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Leisure Management - Francis Ottevaere


Francis Ottevaere

Returning to 80 per cent attendance in just a few weeks after re-opening, the CEO of JIMS Fitness talks about his COVID-19 strategies with Kate Cracknell

The pandemic has sped up JIMS Fitness' progress towards becoming a coaching company
JIMS is launching a new app, following a collaboration with Technogym Mywellness
Members report feeling confident in the clubs’ COVID-19 measures
JIMS is building club-in-club boutiques based on things such as boxing and cycling
The company retained and paid its team during the COVID-19 lockdown
JIMS has 28 clubs in Belgium and Luxembourg and plans to add 2-4 more a year

Tell us about reopening
We decided to go beyond the government’s compulsory measures, while at the same time trying to make our clubs feel as normal and welcoming as possible.

I attended a webinar with Will Wang, CEO of Will’s Gym in Asia, and his words really resonated with me. He explained that perception is reality – that clubs need to regain the confidence of their members, and that if gyms don’t go far enough in their measures they might lose those members.

We surveyed our active members and the three measures they find most reassuring are, firstly, the fact they have to reserve a slot to come and train. We’ve divided our days into 1hr45 blocks, separated by cleaning sessions in which we sanitise all the frequently touched elements in the club: door handles, vending machine screens, card machines and so on. We can’t clean all the equipment though – it would make the cleaning phases too long – so members are asked to clean all equipment before and after each use.

The second and third most popular measures are compulsory disinfection of hands on the way into the club, and temperature checking every member on entry: we send them home if they have a temperature over 37.5°C.

We can’t eliminate all risk, of course, but we believe we’ve done everything we can to make our members safe – and feel safe. We now have testimonials from members and have been in the news on French-speaking TV. This has helped spread our message of reassurance.

Interestingly, our survey has found that in our locations, younger people are more negative and sensitive than older people, and that women are more positive about our measures than men. This surprised us.

Another finding is that those with high purchasing power are less comfortable about attending the gym than those with lower purchasing power. We’re adapting locally based on this feedback and the profile of each club.

What shape is the business in?
We reopened our clubs on 29 May in Luxembourg, and 8 June in Belgium, and we’ve come out OK. Not great, and the second half of this year will be a challenge, but I think the fact we were able to pay our bills throughout the crisis, without needing any government loans, is testament to the strength of our community.

We’ve only lost 8.7 per cent of our members over the 10 weeks of closure – admittedly that’s helped by our 12-month initial contracts – and our attendance figures are quite good, especially as social distancing means we can only have one member per 10sq m of floor space.

In Luxembourg, on our first day of opening, we had 52 per cent of the check-ins compared to the equivalent day in 2019. In Belgium, it was 65 per cent.

Catch-up is already happening. In Belgium, we’re up to around 80 per cent of the visits compared to the same day in 2019; cumulatively since re-opening, we’re at around 70 per cent. Meanwhile, sales are 150–200 per cent compared to last year.

At our three clubs in Luxembourg, attendance is cumulatively up to 61 per cent – from 52 per cent on day one – and over the weekend just gone, we were at 80–90 per cent compared to the equivalent weekend last year. Sales are sitting at 100–150 per cent compared to 2019. [All figures @ 22 June 2020]

And the longer-term impact?
It has sped up our progress towards the strategy we’d already outlined for our business: to become a coaching company that happens to have fitness clubs. That’s now our ambition: to support people in achieving their goals, wherever they choose to work out.

Obviously, digital is the tool that will allow us to turn this vision into reality. We see digital as the way to make personalised services more efficient and more effective.

Can you elaborate on your digital strategy?
The online work we did during lockdown with Technogym was effectively a chance to test the features of a new app powered by Mywellness, which is now being finalised to incorporate our online learnings over recent months.

Starting from September this year, we’ll offer three distinct types of membership.

If you just want to come in and use our equipment and classes, that’s fine. You’ll pay €20–25 a month.

If you want to be coached, you can choose a membership – priced at €35–37 a month – that gives access to the club and our new app. You’ll receive personalised online support, with a certified coach – one of our team – following your progress and offering advice, motivation and new programmes as needed. This will be supplemented with in-club tests and consultations, but essentially it means you can train, with our support, wherever you choose: in-club, at home, in the park.

The app will also feature on-demand and live streamed classes, again powered by Mywellness through our partnership with Technogym; you’ll even be able to see your friends in the class.

Finally, we’re rolling out a club-in-club model, creating boutique studios inside our facilities for a premium group training experience. We first trialled this at the Gare du Luxembourg, where we were offered a 2,000sq m space on a take it or leave it basis.

It’s larger than our usual clubs – which typically measure 1,200–1,600sq m, with a classic offering of cardio, weights, functional training and studios – we decided to trial in-house boxing and CrossFit-style boutiques.

These initial boutiques went very well: we found that 50 per cent of the customers were our existing members who had traded up.

We’re now creating boutiques in every club, and where we have clusters of clubs, make them complementary. We’re considering boxing, CrossFit-style training, pilates, yoga and cycling.

