Survival of the fittest: an industry in the throes of recovery

Hu Yumo
Gyms and fitness centers in Shanghai have done it tough during the coronavirus outbreak. How is their recuperation going?
Hu Yumo

Getting back into shape. Gyms and fitness clubs, like their patrons, are recovering from the coronavirus epidemic and striving to return to good health.

The sector was badly hurt by the viral outbreak, forced to close with customers in home lockdown. Gyms and fitness centers began reopening in late March, with government guidance.

Shanghai had 2,792 registered sports venues as of March 12, including gyms, fitness clubs and public gymnasiums and stadiums, according to the city’s sports administration.

While many of these sites report that normal trade is returning, more than 10 gyms or fitness clubs have been driven out of business by the epidemic, according to one industry insider who declined to be identified.

This month’s closure of V+ Fitness, founded in 2015 in Shanghai, raised eyebrows in the industry. The club, which operated 10 outlets in the city, catered to wealthier white-collar workers, business people and their families, as well as providing customized services to companies.

V+ Fitness cited rent as the major reason for its closure.

But that is the exception, not the rule, as the industry claws its way back to profit. The epidemic jolted many people, especially in the younger generation, into realizing the importance of personal health. Many now want to build up their defenses against infection by regular exercising.

Jojo Tang, who was born in 1989 and works as a senior analyst for a consumer goods firm, is a dedicated user of the Tera Wellness Club in Shanghai. Tang said it feels great to be back in the gym, where she goes three times a week.

“The gym’s business and flow of people seem to be back to normal,” she said. “The main differences are that everyone is wearing a mask and the smell of disinfectant is everywhere. I try to have a proper distance from others — not too close when running and doing other exercises.”

At gyms and fitness clubs in Shanghai, customers have their temperatures taken at the entrance, wear masks, keep social distance and register personal information. At present, most gyms and fitness clubs in Shanghai do not limit the number of people inside their facilities.

Gyms such as Tera Wellness Club and Will’s said customer numbers have returned to pre-epidemic levels, except at peak hours such as weekday evenings. Still, such encouraging news isn’t shared by every fitness facility in the city.

When the pandemic first hit earlier this year, many gyms in China chose to provide livestreaming courses on online platforms such as Douyin and Yizhibo. The number of people watching online classes dropped as workplaces and schools reopened. Most of the classes have now been discontinued, with a few keeping evening sessions.

Promotions

Many gyms are now promoting weekly and monthly fitness cards, hoping to attract more users back and retain those who do return. Some are offering free seven-day trial fitness cards on livestreaming sites. Customers can make online reservations by using their mobile phone numbers.

In order to encourage more citizens to do gym workouts, the Shanghai Fitness Bodybuilding Association is initiating a new promotional activity. Starting this week, more than 100 participating fitness sites are offering monthly cards, free courses and cash coupons. Shanghai authorities said the goal is to provide an opportunity for people to get more exercise and to help the centers build back their clientele.

Ted Li, owner of a fitness club in Putuo District, said his business is picking up, largely due to loyal users returning and purchasing courses.

He said smaller fitness clubs in Shanghai had scant income in the first half of the year but continued to pay rent and employee salaries. Li estimated that clubs lost around 40 percent of their revenue so far this year.

Since the end of March, Li has initiated a reservation system for customers to make appointments. That helps him regulate the flow of people in his facility.

“I feel that the future of the industry depends on how we control the epidemic this year,” he said. “After the epidemic eased, people realized the importance of exercise in building up their immune systems to resist infection. People think moderate exercise in the gym will improve immunity, and that leads to more demand for fitness.”

Li said his club also has coaches specializing in “restorative” exercises. For customers who want more tailored services, he develops a comprehensive health plan, arranges relevant courses and offers dietary advice.

Still, uncertainty remains for industry workers amid all the unknowns about this new virus. Some fitness coaches are believed to be leaving the industry, especially at sites where declining customers have meant declining paychecks.

All eyes recently have been on Beijing, which upgraded its emergency epidemic alert to Level 3 from Level 2 earlier this month, after an outbreak of cases related to the Xinfadi wholesale food market.

Large activities in the capital, such as exhibitions and sports events, have been halted, and underground swimming pools and gyms remain closed.

Gyms and fitness clubs everywhere are mindful of the need to keep abreast of COVID-19 developments and government requirements on the operations of their businesses.

Yang Hong, a gym coach in Shanghai, said the recent cluster of cases in Beijing has raised industry concerns.

“There is more uncertainty,” he said. “If gyms in Shanghai are closed again, it would greatly affect business and my income. I sincerely hope that this epidemic can be controlled for once and for all, and gyms can operate as they once did.”

Fitness club owner Li also said the revenue of his business has suffered in the past six months, particularly in the first quarter. He said he is hopeful that the second half of the year will be more prosperous. But you never know what’s ahead. He said he is preparing for all eventualities.

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