run them and the parents complain
  • We have to have badminton courts that make us £10 per hour maximum where a small PT gym in the same space as a court would make £100 per hour
  • We're not in it to make a profit but we do have a profit and loss spreadsheet. Leisure is somehow different from all other industries and can't make any money
  • We need a certain amount of cardio equipment even though most evenings now most of the cardio equipment is empty and the free-weights area is full, people's exercise habits have moved on
  • We don't have online coaching or products because we have a building. We can't have an online & physical business. See the example of John Lewis later for an answer this
  • We need changing rooms and showers
  • What would happen if we closed the studios and expanded the gym?
  • What would happen if we closed the gym and expanded the studios?
  • Our IT systems are too complicated and don't work for us, they make the job of the people on the front line harder, but there is nothing we can do.
  • etc etc
I'm sure you can think of a few yourself. In the words of U lab we need to 'turn the camera around on ourselves'. 

And realise that as an industry we collectively created these problems. It's easy to blame other individuals (Peter Senge, Ulab interview) rather than looking at our part in this as well.

We are all weird now

Seth Godin has made the point there are no average people now. As an industry we still think we can attract all people at all times. We can't. The middle market that leisure centre and health clubs are all clamoring for disappeared a long time ago or never existed in the first place as a substantial business sustaining segment.

We thought we could all be Tescos and be everything to everyone, but even supermarkets can't do that any more.

Does Top Shop try to appeal to the young teenager and the old pensioner? No. But we try to, with the same space, with the same gym and then wonder why the pensioner then complains that the music is too loud. I'm never going into Hollister to shop, and I am not meant to, its not for me.

Add up all the tribes, the outliers in fitness - powerlifters, cross fitters, Les Mills (which even breaks down into sub tribes, those who only like Body Attack, those who like Body Combat), figure competitors, olympic weightlifters, yoga (which then breaks down into different types of yoga) and all these tribes out number the middle mass market.


From the above discussion hopefully a few points have jumped out already... nothing is sacred, what can you safely remove from your business with no detrimental effect, what do you need to hold onto, what differentiates you, how can you craft an experience?

Pull up the weeds...

Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University (Coursera.org course Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence) gives an example of a vineyard in the wine country of Barcelona.

This vineyard was making cheap $10 a bottle bulk wine, and it was a loss maker. It couldn't even make money. Then one day the two brothers running it noticed some of the grapes were exceptionally good. And they thought, what if we could produce a vintage wine only using these grapes?

They had no previous history of producing quality wine. So they went to the rest of the family and explained their vision and what they would have to do. They would have to pull up and destroy the poor vines, and start to only grow the best vines.  They also went to the other growers in the area to explain their vision.

They would have to accept a transition period. They knew it would take time.

Now a bottle of wine from the Mas Doix region is worth $140 and is rated as one the best wines in the world.

So what are you best products, your best grapes? What can be ripped up and abandoned? How much of a transition period are you willing to accept?

Seth Godin gives the example of Jackson Hole ski resort when it transitioned from a resort aimed at everyone to only aiming at extreme skiers.

Yes, when you remove certain products you are going to piss off a certain number of people. There will always be that person who uses the sauna or whatever but you have to accept you cannot please everyone.

You have to ask fundamentally Why are we here as a business? And like the two brothers in Barcelona, the emotionally intelligent thing to do is take into account other peoples feelings and ideas to create your shared vision. Yes involve stakeholders and customers, but mainly involve your ground level staff to create a shared vision.

The perceived degree of shared vision predicts success (Boyatzis,2015 Coursera). If your staff aren't with you then it is already over.

And bear in mind you may not get it right first time.

'Nothing important will happen with the first try' (Ulab edx.org)

Staff again.

How your customers feel about your company is how they feel about your staff. You can either make the customer feel a little better or a little worse (Boyatzis, 2015, Coursera).

Isabel Guerro (former Vice President of the World Bank) states in an interview with Ulab)

"Remove as many obstacles as possible for people on the front line"
If the world bank can do it surely a club or centre can do this. Really think about the obstacles your staff have. Are you making your product simpler or more complicated? Are support staff helping or hindering. Are ideas lost or adopted? Do your training systems, recruitment strategies and rewards work or not?

"The people working on the front lines are often better positioned to drive continual improvements." (Robertson, 2015;33)
What your HR department thinks your organisation looks like
But really are your systems working for you?

What your organisation probably looks like, source: www.integrationtraining.co.uk

The experience.

As alluded to previously in part 1, the new economy is experienced based. The whole book Stuffocation is based on people looking for experiences rather than stuff.

People go to Disney for the experience (and it may not be an experience I want, and that's okay they are not aiming at me). People go to see Star Wars for the experience of the film.

Pine and Gilmore in Welcome to the Experience Economy state

"Experiences are a distinct economic offering"
and are they are memorable, is your club or centre memorable for the right reasons?

