Gym owner Tumi Phake says he's had to find innovative ways to keep his clients. Picture: Supplied
Gym owner Tumi Phake says he's had to find innovative ways to keep his clients. Picture: Supplied

Gym owners and other fitness professionals, who are likely to be able to operate normally again under level 1 lockdown regulations, have increasingly moved their businesses online to stay afloat.

While some existing and new clients have warmed to the idea of virtual training, the new format provides owners with only a small proportion of the business they would ordinarily have enjoyed.

They also face an uncertain future when lockdown ends as consumers may be reluctant to return to crowded gyms or may no longer have funds to pay for membership.

Personal trainer and Pilates instructor Judy Kay, who operates from Virgin Active Old Eds in Houghton, Johannesburg, has been forced to move everything online.

Fortunately for her, several months before the coronavirus outbreak she had been training international clients online using applications such as Zoom.

"There are personal trainers who haven't done online training and they are struggling. There are also a lot of personal trainers who don't have money to purchase data and they don't have Wi-Fi at home."

Kay, who has been running her business full time for the past nine years, says about 70% of her clients are training with her using online applications.

"This is a big help because at least I can still earn an income and feed my family."

But online training, especially when it comes to Pilates, can be a lot more challenging than a physical class.

"You have to learn how to use verbal cues and you have to be able to communicate with your clients the right way.

"They might not have equipment you might want them to use."

She says Virgin Active has been very accommodating to personal trainers who pay rent to work at the gym. "They haven't charged rent for April or May."

But Kay says she has to pay the monthly gym rental in advance, which means it could be problematic if clients decide not to return to gyms once they reopen.

Larger operators are also finding the going tough. Former investment banker Tumi Phake, who started his own business six years ago, says the pandemic has pushed his company, Zenzele Group, which consists of gym operator Zenzele Fitness, bottled water provider Zenzele Hydrate and laundry service Fit And Clean, to "be innovative to find ways to still be on our members' doorsteps".

"We have partnered with organisations and we are offering online training and still communicating with our members around home workouts," he says.

The effect on his fitness business has not been as severe as on others because it operates on a different model. It builds, manages and operates gyms on behalf of companies, private residential estates and universities, signing fixed contracts with clients.

However, clients have made arrangements to reduce payments as they themselves cope with the fallout.

"Our revenue has declined so far by 20% because our model is different to traditional health clubs," Phake says. "We have a direct contractual relationship with companies and therefore were able to structure relief so that our business still continues to operate."

His group has been cutting costs, though, and has applied for payment holidays.

Phake has also been able to pay his 105 staff members their salaries for April but has applied for help from the government's special Covid UIF relief fund.

Abigayle van Wyngaard, who has been a Pilates instructor for the past five years, says that even before the lockdown there had been a reduction in the number of clients at the two studios she is contracted to operate in. "A lot of clients were in contact with people who had been overseas and they stopped coming."

Then when the lockdown was announced they cancelled classes and "income fell completely".

She has launched her own online Pilates classes and has kept some clients and attracted new ones. She had to lower her rates for online classes and has managed to keep a "bit less than 40%" of her client base.

Tennis coach Raphael Alufeyo says it is difficult to move his business online because of the nature of the game. The best he can do at the moment is advise clients on fitness and nutrition.

Alufeyo, who coaches at Old Parks Sports Club and Brescia House School, says his business has been completely disrupted.

"Tennis SA has been working hard to have tennis opened up because it's not a contact sport. There is also minimum contact between the coach and students, thus maintaining a safe distance."

Alufeyo has been surviving on his savings and has received help from some clients.

"I've got a good client base and some clients understand the predicament of no work, no pay, so are willing to support me. The challenge is for how long?"