UK fitness sector has potential for growth when it comes to embracing digital

UK fitness sector has potential for growth when it comes to embracing digital

By Frances Marcellin    01 Dec 2022

The three-year study is tracking digital engagement by operators / Shutterstock/Ollyy

UK Health and Fitness operators’ level of engagement with technology has been researched for the second year as part of a three-year study part funded by government quango, Sport England and organised by UK Active.

The results, published as Digital Futures report for 2022, demonstrate that the industry increased its engagement with digital strategy.

Findings showed that three operators reached Digital Leader status, scoring 80 per cent or more, compared to only one in 2021, and that 24 per cent of operators scored less than 40 per cent, compared to just 11 per cent in 2021. As with last year, private operators score higher than public operators for all areas of digital, with university operators scoring lower still.

UK Active identified 36 operators who participated in both last year’s and the 2022 report and has named them the ‘Digital Futures cohort’. These operators scored higher on average this year than last, indicating a link between engaging with this survey and action on digital strategies and technologies.

“This suggests that playing an active role in the Digital Futures programme over the past two years has helped operators increase their use of digital and amplify its positive impact on their performance,” stated the report. “We encourage more operators to follow in the footsteps of the Digital Futures cohort into 2023, continuing to benefit from the support obtained through participation.”

The number of operators ready to embark on a digital transformation journey has increased, with almost half of respondents, 46 per cent, confirming that digital will play a central or critical role in their future, compared to one-third, 34 per cent, in last year’s report.

In terms of the sample, participants doubled to 93 public and private operators, up from 44 in 2021. The 93 operators represented more than 1,800 sites across the UK – 1,300 in 2021 – who collectively serve around 4.5m members. A breakdown showed that 70 per cent of operators were public, 12 per cent private and 11 per cent universities. In terms of size, 46 per cent had 1-5 sites; 23 per cent 6-10 sites; 25 per cent 11-50 sites; and 6 per cent more than 51 sites.

Participants were issued their score after completing UK Active’s free Digital Maturity and Effectiveness Index Tool. This detemines which category of digital maturity a company belongs to: Digitally Behind (0-19); Digital Foundations (20-39); Digital Experimenter (40-59); Digitally Established (60-79); and Digital Leader (80+).

Overall, the score for the sector’s digital maturity and effectiveness is 51 per cent – in the Digital Experimenter category – down from 55 per cent in 2021. This means that just over half of the organisations that responded are “already making some great advances in digital”. However, the report underlines that while “operators are making great strides forward” they are still “missing the investment, goal alignment and rapid advances to yield a strong performance”.

“Our latest findings present the most comprehensive case yet for investment in digital strategies by fitness and leisure operators, providing them with the evidence and recommendations needed to drive improvements,” said Huw Edwards, CEO of UK Active. “Digital transformation will play a fundamental role in creating a first-class, inclusive fitness experience for every customer in the UK, helping us to get more people active than ever.”

While there is a lower average score this year, this does not mean a drop in digital maturity across the sector generally. Reasons include participation being higher among smaller operators this year, who tend to score lower due to fewer resources and could also indicate increased digital awareness and knowledge in the industry.

“As we’ve heard from several operators, the greater the knowledge and understanding of digital, the more accurate and realistic – and sometimes lower – the score,” reads the report.

UK Active and Sport England will produce a third report in 2023, which should be in a stronger position to compare data and gain insight into the switch to digital throughout the industry by comparing the cohort companies’ progression.

The Digital Futures report has been supported by UK Active’s strategic partners Gladstone, Myzone, E Gym, Les Mills, Technogym and Xplor, and forms part of UK Active’s Digital Futures strategy, as well as Sport England’s Uniting the Movement strategy. The aim is to “help improve the application of digital by all fitness and leisure operators”, with the ultimate objective of creating full digital inclusivity and accessibility across the industry.

Uniting the Movement is focused on tackling inequalities and ensuring that everyone has the chance to play sport and be active,” said Tim Hollingsworth, CEO of Sport England. “Growing our collective knowledge and understanding of digital is key to both the growth and sustainability of our sector – and delivering the ambitions of our strategy. The digital maturity tool is a useful first step in building knowledge in a way the whole sector can benefit from.”

Go here to download a copy of the The Digital Futures report:

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