By Thomas J. Ryan

Catic Wellness Group (CW Group) has taken draconian steps to open up its fitness clubs again in China, including mandating that members work out in masks and take temperature checks, install disinfection stations throughout the premises, and banned showers. But the fact that the clubs re-opened could provide a path and hope for other fitness clubs struggling to envision re-opening.

Walter MacDonald, fitness operation director at CW Group, recently shared his firm’s battle to re-open amid the coronavirus pandemic in a webinar orchestrated by IRSHA, the fitness trade organization.

On March 16, the White House included gyms among the businesses that could reopen to the general public during “phase one” of its three-part reopening plan to jump-start the American economy. Along with reopening health clubs, Phase one also includes places of worship, sporting venues, restaurants, and movie theatres as soon as May 1, given they can observe strict social distancing requirements.

MacDonald stressed the challenges and risks for CW Group are far from over. He said, “In our case, we’re very mindful because we’re not through this yet totally. You take it day by day, hoping that there are no more cases, either imported or local. And we look forward to seeing the borders re-open again and people traveling.”

Much of CW Group’s re-opening strategy may not work for others in part because of many unknowns and the constantly-changing information about the virus, he cautioned. MacDonald said, “We’ve strived to be proactive but often need to be reactive to not be underestimated.”

Founded in 1995, CW Group was the first club to actively promote wellness in China. Its clubs are primarily located in Shenzen, a technology center in South China on the border of Hong Kong. Locations can also be found in Beijing, Xian, Tangshan, and Tianjin.

MacDonald broke out CW Group’s coronavirus journey into four steps:

  • Closure
  • Isolation, Wilderness, Insecure — ‘Scramble Phase’
  • Preparing For Reopening — ‘Light & Hope Reorganization’
  • Opening — New Direction/Start

The closure phase was a bit different compared to fitness clubs in other countries because CW Group’s clubs were already closed in January to celebrate Chinese New Year. Personal trainers and other gym workers were due to come back on January 30, but it was “clearly” evident that the clubs couldn’t re-open due to increased lockdown measures enacted by China’s government over January and February. Said MacDonald, “Suffice it to say, we had no preparation time, and no warning for this.”

Another initial challenge for CW Group planning to re-open was that many of the club’s workers were in their home provinces in China and travel was restricted to cities. Workers unable to support online content and other re-opening efforts either took advanced leave and unpaid leave with the Chinese government providing relief measures. All the clubs were subsequently closed for 47 days.

Isolation, Wilderness, Insecure – ‘Scramble Phase’
China’s residents began adapting to social distancing practices in this phase, according to MacDonald. Many still wear masks for protection despite social distancing restrictions lessening. A government surveillance app was set up to check citizen’s travels as part of its efforts to contain the spread.

Citizens in this phase worked to overcome challenges working at home including working alongside kids. In MacDonald’s apartment, for instance, the toilet became “the best meeting room we could have because there was too much background noise in other rooms to support virtual meetings”.

Early messages to staff included avoiding becoming “paranoid” over personal health by over-estimating a slight headache or cough as evidence of infection. Members were urged to focus on increasing the frequency and thoroughness of their personal hygiene. Said MacDonald, “You can get really consumed by this.”

Another was “not to become a news-hound” as overloading on COVID-19 news can be depressing. One news update a day was suggested with the likelihood that any urgent news would be shared at some point during the day across social media networks.

CW Group also took steps to reach out to club members. Online chat groups were established where club managers and personal trainers reached out to members with messages of support and exercise tips. This was in addition to company notices, including that memberships and any outstanding personal-training sessions would be frozen until the clubs reopened.

Guidelines were issued on what were suitable and applicable messages to members. Efforts were made to be “very mindful” on what was conveyed with many e-mail boxes being bombarded with other businesses trying to reach quarantined consumers. Said MacDonald, “The most important thing was not to over-promise or promise things that we have no control over. And, we were also very transparent at the beginning.”

Three online fitness classes and sessions were held daily for free on WeChat, China’s text messaging platform that’s similar to WhatsApp. The classes received more than 1.7 million views over the 47 days the clubs were closed. An online seminar with a well-known doctor was also held that drew over 1.7 million views. About 10,000 participants viewed sessions that shared how CW Group’s personal trainers were working out at home including how they were repurposing household items as resistance, cardio and stretching tools.

While some fitness clubs globally have completely shifted to offering free content during the crisis, CW Group continues to offer some chargeable content, including class packages for body shaping, Chinese dance and yoga. MacDonald said that past behavior by members showed that if the clubs provided only a free option, ”it’s hard to get members to buy later for chargeable content even though it’s superior.”

Finally, the club held competitions online with members, such as daily exercise challenges and games encouraging members to guess which personal trainer was behind their mask. Other outreach efforts from CW Group included a daily journal from MacDonald that shared his objectives and progress on the WeChat platform.

Other overall steps taken during this included expanding and highlighting products that boost mood and immunity on the e-commerce section of the club’s website. The club also provided 90-day-free fitness cards and free health checks to first responders as a “community goodwill gesture” that also resonated with its member base.

While some gyms, including those in the U.S, are loaning equipment such as barbells to their members, CW Group did not because the clubs and delivery companies were locked down, most of its staff was outside the city and there were injury liabilities. Said MacDonald, “We just focused on what we were doing and doing it to the best of our ability.”

One challenge that surfaced in this phase was working with landlords. CW Group had been unable to secure rent reductions. Negotiations are continuing. Some underperforming clubs with upcoming renewals were closed during the period.

Also during this phase, CW Group hired professionals to support what is expected to be strong demand long-term for online fitness. As CW Group’s locations have re-opened, members have shared that they “missed our face-to-face interaction.” But MacDonald expects the increased use of digital content will “leave a permanent mark on the way people work and live.” An online fitness alternative also offers flexibility and convenience for members that travel.

