Leila Kouri, who opened the first F45 franchise in Abu Dhabi 18 months ago, doesn’t think it will be easy getting members back to the gym when the UAE begins to open up post Covid-19.
“Even with a 50 percent cap on numbers, will people be willing to risk it? I doubt it,” she says, adding that it will be challenging to do a HIIT session wearing a mask and gloves.
The once-thriving fitness industry has been one of the hardest hit by the lockdown, globally and in the UAE. And reopening isn’t going to be any easier: although the government has not yet issued official guidelines, it is expected in-studio classes will be limited to 50 or even 30 percent capacity. Temperature readings, medical clearance certificates, masks and gloves, no shared equipment, continuous cleansing and paying for ongoing testing for staff and teachers will tax the industry even more.
Like many other owners and managers, once the gyms closed Kouri moved swiftly to introduce remote classes, first for free and later for a charge, and intends to continue until the club is able to operate normally. Members will still be able to access live sessions via Zoom or request a recording to be sent to them, even when the gym opens back up.
“I’ve tried to make it as simple as possible,” she explains. “We have one of the best communities and when you’re down, that’s when you see it. Our members are like family and they have behaved like family through this.”
Inspire, a yoga, pilates and fitness studio in Dubai, has even named its extensive reopening plan: Project Ahimsa, which means “non-harming” or “non violence” in Sanskrit. In an email to clients, owners explained the preparations include a new fit-out and disinfection by a professional cleaning company. Memberships have been extended until September and Zoom classes will continue to be available, along with the studio’s video library of classes, acknowledging those members “not ready to return to the studio”.
Trainers and studio owners scrambled to respond to their gym closures. Some, like BodyTree Studio in Abu Dhabi and Core 8, Crank and Best Body Co in Dubai, quickly launched online platforms offering classes for a fee.
“If you get something for free, you don’t value it as much,” said Best Body Co’s Olivia McCubbin. Mindful of the financial problems many are facing with salaries on hold, reduced or jobs lost altogether, clients pay what they can – and it’s worked.
“We’re small and we’re nimble and that’s why our business will survive,” she says.
In the early days, many gyms did a brisk business renting out in-demand equipment that would have been otherwise sitting idle. Renting at inflated prices, however, has become less tenable as the lockdown has continued.
“The problem is, people didn’t think this situation would last this long,” says McCubbin. “Charging Dh1,500 per bike per fortnight just isn’t feasible and it starts to look like exploitation, so it’s no wonder equipment rental is drying up.”
Everyone involved in the industry is going to have tough decisions to make when reopening begins.
“There is a lot of competition in the industry, especially in Dubai, and a lot of businesses will be reassessing how they operate,” says McCubbin. “Do they actually need bricks and mortar premises with all the outgoings that come with that, like rent?”
Gym-goers may reassess their fitness plans as well, as many people have realized they can, in fact, get in very good workouts at home, says McCubbin.
“They can be fun and actually, they’re more efficient,” she says. “Customers don’t waste time commuting to and from the gym.”
One example came in a post-exercise Instagram story posted this week, when Dubai Eye 103.8 host, mom-of-two and F45 fan Helen Farmer marvelled: “Working out at home has honestly been a revelation.”
Mat Dryden, owner of Cobra Fitness based in Al Bandar, Abu Dhabi, agrees that the lockdown has aptly demonstrated all the advantages of exercising at home.
His company employs six trainers and usually welcomes 160 to 200 customers a day. During lockdown, he and his team have been offering free online workout classes tailored for home exercising with no equipment.
“Some people are intimidated by the idea of going to a gym, but they’ve been joining in our daily classes on YouTube,” he says. “Our first video had 1,500 views.”
Dryden, who moved to the UAE from Australia in 2007, also believes the lockdown has – paradoxically – persuaded more people to get fit.
“I’ve certainly noticed more people out and about, taking walks. I think it has got people thinking more about fitness.”
Like many gyms, Vogue Fitness pivoted to renting out equipment from 10 locations in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah.
They’ve also started manufacturing their own machines in China to use in the gyms and sell to customers, says owner Patrick Hegarty. The challenge from the start was to keep a loyal membership base engaged in online workouts, he said.
“We offered free classes every day for everyone, not just our membership,” he says. “We brought forward the launch of our online shop and it has surpassed all expectations. Others were charging a lot for equipment. We offer exercise kits to use with our classes at a good price and we deliver on a weekly basis. It’s been very popular.”
The harsh reality though, is that by some estimates, as many as half of gyms and studios will remain closed forever, particularly in Dubai. Whispers of which outlets will make it and which won’t have been flying through the industry for weeks.
“Not everyone will go back to their gym,’ says Hegarty. “A lot of yoga studios will still lose money with the 50 percent cap. How long is that sustainable?”
Some places have been the victims of unfortunate timing. Hegarty knows of one studio in Dubai that was open for three days before the closure.
“People in general tend to be very loyal to their gym, but that place didn’t have the time to build up a following.”
He firmly believes customer loyalty is important to survival and that there are many who can’t wait to come back.
“There has always been a lot of free content and that’s a good place to start but it can’t replace the gym experience, so some people can’t wait to get back in there,” he says.
Support from landlords is also key to those in the industry moving forward, he adds.
“Government landlords have been very supportive. They’ve taken a win-win approach. If you cooperate with your tenant, you keep that tenant and a business survives to keep generating income and employment. It’s a lead that private landlords would do well to follow.
“Some businesses will fail, but we’re confident the UAE will do all it can help. We have faith in the UAE.”
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.