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INSIGHTS / BRIGHT IDEAS

In this shipping container, you can work out and save money

China · Dec 10, 2018· By Irene Wang

©ParkBox

By eliminating the need to pay for an expensive gym membership, ParkBox is good news for gym buffs

For many Chinese people, “gym” is a love-hate word. They love the benefits of fitness such as looking fit and stress relief extolled by conventional gyms, but hate paying those same gyms expensive membership fees.

Chinese gym-goers face a number of obstacles to working out. After a busy day at work, a long trip to the gym can dampen enthusiasm for exercise. People who work late and want to hit the gym are unlikely to find one open for business at midnight. Some gym-goers are too shy to work out around people who are more fit.

To make the situation worse, most gyms don’t care whether customers use their facilities after membership fees have been paid. “Traditional gyms care little about user experience,” said ParkBox founder and CEO Huang Xiaolei. “They charge high membership fees and hope members never show up.”

Deriving inspiration from the problems with the conventional gym business model, Huang founded ParkBox in April 2017. Compact fitness boxes made from shipping containers have been installed in residential blocks and squeezed in between office buildings in Shanghai. Huang hopes this new workout model can improve upon the conventional model by making working out less expensive, more convenient and fun.

Working out made cheaper

ParkBox charges only by the hour and requires no deposit. Hourly access to all gym equipment costs RMB 29. Users who opt to spend RMB 99 each year on a VIP card only pay RMB 10 per hour.

This “fragmentized payment” method is a significant improvement over the yearly membership fee favored by conventional gyms. The strength of this new business model has attracted many users and many competitors.

Suddenly, there seem to be tons of shared fitness boxes and treadmills popping up all over Shanghai, where ParkBox is headquartered. How to best stand out from the competition is a question the ParkBox team has been parsing since day one.

“A shared fitness box should feature extreme convenience, low enough barriers to work out and high enough incentives for exercise,” said Huang.

Working out made easy

To work out in a ParkBox, users book a time slot via WeChat or the ParkBox app and pay online. A staffless gym, ParkBox is open 24/7. The time flexibility is a huge benefit for office workers with busy schedules.

Statistics show that the fitness boxes are regularly frequented by midnight gym-goers. Because the gyms are equipped with security cameras and emergency call buttons, users can work out at night without worrying about safety.

ParkBox has installed its gyms strategically. According to a local Shanghai paper, many users are attracted to the fitness boxes because they can hit the gym just by stepping out their front door. Because convenience of location brings in more users and revenue, ParkBox chose to partner with residential blocks and property management firms to place the boxes.

ParkBox has also partnered with Huazhu Hotel Group, one of the startup’s investors, to install fitness boxes in 500 of the group’s hotels in future. Huazhu Hotel Group owns a large number of budget hotels, most of which don’t have onsite gyms. Outfitting 500 hotels with ParkBoxes will not only add convenience and value for travelers, it will also increase brand awareness.

Working out made enticing

ParkBox’s current business model doesn’t require users to pay yearly membership fees, so the startup has to work harder than conventional gyms to sign up and retain members. For this reason, it has added a number of features to make the ParkBox experience even more enjoyable for gym-goers.

To keep ParkBox users in a positive mood, the shipping containers are decorated in a bright and modern fashion. The boxes are paneled with wood, and a few container sides have been removed to make room for windows. This feature opens up the space and allows gym-goers to view their surroundings.

Box design has been planned down to the last detail. Every corner of the compact space is fully utilized. ParkBoxes even have tiny dressing rooms with lockers.

Not only are ParkBoxes aesthetically pleasing, working out in one is fun. Time spent on the treadmill is not just sweat time, it’s game time. Via the ParkBox app, users can compete to see who can run faster or longer with a friend at another ParkBox or the stranger on the treadmill next to them. Using VR or AR equipment, gym-goers can experience running through small European towns without ever leaving China.

Working out made intelligent

ParkBox knows its users are not all casual gym attendees. The startup also caters to the bodybuilding set.

Bodybuilders care about exercising effectively, and one concern many have about working out alone is the lack of professional guidance and feedback. Indeed, this concern most likely accounts for the skyrocketing price of personal training sessions in China.

In Shanghai, a one-hour private training session usually costs RMB 300–500. Sessions are often sold in large packages of twenty or more. Gym-goers sometimes pay tens of thousands of RMB to work out with a personal trainer.

To remedy this problem, ParkBox has introduced an intelligent AI coach. Once users log in to the system and click on the screen of a piece of available equipment, the virtual coach will demonstrate moves step-by-step and supervise the users by tracking their movements with an infrared ray. It can locate where a user’s body parts are in space to determine whether she is doing an exercise correctly.

Working out made social

Huang believes working out should be a social activity. When people struggle to make working out a regular part of their routine, motivation from friends can help them hang in there. That’s why, unlike many other shared gym companies, ParkBox doesn’t make single-user gyms. The startup offers three sizes of ParkBox: the smallest accommodates two people, and the largest can host six.

In a public speech, Huang predicted that ParkBox will become a frequent alternative to Starbucks in the next couple of years as a place to meet friends or business partners.

Meet you at the nearest ParkBox!

Edited by Wendy Lovinger and Wang Xiao'e