Hardware has the potential to disrupt the fitness industry. The must-have gift for the modern fitness enthusiast is a Fitbit, and everyone from the accountant to Zumba obsessives has a new piece of kit that tracks their activity. Wearable internet-connected technology is the cause of great hype and serious debate among forward-looking business technology leaders. Whether the Apple Watch, Google Glass, Fitbit or specialist enterprise devices, technology that customers and employees can wear is truly happening.
For the fitness industry this has created a boon if you are a web service. Strava is a Facebook-like community for runners and cyclists, and secured $18.5 million in funding in October 2014, following a similarly large round in 2011. It already has an Apple Watch app on the market. The flourishing of the smartphone market has created a plethora of apps for runners, swimmers and again cyclists to track their exercise and calorie count from the device that never leaves their side. Fitness device stalwarts such as Garmin, known for its GPS devices used by drivers and hikers alike, has also benefited. Many of us have adopted these devices and services because they are easy to use and make us better informed or feel better. So for a Health Club business, surely the rise of wearable devices and, in the UK at least, a renewed passion for sports such as running and cycling as a result of the UK's success at the Olympics and the Tour de France is bad news?
Not so for Virgin Active, whose response to the changing behaviour of existing and customers was to hire a CIO, its first. Andy Caddy joined the business in April 2013 to enable the international fitness firm to be fit for the digital challenge ahead.
Climb the stairs of Barbican tube station in central London and you'll be surrounded by advertisements for Virgin Active, cross the busy road at the station exit and you face one of the largest and busiest gyms in its network. The organisation's office is just next door.
"The thing that Virgin Active is very good at is the facilities, and we are brilliant at customer service," CIO Caddy says in the bright and relaxed Virgin Active headquarters. "It has got that Virgin-ness about it. That is a challenge and fun as you are working with an entrepreneur that people actually like," he says of the business that shares a brand with airlines, banks, telcos and to my generation, record stores.
"He's still very interested in it and it stands for a lot what he wants – good fun and good for you," Caddy says of Richard Branson in an interview before the controlling share change took place.
"Gyms were born in the 1980s, and in those days you opened a club and had very little need for technology," Caddy explains of the juxtaposition of the days of Day-Glo T-shirts and sweat bands that changed colour as you overheated, and today's breathable clothing, gadgets and web services that are the constant companion to the sporting individual.
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