Challenges & Opportunities in Leadership as Gyms Reopen

In the final part of our series with Catic Wellness Group Owner Loni Wang, we cover the topic of leadership. Below are the challenges and opportunities that she faced.

Good leadership is essential for any business to thrive. Throw a global pandemic in the mix, and being a great leader can surely serve as the be-all and end-all.

In this four-part series, Loni Wang, owner of Shenzhen Catic Wellness Group in Shenzhen, China, reviews the challenges and opportunities her club identified during the coronavirus pandemic. We separated Wang's advice for health clubs into four topics:

  1. Strategy,
  2. Finance,
  3. Member Retention, and
  4. Leadership.

In our final part of the series with Wang, we want to share the two leadership challenges and four opportunities that she’s detected over the last few months.

Leadership Challenges and Opportunities

While speaking with Wang, she noted that health clubs could face two challenges for leadership:

  1. General Negative Perceptions of the Industry
  2. Perception That the Industry is Noninclusive

She also uncovered four leadership opportunities:

  1. Prioritize Making Your Club More Inclusive
  2. Show the Health Benefits of Exercise
  3. Build Relationships with Government
  4. Share Members with Other Clubs and Trainers

Challenge: General Negative Perceptions of the Industry

One of the harshest challenges that the fitness industry will continue to face is changing the industry’s negative perceptions. Before the pandemic, some labeled gyms as only for the rich, those who have time, and “dirty” or “germy” spaces.

Wang is disappointed that a majority of the public does not see exercise as an important “life skill.” She said, “I think a lot of people didn't know that you need to [exercise to be] healthy because you can prevent disease.”

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only heightened the negative perceptions of the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the current unemployment rate in the U.S. is 7.9%, with 12.6 million filing for unemployment. As workers face the possibility of layoffs and furloughs, everyone is looking for ways to cut spending—that means “unnecessary” memberships to fitness clubs.

Loni Wang Leadership Column Width

Although, early research is giving the fitness industry a reason to be optimistic for changing misconceptions of the industry.

  1. University of Oslo study finds no increase in COVID-19 transmission at fitness facilities when adhering to social distancing and mitigation guidelines.
  2. Contact tracing in Arkansas shows only 0.3% of active cases had visited a gym at the time of the study.
  3. Northern California counties find that there has not been a single coronavirus case traced back to high-risk businesses—like gyms.
  4. MXM survey results conclude that of the 49.4 million member check-ins reported, 1,155 people tested positive for coronavirus—but did not contract the virus at a club. The check-ins were gathered from 2,873 health clubs and show an infection rate of 0.0023%.

Changing the perception of the fitness industry is also something that everyone in the industry can—and should—be doing. Start simply by promoting how safe and clean your club is. Spread the message through community outreach, contacting local media outlets, posting on social media, and any other venues possible. Another way to transform negative perceptions is to build strong relationships with lawmakers—they can help your business more than you expect.

Challenge & Opportunity: Perception That the Industry is Noninclusive, Prioritize Making Your Club More Inclusive

As a business that provides an exercise facility, doctor programming, spa services, nutrition assistance, traditional medicine, and more, Catic Wellness truly revolves around providing health services for every member. Wang said, “It’s most important that people know we are here [for them].”

To further help change the perception of the fitness industry, now is a great time to become more inclusive as an industry. For those with disabilities, getting to the gym may be difficult or impossible altogether. Across the world, there are 1 billion people living with a disability and approximately 25.8% are inactive. Those living with disabilities can face unique challenges in the gym, such as:

There’s a need for more inclusivity in fitness and sports; the Get Active For All Pledge is the first step to greater inclusion. Physical inactivity is a global issue, and people with disabilities are even less likely to be active. Greater inclusion of people of all abilities in fitness and sport needs to be a top priority of the industry.

There are even direct benefits for health clubs that are inclusive. According to a UNESCO chair study, 72% of fitness managers report an increase in customer loyalty, and 51% see an increase in revenue. The industry is making progress towards full inclusion, but there are still many changes that need to happen. However, stories like Jay Moir’s give us real hope.

