Industry Update: The New State of Play for Fitness In England

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  • Barry’s, 1Rebel, Ten Health & Fitness and Everyone Active set to reopen across England from 25th July
  • Hotpod Yoga set to open one by one with “some offerings that are completely different” from mid-August
  • Speedflex postpones reopening until 1st August
  • Several brands expect to reopen with enhanced digital offerings for old and new members who aren’t ready to return to the gym floor or studio 

LONDON, United Kingdom — On Saturday 25th July – 126 days since Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered fitness facilities to close to prevent the spread of coronavirus – indoor gyms, pools and leisure centres in England will finally be allowed to reopen. 

The decision, which was announced by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden on 9th July, comes as official figures indicate that the number of workers on UK payrolls fell by 650,000 in June. 

According to the Office for National Statistics, the arts, entertainment and recreation sector, which encompasses the fitness industry, saw 75.9% of the workforce furloughed in May. 

Speaking at the Downing Street briefing, Dowden said: “We have a rolling programme of reopening. We continue to analyse the data from it. That’s one of the reasons why we’re waiting a little longer to reopen. The lower the numbers the more you can open up and all of that is informed by science.” 

He added that face masks would not be required to be worn by those exercising, that the advice to gyms and studios was to reduce class size, clean equipment frequently, improve ventilation and ensure social distancing. 

Help the nation get match-fit
The guidance, published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has been compiled with input from trade body ukactive, Sport and Recreation Alliance Sport England and other sports bodies, and in consultation with Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive. 

“Our comprehensive guidance will ensure gyms, pools and leisure centres have the support they need to reopen safely for their customers and staff,” said Dowden. “Helping people return to gyms safely will also help the nation get match-fit to defeat this virus.” 

Measures set out in the guidance include: 

  • Using a timed booking system to limit the number of people using the facility at any one time
  • Reducing class sizes and increasing time between classes
  • Enhanced cleaning and providing hand sanitizer throughout venues
  • Queue management and one-way systems
  • Ensuring adequate ventilation
  • Encouraging the use of outdoor spaces for individual, team or group activities 
  • Temporary floor markings to help people stay distanced during classes  Customers
  • And staff encouraged to shower and change at home 

Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, who worked closely with the government to draw up the new guidelines, said: “[Last Friday’s] confirmed reopening date means an end to much of the uncertainty for thousands of leisure facilities and their staff in England, as well as millions of customers looking forward to their return. 

“This is a health crisis, so we now look forward to playing our central role – using our facilities and staff to help combat COVID-19 by strengthening the physical and mental health of people in every community.” 

Industry Update: The New State of Play for Fitness In the UK

Image: Hotpod Yoga

Kick in the teeth
While the news was roundly welcomed by owners of gyms and fitness studios in England, many voiced concerns that the measures, coming three weeks after pubs and restaurants were permitted to open, will be too little, too late. 

Sandy Macaskill, founder of Barry’s UK, told Welltodo: “It was a real kick in the teeth to hear that pubs were able to open before us. However, rather than dwell on these failings, we are pleased we now have a date to work towards and are looking forward to finally re-opening and doing what we do best.” 

Barry’s was one of the first boutiques to close all of its studios before the government enforced the industry to do so on 21st March, and have since reopened in the US, Dubai and Sweden. 

Now its five London studios and solitary studio in Manchester are set to cap class capacity at 50% and cut classes to 50 minutes to allow more time to deep clean studios after every session. 

“We have also learnt best practice from our Barry’s teams internationally, so we have a very good understanding of what works,” Macaskill added. “I genuinely believe that when we reopen we’ll be one of the cleanest and safest indoor places to be, let alone train.” 

Illogical and inconsistent
Max Henderson, co-founder of Hotpod Yoga, which operates 40 franchise studios in England, told Welltodo that while he’s been impressed and pleased with how the government has supported fitness businesses in general, he also flagged certain decisions that he believes to be “gravely illogical and inconsistent”, which will have a big impact on facilities’ bottom line. 

“[The government announcement] has been a long time coming,” he said. “While many [gym owners]were upset about the delay in reopening for gyms and studios, it allows consumers to settle into some of their old normalities and behaviours, become more comfortable in public and then return to gyms and studios more confidently. 

“What I think is a real issue is the inconsistency,” Henderson added. 

“It seems gravely illogical and inconsistent that VAT cuts have been given to tourism and hospitality industries, and not leisure operators such as gyms and studios, given that they were allowed to open earlier and face less restrictions, such as operating with 1m social distancing as opposed to 2m distancing that is obligatory for us. 

Henderson also feels a “lack of clarity” by the government risks having a material impact on the sector. “We only learned earlier this week that we would have to operate with 2m between our yoga mats, as opposed to 1m, which is what was assumed and advised initially. 

“We’re also still not clear whether that is mat-to-mat or from the centre of the mat. It seems frivolous, but this has a big impact on our bottom line. 

“It is also fairly tough to understand when people in pubs can sit for hours, with no face masks 1m apart. Safety is absolutely critical for us, our customers and the industry as a whole, but with that there needs to be clarity and consistency.” 

The government guidance states that pieces of gym equipment should be “an appropriate distance apart so as to comply with social distancing guidelines and with a suitable margin for adequate circulation or one-way routes”. 

