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How Will Gym Closures Affect The Fitness Industry During The Third Lockdown?

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Gyms, sports facilities and leisure centres across the UK were forced to close their doors when the latest lockdown was announced on 4 January. In truth, most gyms in England and Wales had already been forced to shut prior to Christmas, when the new Tier 4 areas and regional restrictions were introduced on 19 December. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, gyms had already closed on Boxing Day.
 
As we, as a society, now battle a more virulent strain of coronavirus, it’s likely that the current, “Lockdown 3.0”, will last until 23 March. If that’s the case, it will mark a full year since the industry was first forced to shut for business. During that 12-month period, physical activity facilities have only been allowed to operate for 121 days – losing nearly 250 trading days and more than 700m individual visits to facilities.
 
What makes Lockdown 3 particularly devastating for our sector is that January and February represent a vital period for gyms, as many people look to start the year with an “it’s a new me” attitude – which often includes a fresh fitness regime. According to ukactive, our sector will lose around £400m a month during the latest lockdown.
 
Put simply, not being able to operate at this time of the year is a shattering blow to us all.
 
ukactive’s Huw Edwards, speaking at a recent DCMS Committee meeting, laid it out best: "The government must recognise that January and February represent a vital period for gyms, pools, and leisure facilities and appreciate that they currently have zero income – unlike other sectors, which can sell goods online or on a takeaway basis.
 
"We're now in a situation where a significant number of operators – from the smallest to the largest – are facing major financial problems. Many have major issues relating to cash flow and are on the cusp of survival over the next couple of months.”
 
And Huw is right. While we’re all hurting, it’s the facilities that are most immediately under threat.
 
Chris Ansell, sports facilities manager at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) – which opened its second fitness facility just before the pandemic really hit – says the latest lockdown is “gutting”.
 
“It’s been devastating for us to have to close our doors for a third time in less than 12 months, especially as we opened our new facility in early 2020,” Chris says.
 
“We were really looking forward to January 2021 and the opportunity to welcome new business – and to finally begin gathering some momentum after the frantic ups and downs of 2020.”
 
Steve Bambury, commercial director for 1Life – an operator with 18 sites – agrees and says the timing of the latest lockdown has been a hammer blow. “The industry was still in survival mode until mid-December and the feeling was that early 2021 would present the opportunity to bounce back and gain back the customers lost in the last 10 months,” he says.
 
“Being shut in January and February will mean that we miss a crucial growth and trading period.”
 
Jon Farrell, community manager for hero Training Clubs – an operator which was hoping to grow its business during 2020 and 2021, after launching its first site in Manchester – says he fears for some fellow operators.
 
“There will be a lot of operators out there who will be on a knife-edge, because they’ve lost nearly a year of business now,” Jon says. “Some of them have only survived this far because they were able to operate in January, February and March of 2020.
 
“January is when the industry does around 30 per cent of its business – and about 40 per cent in the first quarter. To not have the Q1 revenues come in during 2021 will now put them in a financial hole.”
 
The financial predicament faced by the industry is well recognised and the sooner facilities can open, the better. As a result, ukactive has been calling on the government to place gyms at the “front of the queue”, when the UK re-emerges from lockdown. The industry body has also called for targeted financial help for the sector and a clear, three-stage plan to allow us to prosper in the future.
 
During his appearance in front of the DCMS committee, Huw said: "What we need to see from the government is a plan that has three phases – a plan for survival, plan for recovery and then plan for the development of the sector, so it can play its role in society.”
 
Responding To The Third Lockdown
 
So how is the industry reacting to the third lockdown? Is the response similar to the impressive “pivot to digital” which followed the initial closures in March 2020? When operators – and suppliers – delivered a plethora of digital, online and on-demand activities and services?
 
Let’s face it, it was an impressive reaction. A survey by fitness tech platform Mindbody found that 7 per cent of fitness users had streamed live classes prior to the pandemic. By April 2020, it was 85 per cent. Some suggest that, as far as digital was concerned, the fitness sector jumped a decade ahead within months.
 