Opportunity: Show the Health Benefits of Exercise

The coronavirus pandemic has come with many hardships, to say the least. Fortunately, one good thing to come out of it is the conversations spreading awareness on the benefits of exercise.

“I think a lot of people didn't know that you need to [exercise to be] healthy because you can prevent disease.”

Loni Wang

Catic Wellness Group - Shenzhen, China

"Now, the situation is different because the people know they need to change their life skills, they want to be more healthy,” said Wang.

And if you’re stuck at home due to the virus or for any other reason, Catic Wellness can still serve you. “[People] need to exercise, so that’s why we do a lot of exercise programs where you stay at home,” said Wang.

Amidst a pandemic with quarantine restrictions and mandated shutdowns, isolation, depression, and other mental illnesses can be detrimental to overall health. The gym served as a second home for a 91-year-old California man, who before the virus, would work out five days a week. After months of quarantine and health diminishing, the owner of Foothill Gym allowed him to resume his workouts in May—before it officially reopened to the public—which literally served as a saving grace.

Opportunity: Build Relationships with Government

Wang notes that this crisis has presented them with the opportunity to continue to build connections with their local government. Keeping a relationship with your government is vital in gaining their support during tough times. Having influential contacts on your side can protect your club—as well as the entire industry—from harmful regulations or laws.

“You need the government to give their strong support,” said Wang.

She added, “Talk to the government and work with them about the [situation of the] industry and other clubs in the industry. It gives a benefit to share customers and make more customers come to the club when the crisis is finished.”

Engaging with local government officials can be as simple as inviting them to your club for a meeting when things are back to “normal.” For the time being, however, a phone call or video meeting is a step in the right direction. Read this article to learn more about how local government can help you.

Opportunity: Share Members with Other Clubs and Trainers

Trending themes throughout our conversation with Wang are sharing with one another and working together as a collective industry. Wang and the staff at Catic Wellness were pleased to meet with trainers outside of their club and work together training members.

“I want people to know what we have done, because we [did] something [that was] successful,” said Wang. “I want to share [with] clubs. I want to support all of you.”

We couldn’t agree more. A unified industry is needed more than ever to shape the future of health and fitness clubs and exercise. Together, we must commit to sharing resources and promoting the positive impacts that the fitness industry serves.

Bonus: Wang’s Survival Tips for Club Operators

Sharing resources and learning how other clubs handle the obstacles thrown at them can—at the least—save you from stressful situations. From her experience, Wang shared three pieces of advice to owners and operators that are reopening their facilities:

  1. Have Confidence
  2. Be Flexible to Change
  3. Adapt Quickly

As we’ve said, the pandemic has only increased the public’s belief that gyms are germy and unsafe. It’s crucial to stay confident in your business despite the hardships that are coming your way. And with the ever-changing guidelines and protocols, Wang said, “I tell myself we need to have the confidence to change quickly.”

For Catic Wellness, that change has come in the form of apps, providing online training and nutrition assistance for members that aren’t comfortable or able to make it to the facility.

It’s one thing to be flexible in changing your business model or current processes, but Wang says it will make a difference to adapt to change quickly. Don’t be afraid of change. The future of the fitness industry is uncertain, so at this time, adapting to the shifting environment is the best bet for resuming business successfully.

At the end of the day, it’s up to all fitness club owners and operators to take a unified stand for their business and the collective industry. Wang is confident in the fitness industry and believes that by working together and everyone sharing their challenges and successes, the industry as a whole can be successful once again.

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Sami Smith

Sami Smith is IHRSA's Senior Manager of Digital Communications, working to shape the organization's image on various digital platforms. On a typical day, she creates content, delivers impactful communications, and executes targeted marketing efforts to keep IHRSA at the forefront of the industry. Outside of the office, you can find her exploring new destinations, indulging in food, or participating in just about any sport.