Walking into a gym or fitness studio, technology isn't usually the first thing you notice. But whether you're in a crowded, big-box gym or a boutique fitness studio, tech is increasingly flexing its muscle, playing a defining role in how fitness franchises are run.
Over the last few years, fitness franchises have boomed. About 54.1 million Americans now belong to a health-club franchise, with membership having grown 6.1 percent over the last five years. Revenues have also climbed at an annual pace of about 5.2 percent and are expected to rise 5.6 percent this year alone, according to market research firm IBISWorld.
With Anytime Fitness snagging the top spot on Entrepreneur's 2014 Franchise 500 and boutique fitness franchises quickly gaining ground, the field is ripe for even more growth. And technology is helping to make that happen.
From apps to wearable calorie-trackers, the future of fitness franchising is tied to tech. Here are five ways that technology is forever changing the industry.
1. People don't have to talk to people…ever
Looking around a gym, you're sure to see a shocking number of members with their eyes glued to their smartphones. From calorie burning to motivation pushing, there's an app for everything in fitness – and gyms are working to get in on the game. Soon, certain fitness franchises will have apps that are integral to every aspect of your workout.
"Our app keeps evolving," says Retro Fitness CEO and self-described "tech junkie" Eric Casaburi. "We can do silly things [like] ordering your shake from your phone while you're working out… and obvious things like I want to join your gym, I want to find the gym, I want to check in with my phone." Retro Fitness wants to take every aspect of the gym experience and condense it into an app, eventually hoping to allow members to upgrade their membership and book time with personal trainers through the app.
2. Classes can be 'cloned' more easily
One of the biggest challenges fitness franchises face is standardizing quality as they expand. For food chains the recipe for success can be simple: set menus, standardize locations and create a general script for employees. However, in fitness franchises, especially those that focus on studio classes, such standardization is harder to come by.
Instead of relying on individual instructors hundreds of miles away, Barre Bee Fit is able to teach and update instructors using hundreds of videos with choreographed routines over their web portal.
Just training the instructors wasn't enough however: the fitness studio franchise can control every aspect of the classes that allowed it to find success in Chicago. "We developed an iPad application that basically took out human error," says co-CEO and co-founder Ariana Chernin. The app chooses the music, sets the volume of the music and microphone and even controls the lighting in the room.
"We looked at what makes a great class in the fitness industry. We realized there were several variables, and we wanted to use technology to eliminate those variables," says co-CEO and cofounder Jillian Lorenz.
3. Franchisees can communicate with headquarters in a snap
Tech has been a bounty for franchisors in all fields in its ability to reach franchisees across the country and globe. With web portals, instructional videos and virtual meetings, fitness franchises no longer need to travel hundreds of miles when a new location opens or remain in the dark on a franchisee's progress. "We change and want to communicate in real time," says Lorenz, who uses drop cam technology not only to train instructors, but also to keep an eye on classes across the country.
"An owner today really has a much cooler experience as a franchisee, because there's so much we can do so quickly: upload videos, do webinars," says Casaburi of Retro Fitness.
4. Equipment is getting fancy
Tech is present in the building blocks of a fitness franchises: the equipment and locations. In some gyms, you're surrounded with more high-tech equipment than an Apple store. With increasingly innovative equipment, fitness machinery has gone from the simple treadmill to increasingly high tech machinery. Retro Fitness boasts equipment with surround sound video and integrated television screens. Gravity Vault, a rock-climbing gym franchise, believes franchising would be nearly impossible without the technology to customize and standardize their climbing gyms' design.
"We're very sensitive in designing our facility that there's a good flow to the facilities," says cofounder Tim Walsh. "We actually design these facilities using a Google sketch up or a CAD Pro program. We can virtually walk through the facilities before opening the programs."
5. Wearable tech is being eyed as the ultimate fitness tracker
What's next for fitness franchises? Franchisors are eyeing the same thing as ever other sector of the tech industry: wearable tech. With increased tracking abilities, franchises such as Retro Fitness hope to help clients make more specific goals and track progress every session. "Wearable tech is a great market. We are now engaging with [wearable tech] companies at a very high level," says Casaburi. "No matter what device you're wearing, in the next two or three months, you'll be able to communicate with our equipment and have a specific platform that will track all our data, and merge the data."