“Playing the long game”: Gym owners rejoice as restrictions ease, but say re-opening is just the beginning

Flow Athletic Ben Lucas

Flow Athletic founder Ben Lucas. Source: supplied.

After several months fighting for the survival of his business amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Flow Athletic owner Ben Lucas unlocked the doors on his Sydney gym over the weekend, after the NSW government gave the all-clear for trading to resume.

It was a big moment for the business owner, who has scrambled to keep the gym afloat during the pandemic, launching online classes on Facebook which have managed to make up about 65% of his usual revenue.

Members have been flooding back, keen to resume their gym routines as soon as possible.

“It’s just fabulous to realise what you do is not just a place to make an income but actually means so much to so many people,” Lucas tells SmartCompany.

But regulars may have noticed some differences about the gym. For starters, only 40% of the usual number of customers can enter, there are stickers placed across the floor designating social distancing requirements, and equipment sharing is paused, at least for the time being.

It’s enough to return the gym to about 75% of its usual revenue in the short term, Lucas estimates.

But opening up again has been much easier than closing down, particularly because Flow Athletic is still offering online classes, something that will be a permanent fixture for the business moving forward.

“We’ve had plenty of time to work on safety and hygiene,” Lucas says.

“The biggest challenge is how we service our community, that all want to come in and exercise, [when] we can only let 40% in.”

Flow Athletic is doing about 170 classes a week at the moment, approaching double the 100-or-so it used to run, with online lessons burgeoning in the post-COVID-19 environment.

That’s great news for the business long term, Lucas says, outlining his belief the pandemic has changed the structure of the fitness industry itself.

“We’re playing the long game, we know it won’t be like this forever and when things come back our customers will see how hard we’ve worked,” he says.

Businesses across the country are charting out their plans for the future at the moment as federal and state officials proceed to stage three of Australia’s coronavirus lockdowns easing, with most businesses now allowed to trade in some form or another.

Social distancing signs, hand sanitiser and new hygiene protocols are now mainstays of the Australian business environment, which is a welcome compromise for firms keen to trade, but also an extra cost impost during trying times.

New research published by American Express on Monday finds most small business owners (80%) are optimistic their business will now survive the COVID-19 pandemic, although more than half (52%) said they fear for their long-term survival with a recession on the way.

The annual survey, coinciding with the Shop Small campaign, canvassed the views of 500 small business owners between May 28 and June 4, run by Morning Consult.

About 750 consumer surveys were also undertaken, with just 33% saying they felt “at ease” returning to bricks-and-mortar stores, while 22% said they will only venture to the shops again once COVID-19 cases reach zero in their state.

“While people are starting to head out again, small businesses still face the challenge of getting customers to return at the levels they need,” Corrina Davison, managing director of American Express Australia, said of the survey.

Consumer appetites are emerging as a key question for small business owners over the next few months, with worry consumers will forgo spending for fear of economic downturn or just going outside.

SOMA Collection Gym, a boutique operation based in Sydney’s CBD, relies on office workers being in the city to grow its business.

Co-founder Simon Anderson on Monday opened the gym’s doors for the first time in several months, but reckons it will be a while before business really kicks into gear.

“It’s going to be a long burn … it’s a guessing game really, but I think by September if things keep going the way they’re going most people should be back to the city,” Anderson tells SmartCompany.

“But a lot of companies have changed their structure, [and] people are working from home.”

The post-coronavirus trading environment underscores difficulty for firms operating out of once-bustling central business districts. If tens of thousands of workers employed across the finance sector continue to work remotely, service industries relying on their patronage will suffer immensely.

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