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Fitness & Wellness Industry Plays Critical Role in COVID Times

In this case study, Pure Group CEO Colin Grant writes how misconceptions around health clubs, gyms, and studios were set straight; how facts speak for themselves; how customers were safe and informed; and how the industry rallied together and worked to create a better future.

Written by Colin Grant, CEO of the Pure Group, who is overseeing 30 plus locations across South Asia during the coronavirus pandemic.

This paper aims to share our experiences during the COVID pandemic with the hope that other operators around the world may benefit from our learnings so that we can evolve and improve as a global wellness community.

The Lowdown

With over four months of mandatory closure in Hong Kong during 2020, the Asian Fitness and Wellness industry (like many others) has been hard hit by COVID-19. But there's a dichotomy within this that had to be highlighted and unravelled in order to drive positive change—for our industry and for society as a whole. On one hand, gyms and yoga studios are clearly a place where people gather and therefore an obvious target for closure when pandemic numbers go up. But on the other hand, the activities we host and teach are some of the key drivers for a stronger, healthier and more immune society. In fact, we'd argue that our offerings are "preventative healthcare."

Here, we'll explain how some misconceptions were set straight; how the facts speak for themselves; how we've kept our customers safe and informed; and how we've rallied together as an industry and worked with the government to create a better future.

Misconceptions

Alongside venues like cinemas, spas and karaoke lounges, gyms and yoga studios are “extended contact” destinations—places where people don't just pop in and out like a retail shop but where many spend several hours as part of their lifestyle. But unlike cinemas, spas and karaoke lounges—gyms and yoga studios are not just “extended contact” destinations, they're also high-frequency destinations with the average cardholder visiting PURE 2.4 times a week. In "normal" times, this combination of extended contact and high frequency is a huge advantage—it means that we're integral to our customers' lives.

But in COVID times, it's also meant that we're an obvious choice to declare for “places visited” and contact trace when someone tests positive. As a result, when the pandemic first hit and there were several cases of PURE cardholders and members of other gyms and yoga studios testing positive—the natural immediate reaction was to assume that our industry was a virus spreader. But this is a misconception that we've now been able to set straight.

Setting the Story Straight

In 2020, we've had 20 cases of PURE cardholders testing positive for COVID-19. And we're not alone— other gyms and yoga studios around the world have been highlighted by the media as places frequented by people who later tested positive. But the facts now speak for themselves—not one of these cases has resulted in the spreading of the virus within a PURE location.

Here’s a prime example we’d like to highlight—a PURE Fitness cardholder who visited our International Trade Tower location in Hong Kong had a one-hour session in close contact with his personal trainer, experienced symptoms the next day and tested positive for COVID the day after that. The assumed conclusion would put our location, the personal trainer and potentially other staff and customers who were at this location at the same time in the high-risk category. In reality, our trainer and all 47 staff at the location tested negative, and no further cardholders at that location tested positive. The cardholder was likely infectious when he visited us, but both he and his trainer were wearing a mask the whole time—even when mask-wearing for customers was not mandated. We believe that these measures were critical in preventing a spread. Another example is a Les Mills club in Auckland, New Zealand where a customer (a health worker) visited the club and had 92 close contacts—all of whom tested negative for COVID-19.

These facts and data points are a key indicator that our locations are not a spreader of the virus. Why? Because they're some of the most rigorously cleaned and safest places to be.

Leadership Pure Group CEO Colin Grant column

Staying Safe

There's a long list of safety and distancing measures in place at PURE locations and those of many other players in our industry—mandatory mask-wearing, temperature checks on entry, minimum 1.5 meters between individuals in group classes, hand sanitisers available throughout the clubs, regular disinfecting of all surfaces and equipment, bacteria-killing misting machines at all locations, mandatory completion of a travel declaration form before every visit, screens between cardio machines. And many of these measures are above and beyond the government mandate. For example, we made mask-wearing compulsory throughout our clubs at the onset of the fourth wave in Hong Kong before the government requested us to do so. This decision came with uncertainty of customer backlash but was in fact received with strong support which, six months prior, would not have been the case. In considering the minute yet important details, we’ve been offering free mask brackets to make our customers' breathing a little easier whilst wearing a mask. We strongly believe that these measures have been a key factor in zero spread of the virus within our locations.

