The pandemic has hit the fitness industry hard — but Metro Detroit gyms are weathering the storm by getting creative
By Leena Rao
In November, amid a surge in Covid-19 cases, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services issued a set of sweeping restrictions on the fitness industry, suspending all group classes taking place at gyms statewide.
It was one more setback for an industry that’s been especially hard-hit by the pandemic: Back in March, Whitmer closed gyms across the state for nearly 180 days. With over 1,000 fitness clubs and gyms in Michigan that brought in nearly $676 million in revenue in 2019, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, there’s no question that gyms have suffered a massive blow. Fitness centers were able to reopen in September, albeit with strict restrictions like social distancing, limiting occupancy to 25% and mask wearing. (Still, once the Michigan Supreme Court struck down Whitmer’s orders issued under the emergency powers act in October, many gyms made wearing a mask while working out optional.)
But despite the challenges that the virus poses to the industry, Metro Detroit gyms are finding ways to adapt and innovate in these unprecedented times. We spoke to a few local spots, from large fitness chains to boutique studios, to find out how they’re weathering the storm and what’s in store for 2021.
Susan Weisberg and Katie Brown Leibhan took a giant leap of faith when they bought Yoga Shelter’s four Metro Detroit studios in the middle of the pandemic. (Leibhan already owned the Grosse Pointe location.)
But they quickly adjusted to the times, offering outdoor classes at their two Royal Oak locations last summer and moving indoors in September with tight restrictions, like allowing a maximum 12 students per class and requiring masks at all times. “It’s not a risk we are willing to take,” says Weisberg. “We care about our community’s health [and] want to make sure we do everything in the safest way possible.” That also includes offering live-streamed classes for yogis who want to practice at home as well as private yoga lessons.
The women admit that it’s a “struggle” to start a business during a pandemic, but they’re looking to double down on virtual offerings in 2021 and focus on expanding the brand’s presence. To that end, Yoga Shelter is partnering with the Henry Ford Cancer Institute to provide yoga to cancer patients. “Now more than ever,” says Leibhan, “people need yoga in their lives.”
When Covid-19 forced spinning studios to close last spring, CycleBar got creative. The company, which has five spinning studios across Metro Detroit, started allowing members to rent bikes to ride at home while streaming instructor-led classes. “A lot of members took us up on that,” says Kaitlyn Pake, the general manager of Cycle Bar’s Bloomfield Hills location and the franchise’s social media coordinator. In fact, CycleBar sold out of all of its 80 bikes for rent in the Bloomfield Hills and Troy studios last spring. (The two locations are owned by different franchisees.)
When in-studio classes resumed in September, CycleBar cut class sizes, ramped up sanitization and required masks indoors (indoor classes paused again during November’s temporary order). Certain locations offered outside classes throughout the fall. In fact, if you drove down Big Beaver Road in Troy on a sunny day this fall, you may have spotted CycleBar members spinning, says Karen Scheipner, the studio’s manager. “Riders feel like they have an audience.”
Although the Troy location is profitable, says Scheipner, other local studios have seen a drop in revenue. “A lot of people financially can’t justify a membership [right now] or don’t want to wear a mask,” says Pake. “That’s been our biggest hurdle financially.” Still, she says, “We are going to keep pushing forward and adapting to anything that comes our way.”
With 80 gyms across Michigan, Planet Fitness is one of the state’s largest fitness chains — and it was especially hard-hit last year. The national company’s revenues fell nearly 78% in the second quarter of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, and as of press time, sales were expected to be down by half for the remainder of 2020.
Mary Scott, director of marketing for PF Michigan Group, the largest franchisee owner of Planet Fitness gyms in Metro Detroit, says the initial shutdown in March readied them for this time around. “Because we closed for six months, we had six months to prepare for reopening safely in September,” she says. Planet Fitness leaned on a 100-page playbook outlining safety precautions, including strict rules around mask wearing at all times and reduced capacity. The chain even added a “crowd meter” feature to its app so members can see how crowded a given location is at any time. (As of press time, the gym has temporarily paused all group classes.)
Looking ahead, Planet Fitness members will have access to live and recorded videos through the app if gyms face another shutdown in 2021 as numbers increase. “We feel well prepared in the event we need to close again,” says Scott, “but we are taking it one day at a time.”
When OrangeTheory Fitness’ 21 studios across Michigan shut down, franchise owners like Scott Marcus, who owns eight studios in the Detroit area, got creative. First, he made sure all his members had access to OTF’s streaming workouts, which could be done at home. Then, over the summer, his locations began offering outdoor classes in places like parking lots, where members could socially distance. “It’s hard to please everyone, and we wanted to give as many options [as possible] to people,” he says.
When gyms were able to reopen in September, OTF added in-studio classes at limited capacity (there are 18 people per class, max, down from 45 pre-Covid) with social distancing measures: Members are allowed on every other treadmill or rowing machine. Marcus has once again adapted in light of November’s restrictions, converting his studios to an open gym format where members can use weights and machines the same way they would at a regular gym — i.e. without guidance by coaches.
As far as masks go, Marcus says that some members prefer to work out without them, so prior to the November restrictions, only certain classes required masks. Those were the only ones that Dr. Lindsay Canvasser of Birmingham, a longtime OTF member, felt comfortable attending. “It was important to exercise in the safest way,” she says. “Do I enjoy wearing a mask, running at high speeds? No. But that’s what I have to do to feel safe.”
Marcus acknowledges that there’s been a drop in revenue for his franchises, but recently he’s seen numbers and membership go back up. “The old-time gyms that are sweaty and unhealthy are a thing of the past,” he says, pointing to sophisticated air-circulation systems and improved cleaning processes. “People are realizing that gyms are safer than what they had thought.”
Foundry13 owner Kris Smith reopened her Beverly Hills-based private-training studio in June — three months before Gov. Whitmer officially gave gyms the green light. Since then, she’s taken precautions from restricting capacity and running fans to circulate air to fully disinfecting the 2,300-square-foot facility every night. And she keeps a close eye on her clients: She recently told one gym-goer that if he went to a rally where people were unmasked, he wouldn’t be able to come back for two weeks. “I’m not afraid to make tough decisions,” she says.
While her 100-member clientele has actually increased over the course of the last year, winter is a wild card.
“This is a tough business to predict, and the winter terrifies me,” says Smith. “I almost don’t want to listen to the news. Thankfully, we have continued to grow.”