If you take this membership option, you’ll have access to the club and the boutique classes, and very likely our digital support too – we’re finalising the details as we speak. As an example, boxing will cost €40–50 a month, CrossFit-style training around €70–80.

What are your growth plans?
For now, our primary focus will be on our product: launching and embedding the three types of membership.

It might even be that we launch a fourth membership category, for those living in areas where we don’t have a physical club. That question is definitely on the table: can we effectively motivate and coach people through the app alone?

We’re also in discussions with Telenet, the largest cable provider in Belgium, about a TV channel to stream our group exercise.

That might involve a newspaper-style model: get some content for free, upgrade to get all our digital content, and then you might decide to also pay to come into our clubs.

We may open more clubs – perhaps two to four a year – but only if good locations come up. We’re not under any pressure to open a certain number of clubs in a certain timeframe.

The focus is on executing our vision: first and foremost, to be a coaching provider.

A twist in the tale

“Back in 2008, in the grip of the financial crisis, I was let go from my job in private equity. It was the best day of my life,” says Francis Ottevaere, founder and CEO of JIMS Fitness.

“I’d seen the success of Fit4Free in Holland and I confess that, at that point…well, let’s just say modesty isn’t a common trait in private equity! I initially saw fitness as an investment and went into it with a confident ‘I’ll just do this and it will work’ mindset.

“Thankfully, that confidence wasn’t misplaced. I started out in 2010, buying a club in Ghent and rebranding it as JIMS Fitness – a name that, honestly, came down to the availability of domain names – and in the last 10 years we’ve built 28 clubs in Belgium and Luxembourg.”

He continues: “The name isn’t totally arbitrary. We wanted a brand that conveyed a sense of there being someone on-hand to support you in your training, helping you reach your goals. Because our philosophy is to start with the people – our staff and our members – rather than the equipment, as is the case with some of our competitors.

“We invest in our staff. We train them, which isn’t compulsory in Belgium. We offer career progression and decent pay and we retain 85–90 per cent over the course of a year. Ours is a stable community of people who help build the experience in, and the reputation of, our clubs.”

He adds: “Funnily enough, the story has a bit of a twist in that my former colleagues in private equity are now the investors in BasicFit.

In 2013, I got a call from my old boss asking if I would sell, but I declined – I have a great team, a brand we can do more to build and many opportunities in Belgium where the majority of our clubs are.

Fitness is a young, innovative sector, with fresh perspectives as new players enter the market. It’s an exciting place to be.

“This isn’t just an investment for me any more. It’s something I love doing.”

COVID-19 crisis
The name JIMS Fitness was chosen for its supportive feel
What was your response to lockdown?

It all happened very quickly: we only had a few days’ notice before we had to close, which happened on Friday 17 March in Belgium and soon after in Luxembourg.

Our first focus was our members: how to compensate them for the closure, how to ensure they felt fairly treated, and how to keep them engaged.

We asked them what compensation they wanted and distilled this into four options. However, I made a video in which I explicitly asked if they could – if possible – choose option one or two, because option four was the worst for us. Our members proved to be incredibly supportive.

The first option was to continue paying membership, but with a temporary reduction of €5 per payment. This reduction will continue until these members have recouped the full cost of membership paid during lockdown: in the long run, they will have had those 10 weeks for free. Around 40 per cent of our members took this option.

Option two was to continue paying in full, with the promise of a nice surprise at re-opening. Around 20 per cent of our members chose this route and will now be very well looked after. Alongside club access, they will get digital support for free, as well as some nice freebies. And we’ll actively involve them in our decisions, to ensure we’re supporting them as they would like.

Option three was to extend the end date of membership by the length of lockdown, which 10 per cent of our members chose. And then option four, taken up by 30 per cent of our members, was to immediately freeze membership.

How did you keep your members engaged?

With money still coming in, we could continue to pay our staff. We didn’t lose a single member of our team during this crisis.

In turn, this meant we could use our instructors to create online content: Instagram and Facebook Live for classes, which we filmed in our clubs, and online coaching to support members who wanted to do non-group exercise training at home – bodyweight functional training and so on. Using Facebook and Instagram as we were, we couldn’t measure class attendance, but we found members were very open to online coaching during lockdown: 6–7 per cent used this service, which as a new concept we felt was quite good.

All our online services were open to all members, for free – even those who had frozen their memberships. People were losing their jobs. We understood that not everyone could afford to pay.

In phase two of lockdown, we were also allowed to start running outdoor training sessions. These sessions were also offered for free: we accepted making a financial loss in order to support our members.

It’s the same with group classes now the clubs are open: we have limited capacity, but we pride ourselves on offering live classes only in-club – no virtual. Until social distancing eases, we accept we will be making a loss by paying live instructors.

We’re in discussion with Telenet cable TV to stream our group exercise classes
JIMS only lost 8.9 per cent of members during the 10 week closure

Originally published in Health Club Management 2020 issue 6
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06 Apr 2020 issue 153

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