For Small Gyms, Handling the Pandemic Meant Expanding


This article is part of Owning the Future, a series on how small businesses across the country have been affected by the pandemic.

On the evening of March 14, 2020, Kari Saitowitz, owner of the Fhitting Room, a small or “boutique” fitness studio with three locations in Manhattan, returned from a dinner out, to find a disturbing message. A college friend who was a pulmonologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital had sent a text about the alarming number of cases of the new, contagious respiratory disease they were seeing.

“The message said, ‘Please take this seriously,’” Ms. Saitowitz recalled. “And he specifically said, ‘Kari, you will probably have to close the gym for a while.’”

The next morning, she received emails from two of her senior trainers, who had taught classes the previous day. They, too, were concerned, not only about their own safety, but also about their clients, some of whom were older.

“That was the tipping point,” she said. After convening a group of full- and part-time employees, including trainers and members of the cleaning staff, she decided to close the studio. That afternoon, she sent an email blast to the membership, saying that “for the health of our community,” she was temporarily closing the Fhitting Room.

The following day, March 16, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the closure of all gyms, restaurants, bars, theaters and casinos.

Now Ms. Saitowitz, like so many other small-business owners, faced another urgent decision: “‘How do I keep my business alive?’”

The key, she decided, was to figure out ways to continue delivering what her customers wanted — what they really wanted. “It’s more than just a workout,” she said. “People come here because of the conversation, the socialization, for the fun and motivation of a class.”

All of that has had an effect on its members. “Before the pandemic I was going maybe three times a week,” said Suzanne Bruderman of Manhattan, a Fhitting Room member since it opened six years ago. “Once the pandemic hit, all of my behaviors shifted and it basically became a five-day-a-week habit.”

But all of these changes required more than a tutorial in Zoom; they necessitated a radical change in thinking in an industry that has been providing its product in essentially the same way since Vic Tanny’s first “health clubs” opened in the 1930s.

“Prior to the pandemic, clients had to visit a brick-and-mortar business to consume the product,” said Julian Barnes, chief executive of Boutique Fitness Solutions, an advisory firm to small gyms and fitness studios. The new multiple-channel approach “means meeting your client wherever he or she is,” he said. “If she wants to work out live, give her that ability to take a class live. If she wants to work out at 2 a.m., and pull up a video of her favorite class, give her the ability to do that. If she wants to work out outdoors, give her the ability for that.”

Mr. Barnes estimated that, before the pandemic, the United States had about 70,000 of these small gym and studios. “A lot of them were uprooted from their original business model,” said Tricia Murphy Madden, who is based in Seattle and is national education director for Savvier Fitness, a fitness product and education company. “What I’m seeing now is that if you’re still operating the way you did 16 months ago, you’re not going to survive.”

For many small gyms, they are — although the expansion into different channels is still a means to an end: Getting everyone back in the spaces that workout enthusiasts love to share.



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