LONDON, United Kingdom — Amid the uncertainty that has rippled around the world since the outbreak of COVID-19, we’ve heard of communities pulling together to support the most vulnerable, volunteer armies mobilised overnight to help self-isolating neighbours and multi-generational families being reunited digitally to celebrate Mother’s Day in the UK.
We’ve also seen the fitness industry rally to tackle the existential threat of the coronavirus and provide physical and mental health solutions online for young and old when they need it most.
Here we highlight how fitness studios and gyms are overcoming COVID-19, signpost what governments and industry bodies are doing to support businesses and the self-employed and look at what lasting impact this crisis could have for consumer habits long term.
COVID-19’s impact on the health and fitness industry
Fitness businesses around the world have been hit hard by the disruption. Even before governments issued unprecedented restrictions on our way of life to prevent the spread of the virus, gyms and fitness companies were announcing temporary – yet indefinite – closure.
In early March Barry’s announced it would shut all Red Rooms across the US, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Milan and Dubai before adding London to that list. Multiple F45 franchises in Australia, the US and UK followed suit shortly after.
Even online cycling giant Peloton was impacted, closing its public studios in the US “out of an abundance of caution,” while SoulCycle halved the number of available bikes in its studios as a precautionary measure. All have since closed their doors.
“In the last two weeks alone, 80-90% of ClassPass’ 30,000 partners across 30 countries have temporarily closed for business,” ClassPass CEO Fritz Lanman revealed this week. “These are businesses that keep our communities healthy and resilient, and the global COVID-19 puts them at risk.”
Around the world the closures have plunged millions working in the physical activity sector, both business owners, employees and the self-employed, into immediate financial uncertainty.
What are governments doing for businesses and their employees?
In the UK, the government has launched a sweeping economic relief package to support businesses and employees unable to operate due to the coronavirus pandemic.
These include a ‘Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’, deferring VAT payments, a 12-month business rates holiday, grant funding of £25,000 for leisure businesses and a loan scheme to ease cash flow pressures.
It includes the pledge to pay 80% of salaries for staff who are kept on by their employer, covering wages of up to £2,500 a month.
And, after fears of being overlooked, a grant of up to £2,500 a month to help the five million self-employed people in the UK who make up an estimated 15% of the labour market.
According to the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE), prior to the coronavirus outbreak, self-employed people contributed £305 billion to the British economy. The industry body says the coronavirus outbreak has caused “an income crisis” that cannot be fixed without help.
On Wednesday, not-for-profit health body ukactive wrote to British chancellor Rishi Sunak to request urgent additional measures to provide financial support for the estimated 60,000 workers in the physical activity sector, in the UK, who are self-employed.
The letter highlighted key findings from a survey of the UK sport and physical activity workforce, undertaken in the last few days, which underline the scale of the problem the sector is facing:
- 65% of respondents are self-employed
- 95% have already experienced financial losses, averaging £7,800
- 63% have no financial reserves to fall back on
- 75% stated that their insurance does not cover for loss of earnings
And as of Thursday, the government appears to have taken heed, with chancellor Rishi Sunak telling the self-employed: “You have not been forgotten.”
How are fitness companies adapting to these new challenges?
While several businesses have frozen or adjusted their memberships to retain clients, others have switched their classes online entirely. For example, Hotpod Yoga – another fitness franchise with over 50 locations across eight countries – announced it would close all of its studios as of Tuesday 17 March, while simultaneously saying it planned to live-stream classes for members to keep up their practice at home.
“You can help us support our freelance teaching community by making a donation at any of our streamed classes or simply by keeping your membership running,” read a statement on the brand’s Instagram page. The company is automatically putting memberships on hold for one month initially, but if members want to contribute they can email to keep theirs running.
“Your loyalty means the world to us and we’re hugely looking forward to seeing you back in the pod soon!” the statement read, signed off by co-founders Nick Higgins and Max Henderson.
At this time of international crisis, several fitness businesses have also offered their support to key workers on the frontline of the pandemic. On Wednesday, at-home workout, yoga and meditation platform Fiit announced it would provide free memberships to staff of the NHS in the UK for three months.
Last week, after 1Rebel was forced to temporarily close its seven London studios, co-founder James Balfour offered to convert the brand’s luxury workout amphitheatres into hospital ICU theatres, providing the NHS with space for 400 beds.
Balfour said: “We estimate that across our seven studios in central London, we could make space for 300-400 beds. There are also extended changing facilities, showers, and areas for IT facilities. There is great lighting and even the fact that we have sound systems – offering the opportunity to play music – could lift people’s spirits.”
The fitness brand has even launched a new website which provides a detailed factsheet to its studios, providing all the information the NHS needs to decide if and how it might best use the space.
What digital solutions are available to help keep businesses afloat?
With COVID-19 shutting down fitness facilities around the world and the global population being advised not to leave their homes, the demand for digital fitness solutions that provide a direct connection between facilities and members has sky-rocketed.
FunXtion, a Dutch company which specialises in helping fitness clubs deliver digital fitness experiences, and has worked closely with Anytime Fitness and PureGym, has been inundated by operators with no incumbent digital offering, keen to introduce one with immediate effect.
