MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass.
In May, Corey Clark’s gym, Bodystrong Fitness became the mecca of workout facilities in Massachusetts. While hundreds of fitness centers remained closed due to Massachusetts COVID-19 guidelines, Clark ignored Gov. Charlie Baker’s order and reopened his gym in Chatham.
Visitors from as far west as Fall River and as north as Boston would trek to Cape Cod to purchase day passes.
As one of the only open gyms in the state, Bodystrong Fitness would see about 250 visitors per day. The business also received fines of about $1,000 on the local and state levels. When the state moved into Phase 3 in early July, allowing for gyms to reopen, the number of visitors regressed to the mean of about 150 per day.
Still, Clark estimates between 20,000 and 30,000 visitors – many of them repeat customers – have signed in at the gym in the five months since reopening. Not a single client has tested positive for COVID-19.
“We’ve had zero people get sick,” Clark said. “So what we’re doing has obviously worked.”
What’s been a struggle is financial sustainability. Even with two extra months over other gyms, Clark finds himself in the same position as facilities across the country. Membership is down. People are still hesitant to return to indoor facilities and owners have had to pivot into new ways to attract members.
“It is a completely different world than it’s ever been,” Director of Sales for Worcester Fitness Andy Sharry said. “This does not look anything like the world pre-COVID. Basically, we’ve become an appointment-based gym.”
Worcester Fitness has 1,200 members. About 50 members canceled membership but the fitness center allowed clients to freeze their accounts for three months. Their memberships will continue in October.
Conca Sport and Fitness in West Springfield normally operates with about 160 members. It will enter October with about 115.
“It’s not the end of the world,” owner of Conca Sport and Fitness Stephen Conca said. “I don’t want to say we were thriving [pre-pandemic], but we were doing OK. Business was profitable and we were paying our people. Now we’re kind of in survival mode. We’re hanging on.”
The methods of survival take different forms depending on the gym.
Clark has transitioned to providing at-home personal training. An idea that began with a handful of house-calls transformed into Clark outfitted a custom-built trailer that allows him to bring gym equipment to clients’ homes.
“I was reluctant to do it in the past but then I was busy where I had back-to-back appointments all day,” Clark said. “If you go to someone’s house you have to charge them basically double and I really don’t like doing that. But people were like, we’ll pay you double to come to the house.”
Person-to-person training has also drawn the most consistent interest at Worcester Fitness. Sharry said the first members to return in July were looking to rekindle the relationships they had with personal trainers or massage therapists.
The high-interest classes extended to youth swimming classes, which experienced an uptick in attendance during the pandemic. Sharry believes the popularity is because so many families installed pools over the summer.
“The people who come in and ride the bike, lift weights, they’ve taken a little bit more hand-holding and caressing to make sure that they are comfortable here,” Sharry said. “Those people who have a really tight relationship with a massage therapist or swim instructor or personal training, ‘Boom.’ July 6, they were banging down the door.”
At Conca Sport and Fitness, West Springfield allowed the facility to use the parking lot of vacant schools during the warm weather to conduct workout classes.
As temperatures chill, Conca expects to reinvest in its digital classes. Members will gain access to a private Facebook group where members can access training videos.
Conca also introduced Zoom workouts, which provide virtual workout classes, but with a social atmosphere too.
“Everybody would see each other. It was great to see each other,” Conca said. “That was part of the community involvement. Facebook Live is great, but you can’t interact with anybody. So Zoom was good because we’re in our own virtual gym together.”
Inside the Zoom workouts, sweat dripped, calories burned and jokes flew across virtual walls. The competitive banter that existed inside Conca Sport and Fitness came alive again.
Initially, the workouts were held to help allow members to continue their physical training, but the emotional lift from the class became apparent.
“If you’re doing a virtual workout by yourself, you’re thinking what the hell else can I be doing?” Conca said. “If you’re working out with a bunch of other people on Zoom, it holds you accountable. They know you’re supposed to be there at 6 in the morning. If you don’t show up, you’re going to get a text.”
It’s a rapport that can be lacking in gyms amid the coronavirus pandemic due to Massachusetts guidelines and social distancing.
“There’s no mingling. There’s no time [for water cooler talk],” Sharry said. “It’s in, get your work done and go. That’s why we think of it as almost appointment-based fitness now.”
The stringent guidelines by the state and enforcement by the gyms are what attract most members to return each gym said.
Each gym has seen membership slowly rise as the state becomes more entrenched in Phase 3 of Massachusetts’ reopening plan.
Each gym that MassLive spoke to said new members flocked to their facility after feeling uncomfortable at another.
“We’re doing everything that we’re told to do and then five other things,” Sharry said. “We’ve done that all along and that’s why people are coming back here and that’s why people are joining.”
September normally represents an increase in membership at gyms as the summer winds down, children return to school and schedules become more structured.
Soon after September, December and January also usually coincide with a boom in membership.
Worcester Fitness, which opened in Worcester more than four decades ago, is disregarding all previous norms during an unprecedented time.
“That’s the strange thing about this. All these cyclical gym norms that we’ve known forever,” Sharry said. “I’m not sure if COVID is going to change that completely. I don’t know. I want to say yes, that when it gets dark and cold, people will come in here, but I’m not sure. That’s one of the scary unknowns of this.”
The uncertainty is expected to linger well into 2021. Earlier this month, the director of the CDC said a widespread vaccine isn’t likely until mid or late 2021.
For Clark, that means he’ll continue providing home visits. Worcester Fitness will double down on personal training and Conca Sport and Fitness may utilize school parking lots again.
To remain open amid a pandemic, they have no other choice.
“I think we can survive,” Conca said. “I think we have some good things in place and I think people are realizing now, this is the way it’s going to be. What are your alternatives?”
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