Jacob Gise opened a Body Fit Training franchise in Santa Monica, California, in November. By March, the flagship U.S. studio of the global chain had just become profitable.
Gise had traveled to Australia, where Body Fit Training began, to learn the ropes, so he was ecstatic to see the investment of time and resources beginning to pay off. Operating costs for the location totaled about $42,000 a month for rent, instructors and equipment.
Then, the coronavirus hit and most workout facilities in the U.S. were forced to shutter. Gise pivoted to online courses, but it wasn't enough — he was bringing only in $8,000 a month, less than a sixth of what he was getting in March.
"I climbed this huge mountain, traveling to different countries and doing all this stuff to get it here," Gise said. "Right as it started to be profitable and a lot of franchisees were interested, everything is shut down."
The fitness industry has taken a huge hit as states, trying to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, forced brick-and-mortar facilities to close. There were approximately 62.4 million members of Health Clubs in the U.S. in 2019, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, with the industry recently valued at $34 billion, according to Ibis World.
The market is rapidly shrinking. Classpass, an online marketplace that connects studios and users, said 95% of its revenue dried up in April due to the virus, and 53% of its staff was laid off or furloughed. Flywheel, a cycling studio, and Solidcore, a pilates studio, laid off nearly all their staffers because of the pandemic. Gold's Gyms and 24 Hour Fitness filed for bankruptcy.
To shore up their ailing businesses, gym owners are taking them to the streets. Holding classes outdoors provides these studios, among the last to gain authorization for reopening in many states, an alternative to less profitable online offerings.
On any given night at 7 p.m., a group of eight participants treks to the rooftop of Firehouse Fitness Studio in Philadelphia. Once up there, the group partakes in what studio owner Dana Auriemma called a "greatest hits" combination of the classes she typically offers.
"What we do is we bring together some of the best moves that clients will do in our mat-based sculpting classes," she said.
Auriemma said the class, which is mainly mixed sculpting with a touch of cardio, uses fewer props than normal, but it was important to include some items, so clients can work out with more than their body weight — what they've been limited to at home. They picked out props that are easy to carry to the roof and can be easily sanitized.
She also worked with the landlord to ensure social distancing, limiting capacity to allow people more than 6 feet of space. Even a socially distanced in-person workout, Auriemma said, helps fitness studios like hers diversify their revenue sources during the pandemic.
Gise also noted the financial value of an outdoor class, as California and Santa Monica's restrictions would allow him to teach an indoor class with only 18 people compared with 40 before the pandemic.
He's teaching classes outdoors now with the approval of the city of Santa Monica and has seen heightened interest. He brings sanitized props for the workout. One woman came to a class after not having done a group workout or touched a weight in four months. Afterward, she bought a full-year membership.
The outdoor trend is also giving a boost to some fitness classes that have long been taught outside.
Bron Volney, who runs "12-foot boot camps" through Bron Core Fitness in the Boston Commons, says he's been seeing new faces at his outdoor workouts lately and he hopes his growing customer base will continue after the pandemic.
But even he has made changes to ensure public health guidelines would be maintained at all times.
New members are sent a text message before the class telling them where their spot is and that no one will be closer than 12 feet, Volney said. He said he avoids using materials to ensure social distancing is maintained.
At the end of every boot camp, Volney hands out what he calls his "liquid gold": a squirt of hand sanitizer.
"We just want to make sure people get there and they never feel in danger," Volney said. "You're going to have a space that's going to be your safety zone basically."
Lauren Owen was expecting to teach Zumba at a dance studio in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, but exercise facilities are not open yet under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's order. She still wanted to lead classes but was feeling Zoom-fatigue along with her students.
Owen luckily stumbled on a request from the owner of Shores Nutrition looking for fitness instructors to teach classes in its parking lot. Shores Nutrition specializes in low-calorie teas and protein shakes often taken before and after workouts, so Owen and the store made an agreement: The class costs $20 with a tea and shake from the business included. Shores Nutrition gets $12 and Owen gets $8.
"There's not as much camaraderie over Zoom as there is in person," Owen said. "When I saw ... I could teach a class outside, I jumped on it, because I was so excited to teach in person again, because I know it's just so much better."
Owen had to rejigger her classes to work outside in the heat by changing the songs and adding more-frequent breaks. But Owen said the social and financial opportunity created through being able to teach in-person again made the changes and extra time worth it.
Andy Weighill, CEO of the Central Coast YMCA in Salinas, California, said the Y has received grants from community foundations that have allowed it to keep up outdoor exercise classes, as well as other services like camp and meal delivery programs.
Auriemma is looking to expand Firehouse's outdoor courses, so her next addition — a class during the daytime — will be at an outdoor space owned by a wine bar that is only open later in the day. This partnership is a silver lining of the pandemic, she said, as the businesses now have a working relationship that could evolve into offering packages in the future.
"It's easy to be a little overwhelmed by all of the restrictions and all of the unknowns," Auriemma said. "In order to keep going, you just think about all of the opportunities that there are out there and all of the new doors that might open up for us in the future."
Getting a group together has fringe benefits. Auriemma noted lots of smiles that can be seen through the masks.
"For clients in a studio, missing that studio get-together is a huge loss of a social aspect of their life and all of the emotional and mental benefits for exercise," Auriemma said. "The fact that outdoor gives us an outlet to bring that back to people is fantastic for their health."
Bron seconded the importance of normalcy and said his offerings have brought in new revenue from people who typically went to gyms but craved some type of out-of-house exercise. Owen said attendance at her outdoor classes has dwarfed what she saw in her Zoom classes.
These owners and instructors know the industry is in turmoil and won't go back to normal for the foreseeable future. Even when gyms are reopened nationwide, over half of Americans surveyed by RunRepeat did not plan to return. In a handful of states, gyms have yet to reopen since the shutdown began in March.
But Gise shared a sentiment with other owners: The ability to serve their clients and help them reach their goals is rewarding. There's no doubt that it's financially difficult as his operating costs hang over his head, he said, but the ability to help people achieve their goals keeps him going.
"I've barely slept over the past four months, to be honest, just because I'm worried about paying my staff, I'm worried about trying to get this rent money and also just trying to take care of everybody," Gise said. "There's a lot of challenges, but at the end of the day, it's totally worth it because we're helping people, and their energy is the only thing getting me through."