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Coronavirus: how is the health and fitness sector coping?

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The leisure industry is increasingly feeling the pressure as countries introduce measures to tackle the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.

Travel bans, border closures, social distancing measures and outright lockdowns have had an immediate and hard-hitting effect on tourism, hospitality and visitor attraction businesses.

But while the plight of the airlines, restaurants and hotels make headlines across the globe, how is the fitness sector coping?

In Italy and Spain – the two countries hardest hit by COVID-19 – all health clubs and gyms have been closed and face a minimum closure of three weeks.

Speaking to HCM, Andrea Pambianchi, founder and CEO of Fitness Network Italia (FNI), said the country's fitness sector will be badly hit – estimating the closures could cost the industry as much as €45m per week.

In Spain, some large operators – including GoFit and Club Metropolitan – closed their doors before the government's forced lockdown came into force, in order to protect their customers and staff.

Both GoFit and Metropolitan have set up systems allowing their members to train from home.

GoFit launched a GoFit Everywhere service, which enables members to continue to keep fit during the closures, while Metropolitan has used social media to upload a wide range of exercise videos for members to follow.

In addition, GoFit has put in place measures which ensure staff will not lose financially, while the chain will also suspend collecting membership fees from customers.

According to a spokesperson for GoFit, the operator's quick reactions to the crisis, transparent messaging about the staff situation and the launch of the GoFit Everywhere service has led to positive engagement with members and created a "we are in this together" atmosphere.

"Our customers are voluntarily refusing to take the refunded fees we are offering them, as it helps our staff at this time," the spokesperson said. "Getting in front of the crisis has really helped us handle it."

Across the Nordic countries, the situation is similar, as lockdown measures have seen the closure of hundreds of fitness clubs.

SATS, the region's largest operator with around 250 clubs and 700,000 members, has closed all of its clubs for 14 days. Other chains to have closed their gyms are Danish gym giant Fitness World – which operates more than 170 sites in Denmark – and fellow Danish company Loop Fitness, with more than 110 clubs in the country.

Some operators, however, are staying open for now – but have had to implement special measures to be in line with government guidance.

A number of Finnish operators, such as GoGo and Freesi, are limiting group exercise classes to 10 people, to allow "social distancing" during exercises. They have also intensified cleaning procedures, with staff wiping down and disinfecting all equipment and surfaces after each use.

Other European countries in which fitness operators have closed their doors due to the outbreak (either voluntarily or after being told to by authorities) include Germany, France, Austria, Greece, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Europe's largest operator, Basic-Fit, has also decided to close all of its 820 clubs across the continent.

Elsewhere, there have been gym closures in Canada and the US, as well as across the Middle East – including Qatar and UAE.

Gold’s Gym, one of the largest operators in the US, announced that all of its company-owned clubs around the country will be closed to the public through and including 31 March.

Going virtual

As operators and clubs look into ways to help alleviate the short-term effects on their business, could virtual fitness operators hold the key?

Some large operators, such as Planet Fitness, are now making their at-home fitness offer free to everyone. The workouts are being streamed on the Planet Fitness' Facebook page and classes are open to anyone, including non-members.

Meanwhile, some at-home providers are also offering free tasters to their platforms.

Clive Ormerod, CEO of Les Mills International, said that the company would offer two-week trials to exercisers in a number of regions.

"We've been receiving many inquires from around the world as everyone is collectively adjusting their lifestyles to navigate this challenging time in history with the aim to stay safe and remain healthy," Ormerod said.

"Furthermore we are also receiving messages from members of fitness clubs who are asking their gym to offer a digital platform to allow them to continue their fitness lifestyle from home as many of us are self-isolating to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

"In answer to this unprecedented health pandemic, we are offering a 14-day trial of LES MILLS On Demand (LMOD) to the residents of the US, UK, Canada, Spain, and other parts of Europe and North America where LMOD is available.

"Additionally we are accelerating our efforts to offer LMOD in Germany and France."

What can be done?

So how should health club operators in countries such as the UK – where the closures are yet to take place – prepare for what seems inevitable?

Industry veteran Rod Hill, CEO of Fit Hill International and former director-general of Anytime Fitness Iberia, shared his thoughts on a LinkedIn post.

"In the event that you do end up having to close, there are ways you can limit the impact on your bottom line and keep members fit and working out from home," he writes.

"Write an open and honest letter to all your members letting them know that you will be running as many digital support programmes to keep them fit and active as much as possible in the event of a lockdown or gym closure.

"Many members will not want to lose their gym experience or the community contacts and motivation they get from being a member and you need to explain how you value their continued custom.

"Develop a whole online and digital platform and make sure your members know how this will work for them from home.

"Live streaming would be a great tool to offer right now but if you are a single gym owner then maybe youtube or access to group workouts and trainers can be accessed over the internet. It's important to offer varied workouts at set hours through the day that give a varied offer of strength, cardio and HITT options to suit as many tastes as possible.

"I believe the fitness business is the ultimate people business, however increasing our non-brick and mortar offerings is probably a good thing to be developing anyway and these moments will encourage us to speed this up."

Others to have offered their advice include retention specialist Paul Bedford, who has released a video tutorial advising health and fitness operators the best ways to retain customers during the coronavirus outbreak.

Bedford says there are up to three phases of change that need to be managed, depending on the degree of lockdown in place – the 'reducing the exercise' phase, the 'isolation phase' and the 'returning phase'. To read more and to view Bedford's video, click here.

According to ukactive chair Tanni Grey-Thompson, the physical activity sector is "one of the most innovative sectors" in the UK and will, over the coming weeks, "adapt and respond in an agile way".

"The significance of maintaining our physical and mental health cannot be underplayed in these circumstances, and the physical activity sector finds itself uniquely placed to offer support to people," Grey-Thompson said.

"Physical activity facilities sit at the heart of our communities, and are dedicated to keeping us fit and healthy. In the weeks since Coronavirus arrived in the UK, staff at gyms and leisure facilities have been working around the clock, taking extra measures to ensure that all surfaces are clean and the public remains as safe as possible. They take their social responsibility incredibly seriously and I commend the work of ukactive’s members during this crisis."

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Les Mills International
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