Decimated by pandemic closures and layoffs, Philadelphia fitness industry claws to stay afloat
Gyms and studios are adapting, offering virtual group classes and one-on-one training. But there’s fear the post-pandemic rebound will be slow as millions of out-of-work Americans saw disposable income evaporate.
Days after her small indoor cycling studio was ordered to close about a month ago, Jamie Promislo put out feelers to her members on Instagram: If you could rent one of our 56 stationary bikes for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, would you be willing to pay?
All were rented within a day. So Promislo’s husband, Steve, and a member of the spin studio, Revel Ride in Graduate Hospital, loaded up the bikes into a U-Haul and delivered them to members, who now pay $250 a month for the bike rental and an unlimited number of virtual classes.
It has helped keep the small business alive as they wait for loans and government assistance, dipping into savings to pay the rent, and it’s allowed them to pay employees and independent contractors who want to keep teaching. But the solution is a tourniquet to temporarily slow the bleeding.
“The truth is, with all that,” Steve Promislo said, “it’s still devastating.”
Government-ordered closures amid the coronavirus pandemic have decimated gyms, fitness centers, and studios, from the accessible, like the YMCA of Greater Philadelphia that laid off about 4,000 workers, to the swank, like the Fitler Club, a Philadelphia dining and wellness club that temporarily let go of more than 200. Many trainers and fitness instructors are independent contractors sustained by gigs at multiple studios.
National chains with locations here — from pilates studio Solidcore to one of America’s largest gym chains, L.A. Fitness — have laid off or furloughed most workers, while other clubs wonder how to pay the rent without charging members. Under state law, gyms closed for more than 30 days must refund those who cancel memberships. State attorneys general have threatened legal action against clubs charging members for services not rendered, including Town Sports International, which operates five gyms in the area.
Like the bars and restaurants now delivering sandwiches, gyms and studios are adapting to stay-at-home orders, offering virtual group classes and one-on-one training. But there’s fear the post-pandemic rebound will be slow, as millions of out-of-work Americans saw disposable income evaporate.
And when this is all over, will people still want to gather in a room and sweat with strangers?
“As a business that relies on people coming together, it’s not going to lend itself to sustainability,” Heather Rice, owner of Amrita Yoga, said of the pandemic’s potential long-term impact. Amrita has two locations in Philadelphia and is offering classes on Zoom. Rice laid off about three dozen workers, most part-time employees or independent contractors, and is applying for loans and grants, but she fears taking on too much debt could sink her business.
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Ken Davies, CEO of City Fitness, which operates six gyms in the area with about 17,000 members, is working through what the rebound looks like and how fitness may fundamentally change. But it’s complicated when so little is certain.
City Fitness has been approved for assistance through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, Davies said, and continues to pay its 330 employees. But memberships are frozen, and resources aren’t unlimited.
“We can’t do it forever,” he said.
Like other businesses that have continued payroll through the pandemic, the uncertainty has made it nearly impossible to financially plan for the future. Deborah Hirsch — herself laid off from part-time instruction at the YMCA — owns Philly Dance Fitness, and said her studios are offering dozens of online classes per week, which has helped stem the tide of membership cancellations.
But as members themselves lose work, revenue is dropping, and the company is bringing in about half what it normally does. The only way live streaming could ever be “sort of sustainable," Hirsch said, is “if I didn’t have to pay rent.”
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There are a variety of approaches to virtual fitness offerings and payment plans. Some studios are providing them to members who haven’t canceled; others charge a flat rate.
Ali Jackson, who owns Never Give Up Training in Manayunk, hopped on the virtual bandwagon immediately after the studio closed in mid-March, teaching classes via live stream from her basement. It hasn’t been perfect — sometimes the kids or the dog run through the frame — but a majority of members have stayed.
Jackson said having close relationships bred loyalty, and many members, who text her and her instructors throughout the day with questions, are paying what they can to help ensure the gym is there when this is all over.
“It has saved us,” Jackson said. “We’re blessed that we stand by each other, and that’s the only thing getting us through this emotionally and financially.”
Tuck Barre and Yoga, which has four locations in Philadelphia, stopped charging members the day they closed, and is live streaming instruction on Facebook and Instagram and asking those watching to donate to the instructor via Venmo.
“We never even considered charging for it. Like 10 million people just lost their jobs,” said owner Hagana Kim. He’s applying for government loans and grants to stay afloat, and pushed back the grand opening of a fifth location, which was scheduled to take place days after gyms were ordered to close. Kim still hopes to open the studio in Haverford “as soon as we get the green light.”
As companies have adapted, so have the trainers and instructors whose positions were cut or who are temporarily on hiatus from their full-time gigs and finding ways to pay the bills.
Kim Harari — formerly the lead trainer at Fitler Club and a soon-to-be Rumble Boxing instructor once they reopen — and Shannon Brennan, temporarily furloughed from Rumble, have harnessed their thousands of Instagram followers and in-person clients to create a virtual boot camp community.
Harari and Brennan, both 27, have pivoted their business Come Alive 215 from large-scale events to virtual classes and training. On Saturday morning, Harari and Brennan used Zoom to coach more than 60 people — well-known Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov among them — from their living rooms, and the workout required no equipment. The Saturday boot camps cost $12 each or customers can pay $45 for a month’s worth.
For Harari and Brennan, it’s paying the bills and allowing them to feel a sense of human connection while quarantined.
“It feeds us,” Harari said, “spiritually and literally.”