For Small Gyms, Dealing with the Pandemic Meant Increasing

This text is a part of Proudly owning the Future, a sequence on how small companies throughout the nation have been affected by the pandemic.

On the night of March 14, 2020, Kari Saitowitz, proprietor of the Fhitting Room, a small or “boutique” health studio with three areas in Manhattan, returned from a dinner out, to discover a disturbing message. A university good friend who was a pulmonologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital had despatched a textual content in regards to the alarming variety of circumstances of the brand new, contagious respiratory illness they have been seeing.

“The message mentioned, ‘Please take this significantly,’” Ms. Saitowitz recalled. “And he particularly mentioned, ‘Kari, you’ll most likely have to shut the fitness center for some time.’”

The subsequent morning, she acquired emails from two of her senior trainers, who had taught lessons the day prior to this. They, too, have been involved, not solely about their very own security, but additionally about their shoppers, a few of whom have been older.

“That was the tipping level,” she mentioned. After convening a gaggle of full- and part-time staff, together with trainers and members of the cleansing workers, she determined to shut the studio. That afternoon, she despatched an electronic mail blast to the membership, saying that “for the well being of our group,” she was quickly closing the Fhitting Room.

The next day, March 16, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the closure of all gyms, restaurants, bars, theaters and casinos.

Now Ms. Saitowitz, like so many other small-business owners, faced another urgent decision: “‘How do I keep my business alive?’”

The key, she decided, was to figure out ways to continue delivering what her customers wanted — what they really wanted. “It’s more than just a workout,” she said. “People come here because of the conversation, the socialization, for the fun and motivation of a class.”

All of that has had an effect on its members. “Before the pandemic I was going maybe three times a week,” said Suzanne Bruderman of Manhattan, a Fhitting Room member since it opened six years ago. “Once the pandemic hit, all of my behaviors shifted and it basically became a five-day-a-week habit.”

But all of these changes required more than a tutorial in Zoom; they necessitated a radical change in thinking in an industry that has been providing its product in essentially the same way since Vic Tanny’s first “health clubs” opened in the 1930s.

“Prior to the pandemic, clients had to visit a brick-and-mortar business to consume the product,” said Julian Barnes, chief executive of Boutique Fitness Solutions, an advisory firm to small gyms and fitness studios. The new multiple-channel approach “means meeting your client wherever he or she is,” he said. “If she wants to work out live, give her that ability to take a class live. If she wants to work out at 2 a.m., and pull up a video of her favorite class, give her the ability to do that. If she wants to work out outdoors, give her the ability for that.”

Mr. Barnes estimated that, before the pandemic, the United States had about 70,000 of these small gym and studios. “A lot of them were uprooted from their original business model,” said Tricia Murphy Madden, who is based in Seattle and is national education director for Savvier Fitness, a fitness product and education company. “What I’m seeing now is that if you’re still operating the way you did 16 months ago, you’re not going to survive.”

For many small gyms, they are — although the expansion into different channels is still a means to an end: Getting everyone back in the spaces that workout enthusiasts love to share.

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