When people return to the gym this weekend, things will look very different. The government’s guidelines allowed indoor facilities to reopen on July 25 with a number of restrictions meant to reduce crowding and the spread of Covid-19. Across brands, gyms are consistent on the basics, like requiring members to book space in classes and reducing opening hours to allow for deep cleaning. But many have decided to add their own flourishes to safety measures in a race to prove their safety credentials to wary members.
At Village Gym, there will be tape on the floor for social distancing, machines separated by protective screens, and staff members toting Super Soaker-like electrostatic disinfectant devices. As part of PureGym’s TrainSafe program, staff may separate members spotting each other. At David Lloyd Clubs, pool lanes will be spaced out and safe childcare programs will aid overworked parents.
“We know we’ve got to re-earn their trust,” says Humphrey Cobbold, CEO of PureGym, which has already served customers at locations across Europe for weeks. “It’s not just about the risk individuals are taking. It’s the perception by people, who perhaps don’t even come to the gym, that we’re exposing society to a level of risk.”
The more extreme aspects of the TrainSafe regulations, including the suggestion that gym staff will discourage heavy breathing and high-load exercises, won’t be strictly enforced, says Cobbold. But elsewhere the craze for hygiene has resulted in dystopian plastic pods at a California boutique studio and softly-lit hot yoga igloos at a Toronto pop-up.
These performative acts of safety are part of a security theatre that has taken hold of the industry, which is desperate to inspire consumer confidence after months of economic hardship. Yet, these same safety features may harm gyms if they turn off customers.
“If we just say, ‘Okay we’re not going to limit anything and it’s a free-for-all,’ people will be unhappy because it’s unsafe,” says Siân Peak, digital marketing manager at Village Gym & Spa. “But then if we say, ‘Actually this is looking after your safety,’ people will also complain and say, ‘Well I’ll never get into the club.’ We’re treading a fine line.”
When PureGym announced that it was reopening English locations, customers fretted in social media comments about reduced hours and limited capacity. At Northern Ireland PureGyms, which reopened on July 10, a few members were asked not to return after making a fuss over basic safety requirements.
The catch-22 has put gyms in a tight spot at a financially precarious moment. Global stalwarts like 24 Hour Fitness and Gold’s Gym have declared bankruptcy. According to a recent report from industry trade group ukactive, up to 23 per cent of customers cancelled their plans during the pandemic. Gyms froze memberships, but more will likely cancel this week as they consider paying for greatly reduced services. Market research firm IBISWorld estimates total revenue in the sector will fall by 27.6 per cent year-on-year, about £1.6 billion, and profit margin will fall from eight per cent last year to 1.6 per cent.Managers and trainers are banking on the promise of pent up demand: a May survey found 87 per cent of respondents would resume memberships when gyms reopened, and 27 per cent planned to join gyms for the first time.
Cobbold points out that, given the subscription model, when PureGym turns direct debit back on for their members, the business will return immediately to 80 per cent revenue (minus 20 per cent in cancelled memberships). Even with a few extra cancellations at that point, he claims cancellations will be balanced out by new members joining. But even if demand doesn’t lag overall, it may shift geographically. Many workplaces are shuttered, daily commutes no longer take people by the gym, and some remote employees have moved away from city centres entirely. That means a loss of business at about 15 per cent of PureGym locations, known as “worker facilities”, that cater mostly to office workers.
People may not want to visit PureGym in the centre of London or Manchester, Cobbold concedes, but he hopes there will be an uptick in provincial and suburban locations. “It’s not as if the people have vaporised. They’re just in a different place.”
IBISWorld analyst Gaetana Mak cites a recent Gartner poll that found 48 per cent of staff will continue working remotely part time even after the pandemic. This will hit urban gyms particularly, and she predicts that operators of all sizes, including larger players such as the Gym Group, where almost a third of sites are within the M25, will be forced to close unviable establishments, while smaller shops are likely to exit the industry altogether.
That rings true for Karin Kaellman, CEO of fitness brand and boutique exercise company Barrecore. “Some of our 12 studios which are located in more business and high-street type areas will definitely continue to face a challenge, which will lead to a difficulty for us ramping up our operations. We will without a doubt be challenged for the next 6-12 months,” she says.
In a win for cities, Peak suggests an opposite trend may play out for Village Gym. Locations in leafy suburbs tend to serve older patrons who may continue shielding. In cities, customers tend to be young millennials eager to resume exercise routines.
Regardless of location, some people purchased expensive home gym equipmentor formed habits with digital content during lockdown, investments they won’t easily throw away. But Neil Randall, CEO of Anytime Fitness UK, argues that gyms provide a critical third space, not only for fitness communities, but also away from family and roommates. “My house has become my full-time office, homeschool for my kids, and my gym all in one, so it’s not really a home anymore, and I think a lot of people are feeling the same,” he says.
In the initial days of the pandemic, many fitness brands pivoted to offering digital classes and remote community engagement, finally realising a long-predicted migration to digital. Before the pandemic even took hold, Equinox released Variis, a flashy platform that encompasses sister brands SoulCycle and Pure Yoga. Anytime Fitness is preparing to launch a new platform[/link] too, AFK Online, which will match workout videos with home exercise equipment sold through a digital shop.
Some wonder whether digital content can compete with the wealth of free exercise videos online, but even doubtful owners are preparing to provide remote content, which customers may use in concert with brick and mortar gyms. Village Gym, which is currently ending video classes to encourage members to return to clubs, will eventually release some sort of digital offering.
Digital will be especially critical for the survival of smaller boutiques like Barrecore. Kaellman says global audiences have boosted the studio’s online classes, giving a new financial avenue to a brand that could struggle to keep London locations open.
Brands like WE.DNTPLAY are particularly well-positioned to engage their communities through highly personalised streaming content. Co-founder Jay Thompson says the studio has received great feedback on digital yoga classes, which may help see the company through the fall and winter. Most of the studio’s revenue comes from classes, currently hosted outside due to lack of indoor space. “Going back indoors and going into the winter months will prove challenging,” Thompson admits.
The winter months will be make or break for a lot of businesses. Barrecore, for instance, received furlough support from the government, but nothing from insurance or their bank, “despite loudly touted government-supported loans supposedly aimed at companies just like ours,” Kaellman says. She had to negotiate rent support with each of her 13 landlords, and Barrecore already lost one of the brand’s largest studios when negotiations fell through.
Huw Edwards, CEO of industry association ukactive, told the Digital Culture Media and Sport committee that half of public leisure facilities in the UK would close by 2021 if they didn’t receive financial support. Financial strain for customers, who may cancel or downsize memberships if the economy remains slow, could exacerbate problems.
Gyms haven’t received as much financial aid as sectors like hospitality, but they may prove critical to improving people’s overall health ahead of a potential second wave of coronavirus. In an odd twist, the pandemic, which has fundamentally challenged every aspect of the fitness industry, may eventually drive loads of business to gyms – if operators can figure out how to satisfy members.
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