If appropriate, the government has powers under schedule 22 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 to close venues hosting large gatherings or prohibit certain events from taking place.

A complete rethink
Henderson said that under the new guidelines Hotpod Yoga has had to completely rethink how its studios are run and will be reopening one at a time with “some offerings that are completely different”, beginning with its Hackney studio, in mid-August. 

Despite these new measures, he said the past few months have shone a positive light on the brand’s franchise business model. 

“All of our franchisees are champing at the bit to reopen,” he said. “We initially expected closures to be highly likely but they’ve all weathered the storm and are coming out the other side. The trading environment after lockdown is not going to be easy but this has shown our franchisees to be pretty resilient businesses. 

“It’s also shown how much people really do care about fitness. Whether teachers or customers, it’s become clear that people rely on it. It is an industry that isn’t a nice to have, it’s a must-have for a lot of people.” 

Henderson is confident that all 40 Hotpod Yoga studios in England will be able to reopen from mid-August. However, a survey by the charity Community Leisure at the end of June suggested that nearly half of the UK’s public leisure facilities – more than 2,500 sites – may have to shut due to financial challenges. 

Read More: How Fitness Trainers Are Paving Their Own Way In The Post-Covid Digital World

Struggle to make a profit
James Balfour, CEO and co-founder of London’s 1Rebel boutique gym, which has six venues in the capital, also welcomed the announcement, but said “it has come a bit late in the day”. 

Speaking to the Evening Standard, he said he feared potential plans to not allow changing rooms to open would “put people off” from coming back to the gym. 

“People are going to need a lot of persuading to come back, so that kind of thing may put people off,” he said. “[…] we might need to put the pressure on the government to help financially.” 

In a letter to 1Rebel members on 7th July, Balfour also wrote: “It has been a frustrating time. I’ve been in the fitness industry all my life, and never before have I seen it need its customers more. 

“Under the new guidance, almost all clubs and studios will struggle to make a profit.”

Industry Update: The New State of Play for Fitness In the UK

Image: Speedflex

Lack of foresight
Reacting to the reopening announcement, Mark Simpson, COO of Speedflex, said: “There has definitely been a frustration over the lack of foresight for the fitness industry being able to reopen sooner. The government’s response has been very slow to reopen gyms and the messages have been very mixed. 

“It’s a shame that by the time we open we will be a month behind other parts of the hospitality industry when we know keeping fit is key and vital to keep our entire wellbeing in check. 

Simpson said Speedflex has taken the decision to reopen on 1st August while phasing in the return of its staff. 

“As we have had a lot of our staff on furlough during this time, we have been able to make savings, so we hope that even with smaller class sizes, our business model should still be viable. 

“Some of our staff will return to train immediately and others will be on a phased return. It will be a case of waiting to see but we know we have a great product and experience for our members, and there is a lot of excitement around us reopening.” 

Digital fitness boom
While Martin Franklin, CEO of Les Mills Europe, echoed the enthusiasm for gyms to finally reopen, he suggested that many gyms will have benefitted from the digital fitness revolution that has accelerated under lockdown. 

“We believe gyms will always be the pinnacle of live fitness experiences and I’m sure everyone will crave the social experience of the gym community for workouts as soon as they reopen,” he said. 

“At the same time, the digital fitness boom presents big opportunities, particularly in helping to break down barriers to fitness for people who might not typically visit the gym – and that’s really exciting. 

“With health now everyone’s top priority, there are huge opportunities for clubs to attract new members and emerge as a stronger and more vital cog in society than ever before.” 

Fitness on demand
Justin Rogers, creative director of Ten Health and Fitness is equally optimistic about the digital opportunities that have emerged under lockdown. 

“We were fortunate that so many of our clients and even some new clients have responded well to all our virtual offerings, including virtual physio sessions, LIVE workout schedules and On-Demand videos,” he told Welltodo. 

“We believe this is an area of the business that will now live on, even after lockdown ends.” 

Ten Health and Fitness, whose physiotherapy arm of the business is already open, expect to welcome members back on 25th July in line with the government’s guidelines, with reduced class sizes and longer gaps between sessions for additional cleaning and to help manage distancing. 

Meanwhile, Duncan Jefford, regional director of Everyone Active revealed the company would offer all returning or new members access to a suite of fitness apps, including WithU and FLEX, EXi, and for a limited time, Les Mills On Demand. 

“We don’t want anyone to have to make the choice between the gym and their favourite on-demand session so we’ve launched Everyone On Demand, a package of market-leading fitness apps,” Jefford said. 

“Every returning or new member will receive access to all of these apps, which collectively contain almost 2500 workouts, at no extra cost – as part of the current membership fee.” 

Not out of the woods
Despite the united effort to get the UK’s fitness industry back on track, ukactive’s Huw Edwards’ closed his statement with a note of caution. 

“It is important to stress that we are not yet out of the woods, as we seek to secure urgent financial and regulatory support from the government to ensure that reopening is financially viable, both for private and public operators,” said Huw Edwards. 

“We will work closely with the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA) to ensure the sector’s workforce is equipped to adapt to its new working environment. 

“We ask the sector to use the new guidance to prepare well, and we will provide the support required to ensure this is an exciting return to action for our members and the customers they serve.” 

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