Amid shrunken capacities, fitness entrepreneurs fight to keep lights on during ‘dark time’ for industry

EVOKE Fitness Training Complex owner Mena Spodobalski works with a client in early December at the Reno fitness center.

EVOKE Fitness Training Complex owner Mena Spodobalski works with a client in early December at the Reno fitness center.

Mena Spodobalski, owner of EVOKE Fitness Training Complex in Reno, has reached a point where she wonders if turning her gym’s lights on is doing more harm than good. It’s a thought she came to after Gov. Steve Sisolak put Nevada on a three-week pause (effective Nov. 24), tightening business restrictions to slow a recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

“Sometimes I just think, maybe he (Gov. Sisolak) should’ve just shut us down?” Spodobalski said.

With capacities during the pause reduced from 50% to 25%, and patrons mandated to work out in a mask, gyms and fitness centers are seeing even fewer people come through their doors. All the while, they still have 100% of their operating costs, Spodobalski said.

“It’s going to cost more to run a gym at 25% than it is to close us down,” she explained. “Because when you’re open, you still have to pay the power bill, water bill, towels and janitorial things. If you’re at least closed, you’re saving money by not having to deal with those things.”

What’s more, Spodobalski pointed out that businesses closed due to COVID are able to apply for additional federal relief funds. That’s not the case for gyms and fitness centers — or any brick-and-mortar business — with trimmed capacities, even as low as 25%.

“I run the numbers all the time,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘well, maybe I can just turn off the lights during the day, or we do this or that?’ If he (Sisolak) comes back and says we’re going to operate at 25% for another month, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Spodobalski is already staring at a balance sheet showing her revenue is down about 60% compared to last year.

Notably, along with being shut down for two and a half months in the spring, EVOKE Fitness closed an additional six weeks in the summer because it relocated into a smaller facility in South Reno that wasn’t immediately move-in ready.

“That was fun to throw on top of everything else,” she said with a laugh.

A HEAVY IMPACT

Spodobalski is one of many fitness entrepreneurs in Northern Nevada and beyond feeling the weight of uncertainty in the age of COVID.

The U.S. fitness industry has been continually upended by pandemic-related restrictions and closures due to gyms’ potential for spreading the virus.

The disruptive year comes on the heels of the industry’s especially strong 2019, when more than 64 million Americans belonged to a health club, an all-time high and rise of 28% since 2010, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), a trade group that represents fitness facilities.

In 2020, however, more than $15 billion in revenue has been lost, and 15% of the country’s fitness clubs and studios have closed permanently as of Oct. 1, according to the IHRSA. By the end of 2020, at least a quarter of the country’s 40,000 fitness facilities could close, IHRSA estimates.

Engage Fitness and Training Center owners Tori Gage, left, and Mark Gage stand inside their 4,000-square-foot facility in South Reno.

Another local business fighting to stay afloat is Engage Fitness and Training Center in South Reno, owned by Mark and Tori Gage.

“The biggest thing, mentally, is realizing that our livelihood can now be taken away from us at any moment,” Mark Gage told the NNBW. “Back in February, if you would have told me that I wasn’t going to be able to make money doing what I’ve been doing for 13 years, I would have thought you were insane.”

Since March, Engage Fitness has seen its revenue drop roughly 40% and its membership dip 50%, said Gage. He added that with only 4,000 square feet of space, Engage Fitness can only have up to nine people at a time to meet social distancing requirements.

“It hasn’t been going well,” he said succinctly.

LOW VIRTUAL DEMAND

Not helping matters, Engage Fitness has not seen much demand for live virtual training throughout the pandemic, Gage said, though the club has seen an uptick in members requesting online training programs that they can follow on their own at home.

The cost for those programs ranges from $50 to $250 month, based on the number of training days requested per week.

“Most of our clientele are there because they want the one-on-one, and video takes away some of that personal aspect,” Gage said. “Setting up workouts for their house and their equipment has been more popular than video with them.”

Similarly, Spodobalski started a 30-day “lean and mean in quarantine” challenge when the state shut down in March. For a cost of $79, EVOKE Fitness sent its members daily strength training and cardio workouts, weekly meal plans, and touch-base meetings via Zoom.

“That brought in some income to pay that first month of rent and bills,” Spodobalski said. “We’ve just had to figure out ways to be creative and keep our clients engaged. We’ve tried to be innovative and roll with the times and keep some sort of income coming in.”

Still, Gage and Spodobalski know their businesses need more than online training sales and more than 25% capacity to keep the lights on.

Adding to their stress, with consumers reluctant to return to group fitness settings before a vaccine is available, demand for in-home workout equipment has surged. Peloton, for example, reported that its fiscal fourth-quarter sales for its stationary bike and treadmill jumped 172%.

“It’s kind of a dark time,” Gage said of being a fitness business owner. “We just want to make it through each month and see how this plays out. If it doesn’t turn around, it’s going to get much more difficult.

“It’s going to be pivoting out of being a trainer and gym owner.”

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