Adjusting Fitness Center Operations in the New Normal

Part four of CFW's reopening blog series, The Great Fitness Reboot.

Written by: Elisa Denning, Senior Director of Marketing & Communications

Group of people doing fitness in a gym wearing a mask, coronavirus concept

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has significantly altered life as we know it. This state referred to as our ‘new normal’ has required a great deal of patience, grace, compassion, and perseverance to navigate. In the eight months since the first shutdowns occurred, we have learned and implemented substantial changes to help bring employees and members back to the workplace and back to using their corporate fitness centers safely. Throughout this blog series, we have addressed protocols for social distancing in fitness centers, cleaning and disinfecting the facility, as well as how to build member trust and comfort as they come back to work out. This article builds from those topics as we focus how to adjust the technical and managerial aspects of site operations during a pandemic.

One of the first areas to adjust may be within your own expectations. What do you anticipate will happen the moment the doors to your onsite fitness center reopen? As experienced in our fitness sites and businesses overall, it is not likely you will be flooded with members day one of reopening. Rather, expect a slow and gradual uptick in visits and utilization. Things like hours of operation, capacity, class offerings will need to be more fluid and change as utilization goes up and demand increases. Not to mention, preparing everyone involved in site operations – from your supervisors, staff, to part-time instructors – all must be prepared to stay flexible should regulations and case rates in your local area shift.

Because a pandemic brings so many unknowns, we are still in the process of adjusting and it is likely we will be that way for a while. In this Q&A, our Senior Director of Operations, Lisa Marchiani, helps us understand how to successfully adapt fitness center operations in this ‘new normal’. Here is what she had to say:

What adjustments should be made in terms of hours of operation and staffing?

It is highly likely your hours of operation will need to change, and perhaps vary on different days of the week based on new utilization numbers, building cleaning services and equipment cleaning protocols. Consider what opening and closing times align with cleaning procedures and then arrange staffing shifts to ensure proper floor supervision, adherence to equipment cleaning schedules, as well as assessing and replenishing personal hygiene and protection supplies.

Modified hours signage

How should we approach capacity limits?

First and foremost, you need to know and understand your local government regulations for fitness centers to set an overall capacity. Then consider separate spaces, like group exercise studios, locker rooms, etc. and what those capacity limits should be in accordance with safe social distancing. For example, a 6-foot space of social distance between participants calculates to 13 square feet per person. Factor that into total square footage of a certain space, like a group exercise studio, and you can identify a capacity limit for members utilizing that space.

What would you say is the best way to administer member check-in?

Ideally, a touchless check-in process keeps everyone at optimal distance to avoid contact and limit exposure risk. For most of our sites, we work with our corporate clients to enable a badge reader that the member scans in front of a sensor, or smart phone app with a digital badge or unique code that can be scanned and/or linked to a member management system.

Digital check-in app

In addition to touchless check-in, many local and state guidelines require screening for fitness centers which may involve temperature checks and COVID risk questionnaire. In terms of corporate fitness operations, this may be happening when entering the building as employers are assessing risk for their entire workforce.

How should we adjust class offerings?

Getting back to those realistic expectations, anticipate your class attendance will be substantially lower as compared to pre-pandemic normal. Start small and gradually increase your offerings. You may opt to re-open your facility for individual workouts first, and then initiate group exercise after 2-4 weeks of assessing utilization. Some key considerations for re-building your group exercise program include:

  • Appeal to the masses. Select versatile formats that appeal to a wide audience, and reference previous utilization stats to identify formats and class times ideal for your membership base.
  • Stagger class times and formats. Allow additional time between classes for cleaning and disinfecting. Ancillary equipment may take longer to clean and dry before it’s ready for use again.
  • Continue your virtual offerings. Consider many of your members, particularly parents of school-aged children in remote or hybrid learning, may be working and working out at odd hours. If you have been able to offer classes virtually, either through live or recorded video on-demand workouts, continue to offer those to retain your membership.
  • Take it outside. Consider offering outdoor classes if your local weather and space just outside the facility permits. From what we know of the virus, exposure risk and transmission is very low when engaged in outdoor activities.
Multiethnic young women group wear face masks meditate in lotus pose keep social distance at retreat yoga class on sunrise outdoor. Fit healthy diverse ladies do yoga exercise distancing for safety.
  • Establish sign-ups and reservations. To help enforce capacity limits of your studio, you may need to create a sign-up or reservation policy and then clearly communicate that to members. This will avoid overcrowding and help you gauge interest in attendance and format to know when it is time to add or remove classes.

When in the daily, weekly, monthly operations schedule should we evaluate equipment usage and adjust pieces in/out of use?

Woman cleaning exercise equipment with disinfectant spray and cloth in gym, closeup

Pandemic aside, monitoring equipment usage and periodically exchanging frequently used pieces with those used less is a well-known best practice of fitness center operations. Considering half of your cardio equipment may be blocked off to support social distancing, you’ll need to add some time to one of your scheduled deep cleaning sessions to adjust which pieces you leave on or off for usage.

Depending on how much traffic you see after opening, you may want to do this every other week or month. Before reopening, capture the current utilization stats from electronic displays on cardio pieces. This will provide you a baseline to help even out depreciation among units.

For ancillary equipment such as, bands, balls, tubing, etc., consider a check-out/check-in process to ensure the equipment is properly cleaned and disinfected after each use. Give members clear instruction to keep the item with them at all times, not to share it with others, and to return the item to the check-in area immediately following the workout. Allow for ‘dwell time’ after applying the equipment manufacturer approved cleaning agent and disinfectant, ensure your staff allows for adequate ‘dwell time’ – the length of time needed to complete the disinfecting process and dry before placing the item back into circulation.

What about other amenity and fee-based services; personal training or massage?

Let us break this question down int two parts, starting with Personal Training. Like group exercise, if you have been able to offer training sessions virtually, plan to continue. This supports member satisfaction, retention, and revenue goals giving members who may not be able to regularly visit the fitness center an alternative to participate. For those who are ready to do sessions in person, personal training can be provided safely with social distancing and wearing masks. Leadership should inform and hold trainers accountable for no-touch sessions – no spotting, adjusting, etc. In terms of massage services, the risks are greater. Massage requires person-to-person contact, and that as we know from health experts is the primary source for transmission. Depending on your location, your space and set-up, member needs, ownership, liaisons or partners, the risk may be too great to re-introduce it in your fitness center at this time. Refer to local government regulations in place for spa-type businesses and align offerings with those.

While these are some of the key operational considerations for re-opening fitness centers, we certainly have not covered them all. There is a great deal to unpack with staff training, communication, and accountability, which we will cover in our next piece. Many factors are site-specific and require a thoughtful plan that is customized to your facility and membership population. As we work to navigate reopening for our clients and fitness centers that we manage, we have the knowledge and hands-on experience to develop your customized facility reopening plan. Click here to set up a time to initiate a re-opening consult with our team of experts.