Preparing to reopen: lessons from across the pond

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By Tony Ali, Country Manager UK for Freemotion Fitness 

With the possibility that gyms in England could reopen by the fourth of July, as a result of lobbying by the fitness industry, coordinated by ukactive, what can gym operators learn from other countries to set themselves up for success?

To find out, I spoke to my colleagues, Mike Pasquale, Key Account Manager at Freemotion, and Principal at IMPACT Performance and Fitness in Southlake, Texas; and Leopoldo Torres, Freemotion Director of Sales for Latin America.

Tony: What can operators benefit most from during lockdown?

Mike: Keeping in constant communication with our members, both before this happened and during, has enabled us to retain nearly all of our members. We’ve had just three cancellations.

To achieve this, we used Zoom, sent emails and social media messages. Whenever we had information to share, we communicated this to our staff first and then our members – ensuring our whole community was kept up to date throughout.

In the US, we had seen what was happening across Europe, so we were a bit better prepared for the move online, more so than other countries. Technology has been key to surviving this period so far. We created our own training content to stay in touch and continue providing value to our members, but then we also gave them free access to thousands of on-demand, coach-led workouts to do at home through iFit, the leading fitness streaming platform. This really helped to keep our members active and engaged, and we plan to continue using technology to create and maintain those close connections because we see it as a necessary component to boost future acquisition and retention.

Leopoldo: In Latin America, being in lockdown has made facilities realise that they need to add different kinds of tools to their game – in particular, technology.

Before Covid-19, the leading clubs in Latin America were starting to integrate more technology, but it wasn’t very well established. When clubs were forced to close temporarily, operators needed to consider two things: how to keep members close and staff motivated. They now understand that technology is a huge asset to accomplish this, both in and out of lockdown.

In Latin American, many people invested in home gym equipment and made use of on-demand fitness services, but I don’t believe they will abandon their gym memberships. People, now more than ever, will crave social interaction whether it’s with trainers or other members. Operators should be focusing on incorporating equipment and technology that will complement what their members currently have at home in order to connect the dots between home and gym. Ultimately, this will drive results.

Tony: Mike, sounds like you’ve been doing a great job! How have you been so quick to react, and what have you been doing to stay in touch with your members and keep them engaged? 

Mike: The key to engaging with our members has been asking them regularly about their comfort levels. During lockdown, we asked if they felt comfortable training virtually and if they would like to train in their home, which gave us a great foundation to work from. We then operated in stages to coincide with state regulations. First, we did in-home virtual training with our members, then, when lockdown measures were relaxed, we went ahead and did in-home training only. We took all of the sanitizing equipment with us and wore masks. Now, in the third phase, as gyms reopen, we’re maintaining the social distancing regulations and cleaning regimens that the state has given us. Our reaction wasn’t quick; it was highly planned. This staged approach has been very good for us.

Tony: Leopoldo, I’ve seen that some clubs in Latin America have been thriving during lockdown. Can you provide some insight?

Leopoldo: Despite its challenges, lockdown presents a huge opportunity for some operators. To give you an example, when the pandemic began in the United States, 54D was one of the first brands to close its branches in the United States, Mexico, and Colombia. One of the surprises was the large number of people who joined its live broadcasts on Instagram. In the first week of training, more than 1000 people connected live from their devices, which has since risen to over 30,000 – drawing in a new audience from around the world. Before Covid-19, you wouldn’t have seen anything like this, particularly in Latin America.

54D did not have this planned, but instead pivoted its business model to support its members and other people. Once confinement ends, given the results 54D has achieved on its social networks, it will launch its programmes on a new, digital platform: 54D online. This will allow it to meet the needs of people in all countries where 54D is not physically present. 54D also plans to open a branch in New York. This shows that even a crisis can generate great, new opportunities.

Something to add here is that most clubs in Latin America – particularly Mexico – have frozen their fees. What becomes really important is providing extra value to members to keep them incentivised and engaged so they return once the clubs reopen. Running online training sessions is a good example of this.

Tony: So, Mike, you’ve begun reopening your gyms in line with social distancing measures. We’ve seen all these crazy pictures on social media. Tell us what you’re doing, how that’s functioning, and what you think we can expect the “new normal” gym to be like.  

Mike: We took laser measurements to work out the distance between our strength equipment, seat to seat. In the United States, the rule is that people should be six feet (1.8 m) apart. Luckily, with our Freemotion equipment, the weight stack is in front of you, so it acts as a barrier. By placing two pieces of strength equipment weight stack to weight stack, users are shielded and six feet (1.8 m) away from each other, which we’re using for social distancing.

In terms of cardio equipment, you can’t really move this around your floor space because of the electrics. Once again, we did our measurements and due diligence and worked out that our Freemotion Incline Trainers and REFLEX™ Treadmills are roughly around three feet (90 cm) wide, so we just turned off every other piece of cardio and skipped one, then put a cone on top of the one that wasn’t in use. This keeps our members six feet (1.8 m) apart, which has been our number one priority.

Tony: Mike, how are you managing movement patterns within your gym?

Mike: We now have one way in and out of the gym, limiting people from wandering through other areas and trying to funnel their movement. Also, when a member arrives at the door, we measure their temperature. If it’s 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, we kindly ask them to return home.

We also have signs outside to say that if they don’t feel well, feel compromised, or have someone at home who is ‘high risk’ or showing signs of Covid-19, then it’s best to wait before returning to the gym to protect their loved ones and other members of society. Often, we think about ourselves and not always the people we go home to, so the signs are really powerful from that perspective.

