New Hampshire gyms adapting to business during Covid-19

With people still cautious about working out in person, gyms and patrons are looking for new approaches.
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Members at River Valley Club in Lebanon wear masks during a group class. (Photo courtesy River Valley Club)

When the coronavirus pandemic is in the rearview mirror, Justin Miner, owner of Gain Strength and Conditioning in Portsmouth, will look back and be thankful.

He, like everyone else, has been heartbroken about all the lives lost, businesses affected and families that are struggling. But in the middle of the pandemic unpredictability that is now nearing a full year, Miner has been able to quell a little of the chaotic nature of his business.

Prior to closing in mid-March, Gain – which customizes small-group workouts for its members – had an “open” schedule for those who came to work out. There were reservations, but they often overlapped and there was little accountability if a member came late.

Since reopening on June 1, however, changes have been made to the seven-year-old boutique gym. Now, the gym only hosts one group at a time, with no more than six clients in a group; clients are spaced 10 feet apart; reservations are required; and after each session the gym is cleared for 30 minutes for cleaning.

“We were able to make a lot of changes that we would not otherwise have made if not for Covid,” Miner said. “It gave us a chance to look at how we were doing everything and it gave us the opportunity to be more organized, more efficient, and give more attention to clients’ workouts. It’s been a nice change.”

Customers, most of whom are in their 50s and 60, have appreciated the approach.

“Generally everyone feels this is much better — they like that they can sign up for classes, they feel (the gym) is cleaner. Everyone feels safe,” Miner said.

Online offerings

The beginning of the year is usually the busiest time for gyms, with New Year’s resolutions resulting in new gym devotees and people coming in from the cold to work out. The recent boom in in-home workout options like Peloton and Mirror makes competition fiercer, so gym owners are working hard to make clients feel safe despite the ongoing pandemic.

With a strong membership base and tight community feel, owner Elizabeth Asch, owner of River Valley Club in Lebanon, never felt she had to offer a cache of online and virtual offerings before the pandemic. That changed soon after the gym shut for four months last March. During that time, Asch launched live-streaming classes, pre-recorded workouts and one-on-one training over video chat available to members.

“I really never offered it, because really I never had to,” said Asch, who put all but 12 of her 230 full-time staffers on furlough soon after shutting down. “We’ve put a lot of effort into our building and equipment and we have staff here helping support our members. I really wasn’t thinking about it until Covid came down the pike.”

The digital side of River Valley has not affected memberships. The first two weeks in January 2021 has seen an almost 33% increase compared to the same month in 2020 – 64 new members signed up, compared to 49 in January 2020. However, Asch said in-club usage has dropped since last year by 12 percent.

“We did it because we had to do it. Our philosophy has always been that we want to improve people’s lives,” Asch added. “That’s with everything we do. So when we shut down we (asked) what can we do to help our members? Honestly, what we first offered was not as good as what we have now.”

River Valley now offers regular club memberships, digital-only, and a combination of both.

In addition to offering a place to work out, online options allow individuals to be part of their “community” again, Asch said.

A 2017 study of 13,000 group class participants in the UK, published by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, showed the importance of community as 9 out of every 10 members said they value communication with their club’s staff. And a Nielsen study showed that 85 percent of the 3,000 interviewed go to the gym for group classes, where connections are often made.

“When the lockdown first happened I thought I wouldn’t see many of my clients again,” said Alex Figeuroa, a trainer at River Valley. “But a lot of them said I need to see you online. It’s been great — and a little surprising initially — how so many have been open to remote training.”

Intense cleaning

If boutique and regular gyms are offering online classes you can be sure the big-box gyms are, too.

Hampton-based Planet Fitness, which has more than 2,000 locations worldwide, had its online presence within two days with classes on Facebook Live, with celebrities like Jerry O’Connell and Julian Edelman working out “side-by-side” with members. Now its catalogue of classes and workouts are free on its app – to members and non-members alike.

“What’s interesting is Planet Fitness as a whole is usually first-time, casual gym goers, but we saw a high percentage of those downloading the app weren’t members at all,” said senior Public Relations Manager Becky Zirlen. “Because it was free, people just wanted to get back into a fitness routine. We are definitely happy with the response.”

Planet Fitness didn’t stop there. Like all other health and fitness centers, it has been under immense scrutiny since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Many people, including health officials and the general public,  saw clubs as an incubator for germs and thus a place for the virus to survive.

In addition to intense cleaning, Planet Fitness now offers touchless check-in and a “crowd meter” on the app that shows how many people are at a particular location. Zirlin hopes that will help bring nonmembers from the app into the gym.

“We want members and non-members to come in and see what we have to offer,” she said.

Health clubs aren’t the only ones looking look for alternatives.

Kris Clough Bettencourt of Nashua had gastric bypass surgery in 2007 through the Center for Weight Management and Bariatric Surgery in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. As part of the program patients are encouraged to take a class at the Center’s office, in order to keep the weight off and improve their physical condition.

Not surprisingly, the office closed in March due to the pandemic. Almost 11 months later the office has opened but the space where the classes were held is not available because there is not enough space for social distancing.

“We were on our (weight loss) Facebook group and someone suggested we do a Zoom meeting in order to see each other and connect,” Bettencourt said.

In one of those meetings, the group decided to do online workouts together. Bettencourt explained that having both the accountability and being part of a community – not unlike support groups for people with addiction – is imperative for people in her situation. And with the isolation of Covid-19 that holds true even more.

“I’m probably working out more now because I can do it in my home and I don’t have to drive at 7:30 in the morning to the class,” Bettencourt said. “I’m kinda liking the way it is now.”

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