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Lessons learned in the online fitness journey during Covid-19

- April 24, 2020 8 MIN READ

What sort of businesses am I working with?

Kate* runs a local, friendly Pilates studio where she and her instructors work with hundreds of clients every week – group classes, small personalized sessions as well as working with many private, individual clients. Kate uses purpose-built Pilates equipment as well as a variety of “props” when working with her clients.

Tanya* owns a large yoga studio in an inner-city suburb of a major city, that has an extensive timetable of classes across 7 days and has hundreds of clients and dozens of teachers. Dan* is a Personal Trainer who runs a gym in a regional town where he, like Kate offers clients a variety of group classes, small group PT sessions as well as one-on-one PT sessions. He employs local PTs and has hundreds of local clients. Melanie* has a small home Pilates studio. She has developed a unique Pilates experience for her, mostly older, community – with a focus on Pilates for osteo and arthritis. Considering the C-19 virus and the age and health of her clients, Melanie had already been selective about which clients she continued to work with in studio and there were a few she suggested move to online – for their safety. 

What happened?

Like thousands of small business owners across Australia these businesses were all forced to close their studios midday 23 March 2020.

How have they responded?

In just a few days, these 4 business owners and hundreds of other Pilates, yoga and fitness professionals across Australia moved their in-studio businesses online – mostly using Zoom**. Other online options are Webex, Outlook Teams, FB Messenger and Instagram.

These small business owners and health professionals have been nothing short of amazing – faced with this enormous challenge they’ve responded to keep their business alive as well as take care of their clients and their team of instructors.

Three reasons why they moved online (and it’s NOT all about the money)

Underpinning the move online is a real “keep the show running” attitude; that strong desire to keep on doing what they do and just “do it online”. One said to me “Ingrid, our clients expect us to be there at 6:30am tomorrow and we are going to be there.”

So, what really drove this move online? And what will continue to drive the move online? 

My observation during the past 4 weeks and listening in to many online community conversations as well as listening to my own clients, the drive to move online has been a combination of these 3 things – community, mobility and viability.

1. Community – at the very core of every health and fitness studio is a strong sense of community. Clients are in the studio every day or 2-3 times a week, they are regular at this studio and refer to it as “my yoga studio” or “my gym” and they have a relationship with the person they consider “my PT/ yoga teacher/ Pilates instructor.” Moving online keeps the community together, keeps everyone connected with each other, with the studio and with their instructors.

2. Mobility – in the first weeks of post shut down studios focused completely on keeping their existing clients moving and in their routines. Class times and one-on-one sessions stayed the same as much as possible. As the isolation continues, bringing mobility and movement into people’s lives is becoming increasingly important. Health and fitness business owners and instructors know what happens when bodies stop moving – bringing mobility to people is their purpose.

3. Viability – Health and fitness studios are a bricks and mortar business model with rent and overheads. Finding a way to generate revenue when the studio was forced to close certainly was the third key driver for many business owners.

While it may be easy to believe that financial consideration could be top priority, I believe all 3 have equal status for many studio owners:

  • They love their clients
  • They want to help keep their clients moving and healthy
  • They want to have an ongoing business when this is over.

What have been challenges? 

There have certainly been some challenges:

The technology. Managing the technology has been easier for some than others. Figuring out Zoom, getting the lighting right for sessions, the sound, the background, angle of the camera and so on.

  1. Clients’ resistance to technology. Across clients and fitness modalities, there is a real mix of acceptance to moving from an in-studio experience to online experience. 
  2. Home schooling. Many of the studio owners and instructors have school age children and experienced a “double whammy”. Parents used to the juggling act of running a business and a family suddenly had home schooling thrown into the mix.
  3. Paralyzing shock and fear. In the first few weeks some people were in such shock at the imposed “shut down” they were incapable of responding.
  4. Resources. There is a lot more to do to take what was in-studio and move it online. Administration, communicating with everyone and doing it all simply takes time and energy.
  5. Systems. Studios operating without established systems and processes floundered to find ways to communicate with clients. Simple things like – Where is everyone’s email address? Do we have mobile phone numbers? Are all our clients in our studio Facebook Group?

The studios that face all or most of these challenges are still trying to figure out how to take their in-studio experience online.

The studios who were able to respond quickly experienced some or all of these challenges but perhaps to a lesser degree. 

The studios operating online now face a new challenge.

Getting used to working online. Fitness business owners and their instructors are finding themselves working harder and longer than they have ever worked and using their bodies differently:

  • setting up for online involves more than walking into the studio
  • the way they instruct online is very different to running a live session
  • preparation for online takes consideration because the format of the class is different
  • their eyes are affected from looking at the screen all day – compared to previously minimal screen time
  • their voice is affected from projecting towards the microphone in the computer – some have solved this with earbuds and microphones.

While challenges will always exist, many health and fitness professionals are motivated by their clients and the exercise as much as by keeping the business running.

Where to from here?