Tony: Mike, what hygiene measures have you put in place to protect your members and staff?

Mike: One of the main things we’ve done is to install a system, which is fitted in the ceiling of the club. It throws out oxygen ions that kill SARS, MRSA, Covid, and every kind of bacteria and virus within a hundred-thousand square feet area (approx. 9300 m²). The impressive thing about this particular system is that passively kills bacteria on hard surfaces and in the air, which gives people the peace of mind that they shouldn’t catch anything in the club.

During lockdown, we were proactive and gave our clubs a complete deep clean, installed new turf, painted the walls, applied antibacterial spray everywhere, and used remediation specialists to basically give the whole club an antibacterial seal. All of the steps we took were shared publicly on our social media channels so our members were aware and felt safe to return.

Now that we’re open, staff members wear masks and gloves, and we sanitize each machine before and after use, as well as all hard surfaces. We use a contract cleaner, but our staff also disinfects the equipment with antibacterial spray twice an hour. Our members are also required to wipe down the machines after use and apply sanitizing gel or spray on their hands after completing their sets. Our members have been great at this, always thinking about each other and keeping the place spotless.

A final point to add is that all our staff members were required to sign a paper stating that they would adhere to our hygiene regulations. This was to make sure they’d read the materials we’d sent them and were clear on all of the points we’d laid out to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our entire gym community.

Tony: Here in the UK, we have a capacity of 4.5 m² per member, which we think is going to change to 9 sq. m per member to reduce footfall in the gym. What are the capacity regulations in other countries?

Mike: Our capacity has been limited by the fire marshal and the planning and zoning commissions of each state, so we’re at 25% right now and then, in one week, we’ll be at 50% which works out as one person per 100 sq. ft (approx. 9.3 m²).

Leopoldo: In Costa Rica, the government has allowed gyms to reopen with 25% of their capacity, so a lot of gyms have decided not to reopen until they have at least 50% because, otherwise, they will have a lot of expenses that will need to be recovered.

What we’re expecting from an operations perspective is that members will be asked to make a reservation and then workout and leave within a set period of time. Cleaning can then take place before and after each person / session.

Some larger clubs are planning to rotate between equipment, so that different pieces are in use each day, allowing staff the time and access to conduct a thorough cleaning.

Tony: How many of your members have expressed some concern about returning to the gym?

Mike: We have about 95 percent of our members back in the club and the rest yet to return because they either don’t feel ready or are physically vulnerable. Importantly, for those waiting to return, we’re continuing to do virtual sessions. When many of our members found out we installed an amazing passive air cleaning system that basically makes us germ neutral, they couldn’t wait to return! The measures we’ve taken and the way we’ve publicised this through social media and other channels has resulted in a record number of new memberships.

Tony: Mike, it sounds to me that you’re a great example of how to successfully re-open a gym facility. Is this the approach you’d recommend to all operators across the world? 

Mike: Absolutely. Those who go above and beyond are the ones who are going to be successful. It’s the ones who take a considered, measured approach that will come out of this the strongest. It’s putting these systems in place that will make people feel comfortable returning to exercise with you. If a person feels they’re walking into a gym that’s not maintained properly, they’ll walk straight back out. People come to our gym because they’ve heard and seen on Facebook, Instagram, and Yelp that our gym is the cleanest in the area. They can see that we’re putting their health and safety at the forefront of our operations.

Key Takeaways

I really enjoyed chatting with some of my colleagues from around the world and feel like they shared some useful information for us here in the UK. Here are my key takeaways for gyms gearing up to reopen:

Take clean to the extreme. We know we need to meet the government’s hygiene guidelines, but if you really want to set yourself apart from the competition, do all you can to show your members that you’re the cleanest, safest facility around. Explore upgrading your facility with cleaning systems, incorporate new procedures to safeguard the health of your staff and members, and create an environment where everyone is involved and accountable.

Be proactive, transparent, and consistent with your communication to members, remembering to share all the great work you’re putting in to deliver the best possible experience when they return. And don’t be afraid to ask them about their comfort levels to help guide your actions. Make them feel part of a true community, and they will reward you with loyalty.

Stay genuine and authentic in everything you do. Although you may need to pivot your business model in line with new government legislation, it’s important to stick to your core values and what made you successful in the past.

Technology will be part of the “new normal” moving forwards, given how much people used it to stay active during lockdown. Therefore, it will be important to look for new ways to incorporate technology into your facility that will complement and enhance the products and services your members might have become accustomed to using. Connected fitness equipment, streaming platforms, or other app-based content will likely be key to bridging the gap between home fitness and your facility, so it’s a good idea to start thinking ahead.

Remember to believe in yourself! Mike had a clear action plan and executed it to great effect. You know your facility, you know your staff and members, and you’ll find what works best. Good luck and go get ‘em!

For more advice or support from the Freemotion team, please don’t hesitate to contact me via: tony.ali@freemotionfitness.com or call +44 (0)7719 554 216.

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About Freemotion Fitness

For more than 20 years, Freemotion Fitness has been the global pioneer in fitness equipment and technology, introducing the world to cable-based strength training, the Incline Trainer, the first road simulating indoor bike and is now leading the way in connected fitness. With science and innovation at its core, Freemotion questions how we work out and then redefines it – creating products that deliver an unbeatable user experience and ultimately drive commercial results for its partners. For more information, visit: freemotionfitness.com

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