(Photo:James Whyte, owner of Savage Iron Fitness)
Clubs in Bradford, Ontario, close, open, close and open again...
The past year has been an unpredictable rollercoaster ride for fitness club operators in Ontario’s Simcoe Country. Most recently, clubs emerged from a complete lockdown in mid-February only to be locked down again just one week later. Today, March 8, two weeks later, clubs will be re-opening yet again.
“It’s very challenging when you’re one person running a club,” says Adrian Murphy, owner of Rebel Fitness, in Bradford, population 35,350. “Each time there’s a change I need to notify our payment processors to be sure we’re charging people correctly and then get our booking system quickly back up and running.”
Murphy, who has lost about 100 of his original 640 members, is also frustrated with the province’s categorization of businesses during the pandemic.
“I’ve had no cases of COVID in my club, and I’m not hearing of cases in other local clubs,” he says. “My club has very strict cleaning policies, and equipment and surfaces are constantly being sanitized. When someone picks up a case of water and then puts it down at Costco, which has also remained open, I don’t see a staff person there cleaning it. And our local Walmart, which has also remained open all this time, has had six cases of COVID.”
Another frustration for Murphy has been the province’s decision to apply the same rent support rules to all businesses, regardless of their square footage. “A hair salon might pay $2,000 to $3,000 per month for rent but gyms are paying more like $10,000 to $30,000 per month,” he says. “Coming up with that revenue in these times is definitely challenging.”
During lockdown periods Murphy, who operates the club independently without help from employees, has tried to stay productive. He has met several times with his landlord and has upgraded some of his equipment to help attract future members. Like almost everyone in the country, he has also been watching lots of movies.
“I usually work 16 hour days, and I’m not a person who likes to sit around,” he says. “I’m just trying to sustain my business.”
Murphy feels fortunate that his landlord is supportive and has allowed him to pay just a portion of his rent for the past several months. “But all that money needs to be repaid, and the rent will be going up in January,” he says.
While his situation is highly stressful, he realizes that it could be worse. “So many gyms have closed for good, and gyms in other parts of the province have been closed for nine or 10 months straight.”
Not being in control of his business is his biggest issue.
“Warmer weather and vaccines are coming, so I’m trying to stay positive,” says Murphy. “It’s difficult to know what lies in the future. Some clubs will fall and some will rise. I’m just doing my best to be the latter category.”
Savage Iron Fitness
Across town, James Whyte, owner of Savage Iron Fitness is equally as frustrated with the provincial government.
“The pandemic has really hammered the fitness industry,” he says. “As far as I know, there have been very few cases of COVID in fitness clubs.”
He hopes that the most recent lockdown will be the last one. “But they could pull the plug again anytime,” says Whyte, who operates his 5,000-square-foot 213-member club with two full-time employees. “The last lockdown was completely unwarranted because there have been no outbreaks in the fitness field in our area.”
Whyte wants to see more done financially for smaller fitness operations like his. While there have been government grants available, his club hasn’t qualified for any financial assistance.
“Small clubs like mine couldn’t even get a $20,000 grant while bigger chains got huge loans,” he says, noting that he lost $20,000 in revenues in one six-week span alone. “I’m fortunate that my fixed costs are just a few thousand dollars a month and that I have very loyal members who really appreciate this club.”
One huge expense for Whyte is cleaning supplies. He is spending $1,500 a month and expects this to only increase over time.
“I believe my club is as clean and safe as a hospital,” he says. He has implemented very strict cleaning policies and a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule for people who don’t comply.
Another frustration for Whyte? When Simcoe County clubs have re-opened, all clubs have been restricted to a 10-person maximum.
“It makes no sense to have the same guidelines for every club, no matter their square footage,” says Whyte. “Big clubs in our area have 3,000 to 5,000 members. I don’t know how the massive clubs are keeping their heads above water when they’re only allowed 10 members at a time and aren’t allowed to operate 24/7.”
Whyte has actually seen an uptick in his business as members from the big clubs have made their way to his small club, which has less competition for those workout spots. “They tell me they were only able to work out once a week at their big club because there is so much competition for those 10 workout spaces each hour.”