A few days ago, I was listening to an industry webinar focused on the strategies that fitness facilities are implementing as “shelter in place” restrictions are gradually being removed and communities are attempting to reopen . The webinar host introduced the panel as, “industry experts in dealing with Covid-19”. The first guest to speak was quick to correct her, “Actually, none of us are experts. We're all learning this in real time”. The truth of that statement really resonated with me. It's such a difficult time for the fitness industry, so unique in fact that the word “unprecedented” really doesn't do it justice.
Typically, when we emerge from a crisis we have some best practices that we can glean from a similar situation. However, given that the last global pandemic was back in 1918 and that our industry really hit its stride in the 80s and 90s, we don't have a viable playbook to reference. This means that all of us are using a combination of scientific guidelines, common sense and gut instincts to figure out the best way to navigate each step of the “new normal”.
Given all the changes that need to be made as we shift to prioritizing public health, I was curious to hear how my industry colleagues were thinking through the reopening process. I decided to do a scrappy (and admittedly unscientific) straw poll on social media to find out. Over a 4-day period, more than 50 owners and managers shared their POV in a survey about what they expect for their facilities as they start to open their doors. Here's what they told me.
The majority of respondents (about 72%) described their facility as “boutique fitness” with the rest being a mixture of big box gyms, smaller personal training facilities and sports performance facilities.
What they said
Q: How soon do you plan on reopening? Select all that apply.
The top two factors that respondents said they are basing their reopening timelines on are: 1) their legal ability to do so (64%) and 2) their comfort level in their ability to keep members safe (50%).
Q: What criteria are you using to determine when your facility will reopen? Please select all that apply.
The majority of respondents (83%) said that they will focus on state guidelines as their reopening criteria. Confidence in the ability to keep people safe (56%), federal guidelines (54%), local municipality guidelines (50%) and health agency guidelines (50%) were also listed as important criteria in their decision making.
Q: When you reopen which of the following safety protocols are you planning on implementing during the initial reopening period? Please select all that apply.
Enhanced cleaning protocols (100%), limiting the number of people in the facility (96%), and increased availability of hand sanitizers/sanitizing wipes (91%) were the top 3 safety protocols that owners and managers are planning to employ.
Other techniques ranked include: social distancing (79%), disinfecting equipment before and after use (79%), having the staff wear masks (54%), offering members the option of wearing masks/gloves (48%), having staff wear gloves (25%) and requiring members to wear masks or gloves (17%).
Additional strategies listed included in the “other” category included: using outdoor spaces, having members not wear street shoes in the gym, taking members' temperatures before allowing them into the facility, asking members to provide a statement of a clean bill of health, having members reserve time in the gym in advance and putting arrows on the floor to mark the desired traffic flow.
Q: Will you reopen with group classes or small group training as a part of your offering? Please select all that apply.
Of the facilities that currently offer group fitness, 54% said they are planning on reopening with group exercise with new social distancing guidelines in place, 38% will have group classes at reopening, but with a change in format(s) and 21% said they are holding off on offering group exercise at launch.
Q: Are there any areas of the facility that you will INITIALLY keep closed/not reopen? Please select all that apply.
Locker rooms/showers (19%) and sauna/steam rooms (15%) were the areas most respondents said they would keep closed at reopening.
Other areas listed included: child care, pools, cardio areas, stretching areas, group exercise and spinning studios.
Q: How often will you have staff cleaning equipment, high-touch surfaces?
Ramping up the frequency of cleaning was called out with 56% saying they plan on cleaning high traffic/high touch areas every hour or less. 15% said they were planning on cleaning every 2 hours, and 27% said they still weren't sure about their new cleaning schedule protocols.
Q: When you reopen what will your staffing model look like?
50% of respondents said they will have the same amount of staff as before, 17% said they would have about ½ of their normal staff and another 17% indicated that they weren't sure yet. Of those who responded with “other”, two specifically called out that they were adding staff to deal with Covid-19 specific protocols such as temperature checks at the door and enhanced/more frequent cleaning and sanitizing protocols.
Q: How much of your membership do you anticipate coming back immediately after reopening?
Of those who responded, 22% said they thought 80% or more of their normal membership would come back when they reopened, 17% said they believed the number would be between 60-80% and 39% said they expected between 40-60%. About 22% indicated that they weren't sure what to expect.
Q: Where do you think your membership numbers will be in 6 months?
39% indicated that they weren't sure about the impact on membership 6 months after reopening. 33% believed it would be 80% or more of what it had been prior to the pandemic. 22% believed it would be 60%-80% of what it was before. About 6% were very bearish about the near future, saying they thought it would 20%-40% of what it was prior to the Covid-19 closures.
Given the industry shift to digital/online fitness offerings during the pandemic, I was particularly curious about how owners and managers are thinking about integrating digital options into their offerings in the future. Here's what they had to say.
Q: Are you CURRENTLY offering any type of digital personal training or group exercise solution now (paid, donation or free)?
Virtually all of the respondents said that they are now offering some type of digital fitness solution to their members. 63% of those are currently offering at least some fee-based services, which the rest being a combination of free (33%) and/or donation based (11%)
Q: Were you currently offering any type of digital personal training or group exercise solution BEFORE the Covid-19 pandemic?
Over 70% said they did not have a digital offering before the pandemic. Only 22% indicated that they did have a fee-based digital offering before.
Q: Will you be continuing to offer a digital solution when you reopen?
The majority of respondents (84%) said they were planning on having an ongoing digital offering post-pandemic, with 59% of those saying it would be offered at a fee and/or included with membership.
Over the past 30 years the industry has had more than its share of good times and struggles.
There have been increases and decreases in the popularity of small studios, big box gyms, CrossFit boxes, boutique and specialty fitness studios. There have been shifts (and inevitable consolidations) as new trends and fads came and went. As an industry, we've rebounded from terrorist attacks and recessions. But this moment feels very different.
No doubt the silent, invisible nature of this virus will leave many people uneasy about returning to fitness facilities, at least initially. In the immediate post-quarantine stages, social distancing and enhanced cleaning protocols will be baseline member expectations. In the absence of a vaccine, we will need to do whatever we can to protect our members. But beyond changes in policy and process, communication and community will be more important than ever.
We will need to ensure we are really listening to all of our members, understanding their fears and making whatever adjustments we can to ease them. We need to continually communicate the specific actions that we're taking to help keep them safe.
We also need to make clear to members (and staff) our new expectations as owners and managers. Our industry is typically focused on service excellence and hospitality, but the priority for the foreseeable future will need to be on preventing the spread of this disease and protecting the health of our members and the community at large.
In the industry webinar last week, one person said that they are having their members sign a Covid-19 management pledge, detailing all of the new policy changes and getting each of them to commit to abiding by them in writing. At first I thought that suggestion was a bit extreme, but after reflecting on it I understood the rationale and saw the value of getting everyone to explicitly commit to being on the same page. Even the most well-designed safety procedures won't work if members aren't onboard and doing their part to comply with the new rules and guidelines.
We need to do all that we can to make members feel safe and welcome while at the same time having zero tolerance for any behavior that undermines the health and safety of others.
The phrase “never let a serious crisis go to waste”, has never been truer than it is now. Hopefully, we can use this difficult moment in our industry's history to deepen our connection and ability to show respect for one another, both within our individual facilities and across our industry in general.