WELLNESS AS A WAY OF LIFE. At just 22 years of age, in 1983 Nerio Alessandri founded Technogym. Today Technogym is a world leading company offering products and digital services for Wellness and rehabilitation.
Nerio Alessandri, you created your first exercise machine in the garage of your home in Cesena, in the Romagna region of Italy. Why did you make it and what machine was it?
I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I’d done things such as fashion design. When I was twenty-one the gym in Cesena was little more than a basement for body builders where I was very thin and out of place. I realised that the equipment was completely inadequate in terms of safety, effectiveness, and training. As a designer with a passion for mechanics and bio mechanics – physical movement – and a habit of asking a thousand questions, I asked questions to the gym owner and the body builders. I really liked exercise, but the concept of fitness didn’t exist in 1983, there was only bodybuilding. I realised that it was possible to help people exercise in an easier and safer way by applying design, so I made the very innovative “hack squat” in my garage.
How did you make it?
At the age of fourteen I had turned our garage into a workshop because I wanted to earn pocket money, and I would build things. I built a motorbike, and I would work on motorbikes for friends. Our home was opposite an automobile repair shop, where for ten years of my childhood, from when I was six or seven, I immersed myself in mechanics. When I graduated as an industrial designer, I went to work in a packaging firm in Cesena. The first fitness machine I created I made on weekends and at night. Then I created the entire line, which was very technologically advanced. I used the suppliers from the job where I was working. The mechanics field in the Romagna region is very developed and there is a large network, so Romagna was ready for Technogym.
The Technogym Village glowing by night.
But Nerio Alessandri, fitness didn’t exist in 1983. Did you invent it?
I invented the word “wellness”, which is part of our brand. In 1992, we launched the “wellness lifestyle”. Technogym wasn’t about bodybuilding, since the beginning we were more fitness and biomedical. Then to differentiate ourselves from the American stereotype of fitness we launched wellness. In 1987/8, we began supplying machines to the Milan football club that Berlusconi had recently purchased, and they had the largest gym in the world. We were part of the big transformation in the way they trained for football in ’87, ‘88, and ’89, with the 1990 World Cup in Italy with Luca di Montezemolo and the large training centre in Rome. We were winning them all if you remember, and all over Italy we filled all of the gyms with this incredibly complete line.
Were they your gyms?
No, fitness clubs are our clients: we support them by supplying products, services and technologies. This industry didn’t exist; it was very artisanal, very much improvised. The passion for design and the aesthetics of perfection that is the philosophy behind our product took us from bodybuilding to fitness. Fitness was launched in America in 1990, but we were already talking about fitness in 1987. We used that in our slogan: “Fitness and Biomedical”. In 1992, we decided to outdo the Americans with something completely Italian: Mens sana in corpore sano. Looking back to Ancient Rome, we coined the slogan “Technogym, the wellness company”, because in English there was the word ‘well-being’ but not ‘wellness’. We decided to combine ‘fitness’ with ‘well-being’, and bring the “Italian lifestyle” to this idea.
If I’m not mistaken, today there are 80,000 wellness centres in the world, and 300,000 in private homes?
Yes, in 300,000 of the most beautiful homes in the world, and I can say that because I’ve worked with a lot of architects. The positioning is “Italian design” and “furniture like”. I may do fitness in my garage, in a draughty attic, or have a machine under my bed. But wellness is more like I put Technogym’s wonderful equipment on display in my living room as objects of design. Wellness is aspirational. Then by leveraging our digital ecosystem we have introduced “wellness on the go”: the possibility for people to connect to their personal training program anytime and anywhere: at the gym, at home, at hotels, at the doctor or even outdoor thanks to our app.
Are fitness machines and wellness machines different?
Yes. Wellness machines have an approach that is more comfortable, and are easier to use. In 1988 we were the first in the world to put electronics on machines, with heart rate monitors. In 1996 we founded a software company in Seattle and we launched the first software system to manage training and we added the TV screen on fitness equipment in 2000; nobody had ever thought of that before. There’s been a massive transformation. We pretty much invented everything in this industry. We were the first to connect to the Internet. Today they call it the Internet of Things (IoT), but we did this many years ago. We were the first company in the fitness industry to create a cloud based platform, so today there are over 15 million people in the world active in our ecosystem and able to connect to their personalized training program on our equipment or on their mobile phone. We’ve even created a media company and a production company to provide a training experience and live and on-demand video content for the equipment console. Today, all of our machines are connected to the Internet and the cloud. People can watch Netflix or be connected to an online trainer.
Are they expensive?
They are more expensive than iron bodybuilding machines, but they offer a lot more in terms of electronic components and digital services and contents.
And you created your own wellness village in the Romagna region?
