Fitness businesses see flexibility tested by government orders, customer needs

When Michael Barber and his wife, Sheena, purchased the Fitness Connection gym in Dexter in December, they would have never imagined having to shut down three months later because of COVID-19.

“It’s kind of like not being able to provide for your own kids,” Barber said. “At least, that’s the way I look at our employees. Those are people that I’m responsible for.”

Barber’s gym is one of numerous fitness-oriented businesses throughout Missouri that had to shut down due to the stay-at-home order that took effect on April 6. The statewide order was lifted Monday — parts of the state, including Kansas City and St. Louis, are still under local orders — but the closures required significant adjustments for gyms, studios and clubs across the state.

Hear more: Reporter Minh Connors joins the Speaking Startup podcast to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on fitness businesses.

The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a trade association that represents health and fitness businesses, estimates that health clubs, fitness facilities and gyms across the U.S. stand to lose about $700 million in revenue per week as a result of the pandemic.

“Since the people of Missouri have been told to stay home, the 600+ health clubs in (Missouri), which normally serve well over a million members, are hurting terribly,” Meredith Poppler, the association’s vice president of communications, said in an email.

While businesses had to close their doors during the stay-at-home order, many continued running through the use of technology. Lauren Leduc, who owns two yoga studios in Kansas City called Karma Tribe, has been using videoconferencing platform Zoom to host three to four classes a day.

“It was really hard,” Leduc said. “But I think part of being a business owner is making hard decisions.”

Leduc said she retained most of her existing clients when she went remote but hasn’t gained new memberships, leading her to think about the long-term ramifications of the pandemic.

As she has transitioned her business online, Leduc has faced competition from bigger yoga chains that had virtual options prior to the pandemic. Despite the quality of some of those established online offerings, she encourages people to support local businesses if possible.

“I feel like if people are able to do that, they’re going to return to the community that they want to be in,” Leduc said, “rather than one where all of the small businesses are closed and we’re completely reliant just on large corporations.”

Laura Frank, owner of Inner Space, a yoga studio in Kansas City, has also shifted to virtual classes using Zoom. She has adopted a sliding scale for payment based on whether a client’s pay has been affected by the pandemic. Even though her income has taken a hit, she notices positive effects from going virtual.

“I’m getting more attendance, because suddenly everybody has a wide-open schedule, and they can tune in from anywhere in the world,” Frank said. “And then there’s some people who are just being really generous and paying full price anyway, clients of mine whose incomes aren’t affected.”

For Jordan Mazur, who owns Muse Pole Fitness, a pole fitness studio in Columbia, online classes were something she was considering prior to the pandemic.

“Columbia is such a transient town with it being a college town, we have a lot of people who start taking classes and move away and they’re sad they can’t continue, she said. “So it was already in my mind to find a way to get people from afar to be able to tune into classes.”

Although Mazur has generated revenue through classes conducted via Zoom and Facebook Live, she estimates that her business made 35% less revenue under the stay-at-home order than it did before the coronavirus.

While some fitness businesses are able to transition to virtual classes, others aren’t feasible online. Blue Springs Jiu Jitsu owner Wayne Marble said virtual classes aren’t ideal for his business, which offers instruction in martial arts like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo and Kali.

“If people could really learn martial arts from a book, or a YouTube video, then that’s how everybody would do it,” Marble said. “But it’s not the same.”

As of the fourth week of his gym’s closure, Marble estimated he had lost about $8,000 in potential revenue.

Even as stay-at-home orders are lifted and gyms and fitness businesses are allowed to reopen, owners are bracing for changes in consumer behavior.

“I foresee there being a lot of people that are going to be very hesitant about coming back into the public space again,” Barber said.

Despite the difficulties associated with having to move her business online, Frank said she was encouraged by being able to navigate that transition.

“We’re all in this position where, if we want to connect and continue, this is how we do it,” Frank said.

“Of course we don’t want people suffering and ill and in stressful situations, but this would be a silver lining, I guess.”

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