As the editor of the digital magazine for FitPro in the UK, we often update our community with a variety of stats on the state of the industry. With COVID-19 influencing us in such a profound way over the last two years there is a lot to talk about. Much of our ‘coalface’ communication during the pandemic period was informing industry professionals about what they could and couldn’t do. Here are a few of our findings, thoughts and experiences of the UK industry during the pandemic.
Closing fitness facilities began in mid-March 2020, and throughout 2020 most sites were closed or faced severe restrictions for up to 180 days. 2021 was slightly better, with facilities in most home counties allowed to reopen on 12 April, followed by ETM classes on 17 May – so around 140 days of closure. When facilities were open there were distancing restrictions in place and maximum attendance numbers based on the square footage of the facility. The home fitness market went crazy.
During the closure period there was a mixed response from facilities and individuals. Proactive clubs and individuals delivered great online offerings for their members and an array of online social events, maintaining a strong community spirit. Full-time staff were furloughed (Job Keeper). Others did not fare so well, and some club groups chose to cull staff during the pandemic or facilitate reductions in remuneration for returning staff. As a consequence, the attrition rate was substantial for a variety of reasons. Our own findings suggest a staff (casual and full-time) loss of approximately 50 per cent; other groups suggest a higher number. According to research from Quotezone.co.uk, the number of full-time UK fitness instructors dropped by 67 per cent in 2020/21, with a 75 per cent reduction in part-time instructors.
Contrary to some opinions though, gyms aren’t dead. US gym visits rebounded to pre-pandemic levels according to US analytics firm Placer.ai in the summer of 2021 and again in December of that year. While Omicron curbed the January rush, the data provider expects an increase in foot traffic, as the virus surge continues to subside. The same trend is occurring in the UK. At the same time Peloton (home fitness) recently completed its round trip from a pre-COVID market capitalisation of $8B to $50B and back again.
The past couple of years have also reinforced the importance of physical activity to improve physical fitness and mental health. The ‘UK Workforce State of Mind’ Survey confirmed that more than half (53 per cent) of the 1,240 surveyed said that they had experienced mental health issues in the last 12 months. The results of a second survey, completed on the same UK market, will be available for free download on 28 March from www.workplacementalwealth.com.
Hong Kong has been fortunate when it comes to dealing with the ongoing effects of the pandemic. Working closely with the Chinese government, Hong Kong has been able to apply strict guidelines and plenty of opportunities for citizens to become vaccinated, including the use of incentives and strong direction, to encourage everyone to do their part. However, this seemingly controlled environment hasn’t stopped the occurrence of closures or lockdowns, particularly with fitness centres and private studios. Once it was found that a prominent local fitness centre was, in fact, the centre of an outbreak, it created a ripple effect that was to change the way we all went about our business.
As a premier education and training facility in Asia, we had to adjust and diversify our way of presenting live education, as many of our offered programs originate from Australia or the United States. We managed to find a way to host our international trainers via Zoom, and this proved to be very successful, eliminating the need for international presenters to travel and, inevitably, be quarantined.
Now, with the fifth wave that seems to be devastating Hong Kong at present, trainers are having to limit their sessions to a maximum of two people and/or incorporate a mixture of live and online training. Trainers and clients alike have been very open to this; so, even though we are missing the face-to-face training, people are still able to work with their personal trainers from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Even when the government allowed fitness centres to reopen, it came with very strict protocols which, for the most part, seem to be widely accepted. Fortunately, here at Optimum Performance Studio and Core Fitness Hong Kong, we’ve been able to offer participants and trainers alike, all the necessary tools and equipment required to be able to train from home.
Originally from Manly, NSW Wayne has spent the past decade working with Hong Kong University SPACE, on their Advanced Diploma in Fitness and Exercise Studies, which has helped expand his and his students, knowledge and experience. Currently, he is the Program Leader for REEBOK EASY-TONE STEP for Hong Kong and Macau, and the Business Development and Education Manager for Optimum Performance Studios Central. Wayne’s career in educating, training and motivating instructors throughout the Asia-Pacific Region has spanned 40 years.
If you prefer reading to listening, here is a summarised version of the video transcript:
Currently here in Southeast Asia, the COVID pandemic is moving quickly into an endemic stage. Restrictions are being reduced but they still remain and they’re still impacting fitness and wellness businesses.
Work from home policies still have a big impact at the moment, on time and traffic in the CBD areas. That is impacting, of course, the success of CBD facilities, gyms and clubs, as you’re trying to bring people back into the city centres. Big boxes, especially, are feeling the constraints of this, as they also have huge cost structures.
There’s also quite a displaced workforce at the moment across Southeast Asia. People who have been infected or exposed to COVID are now off work for a number of days and that cycle of short-term operational challenges is impacting operators. We’ve also seen the great resignation, and that also has hit fitness and wellness, with trainers and educators and other frontline staff leaving for more careers in higher paid less, volatile workplaces. Not only that, people are a little bit fatigued working in the fitness industry; this endless cycle of having to go harder, go further, go harder, go further, go again, has lost people and attrition. So, there is a greater need now for recruitment and upskilling of additional staff.
There are still spacing restrictions and capacity restrictions in some of these gyms; perhaps maybe 1m to 1.5m spacing; so that is impacting the mass facilitation of huge group classes, affecting some of the more traditional HIIT classes who have great demand but, at the moment, have a ceiling when it comes to numbers of who can come in.
So, at this moment in time, there are a few negatives hitting the current marketplace in Singapore and Southeast Asia. But what are the positives – and we always have to look at the positives?
Well, there’s a huge increase at the moment in new operators popping up; and a huge number of these are franchise businesses from across different types of modality: group ex, personal training, and also 24/7 gyms. Franchisors are selling franchisees some great business models and prospects, and they continue to explode across different parts of Southeast Asia. It’s a very interesting time for franchising. New operators are also well capitalised; they understand the market dynamic through the endemic in pandemic. They’re much more tech savvy than perhaps they were ten years ago. And so, the base entry level for coming in here and making your business a success is higher, but operators are rising to that challenge.
There has been a great resilience in personal training. That modality has done very very well across the pandemic and continues to do so; especially when mixed with the likes of physiotherapy and other wellness-derived offerings. There’s also been an increase in pay-as-you go class structures. Long gone are people paying now for 12 or 24-month memberships in advance.
Overall, it’s still a great marketplace and many of us have weathered the storm and come out stronger and with better use of technology, better customer service, and with staff who really want to be in this for the long haul.
Based in Singapore, Ross is the Founder and CEO of FIT Summit and Active Franchising. He is a life-long health and fitness fanatic, studying Sports Science and Psychology at the University of Glasgow before attaining a BSci (Upper Hons) in Neuroscience – reading physiology, biology, anatomy, pharmacology and neuroscience. In his early career Ross was Co-Founder, CEO and then Chairman of the world’s largest energy B2B network (Oil & Gas Council), expanding the company rapidly across five continents. Once the company was established in Asia, he sold his interests to a multinational events company.