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Virtuagym CEO Hugo Braam on the Democratization of Fitness
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Virtuagym CEO Hugo Braam on the Democratization of Fitness

Virtuagym CEO
Braam, co-founder and CEO of global fitness software provider Virtuagym, sees the biggest tech opportunity in motivating the 85%

Athletech News sat down with Hugo Braam, the co-founder and CEO of Virtuagym, to discuss how Virtuagym’s fitness software and digitization in general are driving the democratization of fitness. The company, with offices in the Netherlands and the Americas, serves 9,000 fitness businesses, 45,000 trainers, and 20 million consumers in 80 countries around the world with its all-in-one business management, coaching, engagement and communication solution. According to Braam, gyms have a huge opportunity to help more people be healthy and grow their business by using technology as a motivational tool.

Athletech News: How are fitness technology platforms like Virtuagym helping gym and studio operators spend more time working with customers and making fitness accessible to more people?

Hugo Braam: Right now, most gyms are using software to automate repetitive human tasks, which is extremely valuable because it allows you to do more with less, and to focus time on other things. Rather than spending hours over spreadsheets, gym owners can quickly automate processes and use dashboards at a click of a button. Saving that time helps them to increase the level of service for a broader number of people by automating parts of the client journey and supporting the personal touch. We have clients that use tasks and reminders in preset protocols to personally call clients to see how they’re doing after the first 30 days. This is really where technology and the human touch can go hand in hand. 

But the most exciting benefits of technology, and something we have seen especially following COVID, is how it is making fitness easier to access. I call it the democratization of fitness. For example, some people are maybe less competent at fitness. They would just walk into a gym and have no idea what to do, feeling a bit bad about having to ask for support. You can easily and quickly lose them as members. So instead, you provide them beginner workout plans in a mobile app so they can self-serve themselves using technology, which is great for them, and also for the business.

ATN: So would those people who maybe wouldn’t have done any kind of fitness before start at home then go to the gym? Meaning it drives a kind of beginner’s hybrid model?

HB: Definitely. Technology also allows us to diversify the fitness offering, for example by creating a personalized set of strength exercises to do at home. But also, if you don’t like strength exercises, you can do a Pilates workout video, or you can do a dance workout video. Although it wouldn’t be efficient or affordable for a gym or studio to have all of these teachers on the payroll, by having this workout library in the app, it can really extend the offering and make it more interesting to a broader group of people. Technology can provide that low level entry access because insecurity is a big hurdle for many people in their desire to get fit.

People can be extremely accomplished in other fields but when it comes to personal health, it’s different. They feel vulnerable. We all know that getting out of our comfort zones and not knowing what we exactly need to do is difficult. Technology can provide that safe, low-threshold support level that helps people build confidence, which in turn will help prevent those members from churning.

ATN: Has the fitness industry been slow to adopt technology? 

HB: Historically, I feel our industry was 20 years behind others. I think tech hasn’t been a real focus for fitness because many people in our industry are traditionally real “people people” who don’t like to sit behind computers all day, and I believe this has slowed down the initial adoption. Right now, though, technology has become more accessible as everybody has a mobile phone and uses apps, and at the same time we’re seeing more tech-minded people entering our industry as well, so luckily this has finally changed. 

We launched our business 15 years ago in the B2C space from the coaching side, supporting people with personalized workouts and nutrition plans within a social environment. Ten years ago, we pivoted towards B2B after getting requests from fitness businesses saying “you’ve got this great tech, can we use it to coach our clients”? At the time, that was really avant-garde. Digital coaching was considered a nice-to-have. So in order to drive our success in the market, we started adding business-critical solutions for scheduling, then member management, access control and other tasks. Today, we’re at a point where digital coaching is now being considered business-critical by many as well. This trend was accelerated by COVID, and professionals in our industry now finally realize the importance of leveraging technology within the coaching domain. This is despite it being a main consumer trend for many years and the health and fitness mobile app category being one of the most popular in app stores.

“If you’re using a mobile app just for scheduling and communication, I think you’re still leaving a lot on the table because there’s so much more that you can do with technology in driving engagement and using gamification and challenges to enhance the training experience.”

Hugo Braam, co-founder and CEO, Virtuagym

ATN: In what areas do you see the most opportunity for technology going forward? Are there new technologies that you are excited about? 

HB: The real power and potential going forward is in fluidly combining business tech with engagement and personalized coaching, which is where Virtuagym, given its background as a consumer-focused business, really excels. This is evident from our extremely high mobile app ratings, which are always 4.5 stars, very strong for end-user experience. Being this consumer focused is one of our unique selling points. We help our clients to be extremely consumer-centric with the best member-focused app out there. 

