Keep moving

How the state’s fitness industry has adapted to COVID-19 challenges

Matt Fazelpoor//February 22, 2021

Keep moving

How the state’s fitness industry has adapted to COVID-19 challenges

Matt Fazelpoor//February 22, 2021

For the New Jersey fitness industry, March 16, 2020 brought the worst-case scenario, which owners often prepare for and pray they never encounter. That is the day Gov. Phil Murphy, amid a worsening pandemic, signed an executive order shutting down gyms and similar facilities throughout the state. What followed was a period of uncertainty, anxiety, and adaption to a new normal. While the entire industry is battling the same deadly virus, each business, from big boxes to boutique studios, had their own unique challenges and solutions.

Planet Fitness has 66 locations across New Jersey, which combined boast 500,000 members and employ around 3,000 people. Planet Fitness gyms represent approximately 30% of the fitness center market share in the state. Because its business model relies on low-cost memberships and high-volume facilities, Planet Fitness has had to think outside the box to address the many challenges COVID presents.

“We have had to be agile and nimble throughout the pandemic and as a leader in fitness, we have had to continue motivating people to stay active given fitness is essential in regard to mental and physical health,” said McCall Gosselin, senior vice president of communications at Planet Fitness.

In addition to following state-imposed capacity restrictions, Planet Fitness facilities have increased safety protocols that include robust cleanliness and sanitization policies, physical distancing measures, mask requirements, and a Crowd Meter app that allows members to check club capacity levels before coming into the gym.

They have also provided all employees with PPE such as masks and gloves and have conducted extensive training.

Gosselin said the closure in March offered an opportunity to ramp up online, at-home programs to help members remain healthy and moving when the world was, otherwise, stilled.

“We created the ‘United We Move’ Campaign, which we were able to launch within 48 hours of our clubs closing,” she said. “Additionally, in April we launched a partnership with iFit, to create exclusive streaming content for our app, which already has more than 500 exercises that can be done at home for free with minimal or no equipment.”

While these programs were designed to provide solutions for the pandemic, they also reflect a growing trend in the fitness industry to offer a hybrid of online and in-person classes for members.

“We believe that the future of fitness is a strong combination of the brick-and-mortar experience, which provides people the opportunity to connect with others in person, as well as the digital fitness realm,” Gosselin said.

At smaller fitness centers, such as pilates studios, many of the COVID-19 challenges were the same, but because of a business model centered on exclusive memberships, smaller class sizes and the use of specialized equipment, which the majority of members do not have access to, a lot of creativity was required to adapt to their unique set of circumstances.

The reality of those challenges is evident. Two smaller, specialized facilities declined to speak with NJBIZ because they will, unfortunately, be forced to close their business.

In October 2019, Elaine Fazaldin opened a Club Pilates franchise in Metuchen. Club Pilates has more than 30 locations, individually owned and operated, across New Jersey.

Her studio was just getting established as COVID-19 intensified throughout the winter, leading up to that fateful day in March. “You hear it on the news and the radio and you get a little nervous, but I had no idea it was going to be this big,” she explained. “There was no way I thought we were going to have to shut down.”

When the public health emergency was declared, Fazaldin was unsure how long she would be forced to close the doors, and how she would get the business back off the ground when it was lifted, especially since she had held a grand opening just months earlier. “This went beyond anything I thought,” she said.

The toughest months, in Fazaldin’s estimation, were April and May 2020 because there was still so much uncertainty about when things would reopen. At that point, there was no money coming in, and she had to adapt to the new state rules, learn new corporate protocols and fill out and submit the complicated Paycheck Protection Program forms.

“There was no normalcy,” Fazaldin said, “Looking back at the whole thing, where we are now, we rebounded well.”

Club Pilates Metuchen has overhauled its all of its processes since being permitted to reopen in July. The new proto-cols included reduced capacity, mask mandates, members required to bring their own mats, temperature checks and arc-hived logs, and only allowing one class in the building at a time. The staff also conducts multiple daily deep cleans of the entire studio and each piece of equipment, along with a specialized outside cleaning service.

During the shutdown, the studio held virtual classes to keep members engaged and moving. But, because all of their workouts revolve around the use of reformers and other specialized equipment, especially for members who are rehabilitating, it was challenging to simulate the studio experience.

After weathering the storm through the summer of 2020, when Fazaldin notes that members were justifiably freaked out by COVID-19, she noticed a shift in their attitude heading into the fall. “People wanted to get out of their house and move again,” she said. “More people had the attitude of, ‘We have to do stuff. We have to be back to, not normal, but do what we have to do with masks on. Just accept the situation and not be locked down at home.’”

Since Pilates offers a full-body workout without jumping up and down and heavy breathing like many other programs, the studio attracted a new demographic of people who decided to try it for the first time during the pandemic.

“People gave Pilates a chance that wouldn’t have before,” Fazaldin said. “We’re six feet apart. You have your own station. It’s only 12 people.”

As the fitness industry continues to confront this unprecedented situation and reinvents itself on the fly, one question lingers: When will “normalcy” return?

The answer is complicated and uncertain, but the consensus operators told NJBIZ that 2021 will look very much like 2020. While the rollout of vaccines may allow a return to “normalcy” over time, the newly created rules, protocols and processes are expected to remain for most of this year.

“Based on the demand we are currently seeing in our clubs, we believe people are looking to get back to the gym and back to their fitness routine, as health and wellness is more important now than ever before,” Gosselin said. “The increased focus on physical activity will continue to grow and play an important role in people’s everyday lives and we expect that to continue, as the vaccine is more available.”

While Fazaldin does not foresee a return to “normal” conditions in 2021, she believes the worst is over and that COVID-19 has forced everybody to take their own health and wellness more seriously. “It made people more aware of how important it is to be healthy and to move,” she said. “If they keep themselves healthy, it’s the best defense against the virus and other sickness. I think it will only look up from here.”

She credits the efforts of her staff and the unwavering support of the Metuchen community to help navigate a situation that was unimaginable when her studio opened just months before the pandemic began.

“Everybody’s been so supportive. They want to support small businesses. The people are great. I cannot say enough about them. They want small businesses to succeed.”