Craig Mason, Bike Product Manager for Les Mills, is part of the design and inception team of the new Les Mills Virtual Bike by Stages Cycling.
Following IHRSA 2019 and the launch of the finished product after the prototype release last year, Craig is joined by Jean Michael Fournier, CEO of Les Mills Media, to talk about the development of the new Les Mills whole-of-gym proposition and what it means for group fitness.
Dominating group exercise for 50 years
Les Mills has been extremely strong in the club market as well as the direct-to-consumer space with our video streaming platform Les Mills-On-Demand. We are the leading company and platform for group exercise fitness in clubs and we are the leaders in the classroom when it comes to instructor education. For us, it’s always been about how we provide group exercise with world class fitness instructors who are qualified and trained on a quarterly basis.
Group exercise is what we’ve been leading for the last 50 years. Today we have 140,000 instructors and more than 20,000 club customers across the world.
In 2017, for the first time we heard from our customers a strong need to bring our content — our signature, science-backed programs — to the cardio floor. We got to work as a team to understand how we could make this happen. Here is where our link to Stages began.
We already had a lot of people in Les Mills who had a good relationship with the Stages Indoor Cycling team. Once we connected more formally, we were quickly impressed by the vision of Stages, which fitted the vision of Les Mills; in the end we’re here to provide the best fitness experience and best fitness products so that anyone can achieve their goals. Our early relationship and this common vision helped us to engage the execution around the Les Mills Virtual Bike.
I remember the first session that we ever had with Stages team in Boulder (Stages Indoor Cycling Colorado headquarters). Our (then) Enterprises CEO and I were there at the time and we both left the session completely impressed — blown away really — by how focused they were. They do what they do really well, and are passionate people with it. The team has a lot of experience and history between them, making top quality equipment for other organizations. They really impressed us with their commitment to their craft and their customers; their flexibility, and their real passion to be a partner with Les Mills.
“They do what they do really well and are passionate people with it.”
When it came to a new bike for Les Mills, we didn’t want to go into a five-year long product development cycle. We wanted to leverage a lean start-up approach. With Stages Cycling we could build a prototype quickly; once we could validate the product to market fit, we could move on and scale up. Stages had this mindset as well, which is why the team worked well together. Go fast, test, stay very close to the customer, get the feedback and adapt. We kept iterating and reiterating our solution to be sure we could provide the most effective and optimized product to the customer.
If you think in terms of timeframe, we first met in October 2017. We had a Memorandum Of Understanding by Christmas. Prototyping started in mid-January. The prototype we showed at IHRSA 2018 had progressed so far already that people who came to try it thought it was a real, go-to-market product.
That was just crazy fast — in a month and a half we had a prototype that looked like a real product and it was showable, and people were blown away by it. And that’s considering New Zealand shuts down for the best part of January [laughs].
For me this showed commitment from both teams, which shows, as JM said, that commitment to an innovative, lean start-up way of working. That had been part of our selection process. Building a robust solution in a timely manner was very important.
The Les Mills Virtual Bike: What To Expect
Fundamentally, there are a few things we’re really proud of. At the top level we know that the bike is a top grade solution that’s really fit for the commercial environment. This is not a light, consumer platform. When a club has got countless users jumping on and off the bike many times every day, it can’t break. We know the SC bike won’t break and the virtual app is solid.
If you think about the cardio floors in the average gym, they’re pretty bland. This will really elevate the experience on the gym floor. We’re super proud of the app interface. It’s very beautiful. The key was designing it according to the way people use apps on their phone today. This is not a piece of equipment with LED lights. This is a touch screen; with two taps, you’re up and riding.
We conducted a ton of field research and interviews with users and our pilot club partners. We know that people have a defined window of time for exercise. They want to get in the gym quickly, get on the bike, get riding, fully enjoy their experience and get back to work, home, their lives. We had to minimize the time window to get moving and maximize the experience of a really good workout. So that’s what the app had to do.
The star of the show has to be the content. Top quality, amazing instruction, awesome music, backed by science. At Les Mills we know how to make great content – we’ve been doing it for years and we know people love it. We’re very proud of that and of our heritage. On the app you have Les Mills’ most experienced coaches instructing you in an expert yet fun fashion — they choreograph each stage of the class beautifully to the music, the instruction and essence of the music really does spur you on to push yourself.
We have launched with RPM, Sprint and The Trip on the Virtual Bike. The Trip plays beautifully on the bike allowing you to lose yourself in another world. I did Trip 7 this morning and it still blows me away how cool it is! Each ride offers members a different challenge and everyone can find something to suit them.
Finally, you can have all that but if you don’t have a good solid bike the experience doesn’t work. Our partnership with Stages is a vital component to the product. The SC3 base gives a super stable and smooth ride that people are loving. I have an SC3 at home, and we have them up in our Victoria Street studio here in NZ. The SprintShift works in well with our programs, and the power meters combine with our app. It’s a wonderful combination of strength and beauty.