So, is the much-vaunted hybrid model coming to its own again?
 
“We continue to offer at home online classes, using popular suppliers and in-house content to offer alternative solutions,” says 1Life’s Steve. “These are supplemented with other in-house offers to maintain customer loyalty.
 
He has concerns over the sustainability of entirely relying on digital, however.
 
“The at-home fitness solution is becoming a somewhat fatigued concept for the consumer and the market is now flooded with options,” he says. “It’s becoming more difficult to offer a USP which would replace the physical facility and services we traditionally offer.”
 
Jon reveals that hero Training Clubs too has somewhat scaled-down its digital offer for the latest lockdown – and is instead focusing on reaching as many people as possible.
 
“During the first lockdown, we did four live classes every day,” he says. “Now, during this lockdown, we are doing three live classes on Instagram each week – the emphasis is to give everyone (member or not) a chance for a healthier and happier lockdown.”
 
The industry’s doubts about the longevity of digital and on-demand fitness was mirrored in a recent Guardian article, which pointed out that investing, for example, in a £2,000 Peloton bike (and accompanying monthly subscription) commits and limits you to a certain kind of exercise. Meanwhile, investing in a monthly gym membership, for the fraction of the price, would give you access to a full range of equipment – everything from indoor cycles, treadmills, weights, climbers, strength kit to functional spaces, swimming pools and saunas. There are many who can’t wait to get back to that!
 
For now, however, having a digital offer is one of the few ways that operators can keep in touch with the membership. For ARU, this has meant teaming up with a third-party provider.
 
“We’ve teamed up with Les Mills to offer our members a free, 60-day trial and a reduced monthly rate thereafter,” Chris reveals. “We didn’t initially have this option available to our members during the first lockdown last year, but have since decided to invest in the Les Mills offering largely due to the fact that this allows us to offer our members Les Mills on Demand with the free trial and a discounted rate.
 
“Fingers crossed, in 60 days’ time we will be reopen and able to deliver classes in person to our members again!
 
Training - Still At The Heart Of Everything
 
One thing is for sure, though. The need for fitness professionals will always be there. The one thing that might be slightly different, however, is the skills needed to be successful in our sector. The digital revolution means that the future instructors and PTs will need – in addition to having a good grounding in physiology and nutrition – to be tech-savvy.
 
There is also another huge consideration for those working in our industry – the likelihood of us serving an increasingly diverse customer base. This is because the pandemic has shown just how important being physically active and healthy is. There is now clear evidence that being obese significantly increases an individual’s chance of being admitted to intensive care with COVID-19 – compared to those with a healthy body mass index (BMI).
 
Add to that the increased acceptance that physical activity really is a highly-effective form of preventative healthcare – which has led to a push to provide exercise and social prescribing – and it’s easy to see that the gyms and leisure centres of the future could increasingly cater for more than just seasoned gym veterans.
 
At The Training Room, we provide those looking to enter (as well as those already working in) the fitness industry with all the skills they need to be successful. We’re ahead of the game, in every aspect, when it comes to providing a complete educational package. Not least because we can utilise a wide range of specialists – from physiotherapists and strength and conditioning coaches to dance specialists – for our training. All our students are trained to Level 3 as standard, with opportunities to progress to an elite Level 4 qualification to gain the competitive edge in the industry.
 
As the future of fitness is ever-changing, it is important to keep up with the changing landscape. One way to do that is to ensure your training is up to date. With us, there are a number of ways you can expand your knowledge and offering as a PT – such as taking a Level 4 Nutrition, or Continuous Professional Development (CPD) courses.
 
To find more about The Training Room’s industry-leading courses – and how to benefit from our educational offer in the face of a changing industry – visit us at:
 
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The Training Room | 25/01/2021 09:00:00

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