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Fahad Alhagbani: reinventing fitness

Armah Sports has revealed B_fit, a smart health club concept using AI, VR, Amazon Alexa and the IoT. CEO Fahad Alhagbani explains this ‘club of the future’

Fahad Alhagbani is CEO of Armah Sports, a Saudi enterprise PHOTO: B_fit
The B_fit concept began as an exercise at a meeting of the REX community
Cardio equipment connects with B_fit’s app and with wearables PHOTO: B_fit
B_fit’s innovation lab allows customers to try the most groundbreaking fit tech PHOTO: B_fit
The first B_fit club houses a 25m swimming pool PHOTO: b_fit
Armah Sports’ aim is to deliver a new generation of fitness clubs in Saudi Arabia PHOTO: b_fit
B_fit employs a smart lighting system to illuminate the clubs PHOTO: b_fit
The 3,750sq m club includes several cardio zones PHOTO: b_fit

Armah Sports has launched a new health club concept for the Middle Eastern market, which it plans to roll out across the region – and beyond.

The first B_fit club opened recently in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and will operate as a full-service smart club, featuring a wide range of innovative tech solutions, which integrate with a high-end gym offer.

Workout facilities at the 3,750sq m club include a gym floor, cardio zone, performance cardio zone, personal training hubs, athlete factory, six exercise studios (functional, spinning, yoga, pilates, HIIT and boxing). There’s also a 25m pool, indoor running track, a co-working space, innovation lab, smoothie bar and retail area.

When it comes to tech, B_fit boasts an impressive array of solutions – starting with access to the club, which is implemented through touchless facial recognition. B_fit is also be the first health club in the world to utilise Amazon Alexa in its operations, with members able to book classes and check trainers’ bios and schedules by voice command.

B_fit is one of three health club concepts being developed by the team. The others are luxury brand Optimo and budget offering Lift.

The company plans to open 11 B_fit smart clubs and three Optimo clubs in the next 18 months.

What did you have in mind when you decided to create a ‘smart club’?
After a successful IPO for our previous fitness chain we decided to exit the company with a vision to create something different – something that would be a radical change from the classic fitness club business model and something that could elevate the industry to another level. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves or to live in the world of ‘traditional’ fitness clubs.

For the past five years I’ve been a member in the international group of the REX Roundtables community, which consists of 15 peers from around the globe. Every member is either a founder or CEO of a fitness club business. We meet three times a year in different cities to explore, share, learn, improve, challenge each other and for knowledge transfer in the fitness industry.

Three years ago we gathered in Helsinki and the theme of the meeting was “the club of the future”. We spent four days talking about how we imagined it – crazy ideas were flowing in the air, to the point where we imagined a club run by robots, similar to a hotel in Japan.

The idea for this meeting came from our peer Barry Walsh (founder and MD of Iconic Health Clubs, Ireland) who read an article in a British Airways in-flight magazine entitled ‘Geared up for the Future: The new Fitness Revolution’.

He contacted Fausto Di Giulio (CEO of REX International) and asked him if we could focus on the future of fitness in our next gathering.

I came back from this trip loaded with inspiration and determined to change the shape of our industry. It took me three days to put together a business plan and concept, entitled ‘Reinventing Fitness’, which I presented to my brothers – the shareholders. From there they gave the green light and here we are, with our first ‘smart club’.

Why is it important to integrate tech into fitness?
Technology is not just important in our lives nowadays, it’s essential and something that we can’t live without anymore – this applies to everything, not only the fitness industry.

Technology has been evolving rapidly, and the fitness industry, which has historically been a slow-moving animal, is trying hard to catch up! Never in my 20+ years of experience have I seen one comprehensive IT solution that can cover your needs; you always have to bring different solutions together and today it has become even more complicated, as more apps, solutions and systems are coming up every day, making the situation more fragmented. At least, this is the way I see it.

The only way forward is to adapt technology in the right way to serve your particular market dynamics and business needs. The risk of not investing is far greater than the risk of investing and failing. Technology is not an online platform – it’s way more than that, it’s a whole infrastructure that will enable your future.

Tell us about your Amazon Alexa integration
During one of our REX meetings, Fausto said: “voice control will be the future of communication”.

If you want to be ahead of everyone you need to be working today but thinking and anticipating the future. I was determined to find a way to use voice in our smart model, and so we contacted Amazon and they agreed to work on the unique project. After nearly a year of working on the proof of concept, we now have Alexa up and running in our club.

