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HV/LP Reopening Strategies Webinar: Your Questions Answered

We have more answers to your cleaning & facilities, staffing, and membership questions.

Recently, I moderated an IHRSA webinar, sponsored by Zeamo, on the topic of reopening strategies for high-volume/low-price (HV/LP) facilities. We received so many questions during the session that we went back to our HV/LP market experts to answer them. The panelists in the webinar were:

  • Todd Magazine: CEO of Blink Fitness
  • Ben Midgley: CEO of Crunch Franchises

In addition to our panelists, another source for this article is Al Noshirvani, chairman of Motionsoft and moderator of a CEO/COO group of 45 leading club companies dealing with the challenges of COVID-19.

Ultimately, attendee questions targeted the following areas: cleaning and facilities, staffing, and memberships. We asked these three industry experts about these areas—and your questions.

During the webinar, it became evident that the challenges for all clubs right now are to reopen soon, create a safe and extremely clean environment, offer the features of the club permitted by local regulations, and communicate that the club is open and available to the local community. The two biggest variables are:

  1. activating current members to start using the club soon after the reopening,
  2. recruiting previous employees right away who may have been furloughed or terminated.

HV/LP clubs have some key learnings as these clubs serve fewer members with bigger physical locations. Take a look at the answers to some questions we didn't have time to answer during the webinar.

Each club now has to meet new county and state regulations and protocols regarding the cleanliness and safe environment for both the members and the facility's employees. Because of the public's sensitivity to the spread of COVID-19, the image of gyms is one of great concern.

Q: Are you asking members to clean equipment? What does the cleaning schedule for staff look like?

Clubs that have reopened have begun social campaigns to display their new, enhanced cleaning techniques and show the elaborate equipment used to clean at intensive levels. These systems do not depend on members as the main source of deep cleaning. The concept is to educate members to clean after each use, but the assumption is that they will not do deep cleaning well.

Many clubs are now going to be using electrostatic handheld and backpack sprayers to disinfect the club. This type of cleaning may be scheduled at several intervals throughout the day. In all cases, this most thorough cleaning process would be done at night when no members are in attendance.

The staff has to be retrained to clean throughout the day—even more so than previously. In many cases, job descriptions have been changed to ensure that all staff from the front desk to personal trainers and managers will be dedicated cleaners. This involves stretching mats, all parts of upholstery on strength equipment, and even the pins on weight stacks. All areas of a treadmill (the deck, the cardio screen, the arms, etc.) would be cleaned fully after each use. Members would be taught to do so.

The goal is to meet U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulations and achieve consistent levels of cleaning. This may involve the use of zone cleaning, where equipment and free weights are cleaned by separate areas in a scheduled format. Based on experiences in clubs in Asia, the actual club may be closed to the membership in half-hour time slots to do a thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the entire club.

Q: What are you doing about members that violate the rules?

Some clubs may have a staff person to monitor such behavior and "coach" the member to be responsible for proper cleaning. Some clubs have spent time role playing how to communicate with non-compliant members.

Q: Do you have signage of how to clean the equipment? Are you looking at staff during the day to also clean high-touch areas such as door handles?

Signage should be pervasive regarding cleaning protocols. All users should be made aware of the expectations of members and the processes of the club staff. In group fitness classes, some time slots may be altered, so classes might be shortened to allow a full cleaning of the area, mats, fitness accessories, etc., between classes. The cleaning protocol may extend to even door handles with the use of protective wraps that are disinfecting mechanisms. Air quality may be improved with the installation of UV lighting in the air conditioning systems. Clubs may also post signage to show the last time a specific area was cleaned.

Obviously, clubs now furnish a bevy of hand sanitizers and wet wipes in each area and place near each piece of equipment. More spray bottles are now provided. Some have chosen to even brand their cleaning levels as "XYZ Club Clean," "XYZ Club Standard," or "Member Shield."

Providing confidence to members—and to club staff—is critical at the immediate reopening of a club and onward.

