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China’s fitness industry goes pay-per-workout via mini programs

The Chinese fitness industry has seen the hyper-growth of new business models that previously seemed impossible.

Photo by Meghan Holmes on Unsplash

Technology can revolutionize industries by giving life to business models that were previously not economically viable—China’s fitness industry is just one example where this is the case, enabled by the growth of WeChat mini programs.

When people take the big step and sign up for a gym, the question, “How many months would you like?” can be taken for granted. For most, it’s a bit of a headache. “What if I don’t like the gym?” Almost everyone asks themselves, or “What if my schedule changes?”

Paying per workout makes gyms less money than the typical locked-in plans because traditional gyms profit when their users don’t actually show up. If all paying members of Planet Fitness would suddenly follow their resolutions and work-out daily, the influx of people would be unsustainable.

Indeed, the added cost of flexibility can be substantial. A one-month membership can cost as much as 70% of a three-month plan, while six months can be about 80% of a year program in most Chinese gyms—old tricks to seduce clients into longer contracts.

While possible at a few chains, it’s no wonder pay-per-session has not been the preferred business model for most gyms in China. However, with the current digitization of all systems, a handful of new startups are making pay-per-session affordable—enabled by WeChat mini programs that integrate online and offline services.

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Apps and mini programs have allowed gyms in China to experiment with a pay-per-session business model. Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Keep, Chinese fitness industry’s leading app, also goes offline

In 2017, Keep became the first fitness app in China to reach 100 million registered users, grown on the back of its mobile-based fitness programs. Keep has since picked up Goldman Sachs and Tencent as investors, and last month raised USD 80 million in a Series E round, reportedly becoming a unicorn startup.

Besides providing users with workout plans via the Keep app, the firm has also built a whole fitness ecosystem, expanding into exercise equipment and clothing. In 2018, it opened its first gym, named Keepland, taking its workouts offline to create an integrated ecosystem than merges physical studios together with the app or the WeChat mini program.

Smaller than most gyms operating in China’s fitness industry, these physical locations accommodate up to 20 to 30 people at a time and can be found in most Tier 1 cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. Instead of working out to the app’s curated 20-minute sessions alone, people can join others as screens in the studios dictate group workouts, with personal trainers on-hand for guidance.

Keep uses WeChat and online integration to create a sense of community while simultaneously enhancing advertising activities. Using a smart bracelet provided at the beginning of the session, users’ heart rates and calories-burned are broadcast onto screens and synced with the Keep app. Users can also post their stats directly on their WeChat Moments through the associated mini program, to brag, or take pride in their achievements.

Charging RMB 70 to 90 (USD 9.8 to 12.6) per session, these studios tend to be cheaper on a per-workout basis than regular gyms.

Lower costs for those who only workout once or twice per week—most gym-goers and especially beginners—have created an explosion in the pay-per-session gym model in China. Still, the model has yet to take hold overseas because it relies on seamless digital integration. Users need to be able to book sessions easily online, while gyms use digitized systems to affordably set up and manage bookings and payments.

So far, only WeChat mini programs have proved to be a viable solution to both of these problems. In other words, these mini apps, once a minor feature, are becoming increasingly central, changing the way millions of people keep fit.

china fitness industry
The Supermonkey mini program, where users can sign up for classes. Source: Supermonkey, via WalkTheChat

Supermonkey, a truly WeChat-first gym

While Shenzhen-based Supermonkey originally started out operating small, unmanned training rooms in 2014, the firm changed its main business a year later to group lessons, with a focus on one-time-only classes.

Behind their sleek design, the success of Supermonkey—like that of Keep—is driven by the most basic of economic principles: Cost. While the company touts their in-house developed programs and highly trained instructors, one can’t argue that cheaper workouts get people through the door.

In fact, Supermonkey’s slogan is “Pay per time, not by year”, highlighting what the chain really sees as their competitive advantage.

Once again, their model is possible because of WeChat and the integration of its mini programs with China’s fitness industry. Supermonkey locations have enormous QR codes on their entrance. After scanning, a user can see the class schedule for the day. Options include Zumba, yoga, and Les Mills workouts, among others. Within a minute, they can book a class and prepare for their first session. Each location can accommodate around 10 classes per day, mostly lasting an hour, starting at RMB 69.

The offline-online nature of China’s new pay-per-session gyms has made them especially resilient to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. While there are no ready stats, state-owned outlet Xinhua reported that the industry “has taken a huge blow”, with gyms being shuttered for months in an effort to stop the transmission of the virus.

With all players scrambling to go online with classes, those that had an existing digital infrastructure were the most agile. For example, it took Keep just 10 days to launch regular live-streamed training programs for home after their Keepland studios closed, according to an article by CGTN.

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In 2019, gym-goers in China constituted just over 3% of the whole population, but that number is expected to grow. Photo by Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash

The pay-per-session trend in the Chinese fitness industry is especially apt at getting beginners through the door, according to a report by Daxue Consulting. With the country seeing annual growth of around 10% in the industry, mini programs have allowed gyms to experiment with newly viable models that are proving popular with consumers.