MacDonald believes clubs, still averse to developing online content, will be at a disadvantage and views online fitness as a big opportunity in China. Said MacDonald, “Even for the world’s largest Internet population, of about 850 million people, there’s still 540 million off the grid, so we can see the potential with it.”

Preparing For Reopening — ‘Light & Hope Reorganization’
As CW Group was getting closer to re-opening, a priority was to be a ‘first mover” despite the unknowns around when and how authorities would enable clubs to open and despite the necessity to “continually alter plans because everything’s quite fluid.”

Added MacDonald, “Our whole strategy was to get out in front of this and stay out in front as much as we could. And control the things we could and just go with the things we couldn’t.”

CW Group also looked at the re-opening as more of a launch rather than a re-launch with brand loyalty not assumed. Weak points were identified in staffing, and the salary system was simplified given the downtime management faced with the closed locations.

However, much of the pre-opening efforts were concentrated on establishing procedures for keeping facilities clean, including what chemicals to use and the frequency of cleaning. Procedures were set up for staff and check-ins for members.

Cardio machines were covered with clear foam wrap to protect the LED screens, including from excessive sanitizer spray damaging the equipment. Every other cardio machine was removed to support social-distancing guidelines. Numerous personal and machine disinfection stations were installed in clubs, and they’ve become the “crown jewel” in CW Group’s efforts to help members regain comfort in working out. Members are invited to “double down” on disinfecting equipment that likely was just cleaned by the staff. Said MacDonald, “The members knew the club. The main thing they wanted to see, feel and smell, was tangible and intangible hygiene initiatives the whole time.”

Staff levels re-opened at about 40 percent typical levels due to anticipated weaker traffic in part due to expected apprehension initially from many members about being in groups. Some clubs waited for their staff to return from home provinces before opening because CW Group wanted return members to be “greeted by familiar faces.”

Opening — New Direction/Start
The re-openings were strictly controlled by local government and national guidelines with officials conducting random checks as part of safety protocols for reopening clubs.

Staff members had to provide evidence of good health and temperature checks as a pre-requisite for entry for both staff and members.

Initially, only members and no guests were allowed. No members were also allowed from recent hot spots as identified from the travel history on their scanner app. MacDonald noted that Japan, Shanghai and Hong Kong had to re-impose shutdown measures after a return of infections.

Staff and members are required to wear masks in the club despite masks inhibiting performance. MacDonald described working out in masks to “working out with altitude but also at the same time being water-boarded. It’s extremely difficult to breathe.”

Frequent mask changes are often necessary, and masks are provided complementary by the club. China has no mask shortages, unlike some countries.

CW Group re-opened clubs in batches even though government authorities permitted all clubs to open at once. MacDonald said staggering the openings reduced the risk that all clubs would be closed due to infractions. One residential club was opened, in part, because members were not allowed by use showers at the club, and it would be easier for them to shower at home.

The company also opened one mall location and two locations opened on March 17. Only the fitness area and personal trainers were accessible. Following guidelines from authorities, no towel service, saunas or steam rooms were available, and no group exercise was allowed. Disposable towels were available. The number of members allowed in the club at one time was limited, so a booking system allocating two-hour usage windows was introduced.

On April 1, another four clubs opened and limited studios classes by that time were allowed. The number of participants was capped by the ability to social distance.

On April 9, another four clubs opened. Clubs still hadn’t been able to provide access to showers or swimming pools. For racquet sports on courts, only single-play was allowed.

Traffic, as generally expected, was only between 15 to 20 percent of typical pre-COVID-19 visits, but it’s been increasing over the last few weeks.

Beyond any concerns over being in groups, MacDonald said China’s citizens have “gone into survival mode” in looking to save money amid the crisis and are only slowly returning to past spending habits. CW Group also felt members would focus on work and family issues as social-distancing restrictions eased before resuming their workout routine.

To drive visits, club managers and personal trainers have been making “no-pressure” calls to members to encourage them to come back. With their permission, members who have returned have been filmed working out to help ease concerns of others. Short interviews have also been conducted with returning members. MacDonald said, “We find this really helpful in assuring other members that it’s not only safe to return, but it was time for them to return.”

Promotions, such as offering a special gift or voucher to the first hundred members to return, were also used but CW Group’s overall selling strategies and have largely remained unchanged. MacDonald said CW Group continues to believe that excessive promotions “would basically damage our future market.”

The next steps include having staff get used to new procedures and continuing to developing free online sessions. CW Group is also in discussions to do live broadcasts with members online as well as with local health experts. Making medical experts more available in the fitness clubs is seen as another step to provide confidence that working out in groups is safe.

As far as opportunities, MacDonald noted that wide consolidation globally is expected as underperformers likely struggle in the months ahead and that will benefit survivors. Like other regions, the Chinese marketplace had become highly competitive “with a saturation of club offerings appearing over the previous two years.”

Another opportunity is likely a higher level of quality candidates to fill positions as disruption will likely be felt across industries. MacDonald noted that the travel industry appears to face a long recovery, and many candidates from that industry will “bring great customer service skills.”

MacDonald also continues to believe strongly in the physical and mental benefits of fitness. The health crisis has further delivered “a huge surge in health and fitness wellness awareness” that fitness clubs should be able to build on.

Indeed, he hopes the industry doesn’t get “too beaten up when we come out of this,” because he believes fitness will be critical to recovery efforts. Said MacDonald, “We have found we’re a very important pillar of the healing and recovery process, and beyond. Our communities and members need us like never before.”

The webinar can be viewed here.

Photo courtesy Simon Song