A 'device-focused' approach to customer interaction will be a key part of the ongoing digital strategy at a fitness business, according to Fitness First CIO Ed Hutt.

"For us in the fitness industry, there is a seismic change - especially in the last couple of years - moving towards a far more technologically-driven organisation. Not everybody just wants a 24-hour gym with equipment in - many people are looking for a sense of community and a source of motivation in their training, and that's something that can be developed and enhanced through mobile technology to a 'Martini' solution: fitness anywhere, any place, any time."

Hutt said that the move towards the digital gym was fundamental. "As this develops, it will give us the ability to push apps, to push web components and to drive approaite content to a member both in the gym and outside at any time of day to help them with their personal fitness goals and provide the key motivation needed to succeed," Hutt said.

One of the areas the fitness industry can consider is iBeacon technology to track who exactly is entering the gyms and push relevant information to members automatically without the need for further intervention from staff and personal trainers, who can spend more time working with customers.

"People want to pay for an experience that makes them feel valued, welcome and known," Hutt said. "Technology can help with this and it does not need to be either complicated or expensive.

"Most members will have a smart phone and this is key to the development of a personal digital service for training, communication and for interactions between members. It becomes the pass key that can identify a person, provide them with the digital tools they need to train the way they want, and the way we can communicate with them any time."

Data centre consolidation

The development in business models has coincided with the simplification of the IT infrastructure underpinning its operations.

"Fitness First used to occupy about 50 cabinets of legacy technology in various locations," Hutt said. "This is now slimmed down and our new data centre model for a major region fits into two cabinets, and they are not full.

"The alternate cloud-based data-centre model which we also use is based on Microsoft Azure, and works well for certain operational units of a specific size and types of business services. The cloud model, which we call Black II, works for some business situations and the colocation model (Black I) works for others.

"We are not fixated on one or the other and have both in our digital portfolio. We use the most appropriate for each business situation to optimise cost and service. We also take a lot of services as SaaS now and this was part of a conscious strategy to provide operating flexibility, manage cost and facilitate the exit from the old data centres which would have been harder if it meant migrating more systems.

"In this world of asymmetric business where newcomers can enter and be active, gaining market share and using the latest technology at low cost, we have to move a lot faster and be able to introduce or change business models in weeks to react to this. This simply was impossible in the old way of working where the train would have left the station, arrived at its destination, and then done a few other trips before it was possible to change the direction of IT."

Hutt's vision revealed a move towards a minimalist and digitally-focused future for Fitness First IT.
"One question we are now asking is can we run a facility with just a few tablets and everything else being entirely cloud-, plug-and-play, and SaaS-based? This would mean we could start new operations much faster in new locations - like the pop-up store in retail. It would also make it much easier to bring out fitness services to corporate entities, groups and outside of the traditional physical gym premise.

"So low cost base, high return. Speed from concept to market, use of consumer technology where possible, use of standard components as a rule. That's where our digital IT research time and work is going."

Smartphones and wearable tech

Hutt said that one of Fitness First's areas of research was how in the future a customer's own smartphone or wearable device can be used a gym membership card. "It can provide an alternative access method to the traditional swipe card and be paired with wearable technology," the CIO said. "Entering a site could also trigger an iBeacon via the devices and act as a key card, and then push offers appropriate to the training regime.

Furthermore, wearables are becoming ever more popular in gyms and this is something to exploit, according to Hutt.

"In our research at the moment we are looking at clothing for monitoring the heart rate, oxygen uptake and other mass market devices that can detect and record fitness data," he said. "These download data to your device which then downloads to a database, so you are better able to work out your performance and training strategy.

"The big challenge is which wearable technology do you choose to support or do you try and support all of the key ones because the customer could choose anything."