Stretching the boundaries: Why Virgin Active UK's boss wants it to be the "Harvey Nichols of gyms"

Francesca Washtell
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Robert Cook has been at the helm of Virgin Active UK since last June (Source: Virgin Active)

As healthy living has exploded in popularity, the UK’s traditional gym sector has firmed up into two distinct camps: budget and premium.

Budget gyms have boomed, attracting workout purists in search of no-frills memberships, but the premium segment has held its own too, providing all-in-one health and fitness centres with pools, classes and luxurious extras.

Virgin Active fits firmly into the latter category. A quick look round one of its venues will tell you it’s not just a gym: it’s a lifestyle destination.

The group’s UK managing director Robert Cook has thrown his weight behind balancing out the traditional gym facilities, pools and classes by adding new concepts such as “Beyond Movement”. This encompasses physio, sports massage and restorative pilates classes designed to help people in the aftermath of big races or recovering from injury, and is currently available at three clubs. Cook deems the wide-ranging mix at Virgin’s sites “a fitness smorgasbord” and sees it as the main model the group will continue to use.

“I think I would like to describe the Virgin Active of the future in the UK certainly as the sort of Harvey Nichols [of gyms]. So it’s a store where you can get the best concessions, i.e. it’s a store you can come into and get the best of great group exercise, great personal training. We’re not a one-dimensional place but it’s all under one roof.”

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Cook also wants the clubs to be a place where people socialise and some of its plushest venues are, he says, even starting to become like American country clubs.

“I think a lot of people now are joining to meet people,” he says. “The lounges and the spaces that we have are becoming more office-like in many ways, Wi-Fi is really important to them, good coffee’s very, very important to them so dwell time in-club and the comfort of those lounges is really important.”

This added emphasis on ‘dwell time’, the time members spend on the premises but not working out, comes from Cook’s hospitality background. The enthusiastic Scot spent 20 years in the luxury consumer market of boutique hotels at the likes of Malmaison and De Vere before moving to Virgin last June.

“I didn’t want to be just pigeon-holed into being a hotelier so when I hit the big five-0 I thought I’d give something else a try and this was the first thing that came along outside the industry that I fancied. I looked at pubs, I looked at restaurants, I looked at theatres and this came along and felt right.”

Virgin Active has more than 40 branches in the UK (Source: Virgin Active)

But Virgin (and other premium operators) can’t just rely on added hospitality to compete with a third, fast-growing category in the gym market: that of class-led fitness studios.

Read more: Virgin Active to bulk up in size in Asia and Africa

More established in the US, the idea of having smaller outlets dedicated to one type of exercise such as yoga, Spinning-style cycling or boxing is rapidly rising in the UK.

Studio gyms have the benefit of being smaller. They make up 21 per cent of the gym market in central London but have just six per cent of the floorspace, according to Colliers International.

Their rise has prompted premium gyms, including Virgin, to try harder than ever to offer their members everything they could need under one roof (which bears out in the data: premium operators in the capital have around 10 per cent of the market but 22 per cent of the floorspace).

Virgin Active’s long-term strategy has also included a major streamlining in the UK. This year the company, 80 per cent owned by South African private equity group Brait and 20 per cent owned by Virgin, flogged more than a dozen branches to David Lloyd and last year sold 35 gyms to Nuffield Health, including 10 in London. It now has around 230,000 members across 46 clubs, most of which are concentrated in metropolitan centres and commuter belts.

So what might be coming next? Cook says he is interested in bringing in nutrition experts and, a little unexpectedly, training for the mind. There are no concrete plans yet for how to bring this about, but it’s a worthy goal.

For now though, Virgin has a lot to focus on when it comes to the body. Healthy living is one of the biggest trends going, but why does Cook think it’s been so successful?

“It’s growing exponentially, globally it is just going helter-skelter through the roof. I’m new to health and fitness, I used to make people fat, now I make people thin, and I think to myself it’s all about moderation and I think there’s a lot more moderation than there’s ever been before. And there’s a lot more peer pressure to go to the gym.

“I think there has been so much made of, if you look after your body you’ll get longevity of life – that means a lot to people. There’s nothing more precious in life than life itself.”

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