Surviving a Viral Crisis as Fitness Business

Updated: March 20, 2020

At the speed news is changing these days, I’m sure to be behind the eight-ball. As far as I can tell, one day equals about four or five these days, and a week feels like a month. While everyone struggles to define what it means to “get ahead of this thing,” most of us can’t even keep up. Me included.

For context, the entire world is ramping up towards some unknown fever-pitch with COVID-19. Some folks are rightfully labeling it a crisis, and I don’t care to argue the point. Let’s call it that for now. It’s a crisis.

My goal is to net up the best ideas I’ve stolen and then share them with gym operators. These should help to survive a crisis of many types, where gym owners can’t operate their gyms as normal, but especially during a viral outbreak.

That could be the next pandemic if the current one is already yesterday’s news, but it could also be a sewer leak in the club. It could be the aftermath of a fire or an economic downturn.

Without getting mired in what’s different about a viral crisis versus other types of crises is that, as we’re all learning, viruses separate us. Most other crises talking points like don’t go it alone, and keep your routine, seem trite in context.

Seems being the operative word there. 

My goal is that when the next crisis hits, we’ll be readier for it. Much, much readier. We’ll be the readierist we can be.

(It’s a word. Don’t fight it.)

As a gym owner or operator, your goal during a crisis will be to cover three aspects of your business to the best of your ability. That means even if all your efforts only result in a trickle.

Keep your...
︎ Brand in the minds of your members

︎ Members active
︎ Team members paid

The idea is not to grow financially but to hold the line or slow the financial bleeding. You will find you can grow your reputation, tighten your loyalty, and put out as many fires as possible. If the stars align or if you happen to be blessed, financial growth may follow.

Think of a crisis as a shakedown. It’s not always fair, but change is coming. Change is upon us.

As with any unfolding event, there will be a certain amount of fortune at play. Or fate if that’s your thang. In a crisis, there will also be a need for emotional maturity, consideration of others’ needs, pooling of resources, endurance in many forms combined with massive flexibility.

When the smoke clears, some businesses will rise up while others will pick up the pieces and have to start over.

This is your plan to be the former.

Respond instead of react

The COVID-19 outbreak has illuminated two reactions, which have skipped hand-in-hand through this mess leaving  nothing but pain behind them. 

  • Panic and
  • Disregard

As of this writing, we have yet to see the full damage these two ignorant fools will exact on humanity. Given the chance to walk in-step with either of them, choose the middle path.

Some anchors for how to find that middle:

  1. Declare nothing publicly that you might later regret.
  2. Put up your dukes only when you have ZERO other options.
  3. Don’t hesitate to act when the best possible information informs the best action.
  4. Be ready to be wrong.
  5. Be ready to apologize and make a new choice.

Re-read those last two.

When people are fighting for toilet paper in the store, and those people are not anyone you care about, you might be inclined to join the fight. For many operators, that sort of anarchistic behavior inspired them to publicly announce there was nothing to worry about with COVID-19.

As of this writing, many are still making that claim. Neither of these choices will age well.

The wise person gathers the best data from the most reputable sources, compiling them into one all-encompassing prediction of the future. Then that person sketches out a plan and takes decisive action.

Consider the needs of your customers

Let’s add potential customers to that subheading. Because why cut off future opportunities, hm?

In the gym business, the obvious need of your members will be how to keep active without risk. This creates a problem in a pandemic or even a possible pandemic.

If your members can’t access your facility, but they can access another, you know what will happen. In the case of COVID-19, gyms that already had an online workout platform found transitioning easier.

For many in the fitness industry, they saw this writing on the wall early. They panicked. How could a gym provide and charge for access if the members couldn’t or wouldn’t come in?

Remember this important fact: Your gym is more than a place to workout. It’s not only about access.

For my mother, her gym life is all about the coffee shop where she meets her pals after a class. She spends more time in that dang shop than the group x room. (I know you workout, Mom.)

The dropped ball picked up by many early adopters in this recent crisis has been setting up feeds for their members to workout at home or in a park. Setting a YouTube channel or Facebook Live channel is the move many other gyms are scrambling to execute as I write this.

But don’t do it just to check the box. Do it to meet the needs of your customers.

Thinking you know what they want and actually knowing it is not the same thing. If your club is already empty, it’s worth picking up the phone. Chat with as many members as you can. Ask them what your gyms means to their lives.

Gather your assets

It might help to literally brainstorm your assets on a piece of paper. Hopefully, people make that list.

Team members are more than an expense. Before you make tough calls like letting people go, work out the whole plan to see where you can keep them involved.

Consider that in a real crisis, your team members will also be looking to move forward at whatever pace they can manage. More on that in a second.

Also, consider your member’s needs. For example, if your club’s lap pool is bleeding your P&L like a thousand paper cuts, you might see a cost-cutting solution in closing it for the foreseeable future. But, if it’s the only Olympic lap pool in town, closing it before you must do so might hurt you prematurely.

In the long run, you might still have to close that pool (or some such feature) but weigh all the variables. Try to find solutions, and be proactive about offering them. Ie. Offer swimmers a freeze, and point them to the nearest alternative while you sort out a solution.

For reference, see the previous subheading about needs of your customers.

