Philadelphia area gyms continue to rebuild membership after COVID closures


When William G. of Virtua Health. Rohrer fitness center reopened in September 2020, after pandemic shutdowns that began six months earlier, company executives expected many members to be slow to return.

But not so long.

Voorhees’ massive facility – complete with its comprehensive fitness center and three swimming pools – is now set to close permanently at the end of November, unable to survive any longer on a membership only about half of what it was before the pandemic, when the center had over 4,000 members.

“We actually had one of our best years ever in 2019, and we couldn’t get over it,” said April Schetler, Virtua’s assistant vice president for community programming. The drop in membership has resulted in a “significant deficit” for the fitness center, she said, although she declined to specify the amount.

“We tried to fight this battle,” Schetler added, “but without success.”

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

Now surviving gyms are tasked with not only winning back members who have converted to home or outdoor workouts, but doing so while dealing with staffing shortages, rising labor costs, labour, inflation and supply chain issues.

“Our biggest headache was equipment.” said Lisa Alberta, Director of Marketing for The Health and Fitness House to Wayne. “If a treadmill broke down, trying to get spare parts” was a challenge.

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

To Royal fitness in Barrington, Camden County, employees traveled to Target or Wawa to fill the fridge with bottled water due to issues with bulk orders, fitness director Danielle Zacamy said. At the same time, the price of stocking the establishment’s juice bar has increased “significantly”, she said.

As Royal struggled to fill vacancies, particularly for some positions such as yoga and barre class instructors, the gym needed to raise employee wages to compete with other part-time job opportunities partial, Zacamy said. To meet these rising costs, dues for new members increased by $3 a month earlier this year, she said.

Still, “we’re doing pretty well,” Zacamy said, noting that the gym has more than 3,000 members and only a few hundred left compared to its pre-COVID census.

“It doesn’t come without effort,” she said. “We’ve done a lot to try to be proactive.” This includes continuing to schedule half of its classes outdoors and the other half indoors this fall 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 rents, she added, the business might not have survived otherwise.

In Wayne, La Maison Health and Fitness has also experienced the benefits of owning, which has been particularly helpful given its sharp decline in membership — from around 4,000 before the pandemic to 2,000 now, Alberta said, the marketing manager.

“It’s definitely a huge hit on the bottom line,” she said. “Fortunately, since we are a family business, we own our building. I know so many gyms across the country and in the region had to close because they couldn’t pay their rent.

Like Royal Fitness, La Maison has reduced the number of scheduled classes, Alberta said. The Main Line facility also stopped offering a coffee bar, she added, but retained free towel service.

To help offset the decline in membership, the club now sells three tiers of membership: one is cheaper and the other is more expensive than previously offered. The highest tier is a $120-a-month VIP package that includes personal training and unlimited classes, Alberta said. The club also stepped up its marketing this summer, she said, with a special no-registration offer that in June attracted 60 new members, most of them former members who had left during the pandemic.

READ MORE: Starting April 2020: Decimated by pandemic closures and layoffs, Philadelphia’s fitness industry hangs on to stay afloat

To Riverton Health and Fitness Center in Burlington County, owner Jason Cioci said he picked up a few hundred members in the past few months and now has 800 members. Before COVID, he said, the center averaged about 1,200 people.

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

Thanks to these decisions, “we are in a good position to continue,” he said.

The center’s situation would have been quite different, he said, if hundreds of longtime members hadn’t allowed the gymnasium to continue collecting their dues even when it was closed during the shutdowns.

“I would have lost the building,” Cioci said. “I would have lost the gymnasium. I would have been desperate.

In Camden, meanwhile, personal trainer Rick Gaines said he got more business from people who weren’t comfortable going back to traditional gyms and training with others indoors.

“People who never thought they would come to a personal trainer came to see me because of the virus,” said Gaines, who was also encouraged by the opening of a supplement store connected to his studio. Body Designers personal training course. “They just didn’t feel comfortable going back to the gym.”

At the soon-to-be-closed Rohrer Fitness Center, members tend to age, Schetler said, and one of Virtua’s reasons for the decision was “changing public fitness preferences.” .

“A lot of people canceled right away, saying they’d come back when they felt safe,” Schetler said, and many still haven’t felt comfortable enough.

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

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

As for Rohrer’s staff, all are employed by a fitness management company, not Virtua. One of the reasons for announcing the closure in advance is “to help ensure staff have time to plan their next steps,” Virtua spokesman Daniel Moise said.

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

“There’s no shortage of fitness centers in the area,” she says. “We believe that strategically our investment can be put to better use.”


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