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When COVID-19 swept into Colorado, few industries were as swiftly devastated as gyms and fitness studios. Who wants to grunt and sweat in close proximity to others during a global pandemic?
It’s no wonder, then, that these businesses closed early and remained shuttered until June, when they were allowed to reopen at reduced capacity—25 percent or 50 people per room, whichever was fewer. By mid-November, though, as Colorado’s third wave of cases swelled above April’s peak and forced local counties to move to the revised Level Red, restrictions tightened further. As of December 18, gyms could only operate at 10 percent capacity or 10 people per room, whichever is fewer—a move that many fear could be a death blow to an industry already pushed to the brink.
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“Obviously, the 10 percent—it hurts. It hurts bad,” says Paula Neubert, general manager of Club Greenwood and a member of the advisory board for the Colorado Fitness Coalition, an organization created in August to represent the interests of gyms, health clubs, recreation centers, studios, and other fitness businesses across Colorado. “For some facilities, it is just like being shut down. It isn’t something we’re going to be able to sustain for a long period of time.”
Although a move back to Level Orange (and 25 percent capacity) on January 4 will make things a bit easier in the short term, area fitness studios and gyms are making shifts in their business models in order to stay afloat. Workouts are happening outside (weather permitting) and class schedules are being rearranged to maximize capacity. But the biggest change has been the pivot to virtual fitness.
Local gyms and studios are adding everything from livestreamed and on-demand classes to comprehensive health programs, month-long challenges, and online personal training in an effort to not only serve their members, but also to save their businesses. “Any club that was able to make that switch, they definitely did,” Neubert says, noting that Club Greenwood is livestreaming close to 50 classes per week, as well as offering on-demand content for members. “It’s important. You had to figure out a way to stay connected to your membership.”
Here’s how three local gyms and fitness studios are going virtual—and why they believe it’s here to stay.
For Alyssa Manny, owner of Ohana Yoga & Barre in Berkeley, COVID-19 has offered an opportunity to change the business for the better—despite the challenges. Within 12 hours of shutting her doors on March 13, the studio’s new virtual fitness platform was up and running. But it wasn’t easy—or cheap.
Prior to the pandemic, Manny was in talks with a livestreaming platform called Union, with a dream to add commercial space and create a digital studio to film and stream online content. “So when the sky came crashing down,” she says, “We just leaped.” Manny says in that 12-hour period, she leaned on Union to ensure classes were quickly ready to go virtual, while she simultaneously migrated all current and former clients to the new platform. Financially, it was a stretch, as the gym made an upfront investment of $2,500 in the service, in addition to increasing the cost of business automation tools by 15 percent—a difficult decision when revenue was down 60 percent.
The commercial expansion is, unsurprisingly, on hold for now. But the studio’s robust virtual offerings are taking off. Ohana currently offers livestream and on-demand classes, as well as socially distanced and masked classes in the studio, which reopened June 6. Manny says just 23 percent of active members are coming to the studio, but that they’re at capacity for most classes throughout the week.
Financially, the pandemic has been challenging. Membership has shrunk, grown, and shrunk again over the months. Manny hopes the virtual business will grow to be a prolific arm of a more diversified business model, and help make up for the lack of in-person revenue. Until then, they’re staying positive and focusing on reaching their community however they can. “Moving online has been phenomenal,” Manny says. “Our online offerings have been able to keep people who have at one point in time been in our physical community and have moved or taken new jobs or are traveling—whatever life has taken them—they’re still able to be a part of our family.”
Sign up: Memberships are $39 for online-only classes, and $139 for unlimited everything; in January, the studio will be offering a free 30-day virtual program with no contract required.
RBL Remote (formerly the Rebel Workout)
Fate forced the hand of Melissa Levy, owner of the Rebel Workout, to permanently close her brick-and-mortar gym on South Broadway when the pandemic started in March. A couple of days before the shutdown, Levy had met with her landlord to negotiate the lease on her space. “I’m so glad I didn’t sign anything then and there,” she says. “I knew pretty quickly what I had to do.”
Levy says she didn’t feel right taking members’ money while the gym was closed, knowing there likely wouldn’t be a physical location for them to return to. Instead, she moved to a donation-based program, where she and three other trainers would post workouts online as often as they could. It wasn’t until June that Levy scaled up, building a new website under a new name—RBL Remote—and offering paid, virtual-only memberships for a catalog of functional fitness classes ranging from 10- to 45-minutes each.
While RBL’s online offerings grew in popularity, Levy says she was missing the connection with her clients that she found while in the gym. So she decided to create a four-month challenge, where those who signed up would get a workout program crafted by Levy, live classes three days a week, and some fun additions, like virtual dance parties and gatherings. Levy hosted the first challenge for free, and 45 people signed up. Since then, the challenges have become another revenue stream—each lasting four to six weeks, and seeing dozens of participants.
“It’s just so fun,” she says. “This part of it is, to me, where I feel like I still have that community, which I was struggling with with just the virtual side…. Now, I feel like I’ve at least figured out something that fills that cup for me, and also helps people connect to each other.”
Sign up: Memberships are available for $19.50 per month; $95 for six months; or $165 for a year. Challenges are $199 and run for four to six weeks.
The pandemic has shrunk the brick-and-mortar footprint of Endorphin, a locally owned chain of gyms that offers everything from strength training to barre to boxing. Prior to March, the business operated six locations throughout the metro area and one in Eagle. Today, it’s down to five locations, after shuttering the Endorphin Ryder location on East Colfax Avenue in March and the Park Hill location in August (the leases were up in both spaces and they chose not to renew).
COO Elaine Gulezian says that almost immediately she saw revenue from memberships drop by 50 percent, which drove Endorphin’s management team to make tough decisions. At first, they offered free virtual classes as a way to keep members engaged, but as the weeks dragged on, they realized that wasn’t sustainable. Eventually, they launched a virtual membership program, which offers livestream and on-demand classes at a lower price than their in-person memberships. “It was awesome to be able to offer it for free during the shutdown,” Gulezian says. “I think that really got people interested in being able to work out virtually.”
With the gyms operating at reduced capacity now, Gulezian says in-person classes often fill up. It’s a balancing act, as they shift schedules to maximize space while also trying to provide variety for their clients. But virtually, memberships are increasing and even expanding beyond Colorado’s borders—people are now tuning in from other states and countries, and sticking around. That’s one benefit to virtual fitness. “I think we’ve found [virtual classes] are a really great option for people,” Gulezian says. “Even when we get a vaccine, it’s going to be a while until we see behaviors potentially returning to what they were. So as long as it’s sustainable and as long as people still find a need for it, I think we’ll definitely continue to offer it.”
Sign up: Memberships are $39 per month for online-only classes ($5 for drop-in classes); monthly unlimited is $119 per month. Class packs and in-person drop-ins are also available.
Editor’s note, 1/4/21: This article has been updated as restrictions move back to Level Orange.