Whatever you do, don’t play dumb and hope they won’t notice. They will. They’ll not forget that you lied by omission when the going got tough. They remember that you didn’t consider their needs. Don’t give them the chance to see it that way.

Move forward at whatever pace you can manage

This pairs well with knowing your members and what they want or need from your gym. Crisis by crisis, gym by gym this will vary. Again, I default to the current pandemic for reference.

If your members can’t come to the mountain, take the mountain to your members. Thankfully, we live in a modern age of high-speed internets, and you have more options for video sharing than even five years ago. In five more years, it will only be better.

What unfolds now could change the fitness forever if not the near future.

Some examples off the top of my head:

  • If your gym offers a wide scope of products, you might need multiple channels to meet that need.

  • If you can create rooms, where members can workout together, this could serve the need for community. A simple tool is to set up Zoom video conference calls, but there are many other options.

  • If your gym is about competitiveness, pair a video channel with someplace for members to post their PRs/time/weights.

  • And why not have a coffee chat afterward? Set up a chat space for everyone to chat after class.

A missed opportunity suffered by many gym owners in denial in the early stages was their club’s at-home workout equipment. Some saw the coming storm and started selling that equipment at a premium in advance of the spread.

Gyms who saw the inevitable coming, baked these ancillary sales into their crisis strategy like this:

  1. Sell our members at-home workout equipment to use following workouts on that channel.
  2. Quietly launch online workout channels in the background.
  3. Refer to the equipment in their workout feeds.
  4. Point members back to the gym for at-home equipment purchases before D-day.

One last tactic under this subheading. If a crisis isn’t so insufferable that you can stay open, but with limitations, try to stay open within those limitations. Remember, at whatever pace you can manage is better than dead stopped.

You never know what great fortune or miracle could to save you at the last minute. Be ready for any form of fortune, positive or challenging.

Many gyms have restricted their occupancy to super-low numbers. Some have found that if they schedule those people to come in, limited by the restriction, the number of willing participants is low enough to satisfy many until they can allow more in.

Be Flexible

If the spread of COVD-19 has taught us nothing so far, it’s that the new normal only stay the new normal for a matter of days if that. As countries in the west watched the chaos unfold in the news about the east, many saw nothing to fear. (After all, SARS, H1N1, and Ebola never turned into anything newsworthy at home, right?)

Week-by-week, if not daily, perspectives have changed fast. In a crisis, what works today might not work tomorrow. It might not work later today. Drop your hips. Widen your stance. Dilate your peripherals.

It’s no different than playing sports in crazy weather. You mostly train to play in normal conditions, but then on game day it’s windy or precipitous. If you don’t bend your knees to be ready for anything, you’re going to get frustrated fast. You’ll blame the wind and rain on the way home, but the wind and rain didn’t take a beating.

You did.

As much as video workouts feel so much like the new normal to me today, I accept that in a week they might be replaced by in-home HAZMAT personal training workouts. I mean, who knows?

For too many gym owners, moving to online training was a last-minute move. They came into the crisis red-hot, over-borrowed, and under massive stress. For early adopters, moving online could be the move that ultimately saves their business from disaster. It will be the move that keeps their members from putting back on the freshman fifteen.

In any case, I expect there will be some minor course corrections necessary. Consider this plan not so much a list to complete in order, but steps to be reviewing and revisiting as time moves forward. Stepping back to step one will be crucial with some regularity.

Check-in with the people that matter the most. Ask your members. Ask your team members tough questions, like…

  • Is this doing the trick while we navigate these rough waters?

  • What more could we be doing?

Communicate Wisely

So we finally come to the part where I get all excited. If you haven’t been paying attention, a digital strategy via social media and email marketing has been stitching together the background of this plan.

Here comes my bias.

Social media comes with limitations. Even if you’re paying to promote your content, not everyone you want to see that content will see it. And realistically, if you’re in crisis crackdown, spending on promoted content will be slowed or stopped. But, in fairness to social media, your impressions could be massive.

SMS is hugely popular with gyms right now, but that platform comes with its own pitfalls. SMS advocates brag their 100% open rates, which is true. If I want to clear my notifications, a deep habit trained into all of us, I have to click on those messages.

That doesn’t mean those messages land. That doesn’t mean I like them or even want them. I know, I can text “stop,” but I just can’t find the time between panic-scrolling all my feeds.

A better plan goes back to my second tactic: Know your members. Ask them how they want you to communicate.

Here’s a tactical mini-strategy that would require having an email marketing already in place to be most effective.

︎ Announce your crisis management plan. (I like email for this, but see my notes below.)
︎ Ask members to confirm they want updates.
︎ Give them options: email, SMS, social media?
︎ Tag their contact info in your CRM or ESP accordingly.
︎ Message them on the platform where they want to hear from you.

︎ Bonus: Make a note for the future.

Final thoughts

Arguably, there will never be a one-size-fits-all plan for crisis management, but you can see that laying down some of the groundwork in advance of the recent crisis has been a throughline.

There is no value in kicking yourself if you’re behind the eight-ball with setting up specific platforms. You might take this time to get that going so next time you’re better prepared.

It’s not a question of if and time isn’t slowing down for any of us. Do the best with what you’ve got.


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 Damon Re Mitchell © 2021