With no end in sight for “isolation” and no sign yet that health and fitness businesses will be operating back in the studio anytime soon – I believe online is definitely here to stay.

So, what is working? Where to from here? How do we all adapt to this new world?

Connection

Many studio owners and instructors are finding that the connection within their Tribe is stronger than ever. In an “isolated” world filled with uncertainty it’s human nature to seek the familiar. 

Fitness clients want to feel healthy and they also want the familiar sound of their instructors’ voice, their quirky jokes, the way they deliver the familiar cues to instruct the exercises and poses, the familiarity of the routine of regular sessions and familiar people.

It’s fun to jump on a Zoom session and see all the familiar people one might normally see in the studio, meet their dogs, see their kids getting involved.

In the online fitness session, the video takes everyone into each other’s homes and lives and families when the camera is on. People get to meet kids, dogs, cats and get to see gardens, furniture and more. 

One Pilates instructor told me of the enormous privilege she felt to be “invited into the home of her clients” to take a tour of the house to find the most suitable room for their one-on-one session. This completely changes the relationship between instructor and client.

Another client mentioned that her clients continue on the Zoom app after their 9:30am session ends and enjoy a coffee together; they get to have a chat. 

The clients, a group of older women in a regional town, were used to regular coffee sessions at the local café following their class. Now my client leaves the Zoom session open for them to have their regular catchup. 

These women feel an immense sense of gratitude towards the gym that has allowed them to keep their connection and their regular exercise during this difficult time.

Loneliness. 

As the isolation continues one of the impacts already being experienced is the increased sense of loneliness. I believe that there is a significant role for online health and fitness sessions to play to help combat this feeling.

Many clients I work with are making the extra effort to include their older clients into their online schedules – for all the reasons already mentioned – especially mobility and connection. There are inspiring stories of 80-year-old clients keen to jump onto Zoom for their Pilates class because they also use Zoom for church meeting and their book club. I personally believe that the health and fitness industry has the potential to play a major role in combating a loneliness epidemic in the coming months. I’ve heard people say that their online class is the highlight of their day and that’s why they are taking multiple classes every day, for the sense of being with other people.

 

Mobility. 

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I could spend the whole day in one position and unless I actively make myself move, I would fossilize. Vast numbers of people, including school students are operating from home. The ergonomics of the home office combined with increased screen time creates increased need for a variety of movement and mobility sessions. Necks, eyes, shoulders, hips and backs across the globe are crying out to be kept mobile.  Finding ways to keep moving and mobile is essential. The role that health and fitness play to keep people healthy is even more important.

Ease of access. 

If you have never done any exercise or visited a yoga or Pilates studio – now is the time to try it out. You can do it from the safety of your own lounge room and anonymously if you want. 

In fact, the data is showing that more people have tried yoga and Pilates for the first time in the past month than in the past 2 years.

Personally, I may never go back to classes to the studio.  On a cold, dark autumn morning I love being able to roll out of bed at 6:25am for my 6:30 Pilates mat class in my kitchen. I get to work with my familiar instructors and all the regulars from our mat class. My favourite yoga teacher has classes in a studio that is a 30-minute drive in heavy traffic … now her sessions are online. For me, this is winning. And I know I’m not the only one. Others have told me similar about loving being able to access online sessions from home and access to the variety of sessions across the globe. People who have driven through traffic, battled to find parking and arrived in the class “just in time” or who miss the first few minutes, now find themselves able to thoroughly enjoy their in-home sessions through Zoom.  “This is it for me, I’m staying home” they say.

Increased reach. 

On the flipside for the health and fitness businesses online who is no longer restricted to their physical location, this means they can attract clients from across the globe. Going forward, if it becomes their business model to offer a hybrid of online and in-studio sessions, any fitness business has access to a global audience.***

The future. 

None of us has a crystal ball and we are not quite sure where this will all end, when it will “be over” and if things will ever “return to normal.”  Even when we do start to return to the in studio experience and studios open up to invite clients back in, many clients will choose not to be around too many people. For their own safety many will take their time to return to unnecessary environments where they could be at risk of infection. 

When they can have the same fabulous online experience, my guess is many people will be choosing to take their Pilates, yoga and PT sessions in the Zoom Room!

We do know is that “this too shall pass” and whatever that looks like, the things we do today will impact what each of our lives look like post C-19 and I, for one, intend to be even more connected to my favourite Pilates and yoga studios.

There truly is a role for the health and fitness industry right now more than ever. We haven’t come this far to only come this far. 

Let’s celebrate this potential as an industry.

 

Written by Ingrid Thompson, Business Consultant and Mentor working exclusively with Health, Fitness and Well-being Professionals 

* Not their real names

** Personally, I have been using Zoom for about 5 years and am enormously grateful that Eric Yuan and his girlfriend lived so far apart that he was inspired to create Zoom. Their company mission – Delivering happiness to our users. There are a lot of happy Zoom users right now.

*** Global population = 7.8 billion people