John Marshall felt lost.
He wasn’t sure what to do in the days following Gov. Jared Polis’ public health order, which required
gyms and fitness clubs statewide to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I was pretty upset,” said Marshall, the owner and founder of Total Body Works Personal Training. “I sat around and moped in my room for about the first week because I was like, ‘Well, what can I do? I’m kind of screwed.’”
Motivated to make the best of a bad situation, Marshall has been adapting to keep money coming in, partly by switching to virtual training with clients — about two-thirds of whom have signed up to work out in their homes under his guidance.
The training sessions, Marshall said, help his clients stick with their fitness goals and routines, while generating the revenue that’s helping him through the closure.
Every gym, club and studio across the country has faced similar challenges, gutted by the pandemic.
For instance, Gold’s Gym — which runs over 700 facilities across the country — recently closed 30 of its locations, including all three in Colorado Springs, due to COVID-19.
In Colorado, there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel.
Some businesses in the fitness industry will soon have the opportunity to get back to work — albeit in a vastly different environment — as Colorado transitions out of its current stay-at-home order and into a period in which residents will still be highly encouraged to take extra precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but some non-essential businesses, like personal trainers, will be able to resume.
For other fitness businesses — particularly those that host hundreds of people each day, or specialize in group classes — the path forward and timeline for reopening remains unclear.
The Business Journal spoke with some of local fitness business leaders about the challenges they’re facing, how they’re adapting, and how they see the future of the Colorado Springs fitness industry.
When closures were announced, Duane Johnston, the owner and founder of Accolade Fitness, said he was determined not to pass on his potential financial burden to the members of his two gyms on the city’s Westside.
But the public health order was announced the evening of March 16 — the day before Accolade Fitness’ billings were processed.
“We had $90,000 in billing go out the morning of [March 17], and we immediately called them knowing that we wouldn’t be able to supply the services,” Johnston said. “I’m kind of a church-going guy and if you can’t provide the service, you don’t keep the money. So we called them up and said we needed to refund it.”
Johnston said the third-party billing company he uses had never received such a request before, and had to create a new program. It took a little more than a week, but 100 percent of members got their dues back.
While some local fitness businesses have found ways to generate revenue during the pandemic through virtual training, merchandise sales and equipment rentals, none of those options were realistic for a small operation like Accolade Fitness.
“We looked at doing some virtual online workouts, but to be honest with you there’s so much out there that’s so much better than anything we could produce,” Johnston said. “The big companies have a huge advantage in that. We’re a small, family-run business and didn’t have the ability to use that platform.”
Johnston said he also flirted with the idea of renting out gym equipment during the closure, but after speaking with his insurance company about liability issues, decided to forego that option.
“So we’re at revenue zero since March 17,” he said.
Johnston said Accolade Fitness secured a loan through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which is helping to maintain its staff numbers and keep employees paid while the gym is closed.
But covering basic expenses like its two property mortgages and utilities has posed a constant challenge.
Johnston estimates his gym can remain closed for about three and a half months before he and his wife would have to dip into their personal savings to cover the bills.
And even if the gym could reopen around mid-May, Johnston said he believes the lockdown has effectively brought his 2020 profits close to zero. The deficit increases every day the gyms remain closed.
ADAPTING TO CHANGE
Since the public health order, the Colorado Springs Hot Asana Yoga Studio — one of four nationwide locations — has managed to generate almost enough revenue to cover its bottom line.
It’s done so by live-streaming classes on Zoom, led by its own yoga teachers.
Studio manager Liza Anderson said about 160 people have been attending virtual classes in recent weeks, with a virtual drop-in cost of $10.
Drop-in classes at Hot Asana usually cost $15, though the studio offers non-expiring class packages that reduce costs, as well as time-sensitive packages, which Anderson said will likely be extended for those who’ve purchased them, due to the studio’s prolonged closure.
Before the pandemic, Hot Asana’s average weekly attendance was around 500 people, so the business is still losing significant revenue despite its best efforts.
“We’re not doing as well as what we were doing prior to all of this, but it’s definitely doing well and it’s growing,” Anderson said. “Before this we’ve never done any kind of live streaming … and I think as more people get settled into their home routine, they’ll be signing on and and trying it.”
While virtual classes have provided a way for Hot Asana to keep some money coming in, Anderson said she knows the experience is not the same for practitioners — especially since part of what makes Hot Asana different from other studios is that its classes are held in heated spaces that help loosen the muscles.
“Some people really want the studio experience,” Anderson said. “They want to leave all of their things behind, walk through a door where they can shed all of that and have this sacred space. And not a lot of people can manage that at home.”
Marshall echoed that sentiment, saying the experience of a virtual personal training session pales in comparison to what he’s able to do with his clients in person.
“There are obviously some things we can’t do such as massage therapy, chiropractic, neuro-therapy — none of that stuff can be done without the person or the equipment in front of us,” Marshall said. “So it’s not ideal, but it’s allowing us to still bring in some revenue … until we get back to our original business model and design.”
Many in the industry see the writing on the wall. The business of fitness may never be the same.
In northern Utah, for instance, Johnston said fitness centers and gyms have been given the green light by the local health department to operate with stringent guidelines in place, such as spacing exercise equipment to provide at least 10 feet of separation in each direction.
“Well, my treadmills are 3 feet apart,” Johnston said. “So that’s saying that two out of every three treadmills, I can’t have somebody on because that’s within 10 feet. And I don’t know if the governor is going to make it 6 feet here — so instead, it would be every other treadmill — or how that will be.”
And social-distancing guidelines aren’t the only obstacle gym owners will have to deal with when their businesses reopen.
Johnston said he’s expecting significantly fewer clients than before the pandemic.
“We’re anticipating at least 15 to 20 percent of our members canceling, not because they don’t want to use the gym but because they lost jobs … need to cut bills and can’t afford the $29 [for their monthly membership],” Johnston said.
“So our income is going to go down substantially just from those cancellations.”
There’s no telling how many of Colorado Springs’ fitness businesses will pull through and recover from the pandemic.
“I really can’t say what will happen,” Anderson, of Hot Asana, said. “But I do hope that we all get back onto doing what we were doing — providing places for people to come and work their bodies and explore and be healthy.”
Johnston said he believes the fitness landscape will likely look very different going forward.
“It’s a tight-margin business,” Johnston said. “I would be shocked if at least one other major [gym] chain in Colorado Springs didn’t go under. So it’s going to be a completely different landscape and the gym industry is definitely going to change substantially.”