Applying the Lessons of 2020

From Staffing & Participation to Diversity & Beyond

Behind every cloud… ?
It should come as no surprise: The pandemic has changed us. Altering course to adjust and swerve, sometimes literally one hour to the next, many in the fitness and recreation industry did everything they could to stay safe and stay afloat after the national shutdown in March 2020. By July 1, 2021, however, an estimated 22% of health and fitness clubs (one out of every five fitness facilities and one out of every four studios) closed their doors for good, according to the 2021 IHRSA Media Report, Part 2.


And while the pandemic's dark side is beyond question, many of those who managed to learn new ways of operating and relating to staff and patrons now admit some things have changed for the better. In some cases, it was the catalyst we never wanted but that ultimately forced hard decisions that have worked well.

"In the past we wondered if you should be open or closed in the middle of the day when facilities were pretty empty," said Miklos Valdez, CHAMP studio director, Counsilman-Hunsaker out of Dallas, Texas, about one example of reluctant-to-implement change. "Facilities were forced to look at that. They made the switch and are not going back any time soon."

Such is the case with a lot of things.

Online registrations, hybrid programming between virtual and in-person fitness, more outdoor programs and a reinvigorated dedication to cleanliness, to name but a few, are among the changes that IHRSA also confirms are here for the long haul. But more than just pragmatics, the industry is also changing how it sees itself and its role in our communities.

COVID's fallout—our collective anxiety and isolation—has made us more aware than ever about the importance and capacity of fitness to impact mental health, not just through endorphin- and dopamine-producing exercise but through our universal need for authentic relationships.

"We have to look at community engagement rather than just a business mindset," said Augustus Hallmon, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Hart School of Hospitality, Sport and Recreation Management in Harrisonburg, Va. "We sometimes focus on the dollar figure and forget about the social good we can do which ultimately outweighs and

provides more finances than we could ever imagine if we plan it out accordingly."


For managers and directors, changing focus and messaging to center on community well-being means taking a fresh new look at the patron experience, enriching staff relationships and training, and better identifying and welcoming the demographics represented in the entire community and not just the people who walk through the doors.

Survival of the fittest, it turns out, is not just about having the best business model or even a business mindset. It's about engagement for the good of everyone. It's about impacting the well-being of the whole person, which (it just so happens) is also good for the bottom line. There is a silver lining.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Today, competition for fitness centers and recreation facilities has expanded beyond other service providers in the neighborhood to include entertainment sirens like Netflix, Disney Plus, video games and Tik Tok, which are among the heaviest hitters competing for the consumer's time, energy and disposable income. Simply achieving a fitness goal or winning a trophy are no longer enough to bring most people through the doors. They want more. And they need more.

"The focus has shifted. It's not just about physical fitness but mental well-being, connection and inclusion. The biggest thing today in fitness is people want to go where they feel welcome. It's ultimately about the guest experience," said Neelay Bhatt, vice president and principal with PROS Consulting Inc. in Brownsburg, Ind. "The one thing a computer screen can't compete with is how you are treated; being in a facility where everybody knows your name, where you aren't simply tolerated, but celebrated and welcomed."

Charity Begins at Home

The user experience needs to be front and center, which, according to Bhatt, starts with an investment in your staff. "From management training to hiring the right people with the right attitudes, pay them well to ensure you are the employer of choice, give staff flexibility and show them respect," Bhatt said. "How you treat your staff internally is how you will treat the customer externally."


Essentially, charity begins at home.

For the River North Gym in Chicago, a 23,000-square-foot, full-service corporate fitness center housed within the largest U.S. corporate building (other than the Pentagon), fewer staff after painful COVID layoffs meant everyone took on additional roles.

"There was a lot of consolidation and combining roles, so managers started doing jobs they hadn't done since they were entry-level. General managers are selling membership and checking on bathrooms or doing jobs they'd never done before," said Bernard Lecocq, owner and notable entrepreneur. "It has been a blessing in hindsight," he said, making their slogan, "making people happy, healthy, better," never more true.

One unexpected outcome was improved membership retention thanks to heightened buy-in from front-desk staff who took over sales department duties, complete with a bonus structure. As a natural point-of-contact, the front-desk staff turned out to be perfectly positioned to improve membership retention as they daily greet patrons by name or give prospective members a personal tour, upselling the benefits of investing in a personal trainer. "They care about retention in a way they didn't care before. We're not going back," Lococq said. "Our former sales department didn't have continuing conversations and relationships with people. This just makes sense for us."


But perhaps the biggest change Lecocq reports is the change in attitudes and relationships between himself and the staff. While he is quick to note that relationships with customers and staff have always been their strong suit, the pandemic has taken it to a whole new level. Longer and deeper conversations encompassing all of life, not just about the gym, has led to the elimination of staff reviews. "It's been a plus for us," Lococq concluded.

As part of the award-winning Chicago Park District's effort to understand the daily challenges of the front-line worker, to improve relationships and create a more productive work environment, the district offered multiple on-ramps for communication, including regular surveys, focus groups and participation in a steering committee. Using the acronym LEAF, Nikki Ginger, director of workforce development, said listening, empathizing, answering and following up are effective ways to demonstrate and communicate support.


"The most important and valuable thing you can do is treat everyone with kindness," Ginger said, adding that listening to staff input can be as simple as picking up a phone, answering an email or putting your device down when somebody walks into a room.

