Ediitor’s note: The series “Resilience and Reinvention” shines the light on the innovations of organizations in industries decimated by the pandemic. These adaptive organizations have retooled their business model and redirected their workforce to keep their doors open and workers employed.
Many people who’ve been stuck at home during the pandemic took advantage of the moment to invest in their wellness. More healthy home-cooked meals got made. Many more meditation apps got downloaded. And a lot more Pelotons got delivered to homes. All of that effort to convert homes to gyms had a casualty, though: the gym.
According to the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association, the past year has severely injured fitness centers. The organization reported that 15% of health clubs and similar facilities in the United States had closed permanently by last November. Those that remained in business reported an average revenue decline of 37%.
Along with bars and hotels, gyms were identified as the most common COVID superspreader locations during the early days of the pandemic, and as such were early targets for full shutdowns in many states. For Life Time Fitness Inc., a North American chain of more than 150 health clubs, there were three challenges it needed to address to stay afloat. It needed to:
- Develop protocols that would keep the facilities safe in places where they could remain open.
- Persuade skeptical patrons to come back to those facilities.
- Create an online option for those who were committed to staying at home through the pandemic.
Shortly after the pandemic hit, Life Time consulted with a former state epidemiologist and industrial hygienists to develop a lengthy set of cleaning protocols, said spokesperson Amy Williams. It upgraded air filters and other ventilation infrastructure in many of its gyms, and cut the size of classes once they reopened, instituting a reservation policy for all classes. The most determined efforts to implement social-distancing measures, including disinfecting benches and mats, are only so persuasive, though. When gyms in Oklahoma reopened last May, only about 60% of members came back to Life Time, according to Williams.
Getting Fit in the Great Outdoors
By Mark McGraw, WorldatWork
In mid-March 2020, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued a mandate that the state’s non-essential businesses — like gyms — temporarily shut down as a way to help slow the spread of the surging coronavirus.
The doors of Final Results Fitness remained closed until July 1, when Pennsylvania moved into the Yellow phase, which allowed for people to gather in groups of 25 or less in outdoor settings only.
John Wood and wife Jennifer own and operate the Gilbertsville, Pa.-based health club, situated about 50 miles outside of Philadelphia. They couldn’t just drag thousands of pounds of cardiovascular equipment, weightlifting machines, the sauna, the yoga studio, or the club’s popular Juice Joint smoothie bar out into the parking lot and set up shop there.
But they could try their best to replicate the Final Results experience in the great outdoors.
“The first thing we were able to do is offer outdoor classes, so we basically designed an overpowered mobile DJ system that we could wheel out in the parking lot and hold classes outside, weather permitting,” Wood said.
The club’s new “Rock the Lot” class schedule included yoga, sprint cycle, barre and BODYPUMP workouts (and smoothies available for curbside pickup). To adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines regarding maximum group size gatherings, members and non-members were required to reserve their spot online, and notifications were sent out at least 30 minutes before a class’s start time if it was going to be canceled due to rain or excessive heat.
In the Northeast, excessive heat would only be an issue for so long, and these outdoor options would only be viable until the Pennsylvania weather turned too cold. But the Rock the Lot classes were well-received, and the club continued to make them available for a time even after Final Results was able to welcome members back inside in mid-July — at 25% overall capacity and with limited numbers of gymgoers in a given room or studio.
And, when members did come back inside, they had access to a full menu of virtual class offerings as well as the usual workout space and equipment. (Upon arriving for their workout, members also receive their own individual spray disinfectant bottle and microfiber towel to wipe down equipment.)
“We installed proper Zoom studios in each group exercise studio with high-definition cameras, dedicated microphones and Bluetooth audio inputs running directly through a mixer to an audio interface device,” Wood said, “which provides a much better sound and video experience than just using a laptop or iPad.”
Final Results figures to continue offering streaming classes “as long as members use them,” Wood said. But he and the club’s membership are ultimately as anxious for a return to normal as anyone else during the pandemic.
“While members say they appreciate the ability to stream from home, they also say they can’t wait until this is all over so they can get back to taking live classes. Time will tell.”
That figure has increased over time, especially as word of mouth spread about the protocols, she added. But Life Time still needed a way to close the attendance gap. So, early in the pandemic, the organization sped up its efforts to provide digital workout tools. “We knew there was an opportunity there,” she said. “It was never the most important thing we were doing because our clubs and spaces have set us apart. But in March, when all this happened, it was a kick to push forward on digital.”
The result of that effort, launched last December, was the Life Time Digital Membership, which provides access to one-on-one classes, fitness programs, nutrition content and access to Apple Fitness+ workout-tracking app.
The timing makes Life Time something of a late arrival in the digital-workout space. In addition to Peloton and Apple, last fall SoulCycle created its own Peloton-style at-home bike and experimented with paid online classes. In June, Lululemon paid a reported $500 million for Mirror, which manufactures screens with dedicated workout programming. To play catchup, Life Time made sure the price for Digital Memberships was hard to ignore: Access was free through January 2021, with a base membership fee of $15 monthly thereafter.
The advantage for Life Time, according to Williams, is the app’s connection to a physical space. It’s a way to attract people back into the gym once the pandemic has passed, and a way to bring in a new audience in places where Life Time lacks a brick-and-mortar presence. “There are a lot of areas that we haven't been able to touch, so the app enables us to get to people in those areas,” she said.
Life Time is “very happy with the traction thus far and are looking forward to continuing to grow the platform,” Williams said, adding “we are well into 100,000 digital members.” And once the pandemic is over, the company anticipates that it will preserve a kind of hybrid model that serves to better support a membership on the go.
To be sure, gyms still have a rough road ahead: Companies including Gold’s Gym and 24 Hour Fitness declared bankruptcy in 2020, and last summer, nearly 60% of respondents to a survey by TD Ameritrade said they don’t intend to return to the gym even after the pandemic is over. But Life Time is betting that the brick-and-mortar gym still has meaning as a workout space and a social space, and that digital membership can keep patrons interested in coming back in person.
“Clubs aren't going to go anywhere,” Williams said. “But I think that how people use digital in addition to a social community place where they can go will change. For our members, when they're traveling — on vacation, or on a work trip where we don't have a location, they might only have a half an hour, so they can't make it to Life Time. But they can open up a workout class [online]. It'll all just continue to work together and flow and continue to be a component of what we do.”
About the Author
Mark Athitakis is a contributing writer to WorldatWork.