Craig says it all! For us it’s about how we continue to challenge ourselves to enhance the member experience. Craig talked about the relevance of the design for us. The experience had to be beautiful. You see the bike, and, wow! It is an amazing bike. It is extremely easy to use which is one key part of this premium experience. No fuss, simply get on, select your ride, pedal, and enjoy the best video workouts in the world.
The strength of Les Mills is around our fitness choreography linked to music. We spend a lot of time selecting the right music for each program. On the bike it translates well. The very large screen lets you get totally immersed in the environment; you feel like you’re in a different world. This experience is what continued to motivate people to use the bike day in and day out during our test phase. And they want more of it.
The First Customers
Customer feedback is very important to Les Mills and we are committed to enhancing the product based on what users value. It’s early days yet but universally the feedback has been really good. Users love the experience. They also appreciate the quality of the combination of bike and fitness content. Feedback from Club Managers has been very positive with comments like:
“Right now we don’t have the floor space to invest in 10+ bikes for indoor cycling. Now the Virtual Bikes have given us a legitimate option to compete with indoor cycling studios, attracting some of their members and even hardcore cycle enthusiasts.”
“The Virtual Bikes have been a member favorite from day one. They set the bar for how indoor cycling should be.”
“Nothing but positivity and higher demand for more of these great bikes from our members.”
The club customer has access and visibility around the usage data too. It’s very important we work closely at club level for a good understanding of the quantitative feedback generated in club and how members are perceiving the relationship with the bike in live environments.
So What’s Next?
This has been a soft launch period for us. We’re still very early on in the stages of the sales cycle. Our first priority — which is a reflection on how significant a partner Stages is for us — was to make sure that within the first few months of trading we are 100% confident in our product in a real world environment. So essentially we restricted our sales to the US and UK first so that we could keep tight control of the rate of sales, and be sure the installation process was correct, the product works beautifully – tick, tick, tick — he says touching wood [laughs].
Now we're coming up on our third release of new content — that’s the kind of thing we get pretty excited about. We’re about to deliver our new quarterly videos (classes) to the gym floors. All our classes are available in Chinese, English, French German, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Spanish. That really is a worldwide proposition.
It’s kinda funny, during our interview and dev process we had to pare back some things we thought people would like, yet when tested the people just didn’t get. Product development is so fascinating. For us it is about empathizing with our club customers and their customers. It’s about putting a product in front of a customer and asking, “How are you going to use it?”, and “How and why are you going to do that?”. That gave us better insights into better needs and what our customers really wanted, rather than sitting in an office and making assumptions. Our ideas in the next period will be about shorter-form content (shorter classes) and validating the need to give riders more access to their data. I will be validating first whether clubs and riders want to go there so that we can produce a product customers can fully enjoy.
For us this is the first step towards a “whole of gym proposition” by Les Mills. At this stage our focus remains on the best possible service to the customer. We don’t ever want to put a product or a program in club and forget about it. We prioritize analytics and data to drive our roadmap, but also to assess the effectiveness of our products in driving member acquisition and value at club level.
Not forgetting our responsibility to create the buzz and the vibe in the club that we’re renowned for. We now have the trinity of group fitness. Live classes augmented with our Virtual proposition and further augmented with our Virtual Bike proposition. Look at that from a cycle program proposition — we have all areas covered.
Integrating Les Mills On The Gym Floor: Who is using the Les Mills Virtual Bike?
So with that in mind, not all Virtual Bike customers at this stage are existing Les Mills customers. We are getting a lot of fascinating data right now from non Les Mills customers.
What we do see in clubs where there are existing Les Mills cycle programmes on the studio schedule, is an even spread of class occupancy on the Virtual Bike, i.e. where a club has Les Mills live classes in the studio and has purchased a Virtual Bike for the gym floor, Virtual Bike riders choose evenly between The Trip, RPM and Sprint. Existing clubs are commonly integrating the Les Mills Virtual Bike as an extension to the existing Les Mills class schedule — if members are enjoying Les Mills studio programs, the Virtual Bike gives them the flexibility to still get their ride in when they want, say if they miss class. There’s a great convenience aspect; they can still feel engaged with their fitness programme until their own schedule allows them to get back in to group.
On the flip side, what we see with new-to-Les-Mills clubs is a bit more of a highlight on The Trip — about 50% - which highlights to us the new, exciting appeal of The Trip for first-timers.
Then there are the clubs who just want to ignite the gym floor — elevate it! The cardio floor is boring. To turn your legs on a static bike with no real feedback is boring. It’s like the departure lounge at the airport — people are just waiting to do something else. Our goal was to set a new bar and create a space people want to — not have to — go.
The Return On Investment For Club Operators
Club manager interviews are conducted at regular intervals so that we can collect data on ROI. Fundamentally ROI for our customers comes down to utilisation — if you buy a piece of kit you want people to use it. We have to be able to demonstrate to our customers the engaging experience within their gyms that the Virtual Bike presents. To this point what we’re seeing is solid utilisation. Our reporting shows how much the bike is utilised and what rides are being ridden so that we can quantify the value of our proposition to the club operator.
Discover the Les Mills Virtual Bike here.