Gyms that weathered the pandemic are steadily getting back into shape

Gyms that weathered the pandemic are steadily getting back into shape

One day in January, a former regular at the Fuel Training Studio in Newburyport, Massachusetts stopped by to take a “shred” class. She hadn’t set foot in the gym since before the pandemic.

The client told owners Julie Bokat and Jeanne Carter that she had been working out alone at home in her basement but was becoming less motivated and sometimes worked out in her pajamas without breaking a sweat.

“I was bored of what I was doing, so here I am,” Bokat quoted her as saying. She’s heard similar comments from clients who have returned after more than two years of training in a basement or converted home office.

Fuel Training Studio owner Julie Bokat, left, and Jeanne Carter

Julie Bokat, left, and Jeanne Carter, owners of Fuel Training Studio, pose for a photo at their gym, Thursday, January 19, 2023, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Gyms and gyms have been among the hardest-hit businesses during the pandemic. But for gyms that ma (AP Newsroom)

During the “dark days” of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Bokat and Carter took the equipment outdoors to conduct classes in parking lots and in a greenhouse they built for the winter. They also held online classes, but attendance was still down 70%. They were unsure if the business would survive.

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You weren’t 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 admit for classes and workouts. Unlike bars, restaurants, and live venues, there was no industry-specific federal aid for gyms. According to the National Health & Fitness Alliance, an industry group, 25 percent of U.S. fitness clubs and studios have closed permanently since the pandemic began.

For gyms that have weathered the worst, signs of stability are afoot. According to the latest data from Placer.ai, which tracks retail running traffic, gym running traffic increased by approximately 32% in the first two weeks of January 2023 compared to 2022.

Spin class at Fuel Training

Deb Figulski attends a Spinning class at Fuel Training Studio in Newburyport, Massachusetts on Thursday, January 19, 2023. Gyms and fitness studios have been among the hardest-hit businesses during the pandemic. But for gyms that have weathered the worst, signs of it (AP Newsroom)

At Fuel Training, the greenhouse is gone, as are the spin classes in the parking lot. Visitor numbers are 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 a gym can offer.

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“I’m pretty sure man if we’ve sustained our community through the darkest of days, there’s only way to go from there, and it has,” Bokat said.

Many gyms and gyms have had to quickly diversify their offerings to attract customers during the pandemic — and some say these changes have worked so well they’re permanent.

Guy Codio, who owns the NYC Personal Training Gym in New York, went from nine to four trainers during the pandemic and has had to switch to online training sessions. In 2021, he moved to another space with a lower rent and began renting out spaces to others in the health and wellness industry, including physical therapists and massage therapists.

“Everyone has been concerned during COVID so we just have to downgrade a bit,” he said. “We had to change the model to be successful – almost stepping back to take another step forward.”

He now has six coaches back but plans to keep the new room-renting business model to hedge his bets in case of another downturn.

Instructor Jessie Reardon leads a barbell class

Instructor Jessie Reardon, right, leads a barbell class Thursday, January 19, 2023 at the Fuel Training Studio in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Gyms and fitness studios have been among the hardest-hit businesses during the pandemic. But for gyms that made it through the w (AP Newsroom)

In its new space, Codio limits the number of people on the floor to 10 or 12 to make customers feel more comfortable about COVID. But most customers he sees are “over COVID” and not as worried about getting sick as they used to be, he says.

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“If a person is worried, we take action, we have masks or we wear them at other times when there are fewer people,” he said.

For Jessica Benhaim of Lumos Yoga & Barre in Philadelphia, some pandemic-related changes have fueled a business boom. Not only is it back to pre-pandemic visitor levels, it recently opened a second location.

Julie Bokat leads a spinning class

Julie Bokat, owner of Fuel Training Studio, leads a spinning class in a gym workout room on Thursday, January 19, 2023 in Newburyport, Mass. Gyms and gyms have been among the hardest-hit businesses during the pandemic. But for gyms that made it (AP Newsroom)

Demand returned to normal in the summer of 2022, Benhaim said. She raised the price of a drop-in course by $5 to $25 to offset higher employee wages and cleaning supplies costs, but says that didn’t put customers off.

Benhaim credits two pandemic changes helping demand recovery: outdoor classes and limited class size. She started outdoor classes out of necessity at a nearby community garden during the pandemic from April to October, but now has no plans to stop.

“People just love to be outside, especially when it’s really nice in the spring, even in the summer when it’s hot,” she said.

Classes are still limited to 12, up from 18 before the pandemic. She’s making up for the decline by offering more classes at her two studios.

“I think it gives everyone a little bit more space, you know, just having an extra few inches between the mats, people really appreciate that.”

When the pandemic first hit, Vincent Miceli, owner of Body Blueprint Gym in Pelham, NY, expected 30% of his clients would not come back. He underestimated.

Miceli believes about 30% of its members have left Pelham, a residential community near New York City, and moved elsewhere. Another 30% changed their habits and stopped exercising altogether.

Now he sees slow growth, similar to pre-pandemic levels, of about 5% month-over-month as at-home training loses its luster. Compared to February 2020, it is still down about 35%. Most of the new clients are people who have never exercised before, he said.

“It gives us a whole new kind of lifeblood of business,” he said. Personal training is booming – 60% more. And he’s focusing on fewer courses that are more tailored to his current clients, such as: B. A strength and conditioning class called “Strength in Numbers” for women over 40.

He says people’s interest in being healthy overshadows their fear of getting sick in the gym.

“I think the severity with which unhealthy people have been getting sick in recent years also makes people who haven’t been in fitness pay more attention,” he said.

Miceli’s business has recovered to the point where he’s ready to open other locations.

“I think personal fitness will never go away,” he said.

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