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For Fitness Franchises, a Calculated Return to In-studio Sweat


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As it reopens its locations, group fitness concept Burn Boot Camp, like other gyms, is evaluating class sizes and other changes necessary to comply with new health and safety guidelines.

“We’re not doing partner workouts. We are doing air high-fives,” said Amanda Hall as she illustrated some the changes at Burn Boot Camp, where she’s the VP of operations and is helping guide franchisees as they begin to reopen their fitness studios.

Sixteen Burn Boot Camp locations are back open in five states—Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee—with more on the way as states lift COVID-19-related restrictions that in most cases have kept businesses, including Burn’s nearly 300 gyms, closed since mid-March. Group fitness concepts such as Burn face a variety of new guidelines dictated by states and counties, meaning, said Hall, the requirements to reopen are much more substantive than simply doing away with high-fives. “Our field support team and our franchise advisory council put together a reopening plan, not just operationally but the cleaning, the PPE,” now the common term for personal protective equipment, “and analyzing capacity,” she said. “Really, the reopening construct is walking franchisees through all the steps” and making sure they adhere to individual state guidelines.

In Arkansas, for example, gyms must ensure people maintain a 12-foot distance while working out and masks are to be worn except when actively exercising. In Tennessee, fitness centers in 89 counties (excluding major metros) can reopen at 50 percent capacity but must keep showers and locker rooms closed. There are plenty more guidelines to navigate, pointed out Hall, and an internal task force is working closely with franchisees in the 37 states where Burn operates. Still, even with enhanced health and safety measure in place, Hall said the brand recognizes members might not be ready to return even if their studio can reopen.

“We understand that we’ve never lived through COVID-19 before and it’s impacted everyone differently,” she said. “So keeping that member-first mentality is key.” Each Burn Boot Camp community has a members-only Facebook group, helping franchisees stay engaged with clients and allowing them to gauge interest in returning to in-person classes.

“We’re also still offering a virtual workout to meet members where they are,” said Hall. “We plan to continue that for the foreseeable future.” For locations that have reopened, though, the response has been positive, she continued. “We are definitely seeing that our members want to get back in the gym.”

Don’t open too soon

CityRow’s Atlanta studio could have reopened May 1, the date Georgia’s governor said gyms, along with spas, hair salons and bowling alleys could resume business, but the local operator chose to wait, a move CityRow CEO Helaine Knapp (pictured below) said proved to be the right one.

“When Atlanta chose not to reopen right away, their clients were rejoicing online and saying thank you for thinking of our safety,” said Knapp, who founded the row machine-based fitness concept in 2014 and partnered with consulting firm Franworth in 2018 to begin franchising.

“We can’t reopen too soon,” she continued, “we have to do it right.”

The location in Atlanta plans to reopen May 16, with a franchisee in Texas also starting to prepare to resume studio classes. CityRow, which has 11 studios in eight states, is taking it slow and advising its franchisees to do the same, stressed Knapp. “Start listening, it’s listening to their clients and listening to their staff,” she said, with the feelings of instructors being especially important. “If you’ve got instructors who say absolutely no way, I’m not ready to come back, then you should probably rethink your plans.”

As mandated closures hit CityRow’s locations, the brand launched CityRow Live and began filming 80 live classes a week incorporating body weight and strength exercises, modifying the usual workouts because most people don’t have rowers at home. “Our studios are actually bringing in revenue right now,” said Knapp. “And it’s helped our studios really stay top of mind so our clients are thinking of us first.” Two locations whose early March openings were delayed were also able to use the live online classes to increase pre-sales of memberships, she noted.

CityRow locations, when they do reopen, are already well-positioned for social distancing, said Knapp, with only about 20 people per class. Capacity will of course be limited depending on the state, “but we were never jamming people in,” she said. “And you have your own rower, your own mat, you don’t change.” Studios will operate with new “double cleaning” protocols, where clients wipe down their equipment and staff also do a full cleaning between each class. Clients and staff will also be asked to take a health pledge before each class.

“The baseline is, this sucks. But the next thing is, we’ll get through this together,” said Knapp.

At-home is the anchor

Tough Mudder Bootcamp has been preparing for weeks for its studios to reopen, said CEO Britt Canady, but what that reopening looks like goes far beyond simply returning to in-studio classes. TMB At Home, which the brand launched as a $49 per month option with a mix of pre-recorded workouts, live-streamed classes and coaching tips, won’t go away even after gyms open back up, a decision Canady, pictured below, said is meant to allow people to choose “what’s most comfortable” for them.

“That has to remain an option for our clients and, frankly, for our staff,” he said. “We don’t want to make in-studio feel like it’s the only offering.”

In fact, in-studio workouts are just one part of Tough Mudder Bootcamp’s three-pronged approach, with TMB at Home and “TMB in the Park,” outdoor social distancing workouts, making up the other prongs. When classes do resume staff will wear masks at all times, said Canady, there will be “zero equipment sharing” and TMB will ask members to self-screen, among other new safety measures.

The brand is working with franchisees to help prepare members for the changes and to get input from those members before planning to reopen. “Do a pulse of your community and focus on the ones who’ve been the most active, because they’ll be the most honest,” said Canady. “If that community isn’t ready to come back, there’s no point in forcing it.

“I believe people are craving normalcy in an abnormal time, but you can’t assume the comfort of any one client or staff.”

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Laura MichaelsLaura Michaels is editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3210, or send story ideas to lmichaels@franchisetimes.com.
 
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Nicholas UptonNicholas Upton is restaurants editor at Franchise Times. He can be reached at 612.767.3226, or send story ideas to nupton@franchisetimes.com.
 
Mary Jo LarsonMary Jo Larson is the publisher of Franchise Times Magazine and the Restaurant Finance Monitor.  You can find her on Twitter at
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