In the midst of a catastrophic paradigm-shifting pandemic, fortune favors those who innovate and adapt.
Directly and negatively impacted by lockdowns, government regulations, economic contraction, consumer safety concerns, and a growing workout-from-home trend, gyms are undergoing a mass-extinction event. Countless gyms across the country will never reopen, and even nationwide chains such as 24 Hour Fitness and Gold’s Gym have filed for bankruptcy due to the pandemic. As local gyms and exercise businesses strive to thrive, if not simply stay alive, they battle myriad challenges on multiple fronts. As an industry, the survival of fitness will depend on survival of the fittest.
“We’re extremely busy just trying to survive,” says Christophe Bellito, co-owner of Toadal Fitness. “We’ve been doing whatever we can to get people to work out.”
The scope and scale of the changing restrictions that gyms face is dizzying, and puts in perspective the challenges it takes to simply open the doors of a business during the pandemic. Bellito says that within 3-4 days after being initially shut down in March, his team members created numerous virtual classes.
“We’re doing at least 10 classes a day, and about 100 per week,” he says, adding that it’s helped him retain around 70-80% of his staff.
But virtual classes are only the beginning of Toadal’s adaptations, as the business seeks to display an amphibian-like level of versatility to stay afloat. One progressive idea that Bellito instituted was an equipment loan program—offering things like elliptical machines, spin bikes, treadmills, benches, and free weights for members to use at home for no additional cost.
“We have also renovated the clubs, adding plexiglass shields and making sure the equipment is far apart,” adds Bellito. “We have moved equipment outside at all our clubs, take the temperature of every employee and guest, and have invested in UV light technology that makes our spaces safer.”
Bellito says that member feedback has been mostly good, but that some aspects have been challenging. “A lot of people have cancelled their membership without even coming to see what we’ve done. Before you make a decision, come see for yourself and then decide based on facts, not perceptions. The most difficult part has been seeing people give up without giving us a try. They’re giving up on themselves, too.”
Rocky’s Fitness Center is another local gym doing its best to navigate the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. “Initially, it only took us about three hours to go virtual,” says owner Rocky Snyder, adding that they offer around 25 virtual classes per week. “Then when we opened, we spaced out equipment and workout areas to be socially distant and still effective at the same time. The biggest change for us has been to keep the ‘personal’ in ‘personal training,’ even when done at a distance.”
The requirement that in-person workouts now be done outside has had an unexpected lemonade-from-lemons type of effect, Snyder says. “We’re actually gaining more clients now because of our outdoor classes and more exposure,” he says. “Because people can see what we’re doing, there has been increased interest and the phone is ringing again.”
He says that they currently offer multiple daily outdoor workouts in the form of one-on-one and small-group personal instruction. “Instead of curbside pickup like at a restaurant, we offer curbside training.”
Snyder says that member feedback has been about 50/50 in terms of people who feel safer staying home doing online training, and others who are happy to exercise in-person outdoors in the fresh air. “Initially, some people quit,” he says, “but many guests also reached out and expressed the feeling of, ‘You’ve supported us for so long, it’s time for us to support you.’” Snyder says that he has been able to keep all of his staff employed during the pandemic, and he requires that they wear masks at all times.
“The overall uncertainty is the most difficult part of all of this,” says Snyder, “not knowing every day that you wake up if the other shoe will drop.”
However, he is striving to make the best of a bad situation by focusing on outreach and building community. “One of the silver linings is opening up and broadening our online services—we can now accommodate people from all over the country, if not the world,” he says.
His gym offers online educational workouts targeted specifically for older people, children, and Latino populations. These workouts are free to access, even for non-members.
The children’s programs are listed on the Santa Cruz County School’s website resource page, and can help parents homeschool their children with regards to fitness and physical education.
“I think this is a time where the community really needs to come together,” says Snyder. “We have knowledge, experience, and information that we can share to help people get through this time.”