Discovery Vitality CEO Dinesh Govender: Transforming rewards in era of Covid-19

Dinesh Govender, CEO of Discovery Vitality, talks to BizNews editor Jackie Cameron about “the world’s largest incentives programme” – and how it has been adjusted to  continue rewarding its members. Meanwhile, Discovery Vitality members have been using their rewards to help people in need. – Jarryd Neves

With me now is Dinesh Govender, CEO of Discovery Vitality. Welcome, Dinesh.

Hi, Jackie. Great to be here.

Dinesh, for listeners who aren’t members of Vitality, can you briefly sketch out what you offer and how Vitality works with its partners? 

Discovery is a financial services company offering everything from medical aid to investments, life insurance, banking and short-term insurance. But really, at its core, is our purpose of making people healthier and enhancing and protecting their lives. We’ve built this shared value insurance model which says, if we can make our members healthier and reduce their risks, it’s good for us and it’s good for them and we can reward them in different ways. That’s where Vitality comes in. Vitality is the world’s largest incentivised behaviour change programme.

We basically reward people for doing the right things for themselves. If you eat well, exercise and go for preventative screenings and assessments you will be able to get rewarded with all sorts of lovely stuff. From cashbacks and paybacks on your life insurance to fuel rewards in your car insurance, but also in terms of very sexy rewards, like massive discounts on gym membership, half price on movies, free coffees, smoothies and shopping vouchers for exercising every week etc. One of our sexier rewards is actually on the travel side, which offers up to 35/50/70% off of flights and accommodation through the Vitality benefits. 

How do you work with your partners? How does this programme work for your partners? 

So we have some incredible partnerships – locally and globally – which help us manifest the brand physically for our members. If you think about insurance, it’s quite an intangible product. But through Vitality, we make it physical. So there are some assets we have, such as Team Vitality, which is a running and cycling club.

A lot of our biggest benefits and rewards come through our amazing partners. For example, we partner locally with Virgin Active and Planet Fitness – two incredible gym chains. We’ve had a relationship with them for 20 years. On the travel side, we partner with Kulula and British Airways locally and with Emirates, Qantas and British Airways internationally for flight benefits. We partner with Apple on their wearable devices. You’ll see that in each and every one of the categories we choose one of the best players in that marketplace to partner with.

How have your Vitality programme benefits changed under Covid-19? 

Covid-19 has been quite a shock to the system globally. For us, we took it as an opportunity to say “how do we remain relevant in our members’ lives when they need us most?” The hard lockdown in particular, made our health even more top of mind. People couldn’t go to gyms. People weren’t moving as much. They were locked up inside their houses. It’s also a time when there’s lots of stress and anxiety. So mental wellbeing becomes an issue.

Stress eating becomes an issue. So rather than sort of sit back, what we did at Vitality was say, “how do we up our game in terms of remaining credibly relevant?” What we did over this period is evolve the programme. We called it Vitality at Home, evolving the programme so that we could offer members benefits that were relevant in their home space. 

We created a Home-Workout Channel together with our partners, where if you go on to Vitality at Home, you’ll find a channel with all sorts of workout videos for high intensity, cardio, stretching and workouts for your kids. We created a Home Nutrition Channel.

In addition to having an actual Vitality Healthy Food Studio where people can come in and learn how to cook nutritious meals, we created videos and posted them on our website for members to have a look at and choose their favourite recipes. We created a Mental-Wellbeing Channel so that people could actually go through the steps around understanding mindfulness, the importance of sleep over this period and various tips and tools, but also ways in which to engage with counsellors if needed. 

What we did is – any benefits that were relevant during the period – we increased the rewards on those. As an example, during the hardest lockdown levels, the partners that were most relevant to our members were our HealthyFood partners – Woolworths and Pick n Pay – and our healthcare partners – Clicks and Dischem.

Now, both of those partners, we offer 25-50% off the HealthyFood and HealthyCare items list. So when you’re eating well at Woolworths or Pick n Pay, you’re getting a massive discount on it. What we did over lockdown level 5 – and all the way up until the end of August – is we doubled whatever your HealthyFood and HealthyCare discounts were. To continue to keep members rewarded, during lockdown level 4 – when HealthyGear partners were reopened – we also doubled the HealthyGear rewards, so that people could get their yoga mats, home gym equipment and sports apparel at a big discount. 

In addition to that, we thought of a few other ways to help because there were new challenges that we were all faced with. One of those challenges was the fact that we couldn’t go out for entertainment. So we introduced Netflix and gaming vouchers on our Active Rewards, so that people could keep themselves entertained at home. The other big challenge – which many parents have encountered – is that all of a sudden they had to learn homeschooling and how to support their kids at home with school learning. That’s where we partnered with MyTopDog – which provides online learning support from grades 4 to 12 – so that our members could also access those benefits. So a lot of different ways in which we created the ability for members to stay rewarded, but also to keep exercising. 

What does your data tell you about how your Vitality members adapted to those changes? Did you find them responding in the way you wanted them to respond? 

The data was quite heartwarming. There’s the data and there’s the anecdotes. On the data side, I was very concerned about what would have happened if we hadn’t responded quickly. You could see that people stopped working out in gyms. The gyms were closed, but we saw that digital workouts started to increase quite rapidly. We saw anyone with heart rate wearables – which is something we’ve been driving hard for the last five years – really up their game. We saw the number of heart rate workouts increase over this period. 

In addition to that, once we started driving incentives and active rewards – lowering the targets and making it easier for people and encouraging them to take steps – we saw that even the number of people doing 10,000 steps a day started to recover after the early April dip. On the anecdotal side, what was really great is – on social media – we found many members responding positively to the message we were putting out in terms of not just these rewards improvements, but also just the concessions we are making, such as pausing gym visits, extending eligibility for maximum discounts on HealthyFood and HealthyCare. There were many thank you messages and gratitude for members, which was very pleasing.