Yes, Technogym Village is our wellness campus that includes 60,000 square metres of covered space and 180,000 square metres of park. This is not only the home of Technogym, but a point of reference for the entire fitness and wellness industry. Last year 27,000 people came. It’s at the centre of the Wellness Valley. Wellness requires an ecosystem, an area integrated with schools, senior-citizen centres, sport centres, and rehabilitation centres. We created the Wellness Valley, and naturally we have a responsibility to society. I want my legacy to be a foundation for new generations that is very much in line with our brand. In 2003, through our Wellness Foundation, we began building the first Wellness Valley in the world in Cesena, and we created it along with various stakeholders – the university, the local government, hotels, etc. It’s a way of life. An entire local system goes from the thermal baths to the university to the hospitals to hotels and parks. Everyone plays a part. All the major hotels in Romagna offer wellness holiday packages, including food and wine, sport, bicycling in the park, and hiking up in the hills.
“There is a great deal of growth and focus on home fitness.”
Nerio Alessandri, how many people do you employ in total?
2,200 in total. There are 1,200 in our subsidiaries. The Technogym Village is a place that includes 1,000 people that work here.
What is the most important line of products from Technogym?
The treadmill. We have eight models, and it is always a bestseller. Then there’s the content and software ecosystem. We sell solutions, not only for fitness clubs, but also for hospitals, and for companies – Facebook, Google, Apple. It’s called Technogym Corporate Wellness. We have solutions for hotels – 12,000 hotels have Technogym equipment. We have solutions for universities – 5,000 universities have Technogym equipment. For gyms, fitness centres – 35,000 of them. There’s a solution for every market that includes software, equipment and services, and it is called Total Wellness Solutions.
We are going through a unique time in history. How has the coronavirus impacted Technogym, from a sales as well as a cultural and lifestyle point of view?
This pandemic has brought health to the forefront of awareness for people and families. The importance of health; prevention, boosting the immune system, focusing on the home, family and friends. In terms of Technogym, we have also seen a transformation. There is a great deal of growth and focus on home fitness, while public spaces like hotels and gyms are temporary seeing a slowdown. In these months Technogym have experienced a growth in consumer and B2C, as well as in the business linked with digital. Alongside equipment, we sell different solutions directly to consumers such as personal training services both onsite or online, and we do so on our own ecommerce platforms and call centers, and with our wellness consultants in the field.
Is there a boom in sales to homes?
We have seen a great deal of growth and are really focusing on the home, but people are not only going to stay home. Before, they were always at the gym and almost never home. Today, we have a hybrid situation; people will train both at home and at gyms. For three months in China things have been back to normal, and the gyms and hotels are all full. There are many countries in Asia where nothing has changed. Obviously, the United States has been greatly impacted, but things are better in Germany. In Nordic countries, not much has changed. It’s not the same situation across the board. Home is something new, but there’s still sport, rehabilitation, and medical fitness, and they are all doing well. People do want to socialize. We think that starting next year when all of this fear, this emergency situation, is over, people will return to gyms, swimming pools and fitness centres. Of course, right now there are security protocols to follow.
The original Technogym equipment – the Hack Squat that Nerio Alessandri built at home in Cesena.
The personal wellness line of Technogym equipment
Runners exercise in the Technogym Wellness Centre
The Technogym Wellness Centre
Bike day at Technogym
The Technogym Wellness Campus in Romagna includes 60,000 square metres of covered space and 180,000 square metres of park.
“The balance is shifting toward Asia as compared to the west.”
Nerio Alessandri, are you worried?
I am optimistic, but still very worried. I’m optimistic because I think wellness, fitness, and sport will be much more important than before. But I’m worried about the uncertainty.
Is it economic uncertainty that worries you?
At one time, we had the war. Now we have Covid. I don’t know what will happen in 2021, but I don’t think everything will be resolved in a few months. I think we will get through 2021, and 2022 may be back to normal. But Covid will have left its mark. Maybe not in China, because they are resolving it in their own way.
Are you worried about being dependent on China?
Unlike the US and Europe, China is forecasting growth of 18% in GDP in the next four years. China will be increasingly important. The balance is shifting toward Asia as compared to the west.
In China they know how to copy everything. One day, will the Chinese be copying your machines?
They’ve already done so, they can make anything; but their products are different, and not as good as ours. It’s a large market, and there’s room for everyone. We have our own positioning and quality and design, which makes Technogym unique.
Because of the wellness concept that goes back to the idea of mens sana corpore sano, are people today healthier and more in tune with fitness?
No, people are much more vulnerable today as compared to the past. There are more obese people, more people who have chronic illnesses, more elderly; and there are greater risks due to stress, poor nutrition, alcohol, and bad lifestyle habits. People are more at risk as compared to 1,000 years ago, but 1,000 years ago they didn’t have the medical treatments and machines we have today, so life expectancy has increased. Today there’s a very hedonistic approach, to show off your body and your performance. In terms of wellness and prevention, awareness is growing, but we need more education, especially in schools.
This project began in your garage and has expanded to the whole world. Do you think that there’s a technological evolution taking place, month after month, year after year?
Absolutely. There is a great change taking place that is like a very sophisticated race, in which many fail and go bankrupt. It is a market that is changing at the speed of light. It does not stand still.