How Virgin lifts customer experience

by Scott Gray & Derick Du Preez. Half of the work from a CX perspective is getting people to the door - and then through the door.

by Scott Gray & Derick Du Preez. The key to a great gym experience is much more than simply offering professional equipment, personal trainers, interactive classes and a smoothie bar – it’s also about creating a sense of community. You need touchpoints at every moment of the client experience – from signing up; to motivating members to establish a regular routine that sees them training towards their long-term wellbeing.

Like many industries, Virgin Active was hugely impacted by the national lockdown. Until August, our clubs remained closed as we offered our members online classes and exercise routines so that they could continue to train ‘with us’ in their own time while working from home. We brought the Virgin Active gym experience into livings rooms, gardens and balconies in-between online meetings, as we all adapted to this new way of life. Once we reopened, it was under strict COVID-19 guidelines to ensure the safety of our members and staff, while helping them ease back into a more normal routine. As a gym, our challenge is two-fold: we offer our clients a fitness experience that makes them feel healthier and stronger, and despite the challenges, sees them return day-in day-out to reach their fitness goals; but we must do so in a way that encourages social distancing and minimises the spread of the virus. And since we’ve reopened, we’ve continued with our online coach training experience, so members can choose how, when, and where they train.

With more than 130 health clubs across South Africa, ranging from value to luxury, health and safety, while always a priority, is now even more significant. We have worked incredibly hard to ensure that all our facilities comply with the highest safety standard, that staff are trained on all the COVID-19 protocols, and that members remain socially distanced and wear masks while working out. We ask our members to help us do their part by sanitising the equipment they use to train before and after use, be it training with free weights, doing Yoga or a cycle class.

The sweet spot lies in feeling safe

We’ve undertaken necessary protocols, such as implementing sanitisation stations, reducing the number of participants in group classes, demarcating training stations, limiting the number of members in the bathrooms at any given time, and sealing off lockers. Each club has also introduced specialised airflow through air-conditioning to help minimise any potential risk. While some of these measures may impact members’ experience in small ways, we know that ultimately they want to be reassured that their safety is our number one priority.

Reducing class capacity has placed some pressure on clubs to prioritise member health and safety,  while still working toward providing enough opportunities to train. To ensure seamless participation and member satisfaction, the first-come-first-serve booking system via the online portal allows members to sign in and book a class while complying with compulsory Covid tracking protocols. For added peace of mind, members can also track each club’s capacity on a daily and hourly basis, so as to choose which days and times suit them best. This new training environment has placed added responsibilities on our staff, as with most customer-facing and experience-driven establishments. Everyone, from our receptionists to our floor teams, back of house and the cleaning crew, continue to be trained on an ongoing basis to ensure we’re equipped to handle all the situations we’re seeing arise as the world adapts.

To train or not to train

As we enter another year of remote working, extended national lockdown periods, and no end to the pandemic in the near future, it’s no secret that for many, the motivation and drive to train consistently is wavering. That’s why fitness establishments and the sense of community they offer are best suited to help members along this journey. It is for this reason that we emphasis the immense benefits that come from a sense of belonging to a community, or to be surrounded by other likeminded members who are working toward achieving the same – or similar – goals. Not only do we offer an intrinsic feeling, but also the tangible sense of normalcy.

But half of the work from a CX perspective is getting people to the door – and then through the door. Desire and motivation are often a strong motivator, but many still struggle to get themselves to the clubs – even more so now with pandemic fatigue and, for some, reservations about returning. It is opportunities like these that allow us to continuously innovate and expand our offerings – like opening up awesome outdoor training areas, utilising car parks and open fields adjacent to clubs; and even taking over some retail spaces in malls to showcase the many ways we can keep people active. This is where personalised touchpoints and member communication is so effective.

Emailers, SMSes, social media content, and app push notifications are strategically developed and rolled out to keep members informed and motivated. A major trend accelerated by the pandemic was the shift to online training. This was coupled with a growth in online interaction between Virgin Active and our members. Again, we’ve tapped into the personalised opportunities without our communications to create community programmes like the newly launched ‘FitFab’ programme which is a 12-week weight loss programme built solely around a small initial group of members joined through a tight-knit social community. It is this sense of community that one will start to see, feel, and experience in all aspects of how we design our offerings – so vitally important now in a world that feels so disconnected and remote. Our personal trainers who were conducting online classes via Coach, began interacting with members through social media – resulting in a sense of comradery that ‘we’re in this together’ between members across the country.

Where to from here?

A year in, and with South Africans gradually finding their way back to some semblance of routine and fitness regime, our goal remains the same: to continue with what we have learned through lockdown, and to maintain focus on interacting with and supporting members, whether in-club or online. The pandemic accelerated our plans to roll out a digital and online offering. We continue to adapt how we support, communicate with, and train members both through our website and our app, with personalised experiences every step of the way. 2020 has taught the world a lot, with the most notable within the health and fitness space being:

  • The experience needs to remain one that members can rely on and trust.
  • Health and safety must be balanced with health and fitness.
  • The user journey extends far beyond in-club experiences.
  • The key to solid customer experience lies in the customer’s satisfaction being tied into their reason to believe in your offering.


Scott Gray is Virgin Active Global Head of Experience Design. He co-authored this thought leadership article with Virgin Active Customer Experience Director, Derick Du Preez.


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