Ascent’s Chief Data Scientist Rich Pugh & Premal Desai, Head of Data & AI at The Gym Group, got together to discuss the art and science of building a high-performance, empowered, inspired data team.
Who are The Gym Group?
“The Gym Group was founded in 2008 and now has more than 200 gyms across the UK. Since re-opening post-COVID, our ambition has accelerated, and we’re completely focussed on the customer’s holistic health and fitness. The culture in The Gym Group is fantastic, and our ‘can-do’ attitude ensures we always do the right thing for our customers.”
Why has The Gym Group been investing in building data and analytics capabilities?
“Although the leisure industry does not traditionally lend itself to investments in data, the ambition of using science and data to aid decision making and understand consumer behaviour has been the driving force in the data investments The Gym Group has made.
As a subscription business, customer acquisition, customer retention and customer experience were immediately identified as primary use cases for data opportunities - business areas where data and analytics can clearly drive better decisions. One thing that has really accelerated our progress has been the privilege of not having to work with legacy systems and data.”
What was the role of data and analytics during the COVID pandemic?
“Our data capability got us through the pandemic. There was a heightened focus on health and safety so we developed data models to answer questions around occupancy and self-occupancy limits from a gym perspective; we looked at real-time occupancy information for our customers to let them know when a gym is busy. Additionally, we made a promise to our members that they would not have to pay when the gyms were closed - the financial implications were factored in the decision-making model and the gesture was highly appreciated by the customers.
We also had to do a lot of scenario planning over that period, as just like many other businesses, we were not sure when we might be able to reopen. Data modelling was pivotal in surfacing the implications this could have for us. We became nimbler as a business as a consequence of the pandemic.”
How would you describe your current data capability at The Gym Group?
“We have a core data team of modellers and engineers - but they exist as part of a wider data ecosystem. There are a lots of individuals in the business who are data-focused, such as commercial specialists, marketing specialists and more. This is something very refreshing as we have been aspiring to build a data-centric organisation over the past four years.”
How did you go about building a data team?
“It has been really important to have a diverse set of thought profiles. There is obviously a core set of data skills we will always need, but people coming from different backgrounds and different perspectives has led us to smarter outcomes. That is because we are able to challenge and think in diverse ways, which helps us solve problems better as a business.
Additionally, it is a personal guiding principle that our data team and data strategy should be closely aligned to the business strategy. A siloed data team does not add nearly as much value as one that is embedded in the organisation. So, we have been working very closely with different parts of the business to understand their needs and questions, as well as understanding customer behaviour. Those have been the two key principles used to grow the data team and the data capability.”
How do you determine the right mix of permanent vs contract data resource?
“We have had to look at the range of business needs, skillsets available, macro factors and what is available in the current market. So, at the right point in time we consider what is better for us, working with a partner vs recruiting ourselves. And we have taken a bespoke approach on that on a role-by-role basis - depending on whether we are looking at something in an experimental way or just want it as a core capability. When we have been unsure, we engaged with a partner seeking their expertise with the view of ‘let’s try before we buy’.”
What is the best approach to managing a team and keeping them engaged?
“Keeping the team challenged and close to the business’ ambitions is very important. We also ensure we work on projects the business is invested in and cares about. The team members enjoy working on challenging tasks that make a difference and have a tangible commercial outcome - and sometimes working on things which have not got a linear path. The collaborative effort amongst teams is what sparks the enthusiasm to solve problems.
The culture we have created in the team is to identify what things will move the needle and add value, both internally and for our customers. People need to feel empowered and valued - that is what makes a difference.”
What’s your advice to anyone currently building a data team?
“A lot of organisations I speak to follow the buzzwords and tend to invest in technology first. My view is to think carefully of your business strategy and the business questions you want the data to answer for you. Then figure out the people that you need and then the technology that can support the questions you need to answer.”
Find out more about The Gym Group’s journey in our latest Data Conservation.