I think that there’s a lot of technology, including mobile tech, already in the market today that’s not being leveraged by fitness businesses. If you’re using a mobile app just for scheduling and communication, I think you’re still leaving a lot on the table because there’s so much more that you can do with technology in driving engagement and using gamification and challenges to enhance the training experience. 

Like most people,I love new innovations. We all talk about what fitness technology will look like tomorrow and all these cool advancements, like augmented and virtual reality. But I think our industry could benefit more if we’d talk more often about the technologies that are already available for businesses, as these offer untapped opportunities to grow. Luckily, there are many forward-thinking companies that are using tech, which is helping them to really make a big difference. There is so much to learn from those organizations to support us in getting ahead right now, instead of talking about the next big thing.

ATN: How are some of your clients using your products or offerings to their great advantage? 

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HB: We talked about efficiency and accessibility, but I think the most powerful impact that technology can have on fitness is related to what I feel is the biggest challenge for our industry: motivation. Because in the end, our purpose is to help people create sustainable lifestyle change, to shift them from being an unhealthy and inactive person to someone who works out several times per week and, hopefully, starts eating better. But in reality, I feel that at present we are not very good at achieving this. We’re great at servicing that top 15% who have intrinsic motivation, who will work out even if all they have is a basic gym with cold iron barbells. I think our big challenge and opportunity is that other 85% who have trouble coming to the gym. Reaching that demographic has always been a challenge for the fitness industry business model, but it is one for which I believe tech can be a game changer. 

Virtuagym CEO

We have a Dutch client, Day One, who offer primarily an online digital experience, but they start on the first day with an in-person meeting. They do a whole set of benchmark tests for body composition, monitoring, and fitness, with pictures. And people commit to this 16-week transformation plan. On the first day they learn how the app works, the daily workouts they are expected to do, how many steps, etc. They use wearables to collect all the data. And the part that I think is really powerful is the connected body weight scale that we provide that everyone takes home. Every morning, they need to step on the scale. Day One’s founder says it’s helping clients psychologically and creates accountability. So this always available tech, this accountability, the coach that’s watching online as your metrics are added to the app, it creates this additional support and motivation to keep up with the program. And it’s amazing to see the results that these people are getting. In the end, I believe motivation in coaching is the most important aspect of getting results as it leads to long-term consistency. 

ATN: Are there particular gym chains that you kind of look at as being successfully disruptive, that are using technology to its full advantage?

HB: There are plenty but still not enough. There is a large gym chain in Europe, Basic Fit, that truly leverages technology to be super cost-effective. They have 24/7 fitness facilities with low staffing. This concept appeals mostly to young people who are cost-conscious but want to work out in good, high-quality facilities. They have very good equipment and use AI camera technology that feeds to a central security center to identify whether people need help or are having trouble. It’s contactless, like Amazon Go. 

Another client, a large French chain called Fitness Park, has co-developed a technology called the body egg, a big capsule that you stand in that has more than 200 cameras to create this avatar of yourself. It allows you to not only see your current physical state, but within the app, you can pull sliders to set your personal goals, whether to lose weight or increase muscle mass. I’m a big believer of motivation through visualization. And this technology is helping people visualize what they can look like if different muscle groups grow and other areas with high fat percentage decrease. I did it myself on a visit to one of their clubs in Paris and it was a great experience. And I think these things, from a motivational perspective, are great. But they’re also invaluable for marketing because people talk about them. For a lot of clubs, instead of spending all their money on TV ads, or online advertising, they should also think about adding an innovative concept like this. Even though there may not be a direct ROI, people will be talking about it. And I think we all agree word of mouth is one of the strongest ways of advertising.

“I think the most powerful impact that technology can have on fitness is related to what I feel is the biggest challenge for our industry: motivation.”

ATN: What are you most excited about for Virtuagym over the next year or so? What is on your radar?

HB: I think there are multiple things, like the potential of making the fitness industry an extension of our healthcare system. But mostly, I still think that the biggest potential that technology has is with this motivational aspect. When I co-founded Virtuagym 15 years ago with my brother Paul, I assumed that we would be working out in very different ways 15 years later, but honestly, the way people are working out hasn’t changed that much. As a business, we are looking at how to leverage technology to really enhance the experience of exercise and keep driving the exciting changes we are now seeing in our industry. And I think in the coming years, due to technology, we’re going to see a lot of innovations in how people exercise. This can really create a shift in the training experience by making it fun, social, on-demand and accessible. And, hopefully, get more people active and healthy. 

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