Fit For Free and SportCity in the Netherlands have worked with FunXtion to enhance their digital provision in direct response to the coronavirus. “When COVID-19 started to spread, the brands recognised a need to enhance their support to members who could no longer visit facilities,” CEO Ernst De Neef told Welltodo.
FunXtion worked with the brands to integrate virtual classes and workouts with their websites. “This enabled members to access custom-branded content anytime, anywhere. We have been working 24/7 on this project and have managed to get this service up and running in a matter of days.”
ClassPass, recognising its clients’ urgent need for digital solutions, has also been particularly proactive. On Monday, the New York-based company called on governments to take action by launching a change.org petition demanding immediate financial assistance as well as rent, loan and tax relief for fitness businesses.
Reflecting the global scale of the crisis, the petition was signed by ClassPass CEO Fritz Lanman and 54 other health and fitness CEOs including Joey Gonzalez of Barry’s, Chuck Runyon of Anytime Fitness, Luis Urquiza of Bodytech Brazil and Dave Nuku of Firestation Malaysia.
Going further on Wednesday, ClassPass also announced it would enable fitness and wellness partners to offer live-streamed classes through the ClassPass app and website.
“Through June 1, 2020, 100% of the proceeds will go directly to the studios and fitness instructors who are unable to host in-person classes due to COVID-19,” a company statement read.
In addition, ClassPass has created a Partner Relief Fund, enabling people to donate to their favourite studios directly through the app, with ClassPass committing to match all studio contributions up to $1 million.
“The next few weeks are crucial for the health and wellness industry to survive,” Lanman said.
“ClassPass has rallied to help our community of studios and fitness enthusiasts get through the coming weeks. We need our governments to intervene and help studios get through the coming years. Now is the time to come together as an industry.”
Mindbody has similarly announced it will be providing a variety of subscription fee relief options, offering software upgrades and add-ons free of charge, and accelerating the release of their integrated, video-on-demand products.
“We are also leveraging our online resources and user group community so these business owners can share best practices and other useful information real-time,” co-founder and CEO Rick Stollmeyer told Welltodo.
What impact could COVID-19 have on consumer habits long term?
Despite the very real immediate threat to bricks and mortar fitness businesses, the digital workout market has experienced a boost with consumers flooding to online, at-home solutions and investors betting on a change in engagement.
While stocks have plunged across the board, shares of Peloton Interactive have performed much better than the S&P 500 index over the past month, as the coronavirus pandemic seems to have sparked sales for the exercise software and machine company.
While Peloton’s website warns of delivery delays of up to a month for its bikes, competitor Echelon Fitness Multimedia told Bloomberg that its sales are rising tenfold and app-class attendance has soared 40% in the last week – a rise in online business “on par with the holiday shopping rush”.
“Throughout the weekend we had over 1,000 people consistently shopping on our site for the Echelon indoor connect bike, rower, and Reflect Mirror,” said Lou Lentine, creator of Echelon. “Connected fitness continues to be a must-have for anyone wanting to stay fit without leaving the home.”
Despite this relative success, analysts are sceptical about whether the coronavirus bump will last for exercise companies. “This is an outlier,” Matt Powell, a vice president and sports-industry adviser at NPD Group, told Bloomberg. Though home-exercise bike sales climbed 16% in 2019, sales for the entire home fitness sector fell 9%, he said.
Offering a more optimistic outlook was Mindbody’s Stollmeyer. In a blog post to the wellness community, Stollmeyer issued a rallying call to the fitness industry to stay strong, confident that businesses would bounce back.
Stollmeyer said: “Let us not forget that we are in an industry in the middle of a massive growth wave. None of us can predict with certainty when this crisis will lift and what state the global economy will be in when it does.
“But we do know that wellness is neither a fad nor a luxury. It is an expectation for hundreds of millions of people, and more are joining their numbers every day. For this reason, we are confident that the wellness industry will not only recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it will come back even stronger than before.”
Whatever happens, FunXtion’s De Neef believes fitness businesses that emerge from this global disruption will face a very different industry to the one we knew before.
“The value in the provision of a digital offer is now undeniable,” De Neef told Welltodo. “This realisation will accelerate the sector’s integration of digital solutions. Operators with the foresight to introduce quality digital services ahead of COVID-19 are in a much stronger position than those who have no way of connecting with members during these times of physical distancing.”
He added: “As people adjust to the prospect of months at home with no physical connection to the outside world, they will be exposed to many online opportunities to keep active. This exposure has the potential to change habits, behaviours and expectations relating to the way the population will choose to keep active when we eventually emerge from isolation.”
What else can businesses do to support their staff?
Earlier this month the World Health Organisation issued mental health guidance for the general public. The WHO urged anyone feeling anxious over coronavirus to eat and sleep well, take part in physical activity, stay in contact with loved ones and avoid using alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms.
“Working together as one community can help to create solidarity in addressing COVID-19 together,” said the WHO in the document. “Protect yourself and be supportive of others.”
WHO called for people to amplify positive stories from the outbreak, such as of people who have recovered or supported people in their communities.
Above all, the World Health Organisation recommended that members of the public wash their hands regularly, cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and avoid close contact with anyone who appears unwell, to reduce the spread of the disease.