4 Things Gym Owners Can Do to Rebound After COVID-19

Don't expect things to bounce back immediately.

As COVID-19 vaccines roll out across the world, many of us in the fitness industry see a light at the end of the tunnel. However, if we expect to return to running a fitness business exactly as we did in 2019, we may be in for trouble.

In the before times, gym owners were often served by focusing on offering the best product possible, telling their story through a compelling website, and making sure that their onboarding process wasn’t too leaky.

As we start to come out of the pandemic, however, this “head down” approach could result in some catastrophic miscalculations for fitness business owners.

In this article, I hope to share some of the things that we at South Loop Strength & Conditioning are thinking about in hopes that it will give other fitness business owners some helpful questions to ask themselves as they prepare for the coming months.

Editor’s note: The road to a post-pandemic world will be a long — and potentially frustrating — one. Please follow the most recent local and national guidelines in your area regarding COVID-19 related safety practices and social distancing. 

Rowing Coaching

Prepare for Changing Health and Safety Guidelines

In February 2021, many cities, states, and countries are loosening their COVID guidelines as overall case numbers start to drop, though this varies by city and region.

In some areas, this means large unmasked group classes. In others, this means severely reduced capacity in the gym and one-on-one appointments. In countries like the United Kingdom, where more contagious variants have emerged, gyms are closed again.

Gym owners should be prepared to see guidelines both tightening and loosening, as the opposing forces of vaccine roll-out and the spread of more contagious variants make the next few months very unpredictable.

In downtown Chicago, we are currently seeing cases dropping rapidly, but more contagious variants could easily put us back to Zoom classes in the next six weeks.

We are communicating with members and staff that they need to be prepared both for increased demand as conditions improve. On the other hand, there could be more severe restrictions if normal masking and social distancing protocols aren’t effective for more contagious variants.

Downplaying the likelihood of changing guidelines or false confidence that “this will all be over soon” can erode trust, since most people recognize that things are still very uncertain. By being transparent in communication, we can earn the benefit of the doubt from our members and staff.

[Read more: Creating your own at-home workout routine.]

Understand Members Will Have Different Comfort Levels

In some areas, gyms are more likely to lose members if they don’t enforce mask usage. In other areas, it seems gyms may be more likely to lose members if they do enforce mask usage.

Gym owners need to think not just about the specific laws and mandates in their area, but also about what their members expect as far safety protocols.

As more people are vaccinated and social distancing recommendations are gradually loosened, gym owners will be caught in a tough position of trying to keep people safe and cater to members who are on the more concerned end of the spectrum. This comes while simultaneously not wanting to bog those who are vaccinated down with excessive guidelines and rules.

The reality is that most gyms will probably lose members on both ends of the spectrum.

Fitness Coaching

Still — and it may be too early to tell for most facilities — it may be worth considering different guidelines for different times throughout the day. Requiring masks during some hours and not others could give members the opportunity to choose what makes sense for them. While it will be impossible to make everyone happy, many members will appreciate the attempt to work with them and carve out a niche for their level of comfort. This will come down to specific gyms, their surrounding areas, and their member needs. 

Similarly, many people have internal rules regarding how many people they are willing to share space with. Many gyms have pivoted to online reservation systems and class capacities. Even as capacity mandates are loosened, gym owners may want to maintain lower capacities during off peak hours to allow members to have times that they can come in with fewer other people.

[Read more: The best at-home workout programs.]

Be Smart About Reactivating Clients

One of the most challenging things for fitness businesses will be getting back to their pre-pandemic membership numbers. As everyone in the fitness industry knows, inertia and procrastination are often the biggest barriers to getting folks to join a gym.

Coaching in a CrossFit Class

While gyms may have dozens if not hundreds of members who paused or canceled their membership due to the pandemic, getting those clients back into the gym is not going to be as simple as just waiting until things “go back to normal.”

Gym owners should anticipate that most of those clients are lost permanently. Many of them have likely moved, found other workout routines, or lost interest in training. Still, having some plans for reactivating members and leads lost during 2020 is wise.

At South Loop Strength & Conditioning, we’ve loosened many of the requirements that we had for people to join our classes. In 2019, we had a relatively high barrier to entry before we allowed people to jump into class, since we found that having inexperienced people in classes typically resulted in them having a bad experience — while also monopolizing the coach’s attention. We also found that giving people free classes or free weeks typically resulted in flakey behavior.

However, in 2020 and 2021, we’ve realized that many people are very skittish about starting something new or getting back into the gym. So, we’ve been much more willing to have people try things out without jumping through too many hoops.

Making specific recommendations here is difficult since we are not at the point in Chicago where we are seeing increased appetite for training. However, it has been eye-opening to realize that our previous pre-qualification process and high barrier to entry onboarding packages are inappropriate for the current dynamics.

Cater to a Larger Marketplace

Many people have fled major downtown areas like San Francisco, Manhattan, and downtown Chicago and relocated to mid-sized cities like Madison and Austin. Some central business districts can feel like ghost towns as many businesses have extended work from home orders and with nothing more than skeleton crews showing up consistently at the office.

Commercial and residential rents in some major cities have fallen while there have been buying frenzies in smaller markets and suburban areas.

While no one knows where the real estate market will settle out, gym owners need to consider what may happen to their membership numbers as markets shift. Will suburban gyms start losing dozens of members as people resume commuting downtown for work again?

Will dropping residential rents in urban areas entice new tenants to move into vacated neighborhoods? Will commercial leases signed in pre-pandemic times be sustainable as new competitors pop up with lower monthly rents and more concessions from landlords? Will landlords in up-and-coming cities be looking to cash out and sell properties to developers?

These are all empirical questions, so it is difficult to make specific predictions and recommendations. At SLSC, we are simply preparing for volatility, and we are communicating with our landlords that our ability to generate revenue is going to be dependent on the larger dynamics of downtown Chicago. A huge percentage of our membership has historically been commuters, so we are particularly affected by the length of work-from-home orders.

Gym owners would probably be well-suited to start scanning the commercial real estate listings more frequently even if they have no intention of moving. Overall volatility could put them in a surprising and uncomfortable position if their landlord decides to sell the property or suddenly has a change of heart over handshake rent agreements made at the start of the pandemic.

Folks in markets that have seen growth should be cautious of overextending on staff and monthly expenses, since they may see huge membership swings as people return to major cities.

Preparing for ongoing volatility in COVID guidelines, focusing on member comfort and compliance with rules, and identifying larger marketplace dynamics is key for gym owners now. Just hoping to keep our heads down and wake up in 2019 in a few months isn’t going to work!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.