Clubs have had to reorganize their club to meet social distancing rules and local regulations. The concept of how a member uses the facility is radically different, especially in the initial stages.

Q: In addition to cleaning signage, will there be any additional signage throughout the facility?

Many clubs are requiring members to check-in via a mobile app, allowing for a more contactless experience. If there is a keypad and stylus for signing in, a staff member sanitizes them between users. Floor markings have been added throughout many facilities—or even in the outside entryway—to provide visuals on new 6-foot proximity rules.

Q: What are the trends on using a thermometer to monitor staff prior to entering the facility?

In many states, temperature checks or screenings are required. Staff wear personal protective equipment (PPE) to avoid any virus transmission. Frequently, plexiglass shields are created at the front desk to protect the staff.

Q: What does the new member experience look like in your space?

Social distancing is paramount in the fitness equipment area. In the cardiovascular equipment area, many pieces have been moved farther apart. Many are still there but unplugged with a sign indicating it's out of service. Some have even been moved to other areas with greater spacing.

The strength equipment area also needs to be compliant. Some machines have signs of nonuse. Some now supply alternate days if there are no duplicate machines. All users are separated out. The free weights area now may involve fewer benches, some bolted in place to avoid movement and proper spacing. There's signage on how to deal with dumbbells and free weights to limit sharing germs.

In some states, an overall number of users is limited by regulations. This can be monitored by the mobile app for the gym. As regulations ease, the use of the app can monitor the given limits. In many cases, the app will control how many users there can be in a given area, a class or a club service area. This is critical for clubs to comply with strict early limitations and the process of sequential openings of each part of the club.

Q: Should our pool/locker rooms/water fountains be open? What about personal training or group exercise?

Typically, most states have not permitted clubs to open up all of its facilities and services at its initial stage. So, it is likely that group exercise studios, childcare areas, basketball courts, locker rooms, and use of other social areas would be banned until further notice. If a locker room can only be used for its toilet area, it must be cleaned immediately and frequently. Once any of these social areas are open, systems for distancing, cleaning, and hallway traffic must be enforced. For example, many are removing benches in the locker rooms, tying off some of the lockers to create spacing, removing all toiletries on counters, removing towel service, etc. Water fountains are closed off, but water refilling stations are still in use.

Q: Do you think it could be helpful to have a friendly PA system to communicate with your members when they are at the gym, guiding them with the new protocols, making it friendly and lively etc.?

To help teach the members proper behavior, regular announcements are being made throughout the gym, typically through a public address system. In some cases, clubs have taken advantage of turf areas to move equipment around. In a few cases, outdoor space—even in club parking lots—is contemplated for member use.

The initial challenge is to re-engage key club employees who were furloughed or terminated. This is critical prior to opening, as club management has often re-evaluated roles of staff. This certainly involves the critical additional task of cleaning. Some clubs now have created a "generalist" position that involves the combination of duties from the past with additional functions.

Q: Did you have to change your sales stations due to social distancing measures? We asked about staff temperature monitoring, but what about members prior to entering the facility?

The way staff interacts with members has changed, beginning at the check-in point. Members have to be screened for health risks and often—by ordinance—have their temperature checked. Likewise, staff have to also undergo the same screening.

Q: How do we get staff back at the same rate of pay vs. new roles & responsibilities?

In some cases, clubs have maintained the same pay scales, while in others, increases were required. Not all of the staff will return, so many of the staff functions are still closed. So, a plan to recruit needed staff before the expanded set of club facilities will reopen is critical. A proper retraining period will be needed.

Q: Will you provide masks for your staff? If so, are they able to bring their own masks? Should trainers wear masks?

Typically, regulations will require staff to wear masks at all times, including personal trainers and group exercise instructors. This may take some adjustments for them. Many authorities may also require gloves. These will all need to be supplied by the club.

Q: What kind of marketing will be done to retain members and to get new prospects?