Now that South Africa is settling into life under level two of the lockdown, what is changing for the Vitality members? 

It’s such an exciting space for us. Vitality members have now moved back into a space where gyms are open, under very strict protocols. Cinemas are open too and travel has recommenced. What we’ve done in this space is work very closely with our gym partners. Our members can find access to a webinar we had just two days ago, with the heads of Virgin Active and Planet Fitness, where we discussed the protocols and the safety of how to exercise safely in gyms. Right now, they’re restricted to 50 people per club. 

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But we’re working with them to actually get the government to extend that to probably 50% capacity, which we think would be more reasonable. So members can go back to gym safely and vigilantly, I hope. The same goes for cinemas and the travel side. Within a week we are going to open up travel in terms of accommodation options. Many members would be looking to take breaks at hotels and game lodges. So we are going to work with our partners Kulula to reopen the accommodation options on their travel platform.

Do you have any indication of how your programme is helping to stimulate the economy in these areas?

I think there’s a lot of pent up demand out there and people are fatigued by the lockdown. My advice to them is to be encouraged by the relaxation of lockdown rules, but to remain vigilant. Our partners have been supportive in that space. If you look at the way the gyms and the cinemas are reopening, they’re doing it in incredibly careful ways with protocols that are world class. We’re seeing our members go back.

It’s very early days, but I’ve received lots of messages this entire week and last week around members being really happy to be back at gym. So we think we’re getting it back. We think we’re driving that again. We also have healthy dining benefits where members choosing healthy options at certain eat-out restaurants can also benefit from discounts. We’ve seen that pick up as well over this period. Hopefully we get the economy stimulated, but we do so in a way that’s responsible and allows us not to forget that the virus is still out there. 

You mentioned that you thought gyms could take more members than the government has been advising. Do you have any science behind that or could you tell us more about your thinking on that? 

It’s more about the protocols. We’ve been very clear – no matter what situation you’re in – the main thing to do is wear a mask, observe a safe distance and frequently sanitise your hands. That applies whether you’re in public transport, a work environment or a gym environment. The regulations right now talk about 50 people per gym, as opposed to 50% capacity or per person. We’d prefer the per person approach to actually look at this. The reason for that is that the gyms in South Africa are quite varied. You’ve got gyms as small as 50and you’ve got gyms as large as 5000

If you’re allowing 50 people into a gym, the small gyms will have 1per person, which is not safe at all. But if you’ve got a 5000 mega gym, all of a sudden each person in your gym has 100 to themselves, which doesn’t sound sensible. So what we are advocating for is something more around members per . That’s what the UK and Australia have done. For example, in the UK and Australia, where we gyms have reopened successfully, the UK has got a limit of one member per 9. Australia’s got a limit of one member per4. All we’re saying is, take into account the size of the gym when defining the capacity. 

There’s a bit of concern among gym members about their fees. How have you been dealing with gym fees? I believe you’ve been advocating a bit for them to be frozen? 

Less advocating, because I think both our gym partners have been very supportive of members who want to come back but want to wait a little while longer. The good news in this country is that it seems like we are over the peak right now. People who feel safe enough and are going to be responsible should be going back to gym. But for anyone who’s on the fence right now, the gym partners have allowed for a two-month freeze period, which I think is great. 

It gives people time to test the waters. We’re encouraging our members who feel safe and who are looking forward to getting back into gym to go back, but remember their safety protocols, remember to keep a safe distance, remember to wear a mask and remember to wash their hands frequently. 

Anyone who’s not feeling safe should be considering the freeze options that our partners have offered. Even during the next month, we’re pausing the requirements we have. We encourage our members to exercise, so to get the maximum discount on your gym membership, you’ve got to go at least 36 times in a year. We’ve paused that since the end of March, and we’ll continue to pause that for the month of September and review as we go, to make sure that we are responsible but encouraging partners to your good health.

What kind of feedback have you had from your members about the changes you’ve made in this very difficult era?

Very supportive. We’re encouraged by the fact that we’ve had a number of members responding to us personally and on social media recognising – and I hope all members have felt this – that we’ve shown deep empathy during this period. This hasn’t been a good period for anyone. It’s been quite a challenging and tough time. There’s lots of different factors. There’s our health, deaths around us and economic hardship. 

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Anything we could do to recognise, empathise with our members and make sure that we’re understanding, but still continuing to encourage them to get healthy, stay healthy, continue exercising and keep eating healthy is being taken very well. We’re drawing that line between encouraging people to go out there and exercise, but understanding that some of them may be reluctant to do so. That’s where the concessions have come in.

Thank you very much. Is there anything else you’d like to mention to our listeners, before we wrap up? 

I’d just like to use this opportunity to thank our members for doing their part. Our members have engaged tremendously well during a period when it’s very easy to stop engaging in the right behaviour, curl up in a ball and mull life. I’m very encouraged that they’ve continued to engage and I encourage them to continue to do so. I’d also like to thank them for their generosity. We’ve got a fabulous MoveToGive crowdsourced philanthropy effort. As they exercise, our members earn Discovery Miles. 

They’re able to use those miles for their own coffees, smoothies and shopping vouchers, but they’re also able to donate them to charitable causes. Right now, the world needs philanthropy. Our members have donated – during this period alone – over R2-million which has gone to all sorts of causes, from the Solidarity Fund, FoodForward SA and many more. Really helping society beyond themselves. I think it talks to the core purpose of Discovery – making people healthier – but it also just talks to the values of our membership base. I’d like to say a huge thank you to them. 

That’s great. Well, thank you very much. You’ve been listening to Dinesh Govender, the CEO of Discovery Vitality. 

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