Gym. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Gym. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

In the Business Beyond Covid series, CEOs and other business leaders and experts in their sectors look to the future after Covid-19. What effect has the pandemic and resulting lockdown had on their industries and the SA economy as a whole? Which parts will bounce back first and which will never be the same again? Most importantly, they try to answer the question: where to from here?

SA’s R21.8bn fitness industry has been pinned down on the proverbial training mat for more than four months in a manoeuvre that has immobilised clubs large and small, franchised and independent, with their doors temporarily closed at level 3. It’s a wrestle with time, circumstance, and a pandemic that depends on building strong immune systems, staying fit and keeping healthy.

Bigger clubs such as Planet Fitness remain financially buoyant, yet aside from the big brands there are about 700 independent gym clubs in SA. That is a collective of 1,036 clubs, all in the business of supporting people to stay fit — the cornerstone of fighting Covid-19.

The biggest workout of all has been finding the right approach to reopening gyms safely at every level of compliance. As an industry we are putting protocols in place to try to pass the test in our liaison and support of the health ministry. The industry signed a mandate on June 25, steered by Virgin Active, to discuss and agree to specific protocols to make this possible. In a separate action, Fit SA was formed to represent the voice of more than 650 independent gyms and more than 600 personal trainers and fitness professionals.

Gym clubs create purpose. They’re a lifestyle. This is why Planet Fitness is bullish about our future within the SA fitness industry. So much so that we are rolling out 12 more clubs in the next 15 months at an investment of R500m-R1bn. As a business we are liquid, solid and confident about backing the local fitness market, including creating new jobs.

Many South Africans are ready to go back to gym. Based on a recent survey conducted online with members and the public, 21,500 people responded with an overwhelming response in favour of returning to gym; 73% of South Africans felt excited, while 27% were still a little nervous.

Ready to return

Casting an eye across the Atlantic, in June gyms reopened in the US with the understanding that the workout experience would change significantly with stringent health and safety measures. According to data from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, nearly 61-million Americans are members of a fitness club. After months of lockdown, stay-at-home orders began to relax as people wanted to get moving again. It’s expected the same will happen locally. SA is renowned for a strong fitness lifestyle, with an estimated 2.1-million members enjoying the club experience.

Gyms are ready for people to return. Inside our brand of gyms we had introduced most of the protocols international gyms are only now instituting before we got to lockdown — temperature checks; deep cleaning regimes; removing or disabling equipment to create space; floor decals demarcating social distancing; educational signage; closing down children’s play areas, pools and wet zones; only allowing the regulatory number of people into clubs at one time; and a generous supply of 70% alcohol-based sanitiser.

We have now added to this and will open the doors to our clubs well exceeding international best practice. Our framework was created with reference to the World Health Organisation, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the John Hopkins Centre for Health Security, as well as learnings from reopened clubs in China, the US, the UK and Italy.

Member and staff safety is the key concern, and while the risk of Covid-19 in fitness centres — or anywhere in society — cannot be eliminated, we’re providing a framework for managing risks associated with the virus to ensure members are able to train safely. These are protocols that are achievable and can be adhered to in all gyms.

Investing in app

During the temporary closure memberships were frozen and online home gym classes are being offered free to the public from the Planet Fitness website, so anyone with internet access anywhere in the country can train and keep fit. These were produced specifically for lockdown and significant revenue was invested into this project as our way of supporting fitness for everyone, regardless of membership. Keeping fit helps boost the immune system, and this was our way of giving back to SA to ensure it is able to fight off Covid-19.

There is no doubt that 2020 has created a changed, more dynamic industry in which online choice is vibrant and the catalyst of great innovations that have refreshed the way people pay to get fit. By watching trends and reading the local market, gym business models are evolving. Planet Fitness is investing in an app — The Virtual Trainer experience — which will make online training affordable, diverse and exciting, particularly when people are working on tighter budgets.

The industry has taken a hit financially, yet it is fast-footed and will flourish in time. Analysts at Ken Research forecast that the local fitness industry was expected to exceed $580m by 2023 — that was before Covid-19. These predictions were partially based on the rise in fitness awareness among people, and while disposable income has changed, the need to keep healthy has intensified in recent months.

We’ve flexed our muscle; we’re optimistically invested in the future. Now we need to give society the choice.

• Rivera is CEO and founder of Planet Fitness.

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