Because the initial focus is to bring back existing members as soon as possible, many clubs are not gearing up their marketing function right away to previous levels. There are walk-in prospects, so sales staff will be required to revise their locations in the club, wear PPE, and have a plexiglass shield to separate them over a counter or at a desk. New members will need to be signed up via an app or an electronic signature. The use of paper is limited. Touring of the club needs to be revised and careful to maintain the proper distancing.

Some clubs are finding it difficult to recruit key staff back, due to a variety of factors. This seems to be especially critical for experienced housekeeping and cleaning staff.

Q: What are best practices for the current member coming back? What is the strategy to reduce freezes & cancellations?

The goal is obviously to activate the current club members to start using the club immediately. Some will choose to sit on the sidelines, so continuing to offer virtual content is recommended. Some will be encouraged to simply take seven to 10 days to visit the new experiences of a fitness environment and make a decision. Many will continue to stay on frozen memberships in a few clubs, there will be a deadline for a decision—to activate or cancel. Open houses and special reopening events are planned. More communication with members at this time is highly recommended.

Many clubs are using videos as a tool to welcome members back. They also feature the new, enhanced cleaning procedures in their videos, as well as an advanced peek at the physical changes within the club.

Members are getting instructional messages to use their club’s mobile app to check in when they come to the club and for advance reservations where required. This can be for a time slot, for a particular class or activity, for a personal training session, and more. Members are also educated about the need for wearing a mask (either required or recommended by local regulations), the need for being responsible for cleaning after use, the areas not yet available at the club and the new rules and procedures. Sometimes, clubs are providing extensive FAQs online.

Q: For the clubs that have been open what have the attendance/usage look like in compared to pre-shutdown? It’s fine that the government has told us to reopen, but what is the customer ready to come back?

Clubs are finding the first few weeks that usage is lower than in the past. This can be attributed to fewer available areas of the club and members’ reluctance to return. Sales at some clubs have been initially surprising, because there has been no real marketing going on and because of perceived "pent-up demand." Attrition is high but not as high as owners initially expected. This may be influenced by the lack of new operating history and the large numbers still in the freeze category.

Q: If annual fees were not billed while shut down, will you bill those after reopening?

Normal dues are being charged once the club has opened. Where HV/LP clubs normally charge an annual fee, the imposition of such a fee has been delayed a month after the club's reopening.

Q: How are you doing virtual personal training/classes?

Digital content is still being offered to members for free. In some cases, clubs are adding to it and looking to increase the quality with a future idea of charging for it. Some have created virtual personal training services and are imposing a fee. Clubs are continuing to communicate with members via emails and their website updates. Members are being informed of what is expected of them when they return in terms of conforming to the new club regulations and protocols—with the idea that all is created to protect them. Initially, no new guest passes are permitted in order to protect the current membership.

Club owners are worried about a variety of things such as getting their members back early after reopening, the impact of closures for those whose main interests and activities are not permitted to be open yet, length of time current members stay on freeze, and those who have bought home fitness equipment and benefitted from at-home virtual content. Due to these factors, they are reluctant to gear up the old level of marketing right away.

So, club owners are excited about finally reopening, but perplexed about how the marketplace will behave. Without extensive real data, club owners are concerned about how long the club will take to get back to its previous bottomline given the closure and limited reopening offerings. Club owners are confident in their long-run vision but are not sure of the timeline to get there.

You can also watch the full webinar with Rick Caro, Todd Magazine, and Ben Midgley anytime.

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Author avatar

Rick Caro

Rick Caro is the president of Management Vision, Inc., a leading consulting firm specializing in the club industry. He currently serves on two boards and four advisory boards serving the health club industry. Previously, he was chairman of the Spectrum Clubs, Inc., a leading club ownership company with plans to consolidate the industry. After only six months, it became the 10th largest company in the U.S., with two major club clusters in Texas and California. He is a 47-year veteran of the club industry. He previously was the owner of an eight-club organization of multi-sport clubs in the northeast U.S., which he successfully sold in 1983. Over the last six years, he has consulted to over 1,700 clubs. Caro was the founder, past president, and director of IHRSA. He is a frequent writer for various trade publications and the author of the book, Financial Management, targeted for the club industry.