September 27, 2022

Philadelphia-area gyms are still building back membership from COVID closures

Philadelphia-area gyms are still building back membership from COVID closures

When Virtua Health’s William G. Rohrer Fitness Center reopened in September 2020, after the pandemic shutdowns that started six months earlier, company executives expected that it would take time for many members to return.

But not this much time.

The massive Voorhees facility — with its full fitness center and three pools — is now set to close for good at the end of November, unable to survive any longer with membership only about half what it was pre-pandemic, when the center had more than 4,000 members.

“We actually had one of our best years in 2019, and we have not been able to come back from that,” said April Schetler, Virtua’s assistant vice president for community-based programming. The drop in membership has resulted in a “significant deficit” for the fitness center, she said, though she declined to specify how much.

“We’ve been trying to fight this battle,” Schetler added, “but unsuccessfully.”

The impending closure is one of the most severe outcomes in the fitness industry’s ongoing battle to regain business lost during COVID-19. Nationally, 25% of the health and fitness facilities that were operating in March 2020 were permanently closed by the end of last year, according to an analysis by a trade group for the industry, IHRSA.

Now the gyms that survived are tasked not only with winning back members who converted to at-home or outdoor workouts, but doing so while dealing with staff shortages, rising labor costs, inflation, and supply chain issues.

“Our biggest headache was equipment.” said Lisa Alberta, marketing director for La Maison Health and Fitness in Wayne. “If a treadmill went down, trying to get the replacement parts” was a challenge.

Several gym owners and managers said they’ve experienced delays replacing weights, cardio machines, and other equipment.

At Royal Fitness in Barrington, Camden County, employees have made runs to Target or Wawa to refill the fridge with water bottles because of issues with bulk orders, said fitness director Danielle Zacamy. At the same time, the price of stocking the facility’s juice bar has increased “tremendously,” she said.

As Royal struggled to fill staffing vacancies, particularly for certain positions such as yoga and barre class instructors, the gym needed to increase employee wages in order to compete with other part-time job possibilities, Zacamy said. To keep up with these rising costs, new member dues went up $3 a month earlier this year, she said.

Still, “we’re doing fairly well,” Zacamy said, noting that the gym has more than 3,000 members and is down just a few hundred from its pre-COVID census.

“It doesn’t go without effort,” she said. “There’s a lot we’ve been doing to try to be proactive.” That includes continuing to schedule half of its classes outdoors and half indoors this fall in order to accommodate members’ COVID comfort levels.

If the 40-year-old gym didn’t already own the building, Royal Fitness wouldn’t have had the same flexibility to offer outdoor classes, Zacamy said. Combined with rising rent costs, she added, the business might not have been able to survive otherwise.

In Wayne, La Maison Health and Fitness has also experienced the benefits of owning, which has been especially helpful given its steep decline in membership — from about 4,000 pre-pandemic to 2,000 now, said Alberta, the marketing director.

“It’s definitely a huge hit for the bottom line,” she said. “Thankfully, since we are family-owned, we do own our building. I know so many gyms across the country and across the area had to close because they could not pay their rent.”

Like Royal Fitness, La Maison has cut back on the number of scheduled classes, Alberta said. The Main Line facility stopped offering a coffee bar, as well, she added, but kept complimentary towel service.

To help offset the member drop-off, the club now sells three levels of memberships: one is cheaper and one is more expensive than what was previously offered. The highest level is a $120 a month VIP package that includes personal training and unlimited classes, Alberta said. The club also amped up its marketing this summer, she said, with a no-enrollment special that in June attracted 60 new members, most of them prior members who’d left during the pandemic.

» READ MORE: From April 2020: Decimated by pandemic closures and layoffs, Philadelphia fitness industry claws to stay afloat

At Riverton Health and Fitness Center in Burlington County, owner Jason Cioci said he has gained back a couple hundred members in recent months and now has 800 members. Before COVID, he said, the center averaged about 1,200.

With less money coming in from memberships, Cioci said he cut his staff down from six people to two. He also increased the price of new membership from about $25 to $35.

Because of these decisions, “we’re in a good position to keep going,” he said.

The center’s situation would have been quite different, he said, if hundreds of longtime members had not allowed the gym to keep taking their dues even when it was closed during the shutdowns.

“I would’ve lost the building,” Cioci said. “I would’ve lost the gym. I would’ve been in despair.”

In Camden, meanwhile, personal trainer Rick Gaines said he’s gotten more business from people who weren’t comfortable returning to traditional gyms and working out with others indoors.

“People who never thought they’d come to a personal trainer came to me because of the virus,” said Gaines, who was also buoyed by opening a supplement shop connected to his Body Designers Personal Training Studio. “They just didn’t feel comfortable going back to the gym.”

At the soon-to-be-closed Rohrer Fitness Center, members tend to skew older, Schetler said, and one of the reasons Virtua gave for the decision was “shifting fitness preferences among the public.”

“We did have a lot of people cancel right away, saying they’ll come back when they feel safe,” Schetler said, and many haven’t yet felt comfortable enough.

“The fitness industry has changed so much during the pandemic and people who were committed to working out found other ways,” she said. “They turned to virtual means or just went outside and went for a run or a bike ride.”

And Virtua, a nonprofit health care system, has the option to eventually repurpose the fitness center space for something else. Medical and surgical offices are located in the same building as the gym; Schetler said officials haven’t made a final decision on how to use the space.

As for the Rohrer staff, all are employed by a fitness management company, not Virtua. One reason for announcing the closure in advance is “to help ensure the staff has time to chart out their next steps,” said Virtua spokesperson Daniel Moise.

And Schetler said she’s confident that Rohrer’s remaining gym members will be able to find plenty of other options nearby.

“In the region, there’s no shortage of fitness centers,” she said. “We feel strategically our investment can be better used.”

https://www.inquirer.com/business/gyms-fitness-philadelphia-pandemic-recovery-supply-shortage-20220910.html