Alexa can help you book classes (after confirming your membership number), check trainers’ bios and schedules, find out opening times, and a host of other information. The more you feed Alexa the more it can help your members and enhance their experience.

When I see the young generation in Saudi using voice notes more and more to communicate, it makes me confident that we took the right decision by adapting Alexa and being the first fitness club in the world to introduce this innovation.

What is the Innovation Lab?
The idea behind our innovation lab was to introduce the future to our members through ‘out of the box’ concepts. We all know that VR and AR are cutting edge and driving their way into our lives, and we know that billions of dollars are being invested into this technology by some of the leading tech companies in the world – some more successfully than others – but it’s a sign that it’s not a matter of if, but when.

Today we’re introducing VR and gamification in two different solutions where members or visitors can experience the virtual world, without incurring any additional charges or fees.

The first VR offering enables users to play games while controlling and holding their plank position to simulate flying in the air. In the other experience they ride a bike through a city or location, virtually enjoying the scenery that comes with it. We have more offerings in the pipeline and will add them as our network grows.

We’re keeping our eyes open for any trends in this field. We can easily add and/or replace experiences, so our members can be exposed to the latest trends all the time.

How do you foresee the Internet of Things being used?
I remember visiting Samsung Smart Kitchen in New York City in 2019, where I was fascinated by the connected environment and inspired to follow the steps of this technology.

When we started building the smart club business model, the first thing we did was draw a chart of our ecosystem, including all the physical, digital and human integrations/interactions that will form our ‘Internet of Things’.

The challenge was in choosing multiple technologies, solutions, machines, systems and equipment, and making them talk with each other seamlessly in a connected environment. Our goal was to allow our members to feel connected all the time, and to make life easier for them and for us – the operator. This is the basic definition of a smart city, building or fitness club.

Of course, our clubs also use the latest building management solutions – a concept that has been around for many years and one that keeps evolving to meet societal and environmental requirements. It feeds into our connected ecosystem to control the physical, digital and human spaces.

What tech is on the gym floor?
We’re partnering with equipment manufacturers and solution providers from Europe and the US. All understand our vision and are committed to delivering solutions that match our business model.

Like many others, we have cardio that connects with our B_FIT app and wearables such as Apple watch and Fitbit, where you can download or track your performance. Cardio in general is advanced along this track.

Our next challenge within the fitness equipment side of things is the strength area, where some solutions exist that serve part of the area – for example, selectorised equipment only. Each system comes with a separate platform and app, which makes it difficult to adopt. But we are adding and integrating other smart solutions to this area, including Virtuagym Touch, FunXtion and MyZone screens, all designed to help members guide themselves through their workouts and enhance their experience.

We remain committed to finding a way and making the strength area smarter with our international partners as technology evolves in this direction.

How do you plan to stay at the forefront of fit tech?
In our back office the awareness is very high in terms of technology. We share trends and out-of-the-box ideas almost every day. The team is young, ambitious, very tech-oriented, and everyone brings something different to the table. We stay loyal to our vision and have the right person leading our technology strategy. All of this alongside being exposed to fitness channels, industry experts and the REX community.

Our first role in our smart vision was not only to build the best IT infrastructure for our needs, but also to make sure it’s agile and flexible to accommodate any new technologies or tweaks down the road, as simple as plug and play. Our infrastructure is complex but easy to integrate with. For example, we decided to use one solution for club management – PerfectGym – and another for fitness management – Virtuagym. We are the first in the world to do a full integration between both solutions. Members will not notice what’s happening behind the scenes but they will enjoy the best experience for their membership profiles and fitness tracking.

Technologies used at B_fit

• Access control via facial recognition

• An app with ‘at home’ workouts, personal goals and group challenges, tailored training plans, activity tracking, video on demand and meditation

• AI and machine learning is being used to help understand members’ behaviour

• Single and secure WiFi connection throughout the centre, ensuring member connection stability

• Digital library in the co-working space, using Amazon Kindle

• Digital kiosk in reception area with a member portal that offers a variety of services

• Online payments or wristband payment options at smoothie bar and retail shop (with credit card details stored in members’ files)

• All B_FIT systems are cloud based

• Smart parking solutions in basement parking with space sensors and occupancy display

• Group classes and personal training sessions attendance tracking via RFID wristband

• Electric vehicle charging stations

• Smart lighting system

• Achieved Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certificate for first two clubs

• A waiter-robot in the lounge and co-working space, which delivers coffee and smoothies to members

Originally published in Fit Tech 2023 issue 1
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