With gyms in Ontario now open, the next steps in recovery for our industry are finally here. It has been a long haul for everyone, and as excited as we all are to get operational again, there are still some steps to go to full recovery.
Despite having reopened twice previously, this time presents new opportunities and challenges as vaccination levels continue to rise, case levels drop, and we look to remain open, for good.
What remains a significant challenge in Ontario is that the province has been subject to a longer lockdown period (if not the longest in North America) during the third wave, with a population that is much more apprehensive as a result. That said, there is also a huge appetite for fitness and to get back in the gym, which provides a great opportunity for owners/operators.
The Fitness Industry Canada Ontario Coalition and gym operators in general were pleased to see Stage 3 restrictions set to 50% capacity with masking only required when not exercising, along with the ability to open up all amenities with proper social distancing. The government has also provided some guidance on Stage 4, where most restrictions will go away when certain vaccine thresholds are met (expected in August).
Recently, the FIC Ontario Coalition hosted a panel with leaders from across Canada who had already gone through different types of reopenings, to discuss both their observations and provide some key considerations for a successful relaunch.
A few takeaways from the panel discussion:
Err on the Side of Caution
There will be a part of your member base who are ready to come back and feel there is little to no risk, while others will remain apprehensive. The former group will be so thrilled to be back and working out again that they’ll follow whatever rules are in place, so think about catering to the latter group for now.
There will be another stage in the reopening when people will naturally feel more safe because of a further easing of restrictions, and that provides an opportunity to relax some of your own rules you may have kept in place over and above current government guidelines.
Whatever you decide, make sure when you do relax restrictions that it is tied to provincial health and safety guidelines, such as entering a new stage, hitting a COVID/vaccine threshold or a as part of a previously announced timeframe.
To Mask or Not
In Ontario masking is currently not required while exercising, but some gyms are approaching this differently, depending on their member base. Many gyms still require masking at all times, or only removing for high intensity exercise, for example.
In other provinces, leaders noticed that keeping some mask requirements, even when this was first eased, went a long way to build trust from more cautious members. This was followed by a noticeable increase in members returning when the restriction was removed. This was more to do with members feeling more comfortable with a new stage in reopening than it was with members who just didn’t want to use a mask.
Determine what works best for your gym, but our leaders found that a much larger part of the member base felt more comfortable with masking rules, than were opposed to wearing them at all, and were very comfortable by the time that next milestone was reached to remove masks entirely.
How to Deal with the Vaccine Questions
This topic seems to be the most talked about currently, in all industries and provinces, eliciting strong opinions one way or the other. While Ontario has indicated they will not have a vaccine passport for now, many businesses are diving into this in their own way.
In a call with government officials, caution was urged as there are inherent privacy issues with asking staff or members personal health information. It was noted that the rules in place for Stage 3 took into account whether people are vaccinated, or not.
As an industry, we can look at the track record that most gyms had even prior to vaccines and how the procedures we had in place provided minimal risk of transmission. With so much of the population now vaccinated, and procedures remaining in place, the risk or transmission is extremely low.
That said, there are still members who have pushed back or would like to see all staff vaccinated and only vaccinated members working out. For those members, you can point to what you are doing above and beyond government rules, emphasize the inherent problems with enforcing a vaccine policy, focus on the science and what you are doing to keep members and staff safe.
If they still don’t feel comfortable, ask them when they would and schedule to welcome them back at that time.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
This means not only communicating with your members and clients about what procedures you are following and what they can expect in the gym, but you can also expect a lot more incoming communication as well.
Make sure you have sufficient staff on the floor, on the phones and ready to respond to emails and inquiries over social media. Insure they are trained to respond to common questions and are up to date on all policies and procedures to insure consistent messaging.
Stay active on social media to show members and prospects what you are doing and manage their expectations as they come back. It’s all about building trust, and it starts by making sure staff is well informed and confident in the information they are providing.
Adapt Your Sales Process
Anticipate a natural increase in sales with the reopening, as there remains significant pent-up demand from the extended closure. There are many people ready to join a gym for the first time or come back after a long break since the pandemic has re-emphasized the importance of health and wellness.
While this may make new sales easier at the start, expect this to plateau somewhat after several weeks. There are also many who will wait for the fall when they may feel more safe, or after summer activities end and they are looking to get back to the gym.
Consider ways to get some of those members committed now and other ‘pre-sales’ strategies. Sara Hodson, President & CEO of Live Well Exercise Clinics in British Columbia, suggests using ‘natural reopening dates’ as places to encourage people to come back and creating some scarcity either with limited spots (as some gyms do have) or pricing. Many gyms are planning for or have already implemented pricing increases.
Provide an opportunity for members to lock in a rate now, even if joining in the fall, and secure a commitment from those who are not ready to sign today.
Many things have changed since your facility was last open, consumer expectations and use of technology being chief among them. While most gyms have seen 60-75% of their members come back after reopening along with a bump in new sales, we are still not back to 100% of pre-COVID revenues, and expenses have increased significantly.
Don’t stop adapting your own services for different people and to help both future proof your business and fill this gap. Some members may stay digital and there is a whole new market if you have developed those services. Most people that use digital solutions have multiple and in many cases also have a gym membership, so look at how your omni-channel offering can work for different use cases. The corporate wellness and healthcare markets are also great opportunities but require a different approach than the typical fitness consumer.
You know your members and brand best to figure out what you should be doing now that you are, or soon will be, open. Find what works best for you by communicating with, and listening to, your staff and members.
It’s a great first step to be able to open again, but it will take continued work to build your business back up. If you lay the groundwork in this first stage, then as we move into the next one and beyond you will be on track to having not only survived these lockdowns but thriving again months and years to come.
Nick Corneil is CEO of Trainer Plus and head of the Fitness Industry Canada (FIC) Ontario Coalition. FIC has established provincial coalitions across Canada to advocate for the fitness industry. For more information, or to join a provincial coalition, visit www.ficdn.ca.