Leadership

The New Normal for Major Fitness Franchises

Lucy Connor
03 June 20
11 min read
gym-member-expectations

Governments across the world are currently implementing steps to ease their countries out of lockdown. In some places, fitness businesses are already permitted to open, though they’re adhering to strict guidelines – running a gym right now is a whole different ball game. Overall the ‘open-up’ statistics for the fitness industry are looking positive:

Businesses are reopening, social distancing measures are being relaxed, and we can see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. And while many companies and people alike are excited to leave lockdown behind and progress into a ‘new normal’ way of life, we can’t forget that we’re still living in very uncertain times. Scientific research into a vaccination for Coronavirus is happening at breakneck speed. Still, there’s no guarantee of when the vaccine will roll out, and it’s predicted that many countries will experience a second wave of COVID-19. 

Though this is not to say there’s no way to plan for the future, in many ways, the world must continue to take each day as it comes. Navigating this ‘new normal’ is a first for every fitness business. In this article, we’ll discuss how some of the world’s largest fitness franchises have worked through these uncertain times and how they’re preparing for the future. Before we dive in, we’ll look at some of the new guidelines and protocols these brands have in place as they begin opening back. Skip ahead to: 

Preparing for the Open-Up 

In the U.S, fitness businesses have been included in phase one of the ‘Opening Up America Again’ plan. This came following a lobbying push from large gym franchise executives, along with support from the IHRSA. Conversations with ten fitness club business leaders helped move gyms to the front of the line. 

Now, as clubs and studios reopen, temperature checks, masks, waivers, and strict health and safety protocols are a new reality. Several major chains have shared their new reopening protocols with the media:

  • Equinox and SoulCycle will require members to have temperature checks before entering the studio, and have UV-C phone sanitizers available for patron use.
  • Xponential Fitness, the parent company of YogaSix, Club Pilates, and Pure Barre, is among some chains that will ask members to sign new liability waivers specific to COVID-19.
  • Gold’s Gym corporate-owned locations, which are managed differently to sites owned by franchisees, and 24 Hour Fitness will close at least once during business hours to clean and disinfect. 24 Hour Fitness also plans to implement hour-long blocks followed by 30-minute closures to clean. 
  • Gold’s Gym has ordered 250,000 surgical masks, which are intended for markets where face coverings in public are mandatory, but these masks are to remain accessible to solely those who forgot their own masks at home.
  • Orangetheory will require members in certain locations to wear masks during their workout, and all trainers and staff will wear PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). The chain will also remove all furniture from lobby areas to discourage gatherings before and after class.
  • Contactless check-in will become universal at major gyms and fitness studio chains.

Communicating With Members 

In the next section, we’ll take a look at how two global franchises are approaching the open-up and how they’re communicating with and engaging their members. 

Orangetheory: Back to Base

Orangetheory Fitness was one of the first franchises to announce its reopening plans in the U.S. The brand released a statement to members covering all changes to its in-studio experience to reassure the community; “Class sizes might be smaller, waitlists may be full, and rowers, as well as treadmills, will be compliant with social distancing guidelines. We are implementing stringent policies on cleaning and disinfecting that would make the CDC proud.”

The new health and safety guidelines reveal overall plans for its staff, members, and studio hygiene protocols. Reopening dates will differ for each franchise depending on location. While each studio will be communicating with their members independently, there’s also a dedicated page on the Orangetheory website clearly outlining all new measures, including an FAQ for members and where they can find out more information on their specific studio. What’s impressive about Orangtherory is their approach also generates excitement in a time of uncertainty. 

Providing up-to-date information regularly is essential right now for any franchise making its move to reopen locations. But Orangetheory has taken this a step further with a video featuring its Chief Brand Officer, Kevin Keith. 

The clip is just over 2-minutes in length and invites members to see for themselves how Orangetheory is preparing its studios for reopening. 

“As a brand that’s committed to helping everyone live a longer, more vibrant life, rest assured that your safety is our top priority.”

While written guidelines, information, FAQs, and step-by-step guides are essential for ensuring safety, the video conveys this message with a different tone. It still educates and informs members, but the positivity conveyed is clearly intended to get people excited to get back into the studio. 

Equinox

While the majority of fitness businesses will be following similar protocols as they reopen, what sets Equinox apart from class-based gyms like Orangetheroy is its plan to limit capacity. 

Class-based studios can follow state guidelines on reduced capacity by limiting the number of people who can book onto a class. Still, traditional gyms have to think differently to adhere to the rules. Planning for the future, Equinox has a dedicated task force evaluating the best practices for hygiene and sanitation. As its facilities reopen, Equinox will require all members to pre-book their visits through the app, where they’ll be able to schedule up to three 90-minutes sessions at a time, up to seven days in advance. 

Equinox Executive Chairman, Harvey Spevak, is confident that Equinox clubs will be full after the shutdown restrictions are lifted.

