Online classes help gyms survive, but can’t replace feel of brick and mortar studios, experts say

By | May 2, 2020

In the span of just a few days, Amie Seier went from drawing up plans to expand her Exchange District fitness studio to starting from Square 1.

As concerns over COVID-19 mounted in the days after Manitoba announced its first cases on March 12, Seier made the difficult decision to close her business, The Community, just a few days before the province mandated the closure of all gyms

“That week and that Monday, on the 16th, I stood in my back room and I just cried because I felt immediately alone,” she said. 

“I had lost all my employees because they couldn’t help. They had to stay home. I had no one really to rely on anymore, and it was like going back to when it was just me.”

But in just as short a timeframe, The Community pivoted from a fitness studio brimming with people attending boxing, boot camp and spin classes, to offering dozens of online classes and renting out equipment like spin bikes and weights.

Seier transformed the Main Street studio into a recording studio, taping classes for people to take online and live streaming classes on Instagram and Facebook. 

The Community gym has been streaming bootcamp and boxing classes and has recently been streaming spin classes as well. But its owner, Amie Seier, says she doesn’t think they can replace the feeling of in-person classes. (Submitted by Amie Seier)

“It was nothing short of a miracle to launch a whole online business like in what would have taken someone maybe six months to do properly,” she said. “We did in two weeks.”

In the last seven weeks, dozens of local gyms and fitness studios have made similar pivots after they were forced to close under a provincial public health order to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Yoga studios like Yoga Public are offering online classes for free, with the option of donating. And if you want to try out virtual classes in other cities, some Instagram accounts like Fit City Guide are even posting daily schedules. 

As of Monday, a variety of non-essential health-care and retail businesses will have the option of reopening under strict guidelines.

But the new public health order doesn’t include gyms or other indoor recreational facilities, which will remain closed for the time being.

Winnipeg gyms and fitness centres were required to close under a March 20 public health order. No date has been set for when they’ll be allowed to reopen. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

They also aren’t part of Phase 2 of the reopening plan, which the province says will start no earlier than June 1, but fall under “future phases” of the plan, which the province says will be implemented in three- to four-week stages.

‘Virtual’ sense of community 

Through the pandemic, the gyms that will be able to survive, and perhaps even thrive, are the ones who can provide a sense of community that people isolated in their homes are missing right now, says Rikia Saddy, a Vancouver-based business strategist and advisor. 

They could even come out of the pandemic stronger, because they’ve been able to widen their customer base, she said. 

That being said, Saddy thinks people will be eager to leave their homes and go back to their gyms once they are allowed to reopen. 

“There’s only so many body-weight workouts that you can have fun doing,” she said. 

“I think that we’ll be really excited to get back into gyms and use equipment and see our workout buddies, and feel like they’re a part of that community.”

Winnipegger Melissa Wilkinson says she’s been trying online classes from studios across the country, but misses that social aspect of working out. 

“I try to make working out a social event for me so I’m more motivated to do it, and it’s been tough transitioning to just working out by myself,” she said. “I’m missing working out with my co-workers and friends.”

She said she likes having the option to try out different classes and the flexibility of online workouts, but says it’s not the same as being able to go to a class in person and work with an instructor. 

Before the pandemic hit Manitoba, The Community gym was usually packed with people every day of the week. (The Community/Instagram)

Seier says she thinks she will keep her online platform after The Community is allowed to reopen. She thinks there will likely be two camps of people: those who have found they love working out from home, and those who don’t. 

“I always say, find what works for you. If working out from home fulfils you and brings joy to your life, do that.” 

But she doesn’t think it will replace the spirit and sense of community in-person classes have. 

“I think that’s the way we were meant to be. We were meant to be in groups and we were meant to be collaborative. I think that’s such a core part of what its like to be human.”

Hybrid approach

David Soberman, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto, says moving forward, gyms could benefit from keeping a sort of hybrid approach, offering a mix of online and in-person classes. 

“I think this is something which a lot of a lot of studios now have the capability to do, and they’re probably going to pursue it, because I think there’s a potential to create value for their customers by doing that,” he said. 

David Soberman, a professor with the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, says gyms could benefit from offering a hybrid of online and in-person classes moving forward. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

And though some people may be eager to get back to their gyms, he thinks others might still be nervous about going back because they’re worried about catching COVID-19.

“You’re going to have some people that started doing things online and they may stay, and that may be what’s right for them.… You may have some people especially that take longer to go back because they’re worried.”

In light of that, Soberman said he thinks gyms that can allow people to space out and practise physical distancing may be able to get up and running again more quickly, and have better luck in getting customers to come back.

“It’s going to be quite gradual. And I also think there may be permanent changes,” he said. 

“I don’t think the new normal is going to be the same as it was before.”

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