How Gyms Are Faring in Spain, Portugal 6 Months After Shutdown

VivaGym Group closed their health club facilities in Spain and Portugal as the coronavirus crisis began to unfold. CEO Juan Del Río Nieto shares lessons learned as his business and the industry navigate toward recovery.

When the coronavirus hit Spain in March, VivaGym’s 100+ locations—including some in the construction phase—came to a standstill. During a May webinar, VivaGym Group CEO Juan Del Río Nieto shared how the company—which includes VivaGym and Fitness Hut operating in Spain and Portugal—strategically readied for long-term closures while eyeing reopening.

A lot has happened since then, with fitness centers in Portugal and Spain reopening beginning in early June. We caught up with Del Río Nieto for an update on the trends he is seeing, from consumer confidence to safety protocols to preparing for an uncertain future.

Navigating the Shutdown

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In May, Del Río Nieto shared that VivaGym Group had fared well financially in the first quarter of 2020. Stock was trading well and memberships were up, compared to the same time in 2019.

As the coronavirus spread throughout the world and the threat was perceived in Spain and Portugal, VivaGym Group decided to pre-emptively close their facilities on March 13 to prevent further spread. This was one day prior to Spain’s lockdown on the entire economy.

VivaGym Group moved forward immediately with preparing staff changes and gyms for long-term closure. Their swift and organized action no doubt contributed to their success as their gyms—nearly three full months later—started to reopen.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that time is of the essence, but to react calmly. Del Río Nieto’s outlook remains positive.

“We are part of an industry that will be part of the solution, that will create people that are healthy with life to their fullest, but it will take time,” he said in the webinar. “So in order to gain time, taking harsh decisions during those [early] days was essential.”

Confidence of their Consumers

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A study by IHRSA partner in Spain, Management Around Sports (MAS), which was endorsed by the research team in sports management and training of the University of Alcalá, and supported by Gympass, found that nearly 90% of respondents planned to return to their health clubs. VivaGym Group found in the month of August that 50% of their members have gone back to training routinely as they did before club closures.

“Also, as we reopened all our gyms, we have had new joiners. Members who decided to return to our clubs are doing so with complete confidence. In general, the response from our members has been positive in all the geographical areas where we operate,” Del Río Nieto says.

It’s also important to note that at the time of this article, VivaGym group has not had a positive COVID-19 case reported back to any of their facilities since reopening.

The approach for VivaGym Group has been one that is consumer-centric. They are positioning themselves as an essential service to their members, encouraging communication and promoting the positive experiences their members are having.

“The dialogue with our members has been constant,” Del Río Nieto says. “Now is the time to fully dedicate ourselves to accompany and get to know them even more! We continue promoting the word of mouth among them in favor of the good time they are having in our gyms, how happy they are to carry out advised trainings, and the security that our establishments give them.”

New Protocols & Preparing for the Future

VivaGym Group has continued to promote cleanliness procedures to staff and members. These new methods have become a positive habit. Safety of their members and staff is the most important thing. They have continued to offer outdoor activities and digital content in order to better serve members as well.

“This pandemic has changed all of us. Hygiene has become, more than ever, a fundamental value,” says Del Río Nieto.

“The ‘new hygiene’ derived from the ‘new normal’ is here to stay. Both our staff and our members have been able to adapt to this new normality very naturally. Washing their hands, wearing a mask and keeping distance are now natural routines for everyone.”

Masks are mandatory in public places in Spain and Portugal, with some exceptions including activities that are incompatible with wearing a mask. In VivaGym Group’s club locations, there are posters and audio marketing to reinforce that message.

Members have been reacting well to new protocols. Says Del Río Nieto: “Our members understand the current situation and have embraced all the safety and hygiene protocols as their own. The members clean after using the material, maintain the safety distance, respect the training schedules. ... Our staff also participates in all these protocols.

"In addition, we regularly carry out the nightly cleaning of the facility so that the members who come first thing are impeccable.”

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VivaGym Group is keeping a close eye on COVID-19 cases and any changes that the government is requiring of them in order to keep members and staff safe. Del Río Nieto says he felt that the possibility of having to close gyms again if cases spike remains one of the biggest challenges.

“If COVID cases arise again, we will have to keep a close eye on the measures that the government imposes on us,” he says. “The first and most important thing for us is the safety of our members and staff. This is our priority among everything else.”

Remaining as up-to-date as possible, learning about what other clubs are experiencing, and creating contingency plans are of utmost importance.

During the May webinar, Del Río Nieto shared many insights about finding opportunity. He encouraged the audience to accept that there is still much to unfold.

“While I share with you your doubts, let me say that I also would like to send a message of total conviction and confidence that the future will give us enormous opportunities,” he shared.

If you’re looking for ways to stay fresh and innovative during these challenging times, equipping yourself with the necessary tools to prepare for the future is essential. Join IHRSA on September 17 for the IHRSA Innovation Summit to hear more perspectives from around the world, network, and ask key questions to help your business thrive.

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Christine Ulatoski

Christine Ulatosk is the Education Manager for IHRSA. She develops educational content online and in person at IHRSA events, as well as manages all event speakers. Outside of IHRSA, Christine can be found teaching or taking group fitness classes, or in the kitchen baking her specialty: chocolate chip cookies!