We’ve also been nimble and reactive to update our protocols on a daily basis based on facts and insights as we learn of them. What we know now about the virus is radically different to what we perceived about it in the first wave. And how we react to that has also significantly changed. Initially, if a cardholder was traced as having visited one of our locations in a two-week period running up to testing positive, we would close that club for two weeks. What we’ve learnt now, and as advised by the Centre for Health Protection and WHO, is that the “high-risk” period is only 2-3 days before the onset of symptoms. Nonetheless, we still err on the side of caution by closing the club if someone has tested positive within 7 days after visiting one of our locations. But, importantly, we only keep the club closed for as long as needed to get the results for all staff. This has shortened to just two days.

Lobbying

Of course, the biggest financial impact for us and our whole industry has been the mandatory closure periods—totaling over four months during 2020. As a result of the initial government (and public) perception highlighted above, we were one of the first industries mandated to close in the first wave of the virus in Hong Kong (and other cities)—along with bars and entertainment venues. And we were only allowed to reopen at the same time as those other industries. We rallied together with our peers and were a founding member of the “Hong Kong Alliance of Professional Fitness and Wellness Operators” —with a clear mission to work with the government to:

  • create future guidelines that would safeguard our community,
  • base distancing and safety protocols on the facts available, and
  • de-couple our industry from those with either less stringent measures in place or playing less of a role in boosting public health.

This lobbying has driven notable positive change for us and our customers. In the second wave, we were permitted to reopen earlier than the industries we’d previously been coupled with (and the protocols mandated were pre-aligned with our alliance)—and in the most recent wave we were permitted to stay open longer. We’re grateful to the government officials in Hong Kong for listening to our proposal and creating workable solutions together with us.

Leadership Pure Yoga Hong Kong reception 7 18 CBI column

Transparency

It's not just government perception that's been critical for us to address but also that of our cardholders, media and the general public. Again referencing the first wave—when the initial number of gym and yoga customers testing positive was widely reported in the media, there was some negative sentiment from customers and the wider community around the safety of going to gyms and yoga studios during the pandemic. There was also some opinion that our industry could be a super-spreader.

Our handling of this situation has been defined by transparent and regular communication. We knew our environment was safe, and we were very confident that this would become widely apparent over time. We decided to reveal all the facts directly to our cardholders (via emails, mobile app messages, in-location collateral) and to the general public (via social media and our websites) as soon as they became available—with the intention of building trust and general learning about the reality of the situation as it unfolded. We clearly listed all known cases in our FAQs together with the check-in times at our locations—noting whether the affected individuals had used services such as our group classes, cafés, personal training and changing rooms. We also responded to media enquiries with all the facts that we had available to us.

This transparency has driven positive change for us—for example, on our Facebook pages we’ve seen a stark shift in reactions from “‘angry” to “caring,” comment sentiment from knee-jerk criticism to understanding and support. Now that the community has been on the journey with us and fully understands the facts together with our ever-evolving protocols, they feel part of the process—and part of the solution. This shift in sentiment has also been aided by our continual provision of complimentary online live and on-demand yoga and fitness services—via our social media channels and via Zoom. From the onset of the pandemic until now, we’ve created thousands of classes, talks, tips and inspirations to help the community get through this together. Recently we’ve also skewed the content focus towards meditation, breathing and mindfulness to address COVID-related mental health issues. And in Hong Kong, we’ve consistently accompanied this with the hashtag #hkTogether.

Looking Forward (and Up!)

So, what’s next? We continue our journey with a focus on maintaining the safety of our environments, and we continue our process of transparency and lobbying to ensure that facts drive future protocols. But it’s much bigger than that. We aim to prove and persuade that not only is our industry not a super-spreader but is actually a form of preventative healthcare. That the more people regularly go to gyms and yoga studios, the better their health and immunity will become. In fact, we'll soon be undertaking some research on this subject—analysing the health, doctor/hospital visits and morale of those who regularly exercise vs. those who don't.

Things are looking up for our industry with these perception changes and the many data points and research studies now available to highlight the safety of our environments as well as the extremely low number of cases vs visits.

In the long term we hope that we, and our industry as a whole, can be a catalyst for positive change—to educate and mobilise our society towards happier, healthier lives that are better prepared for any future pandemics or other health crises.

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Colin Grant

Colin Grant is the CEO of the Pure Group.