I see some people confusing the idea of experience with architecture. Yes, if your experience is predicated on fantastic changing rooms and designer towels and shower gel you've got no choice. But experience is much more than this. No one goes to Westside Barbell or Metroflex Gym or any crossfit gym for the shower gel and towels. It is a distinct experience.

I would say a company like Les Mills have grasped this. When I visited their Head Office in London they had very much realised that the design of the group fitness space, the instructor, the music, the lighting, the feeling of a tribe (and which tribe they were aiming at - millennials or mums) were all part of the experience. Even if many of the places that buy the licence for their product have not grasped this concept. (I have no affiliation with Les Mills by the way).

What do people remember about the experience of your product, and remember the experience doesn't just have to be in your building, it can be online too.

"I don't want stuff. I want the need or experience it fulfills." (Rachel Botsman quoted in Scharmer 2013;134)
Do we even know what experience we are trying to produce? And please don't say friendly and welcoming with good customer service! Who doesn't want to be these things, experience goes beyond this.

A company like John Lewis has grasped experience (as well as a different way of employee remuneration). A few years ago they had no online presence, now they have a massive online presence. But this hasn't taken away from their stores. Their Christmas advert has become a tradition in a few short years. People still go to their stores and buy things, especially at Christmas, even though they can buy the same things online.Why? They have created an in-store experience that people want to be part of.

Experience is about participation. The customer has to be engaged. When I switch utility suppliers I don't really care about participation, it's a passive thing. But when people come to a club or centre they are actively choosing to spend at least an hour of their leisure time with you. How do engage them, how do you make them feel like they are part of something to justify your price being more than a budget club. After all, they could easily go for a walk for free outside or put some weights in their garage, why are they with you?

What adds to your experience, what detracts from your experience? A few ideas
  • Does a vending machine selling the same stuff as your local petrol station add or detract from your health and fitness experience?
  • Does your class booking system add or detract from the experience?
  • Does the entry point, music, layout, staff uniform add or detract from the experience?
  • etc etc

Fundamentally ask why does the world need us and our product? (Robertson, 2015).


You may have noticed I haven't given you a prescriptive solution, as in you need to get rid of this and focus on this. First of all, every place is different, what your strengths are (your award winning grapes) I might not have even thought of.

For you the answer might be to have a hall that only has badminton, you've figured out a way to make money from a badminton only business (if someone can make a ping pong bar then this is probably viable). I hereby copyright 'Badminton Bar'!

Or your strength is rehab and GP referral and this should be your niche. Or you've figured out a way to make a business based on swimming lessons (and make a profit?!)

Or should focus on youth strength and kids fitness. Or you should have a great group fitness experience that only does Les Mills or indoor cycling like soul cycling.

I don't know what your experience should be, but please don't just try and tack on the above ideas to what you already do and hope for the best.

Secondly, collaboration is a powerful thing, I don't have all the answers, but I bet your team has all the answers you need if you let them tell you.

You should know what dead wood needs to be removed, you should know what your strong products should be, and the experience your customers should have.

Start with

"If this was my company, what would I do?' (Robertson 2015;25)
Key points
  • Have the conversation with the front line staff, really listen they have some of the answers
  • Are managers and support staff adding value to your business?
  • What is the shared vision?
  • This vision decides which choice grapes you focus on and which weeds you pull up
  • Accept transition and you can't please everyone
  • What is your experience going to be? Craft it.
  • Keep evolving, creating and improving.

Yes, I was melodramatic at the start of part 1, is leisure dying? It will still be here in some form, of course, and it will drag on in its current form for a while until everyone goes and opens their own microgym or goes to work for Lidl to get paid more.

But something new will emerge. And collectively we can create this. Exciting times.

"Decades of scientific research have revealed that great creativity almost always springs from collaboration, conversation, and social networks—challenging our mythical image of the isolated genius. And research shows that when a group is in flow, it’s more likely to resolve problems with surprising and creative solutions." (R Keith Sawyer quoted in The Science of Happiness, University of Berkeley, module 7,edx.org)
Film reference of the day: It depends on why you built it, where you built it and who you built it for. image source: www.corumgroup.com

For more on all this stuff please see the following posts from me
The digital disruption of the fitness industry
Induction, Program, Leave, Repeat
No Joining Fee. The Fitness Industry Epic Fail
References and acknowledgements.

This whole thing has a big debt to two Massive Online Open Courses. (MOOCs). The future of learning probably isn't £9000 a year institutions any more.

Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence. Case Western Reserve University. www.courser.org
U Lab: Transforming Business, Society and Self. www.edx.org
U lab website


The Science of Happiness. University of Berkeley. www.edx.org


Goleman D, Boyatzis R, McKee a (2002) The New Leaders. Transforming the Art of Leadership into the Science of Results.

Scharmer O & Kaufer K (2013) Leading from the Emerging Future.

Robertson B (2015) Holacracy. The Revolutionary Management System that Abolishes Hierarchy.

Wallman J (2015) Stuffocation. Living More with Less.

Pine & Gilmore (1998) Welcome to the Experience Economy. Harvard Business Review.

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