Establishing Member Trust & Comfort during COVID

Part three of CFW's Great Corporate Fitness Reboot blog series.

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


“I want to go back to the fitness center, but is it safe?”

This is certainly a common and reasonable question to ask of the fitness industry in these times of COVID. From the start of the pandemic, gyms and fitness centers were labeled as a ‘high-risk environment’. This led to mandatory closures and an immediate shift from delivering onsite, in-person fitness experiences, to all virtual. While we’ve seen positive response to our virtual services and plan for its continuance well into the future, we are grateful for the opportunity to resume onsite operations for sites that are ready.

Now that businesses and companies are starting to re-open, we’re able to welcome employees back into some of our onsite fitness centers. This of course, is being done with heightened safety and cleaning protocols to uphold social distancing, capacity limits, mask mandates, and sanitization all in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control COVID-19 Response and site specific regulations set forth by local government.

While some individuals have indicated their readiness to get back to the gym, there is a level of fear and reluctance that we must address. Our team has devoted countless hours of research and development on this topic to support reopening our corporate fitness centers safely and successfully. To help break this topic down even further, we asked our site operations experts these specific questions on how to address member concerns and build trust and comfort as they return to the fitness center.

What are members’ greatest concerns about returning to the gym?

While each person has their own unique set of concerns, the top three we hear most frequently include:

  1. Equipment cleanliness and the risk of transmission from germy surfaces
  2. Social distancing and not enough space to prevent person-to-person spread
  3. Other patrons not complying with health and safety guidelines (not spraying down equipment, not wearing a mask, etc.).

How can we address concerns about equipment cleanliness and surface transmission?

First, we need to clarify what we know about transmission to understand risk. Recent news and research statements from the Centers for Disease Control indicate COVID transmission primarily occurs person-to-person, and when in close contact with someone infected. It is less likely spread from touching surfaces, particularly when those surfaces are constantly cleaned and disinfected, and people are washing hands and avoid touching their face.

Fitness staff cleaning exercise machines alcohol sanitizer spray at the gym. preventive disease of the Covid 19 virus

We can help ease member concerns by sharing these facts, along with communicating details about the site-specific cleaning protocols. For our managed facilities, this includes deep cleaning before open and at close, and just after peak utilization hours during the day. It is also important to give members specific instructions with ample supply of equipment safe disinfectant and sanitizer to use pre/post workout. Pair all of this with enforcing safe social distancing, handwashing, wearing masks, etc.; together we can control the risk in our fitness centers rather well.

Is there any research data about COVID transmission in fitness centers?

In a September 2, 2020 Press Release, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) shared research data the found fitness centers following health and safety guidelines are safe and not contributing to the spread of COVID-19. As noted in the release, IHRSA teamed up with MXM to gather millions of member check-ins from more than 2,800 clubs over a three-month period. Analysts evaluated the check-in data against COVID-19 incidence of fitness center staff and members to find a 0.0023% infection rate.

Outside the fitness industry, this data was met with criticism primarily because it relied on self-reported incidence of COVID getting back to the health clubs involved in the study. As noted in this NPR article, there is not a lot of research to suggest working out in a fitness center is any more or less risky than eating at a restaurant or going to a bar. This article goes on to share insight from both perspectives, siting additional studies where COVID incidence among gym goers was very low.

What’s the best way to communicate social distancing and safety guidelines for members?

Use a show and tell communication strategy. For the ‘tell’ part, put everything that the fitness center staff is doing to prevent transmission in writing and distribute via email and with center signage. Take the member through their onsite experience from entry to exit; Describe a touchless check-in, socially distanced equipment, cleaning and disinfecting practices, advanced class sign-ups based on capacity, to showers and locker room limits.

Young man with mask sitting while exercising with dumbbell at gym during corona virus covid-19

Then, ‘show’ members how you’re doing all of this. Provide visual maps and layouts of social distancing, pictures of studios with workout spaces taped off, images of the staff cleaning and wearing masks, etc. Take it one step further and offer your members a video walk through of what to expect when they return to the gym, like these examples recently showcased on IHRSA’s blog. Cover all the guidelines and requirements from masks, to hand washing, wiping down equipment, and safe social distancing.

How can we alleviate the ‘what if’ fears of those refusing to follow safety guidelines?

It is critical to have measures in place to report any non-compliance and clarify what action will be taken if someone fails to follow required health and safety guidelines. From a corporate fitness perspective, we align our member eligibility and usage guidelines with a company’s specific employee policies. This means we also align with the company’s health and safety guidelines for COVID prevention. For example, if the company requires employees to wear a mask to enter the building, the same must be practiced in the fitness center as it is part of the workplace. If the expectation is not met, the behavior is addressed, and membership access may be revoked.

What approaches do you recommend for continuing to build member trust and comfort, particularly for those who aren’t sure about returning?

Just like we would when setting health goals or creating an exercise plan, we approach each members’ readiness to come back individually. Some will be eager to get right back in the fitness center, take classes, and do all their regular workouts. Others will be more reluctant and may want to observe for a while before returning. Ultimately, our communication needs to convey that we’re ready when they are. Best practices to build on that trust and comfort include:

• Keep virtual going!

Yoga teacher conducting virtual class at home on a video conference. Young beautiful woman doing an online yoga class in her living room with laptop. Home fitness and workout concept

Continue to promote virtual service options for your remote members. On-demand and live classes with instructors and participants in studio, virtual training sessions, as well as online health and fitness challenges will keep your remote members engaged. This gives them the freedom to observe what being back in the gym looks like from a distance.

• Maintain open/honest communications.

Young woman smiling at phone after workout

Well before reopening the fitness center, there should be a clear plan of what to do and how to report any COVID cases. Explain that process to your members so that they know what to expect in terms of notifications and quarantine procedures should they be needed.

• Survey and share feedback.

Survey cropped

As your site resumes operations, consider offering a short survey to your members. This can occur after 30-days of them being back. Ask them to rate their comfort level in terms of the facility and equipment cleanliness, personal safety, their participation in the socially distanced layout. This is a great source to help you evaluate effectiveness of reopening plan, and sharing active member perceptions with those who aren’t so sure about coming back can help build their confidence and comfort.

The process of reopening and firmly establishing member trust and comfort is going to take some time. As members return, you might discover a need to alter operations – like adding special deep cleaning hours. We will touch on factors like that in our next article in this series: Adjusting Daily Operations in the New Normal.

Whether your corporate fitness center is already reopened, or you are preparing to reopen in the coming months, we are here to help. Click here to request a consult with our team of experts to receive your customized corporate fitness reopening plan, including guidance on social distancing, member safety signage and sample communications.