NEW YORK – One day in January, a once-regular customer at Fuel Training Studio in Newburyport, Massachusetts, stopped by to take a shreda class. She hasn’t set foot in the gym since before the pandemic.
A customer told owners Julie Bokat and Jeanne Carter that she used to work out at home alone in her basement, but slowly became less motivated and sometimes worked out in her pajamas without breaking a sweat.
– I started to get bored of what I was doing, so I am here – Bokat quoted her. She has heard similar comments from customers who have returned after more than two years of working in a basement or converted home office.
During the “dark days” of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Bokat and Carter moved equipment outdoors to hold classes in parking lots and a greenhouse they built for the winter. They also held classes online, but attendance still dropped by 70%. They weren’t sure the business would survive.
They were not alone. Gyms and fitness studios were among the hardest hit businesses during the pandemic, hit by lockdowns and then restrictions on the number of people they could let in for classes and exercises. Unlike bars, restaurants and live event venues, health clubs have not received industry-specific federal aid. Twenty-five percent of U.S. health clubs and studios have closed permanently since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Health & Fitness Alliance, an industry group.
For gyms that have fared the worst, there are signs of stability. Foot traffic to fitness studios is still down about 3% compared to 2019 so far in January, but is up 40% compared to 2021, according to data from Placer.ai, which tracks retail traffic.
There are no more greenhouses at Fuel Training, and no more spin classes in the parking lot. Attendance is still down about 35% from 2019, but Bokat and Carter say more people are coming every day. Gym goers say they miss the sense of community that a gym can provide.
“I’m pretty sure, man, if we’ve kept our community together in the darkest days, it can only get worse, and it did,” Bokat said.
Many gyms and fitness studios have had to quickly diversify their offerings to attract customers during the pandemic — and some say the changes have worked so well they’re permanent.
Guy Codio, owner of NYC Personal Training Gym in New York, went from nine trainers to four during the pandemic and had to switch to online training. In 2021, he moved to another space with lower rent and began renting space to others in the health and wellness industry, including physical therapists and massage therapists.
“Everybody was worried during the pandemic, so we just need to cut back a little bit,” he said. “We had to change the model to succeed — almost take a step back, take another step forward.”
It is now back to six coaches but plans to maintain the new business model by renting space to hedge its bets in the event of another downturn.
In its new space, Codio is limiting the number of people per floor to 10 or 12 to make customers feel more comfortable in case of COVID. But most of the customers he sees “have gotten over COVID” and aren’t as worried about getting sick as they used to be, he says.
“If a person feels worried, we take measures, we have masks or we wear them at different hours when there are fewer people,” he said.
For Jessica Benhaim of Lumos Yoga & Barre in Philadelphia, some changes caused by the pandemic have led to a boom in business. Not only has it returned to pre-pandemic attendance levels, but it recently opened a second location.
Demand is back to normal in the summer of 2022, Benhaim said. She raised the price for the entry course by $5 to $25 to offset higher costs for employee wages and cleaning supplies, but she says that hasn’t deterred customers.
Benhaim credits two changes brought on by the pandemic with helping demand recover: outdoor classes and limited class sizes. She started outdoor classes from April to October during the pandemic at a nearby community garden out of necessity, but she has no plans to stop now.
“People just love being outside, especially when it’s really nice out in the spring, even in the summer when it’s hot,” she said.
Classes are still limited to 12, down from 18 before the pandemic. She is making up for the reduction by offering more classes in her two studios.
“I think it gives everybody a little bit more space like, you know, just a few extra inches between the mats, people really appreciate that.”
When the pandemic first hit, Vincent Miceli, owner of Body Blueprint Gym in Pelham, NY, expected that 30% of his clients would not return. He underestimated.
Miceli estimates that about 30% of its members have left Pelham, a bedroom community near New York, and moved elsewhere. Another 30% changed their habits and stopped exercising altogether.
It’s now seeing slow growth, similar to pre-pandemic levels, of about 5% month-on-month as home workouts lose their luster. It’s still down about 35% in terms of clients compared to February 2020. Most of the new customers are people who haven’t worked out before, he said.
“It gives us a whole new kind of lifeblood of business,” he said. Personal training is booming – up to 60%. And he focuses on fewer classes more tailored to his current clients, such as a strength and conditioning class called “Strength in Numbers” for women 40 and older.
He says that people’s interest in health overshadows their fear of getting sick at the gym.
“I think the seriousness with which unhealthy people have gotten sick in the last few years is also allowing people who were not into fitness to pay more attention to it,” he said.
Miceli’s business has recovered to the point that he is ready to start opening other locations.
“I don’t think fitness will ever go away,” he said.
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