Just asking simple questions about employee well-being or engaging with employees in their job to discover what they'd like to change to improve their experience can make a big difference. "The biggest takeaway from the pandemic is to take the time to get to know my staff and talk about what's going on in their lives," said Cory Hilderbrand, the community services manager for the City of Irvine, Calif., and president of the Association of Aquatic Professionals. "Ask questions. It's something we took for granted. I used to just say, 'Thanks, have a good day' but now I ask questions like, 'What are you doing for the weekend?' or to try sense if there's something wrong they need to talk about."

Be Flexible

Other practices managers say are helping their employees feel more valued and respected are focused on job flexibility. Working out schedules for employees who want flexible hours for things like child or elder care communicates volumes about trusting them to know their capabilities and respecting them enough to let them demonstrate what they can do.


For those who still doubt the benefits of a hybrid work schedule, however, the results are in: According to several studies, like the Accenture Future of Work Study 2021, which explored what elements make for a healthier and more productive work environment, 83% of workers say they would prefer a hybrid work environment with key elements of productivity (autonomy, positive mental health and supportive leadership) ranking high.

"Our biggest takeaway has been the importance of flexibility and adaptation. Supervising employees virtually has been a big change for us and has definitely impacted how we manage and relate to them," said Tara Stewart, aquatics division chief for the Department of Parks and Recreation in Greenbelt, Md. "We are being intentional—making sure we regularly touch base and have an understanding of what they are working with in a virtual environment. We especially need to remind our staff to reclaim their time when they need to, like making sure they are incorporating time for breaks and lunch."

Welcome Home

The very things that make working from home so appealing, it turns out, are also the very elements so essential to replicate in the work environment to make it the welcoming space today's patrons crave. More than just good customer service or the promise of achieving a fitness goal, people are looking for places that care about them as a total person.

The new onboarding membership program developed for Midtown Athletic Clubs exemplifies this expanded focus. "It's a tailored program with 18 aspirations a person can choose from—and zero have weight loss involved," explained Jon Brady, president of Midtown Athletic Club, whose flagship facility is located in Chicago. "It's about guiding people on a personal journey. It's about being more positive, feeling happier within yourself and less stress. After identifying their unique aspirations, then we build an onboarding program around what they like to do. Yoga? Punching a boxing bag? Everyone has their own way to do it."

The result, Brady said, has been hugely successful, with plenty of data showing people are engaging and attending more frequently than before the program was launched.

Safety First


Another essential factor in drawing people back to in-person programming is safety. Anything and everything a facility can do to demonstrate they take cleanliness and safety seriously communicates that they care about their patron's well-being and putting them at ease. "One of the positives about COVID is that people took more notice of cleanliness and policies and accountability," said Kevin Post, principal with Counsilman-Hunsaker. "It was always important, but COVID brought to the forefront again that following protocols and sanitation are a priority."

Pools, however, had an early, built-in advantage. When the CDC gave the green light to outdoor spaces and confirmed that the virus could not be transmitted through properly treated water, facilities with outdoor pools had a leg up. Add to that that many indoor pools have high-end air-handling units capable of exceeding the CDC's recommended air-turnover rates, and aquatic facilities in general had some early advantages.

Post credits successful facilities, however, for going above and beyond. "The common denominator for those places was a willingness to be creative, to change and take risks," he said, such as limiting capacity and sign-up times, and rigorous, frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces. From wearing masks and face shields to parent-driven swim lessons, online lane reservations, automating doors, investing in new cleaning products/equipment, or creating entrance and exit procedures to improve social distancing, aquatic facilities nationwide upped their game. Today, even new construction projects, he noted, are designing wider hallways and designing more outdoor spaces in anticipation of weathering future pandemic storms.

Many facilities turned to new cleaning products to put patron's fears to rest. From air treatments and biodegradable water-based sanitizers using ozone, to nano technology for high-touch surfaces, sanitizing floor mats and the installation of more automated, touchless amenities, newfangled ways to keep COVID at bay became commonplace.


Creating a safe environment, however, is also about making staff feel safe as they welcome back an uncertain public. "Our staff are in a tough position, having to deal with a public entity with their own beliefs and expectations," said Lisa Barrera, superintendent of recreation at the Maine-Niles Association of Special Recreation in Morton Grove, Ill. "We need to empower them to feel comfortable about explaining the rules people are struggling with. The best thing we can do is train those individuals with confidence and empathy when patrons get frustrated—but empathy is the biggest part of working with the public."

When Barrera speaks to other managers or trains staff, she stresses that behavior management isn't just for facilities like hers; it is beneficial for everyone. Knowing how to implement suggestions and tools for uncomfortable situations is a skill applicable for every area of life. To that end, Barrera recommends training staff to pay attention to their "gut" feelings, to be aware of body language and the signs of potential conflict, and to practice what to do in specific situations, including when it's time to call for help or dial 911. Excellent resources can include local police departments as well as nonprofits that specialize in mental health first aid training.

All for One and One for All

If the pandemic has demonstrated one thing about the recreation and fitness industry, however, it is that it has learned there is strength in numbers. "Our industry has never been tighter," said Lococq. "It was nice to see when stuff got really difficult, we tried to work as a team and share information and try to survive together. As a result, our cases of COVID were low because of the protocols we had in place." But, he cautioned, "The government didn't see us as essential. We need to be seen as essential. And the way to do that is to be seen not just as gyms but for health and focus on the wellness component. We all need to do that moving forward." RM

Kelli Ra Anderson