Man vs Machine: Bloomberg’s Decrypted podcast discussed whether Artificial Intelligence (AI) could replace personal trainers. Its technology reporters appear skeptical that trainers will ultimately survive the automation revolution but I don’t think that they understand why people hire trainers in the first place.

-People don’t hire trainers just to tell them what to do in the gym. They’re also seeking motivation, accountability, and encouragement. These are not the strong suits of a machine. What is stopping these people from just doing the WOD on or buying some DVD’s from BeachBody? There is a world of information and content at our fingerprints right now but people still seek out human experts.  

-AI trainers will find an audience but it will probably be people who were not likely to purchase personal training. AI trainers are more likely to replace DVD or streaming workouts. These attract people who are looking for a plan but are less interested in the human touch or prefer the convenience of exercising at home.

-Most people who exercise are not consumers of personal training. It’s not as big of a slice of the fitness market as many people assume. If I was running a company developing an AI trainer, I would go after all the people that exercise but don’t work with a trainer. Plus all the people that don’t workout at all. That’s an even bigger market! That’s where the money is. Personal training is expensive so the people who use it are fairly affluent and not very price-sensitive. I would market an AI trainer as a cheaper alternative to a human trainer, not as a replacement.

-They touched upon the fact that most people stop wearing their fitness trackers after a few months. Does this issue resolve itself as the technology improves? Or is it endemic to the product category?

-They didn’t delineate between personal training and group training. Group training programs like CrossFit or SoulCycle are driven by a sense of community and shared effort. I don’t see how this is replaced by a machine either.

-BTW, $175/hour is not representative of what most trainers charge.    

Wearables: Barron’s had some more detail on FitBit’s strategy to expand into sleep tracking. Basically, FitBit hopes to take advantage of the Apple Watch’s poor battery life. In other words, people need to charge their Apple Watches at night so they can wear it during the day. But you’re still competing with the most valuable publicly traded company in the world. So don’t expect them to stand still:

Instead, the company appears to have heard consumers’ concerns about a key missing feature in the Apple Watch. It just bought Beddit, a sleep-tracking company that sells a $150 sensor customers can put under their mattresses. It links up with a companion app to provide sleep analytics.

The acquisition, which Beddit confirmed Monday, means built-in sleep-tracking features could be coming to your favorite iProducts soon, but it’s not clear how Apple will play things. Perhaps it’ll try to sell you a physical under-bed tracker to use alongside your Apple Watch, but it’s perhaps more realistic that the company will try to integrate Beddit’s technology into the watch and phone themselves.

                This acquisition won’t address the battery life problem but it shows that Apple is not willing to cede sleep tracking to its competitors. I don’t mean to dump on FitBit but competing with one of the Big 5 tech companies (Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft) is just a brutal enterprise.  

All’s fair in love and fitness: Sarah Robb O’Hagan, the former President of Equinox, has taken over as CEO at Flywheel Sports. Flywheel is the primary competitor to SoulCycle and was founded by Ruth Zukerman, one of the founders of SoulCycle. Equinox is the parent company of SoulCycle. The fitness industry can be a small world sometimes.

                She was recruited to the job by Lew Frankfort, former CEO of Coach and current executive chairman of Flywheel Sports. He believes that the fitness industry is going down the same path as the fashion industry:

Over time, however, Robb O'Hagan became convinced of Frankfort's vision of the fitness industry, which is based on the thesis that it will follow many of the same trends as the fashion industry. Frankfort sees the death of department stores as the precursor to the death of gyms. (Last month alone, Macy’s announced that it would close 63 stores and Sears said that 150 of its locations will go dark.) As in retail, fitness customers "are really looking for value at low end or curated experiences at high end," Frankfort says. Flywheel—which currently offers indoor cycling and barre classes—hopes to play in the latter space. "Our core customer is the high-performance athlete, a tastemaker in the fitness scene," says Robb O'Hagan.

The big news is that Flywheel is launching a streaming product, details to come:

We haven’t actually announced the details of the product offering. We’ll do it in a couple of months. But I think the most important thing to know is that we’re building a streaming offering off of our 40-studio business so people can connect into this very vibrant community of riders that already exists. There will be a lot of integration into the core part of who we are.

                It does sound like Flywheel will roll out both hardware and software, high-performance bikes and streaming classes. This will put them in competition with SoulCycle in the brick and mortar studio business and then with Peloton in the at-home cycling market.

Speaking of Peloton: Brad Olson, the SVP of member experience, talked to Forrester Research about how Peloton builds a community:

One way Peloton does this is through friendly competition. Cyclists can track their performance and compete against others through Peloton's leaderboard. Olson said they can also filter the leaderboard to compete against specific people, like men in their 30s or family and friends. Those at the top of the leaderboard might even get a shout-out from a live instructor. If they'd rather not partake in this competitive aspect, customers can hide the leaderboard altogether.

The competitive aspect of fitness can be very powerful. Just look at what CrossFit has done with the Girls & Hero Workouts as well as the Open. It is a great way to offer your clients a way to shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation might be “My spouse wants me to lose weight” Intrinsic motivation might be “I want to be at the top of the leaderboard”

Back to Lew Frankfort’s Theory: So apparently, a big part of that curated experience that retailers have to offer now is fitness & wellness:

As retailers struggle to draw in shoppers who have migrated online, stores are seizing on one of the few bright spots in the industry — fitness and wellness — in hopes of engaging consumers. That means meditation lectures with Deepak Chopra at ABC Carpet & Home in New York, a yoga class at Bloomingdale's or a wellness getaway with Free People. One recent Wednesday, a dozen women walked into Saks on Fifth Avenue, tucked their purses into lockers and got to work performing squat thrusts and jumping jack intervals during an hour long boot camp. After class, they could browse through a rack of $85 Phat Buddha leggings and try Glow Recipe's $58 oil essence with cactus extract.

                It makes sense because you’re drawing people into your store which increases the odds of impulse purchases and the people that you’re drawing in have disposable income. If stuff like this takes off, what will it mean for the fitness industry? Will fitness exist only as a way to sell something else? Will people come to expect that fitness classes should be free? And I would love to hear what Lew Frankfort thinks about this. This would be the snake eating its own tail in regards to his theory about fitness following fashion.


Do your research: Heathrow Airport is opening a gym in Terminal 2:

On Wednesday, London's Heathrow announced what it says is the very first wellness and fitness studio located in an airport. Travelers will be able to sweat it out solo or join instructor-led cardio, strength, or yoga classes. They will also be able to rent workout clothing, shower, and pick up a few healthy food options before their journey. The space, produced in conjunction with U.S.-based FlyFit, will be in Terminal 2, which sees 16 million passengers each year and hosts over 25 airlines.

                I hate to break it you but this will not be the first airport gym. 24 Hour Fitness used to have a gym in McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. That location is no longer open.

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