Feature Article - February 2022
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Applying the Lessons of 2020

From Staffing & Participation to Diversity & Beyond

By Kelli Ra Anderson


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."