“There’s a lot of unknowns here, but we do think most people will want to come back. Some will come faster than others. We’ve had many people demanding for us to open as fast as possible.”

Harvey Spevak, Equinox Executive Chairman

Spevak has made numerous public statements speaking about the Equinox Group’s reopening strategy in recent months. He’s emphasized that the brand has not rushed through the process as the safety of its community is a number one priority: “We’re not going to rush to open-up. We’re going to do what’s prudent and protect our community, both our members, our riders, our community – whatever it may be.”  

Preparing for a Hybrid Future

A recent report from Harrison Co. surveyed approximately 1,000 fitness club users and found that $10 billion annually could leave the club sector in favor of home fitness options. Despite this, the report also found that 37% of all survey participants indicated they would work out more after COVID-19, with over 50% motivated to do so by a renewed appreciation for their health and well-being.

The world, as we know it, has been forced to adapt to continue functioning amid COVID-19, and people’s behavior has inevitably changed along with it. Online workouts are here to stay because consumers will expect a hybrid offering, and gyms that continue providing online workouts and onsite services will cater to the flexibility that members have grown used to. Some of the world’s largest franchises are ready for the hybrid future – and they’ve been preparing for a long time.

Equinox Media

Digital fitness has been climbing for years, long before the Coronavirus Pandemic. And Equinox has been getting ready. As of August 2019, the chain was serious enough to create an entirely new division of the company dedicated to digital, Equinox Media. In this November 2019 episode of the DigiDay Podcast, Equinox Media CEO Jason LaRose notes that video workouts can extend a fitness brand to areas without their brick-and-mortar gyms:

“People want access to those brands. So our ability to bring them to you whether you’re a member who lives across the street from a club or a SoulCycle or maybe 500 miles away but aspirationally wants to workout with these same coaches, and have that same access to content… I think it becomes an ‘and’ strategy for sure.” 

By March 2020, Equinox announced it would be speeding up the rollout of Variis, a streaming platform that provides on-demand fitness content. And while the timing was perfect, Variis is more than a means to an end to help the brand survive Coronavirus. It’s a move that perfectly anticipated consumer expectations, and now, it’s ready to deliver when they need it the most.

“When you see a $4 trillion wellness economy, when you see gym or club memberships at an all-time high in this country while you also see digital content going through the roof, I think you’re onto something where you really need to follow the consumer.”

Jason LaRose, Equinox Media CEO.

The Challenges Ahead

One of the most pressing challenges for these major chains is navigating a ‘whole brand’ strategy for the entire franchise. Independent franchise owners will also have problems of their own to overcome in the coming months.

Maintaining Consistency

Franchises will need to be mindful of flexibility, as implications from both local market conditions and the pandemic may vary. But they’ll still need to create standardized guidelines to maintain consistency and support franchise owners as they open back up.

Orangetheory employees are said to be spending time practicing dry runs of the new procedures that will be in place as studios reopen. In Cleveland, Ohio, staff practiced performing temperature and symptom checks on members, pointing out floor decals that will help everyone maintain a six-foot distance, and opening the studio doors just five minutes before class starts. If every location is preparing in this way – every location is ready to open, and the experience will be consistent for every member. 

Franchises including Gold’s Gym, LifeTime, and 24 Hour Fitness are among some of the large chains that will train staff on approaching members who aren’t socially distancing properly or wiping down their equipment. It’s something that the team has never experienced before, and ensuring they feel confident is a way of supporting franchise owners as they reopen.

Getting Staff Ready

Life Time fitness surveyed its employees and found that over 90% of club owners and 87% of front-line staff members are looking forward to returning to work once locations reopen. But franchise owners can’t assume that all of their staff will be happy to return in such uncertain times.

A major implication some independent franchise owners may have to address when reopening is reservations from trainers and staff; the risk versus reward will be a tough consideration for the front-line team. They’ve not been in the studio for months; they miss the routine, the social connection – they miss going to work. But in reality, as much as an individual can protect themselves with PPE equipment, it’s no guarantee that they’ll avoid getting sick. 

So, while it’s likely that a lot of franchise owners are excited to reopen once they get the green light, that doesn’t mean that their team will be as keen to return to work.

A Second Wave of Coronavirus

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s predicted that many countries could experience a second wave of COVID-19. Hopefully, if this happens, the world will be better equipped to contain the virus a second time around. 

Whatever happens, it’s a possibility that every fitness business, of every size, needs to be aware of. This time at least, the challenge comes with a positive side: gyms will have been through this before, and they’ll be prepared. Even as physical studios reopen, a vast majority of fitness businesses will continue to provide online services – they have a platform to fall back on.

In Summary

From everything that has happened over the last few months, we know for sure that this pandemic has transformed the fitness industry. Not just for now, not just for the short-term, but forever. 

From the actions these global franchises are taking, and the way their leaders are speaking about the industry, it’s clear that despite uncertainty, the ‘open-up’ and the future of the fitness industry is looking positive. And it’s something to get excited for.