Gyms are Reopening, but it’s not Business as Usual: A trainer’s predictions for the industry

A quick Google search for “Fitness Industry Trends 2020” led me to discover a huge gap in fitness industry planning, at least in this strange season.

All prediction reports were made and published at the end of 2019. Granted, this is common practice for trend reporters in all industries. However, I would venture to say that the fitness industry has faced more rapid disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown mitigation measures than any other, barring travel and tourism.

The impacts of this disruption reverberate through the entire industry, from gyms to thought leaders and educators, to fitness professionals and equipment manufacturers, to employees in every role and level. Fitness is a vital part of health and wellness of any society, and the fitness industry must adapt to remain relevant. To that end, breaking with trend-prediction tradition, I felt a mid-year review was necessary and decided to take it on.

This article, part one in a series, focuses on the way forward for big gyms, from the perspective of a professional personal trainer, fitness coach, group fitness instructor, and business owner.

1 – Ditch the low-cost membership model; nobody wins the “race to the bottom.”

Planet Fitness began driving a “race to the bottom” by offering low-price memberships, and clubs such as 24-Hr Fitness and Gold’s Gym have followed suit. Now that gyms are reopening with stringent capacity controls and sanitation requirements, the $10 memberships will no longer remain a viable road to profitability. The operational expenses incurred by increasing facilities personnel and closing periodically through the day to clean will necessarily increase membership dues.

The low-cost membership model is obviously a numbers-driven game. One of the dirty little secrets of the fitness industry is that unused memberships are what fuel profitability. According to Planet Money, Planet Fitness inks 6,500 memberships per club, but can only accommodate 300 members at any given time. Gold’s and 24-Hour have similar numbers. The Hustle pointed out that approximately 63% of all gym memberships go unused nationwide in 2019 (a year prior to the pandemic).

Extrapolating the actual value of a $10 Planet Fitness monthly membership, with the information cited above, would suggest the actual cost to deliver the membership is $200 per member. Essentially, members that don’t go to the gym are subsidizing those that use their memberships consistently.

Gym closures in spring 2020, and public fears to re-enter gyms will likely continue to disrupt this model. Members with unused memberships will likely cancel. Indeed, Planet Fitness reported a 14.5% decrease in overall revenue in the first quarter of 2020 over Q1 of 2019. Similarly, chapter 11 rumors floating around 24-Hour since 2019 have started taking more weight due to the burden of their COVID reopening protocols. Finally, Gold’s Gym closed 30 clubs nationwide and have officially filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. While Gold’s and 24-Hour were facing fiscal difficulties pre-pandemic, they were accelerated in spring 2020.

The question, then: How can gyms move forward successfully?

I suggest that the way forward is to provide actual value that focuses on fitness, not memberships. This can only be done through virtual and in-person hybrid offerings and by concentrating on customized personal training.

Salespeople must turn their focus to personal training as the main benefit of membership. Fitt Insider called fitness, “exercise you pay for." Because many gym memberships are not adding value (as they go unused, or members aren’t exercising effectively for results), the same article stated that free exercise serves us better. Statistics show that members that hire personal trainers not only get better results, they more frequently make the transition to lifetime fitness than those that do not. When gym memberships are sold with an emphasis on personal training, fitness becomes a valuable investment.

Total recruitment will go down as the cost of membership rises to reflect its actual value, but those that join will actually use their membership and be served better by their investment. The membership numbers will no longer be conflated with inactive members, and the dues will reflect actual rates. Not only does the client – our ultimate concern – benefit, but so do the educated fitness professionals that serve them, and of course, the gym as a business.

2 – Redesign the group x experience from virus vector to form mastery.

Likely the most impacted sector of the fitness industry is group fitness (also known as group exercise, or group x). Popular classes and instructors result in closed rooms packed with members, respirating and aspirating at high rates. Add to that shared equipment with inadequate hygiene, and you’ve got a prime vector for coronavirus spread.

Many fitness professionals have decried group x as a poor substitute for 1:1 training, and their point isn’t without merit. One of the benefits I have enjoyed by cross-training – I train in-person, coach group fitness in the form of bootcamps and cycle, and have done group x instruction – is that I get to see first-hand the advantages and disadvantaged of each of these modalities.

This current uncertain environment is caused by a virus without a vaccine or fully understood symptomatology. Traditional in-gym group x is simply too dangerous to participants and instructors alike. I see only two ways forward: 1) traditional group x must move out of doors temporarily and offer virtual alternatives, and 2) in-gym group training must be replaced by 1:1 and small group training.

There is much more to the group x discussion, which I will flesh out further in my next article. I want to suggest here that 1:1 and small group training should be substituted for group x in the gym. Group instructors can offer private and small-group instruction sessions that provide an opportunity to the members to perfect their form and practice.

While in-person 1:1 and small-group training has traditionally been used for strength and conditioning, it also has merit for yoga, mobility, functional training, and other modalities that have been the traditional scope of group classes. From my perspective (as a personal trainer and group x instructor), the main downside of group x is the instructor’s inability to focus narrowly on individual participants’ form. As the instructor leads from the front, with little movement through the class in some formats, it is difficult to correct individuals, which can lead to safety issues borne out of improper exercise form. Instead, especially amidst pandemic concerns, put the instructor in the role of the personal trainer. Breaking down group x to 1:1 or small-group training can allow the instructor the latitude to offer more individualized attention. This private instruction format will cost more for the members, but the benefit they receive is highly valuable.

Individual and small group training will better serve and protect clients and can efficiently fulfill the gym’s escalated hygiene protocols as well. This is particularly true for strength and conditioning group workouts such as bootcamps and others that use shared equipment. The fit pro will be responsible for isolating the client from other clientele and supervising their workout. Not only will the client remain safer while exercising under their trainer’s watchful eye than they would training solo, this model will ensure physical distancing among clientele. The same holds true for small group training. Finally, the fit pro would select and set up equipment for the client’s use prior to their arrival, sanitize everything, and ensure that the client or clients practice all necessary personal hygiene while in session. This would reduce operational expenses by making facility sanitation more effective and efficient.

3 – Elevate your personal trainers to Fitness Professionals.

One clear lesson for the fitness industry to take from the pandemic is the value and necessity of the hybrid model of online and in-person training. To make that work for all parties – gym, clients, and trainers – gyms must bring more value to the role of the personal trainer.

Many big gyms have avoided the hybrid model and have instituted noncompete clauses for their personal trainers, prohibiting them from establishing a personal brand. Additionally, traditional pay structures for gym trainers establish employment ambiguities, making them part contractor, part employee. Trainers are only paid for hours spent training clients, but much time goes into preparing for those hours - programming exercise, completing paperwork, and recruiting clients - for which they are not paid. The resulting trade – time for money – is less than ideal.

Benefits for gym trainers are sparse There is rarely paid time off for gym trainers; if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. Fit pros are expected to maintain their professional certifications and continuing education on their own dime and after hours. Essentially, they work for a gym, but are forced into many self-employment frameworks,