The forced closure of gyms, dance studios, and yoga venues has turned the usually buzzing fitness industry on its head, but the sessions are heading online.
When the order came down that Justin Ashley's gyms and personal training studios had to close immediately due to new restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he was worried that he would have to sack many of his trainers and other staff.
But within a week, Ashley had refocused Fitness Playground to become a modern-day production studio selling subscriptions to online workouts.
Fitness Playground chief executive Justin Ashley has been able to retain his staff by turning the company into a digital provider.
The founder and chief executive of boutique gyms Fitness Playground and The Bunker is one of a huge number of players looking to Instagram, Zoom, and Netflix-style on-demand fitness libraries to try to stay afloat.
Before the closures, Fitness Playground had grown to 15,000 members since 2014 dotted across five locations, and employed 220 staff. As soon as the gyms were shut, its payment processing platform EziDebit stepped in and instantly shut off all membership payments.
Ashley says the switch in focus to go online has meant he has been able to retain all of his workers so far in some capacity.
His gyms have become impromptu production studios, with a film crew of two existing media and marketing staff and three new hires to help make videos, motion graphics, and creative content for a new social distancing-friendly product Virtual Playground.
The forced closure of all gyms, dance studios, and yoga spaces by the federal government on March 23 turned the usually buzzing Australian fitness industry on its head.
And while such measures are temporary, the effects of this mass digital migration by affected businesses to online offerings will fundamentally change how the industry operates in a post-COVID-19 world.
The fitness livestreaming revolution
Since the closures, three times a week at 8am, Barry's Bootcamp trainers, including the effervescent Molly Gay and Beth Forshaw, hop on to Instagram Live to take about 300 viewers through an intense real-time 30-minute workout.
Waves of supportive emojis from viewers regularly flood the screen.
"If you're typing, then you're not planking!" Forshaw yells to a dispersed squad of at-home viewers.
Barry's Bootcamp instructors Molly Gay and Beth Forshaw are used to leading rooms full of people through workout routines. Now, they are bringing that same high-energy intensity to the small screen, with COVID-19-friendly Instagram live-streamed workouts. Louise Kennerley
A normal Barry's workout at the gym is a mix of high energy beats, treadmill action, and floor weights. On Instagram Live, this has been transformed into an equipment-free body weight circuit. All Barry's membership payments have been cancelled at the behest of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and anyone can join in the live workouts for free.
Barry's Bootcamp Asia-Pacific head of marketing Olivia Boyd-Smith says closing its studios has obviously hurt business significantly, but its ramped-up digital presence was helping keep clients healthy and in high spirits.
"Engaging our community and ensuring they feel supported while we are all physical distancing is very important to us – we are all in this together," Boyd-Smith says.
"Our social [media] community has grown rapidly over the past week as lots of people, who may not have been to a Barry's class before, see our online workouts reposted and want to join the community."
Netflix, but make it Netfit
In a week between March 23 and March 27, Ashley's Virtual Playground team filmed 150 videos featuring yoga, high-intensity interval training and skills-based workouts, as well as some miscellaneous "humorous" content.
Virtual Playground was launched on April 1 for $9.95 a week.
Fitness Playground coaches Navin Arden-Wood and Laura Basta go digital as they film content for the launch of subscription-based online gym membership Virtual Playground.
"The first thing I learned is how much you can achieve when you have to. We've effectively built an entire business in five days, and getting everyone together to produce that was a huge lesson in work ethic, creativity, innovation and teamwork," Ashley says.
Depending on how Virtual Playground pans out, it could even become his core business, but Ashley says regardless, he believes 2020 will permanently alter the fitness industry.
"There are a bunch of people who aren't going to exercise the way they did before, and the uptake on virtual fitness has been much higher than we expected. And I think it's going to carry through after this crisis is over," he says.
In many ways, the activity happening right now constitutes a re-emergence of the 1980s at-home fitness craze, back when Jane Fonda and Olivia Newton-John-led aerobics classes on VHS tapes ruled the day.
The concept of working out at home is old, even if present day technology, modes of distribution, and the quality and scale of the competition is somewhat new.
Ashley has begun pitching Virtual Playground to potential corporate clients such as Commonwealth Bank, AfterPay, the law firm Bartier Perry, and the accounting firm RSM.
His angle is that companies forcing people to work from home have a responsibility to look after their staff's new fitness needs.
"They've invaded their houses effectively and said, 'you have no choice but to work from home'. I'm assuming those companies aren't paying their rents," Ashley says.
"The question is then, what are some small things that these companies can do to support their staff while they've been asked to do everything from their living room."
It's Barre, not Bar-ray
Barre Body co-founder Emma Seibold ran nine studios with her husband along Australia's east coast before the shutdown.
Arguably, Seibold was better placed than many to handle the sudden shift in gear from studio experience to fitness technology-focused operation, as she launched Barre Body Online four years ago.
It features on-demand fitness content on everything from toning glutes to stretching hamstrings.
The Barre Body studio is now the kitchen.
She says her main priority now is to negotiate some sort of rent relief or armistice at her various studio locations, where normally bustling rooms sit empty.
"Last week was the worst professional week of my life ... I didn't sleep, I didn't eat, I lived on adrenalin and chocolate. The whole team was killing themselves to try and get ready," Seibold says.
"But in some ways, we are so ready for this. My team has just kicked into high gear, so we are just pulling every lever that we can – advertising, direct sales, affiliate programs, everything we can to build an enormous business. We are going to try and make hay while the sun shines in the online space, whilst at the same time trying to mitigate our losses in the studio space."
But even with four years to finesse her digital fitness product, Seibold says the rules of the online game have changed in a COVID-19 world.
She also notes that many aspects of the in-studio experience simply cannot be replicated at home – the classy, minimalist interiors, high-grade equipment, the sense of real world community.
But her team is trying new approaches, including live-streaming classes on Facebook and Instagram, some requiring paid access, others for free.
"I don't even think we can apply the learnings from the old world to the new world. It's a different customer, they have different needs," Seibold says.
"We're having to re-evaluate all of our previous learnings because we are operating in a completely different environment. Never before has there been an online landscape where people are forced to workout from home."
The Australian online fitness marketplace is suddenly more crowded than it has ever been.
Other recent converts include Sydney Pole, which has launched live classes via Zoom for $15 a week, One Hot Yoga which launched $10 online classes via Zoom and $55 one-on-one private lessons taught via video, Humming Puppy yoga pivoted to online classes via Uscreen, Hiscoes Fitness Club launched Hiscoes At Home via Facebook, and Sydney Dance Company has started livestream dance classes via Zoom for $28 a week.
Hema Prakash, the Asia-Pacific general manager of class-scheduling app MINDBODY, recently held a Zoom webinar to help educate businesses on how to use its new livestream functionality and their other COVID-19 adaptations.
Before March 23, MINDBODY's average percentage of virtual classes out of its total bookings in Australia was 1.3 per cent, from March 23 to March 31, its average percentage from total bookings of virtual classes was 19.7 per cent.But even with this rapid uptake of virtual fitness options, the company has also been hit badly by COVID-19 gym closures, with MINDBODY chief executive Rick Stollmeyer announcing that 700 of the company's 2000-plus global employees will be laid off or placed on indefinite leave without pay.
Businesses with pre-existing social media channels and member email lists have been able to quickly market their new offerings. But on the flipside, they are also now competing with local and international incumbent subscription-based digital-only fitness players, such as Kayla Itsines' Sweat app or the Australian-founded app KIXXFIT, not to mention hours and hours of free content on platforms such as YouTube.
Prakash, who has been in touch with all local studios that use MINDBODY, makes no bones about it. Even as businesses try to nobly work through this crisis, she is "scared" for many of them.
"When you start a business, you take such a leap of faith ... You sign the lease, you come up with your team, come up with your partners, you hope that you are going to build that community, and most people do it really well," Prakash says.
"And to have a blow like this land on their doorstep with very little warning, and very little knowledge of what to do next ... all we can really do at MINDBODY is to help our clients survive this crisis."
Still, she says that in the past few weeks, necessity has truly been the mother of invention, with many players even sharing tips with competitors on what is and is not working with clients in the digital space.
"The only unfortunate upside is accessibility to your classes and to your teachers anywhere is now going to be a real possibility moving forward. But it's a painful time."
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OP: Australian Financial Review