What A Gym Owner Wants You To Know Before Your Next Free Workout

Photos: Courtesy of Jen Lau.
It has been a month since Jennifer Lau had to indefinitely shut the doors of her downtown Toronto training facility, Fit Squad, a mere six months after opening them. People are staying inside due to the COVID-19 pandemic so, like many gym owners, the Nike Master Trainer and fitness entrepreneur has been offering free live daily workouts on Instagram, as well as leading paid group and one-on-one classes online.
But even with these efforts, Lau says her business (which includes herself, two other co-owners, and nine trainers) will have to shut down for good if they don't get some financial help from the government. As a small-business owner, she can apply for government relief (none debt-free), but that doesn’t put a dent in her biggest expense: rent. (Space big enough for a studio can cost tens of thousands of dollars a month in downtown Toronto.) That’s why Lau and her peers across the country started the coalition Health and Wellness Relief Canada. Their petition to pressure the government for financial support has over 1,800 signatures, including almost 600 fitness business owners and health and wellness practitioners like coaches, personal trainers, and yoga instructors.
Here, Lau tells Refinery29 what people should know before their next free live workouts, how much longer her business can survive the shutdown, and what exactly needs to happen to save the health and wellness industry in Canada.
How has coronavirus affected your business?
We closed on March 15, just ahead of the mandated closures. We are 6,000 square feet in downtown Toronto, so to close our doors six months after our opening was quite frightening. Since then, we've tried to move online. I say "try" because it's a learning experience every day. Ninety percent of our business was in-person: in-house group training and one-on-one personal training. Fortunately, we were able to get most of our one-on-one personal training clients equipment. Our staff has been able to be creative with just working with one kettlebell and two dumbbells and a band [when they train clients via video].
It seems like everyone is offering free Instagram Live workouts and virtual classes. How have those been going for you? Are they a financial help?
We started with free IG workouts online every day at noon. It was our way to give back to the community. In our industry, we know that we have such a huge responsibility for taking care of Canadians and their health — whether that's physical, mental, emotional. Everyone quarantined at home still needs to feel active and connected. It was also a give back to some of the gym members who told us not to put their memberships on hold.
Now, we're trying to implement some online drop-in classes through Zoom. The prices for that are anywhere from $5 to $10 for a drop-in, whereas when our doors are open, a drop-in is typically $35 a class. We do understand that the quality is not the same as if you were inside the studio and getting that one-on-one experience with a coach. And the margins are small. We pay an instructor $50 a class and we're charging $5 for a drop-in and maybe getting 25 people max for a virtual class. Everyone in the fitness community is trying to do what they can, and this is what we can do right now. What other choice do we have? Offering these free classes is the only way to stay relevant. If you don't, how do you stay connected to your community and let people know that you're still in business?
So, these classes are not keeping your business afloat? 
No, absolutely not. Downtown, most gyms are paying anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 a month for rent. There's no way that virtual classes will even come close to covering those costs for us. 
How many more months of this can your business survive?
We can't survive this month. [Laughs.] I'm laughing because it’s just crazy. We are in the process of negotiating with our landlord. They obviously are a large commercial landlord, so, there's a lot of tenants that are asking for some type of rent relief or deferral, and they have to evaluate it on a case-by-case basis. We took a huge hit to get our doors open. We were planning on breaking even with our startup costs after five years. It's really scary. The relief that's being offered right now is not relief. There's a huge gap between what is being offered and the realistic situations that a lot of people are in.
Which is why you’ve created Health and Wellness Relief Canada. What exactly are you asking for?
We need rent relief. We're asking for non-debt solutions from the federal government. The $40,000 small-business bond that they are offering right now: that's a loan. So, for most business owners, they're already in debt and have probably over-exceeded their limitations for what they can take on debt-wise. And, like I said, if your rent is $20,000 to $40,000 a month, $40K is not going to go very far.
What about government support for individuals?
Our industry employs a lot of contractors and subcontractors, such is the nature of the industry, and this leaves them ineligible for wage subsidies because they don't take a salary. They do contract work. So, at most [through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit] you can get $2,000 a month, but a lot of these contractors and subcontractors aren't even qualified for that because they are still making a little bit of income because they're doing the most they can. [To be eligible for the CERB] you're not allowed to make any money for 14 days straight. How do you tell these practitioners, “Stop everything that you're doing.” We would have to stop all types of training — just leave our clients high and dry — to be able to qualify, potentially, for that $2,000 a month.
What’s the final thing you want Canadians to know about your industry during this time? 
If the health and wellness industry collapses, our health-care system is going to feel that. There are people coming out of prolonged periods of social-distancing who will experience increased anxiety levels and depression. There's a lot of stuff going on that Canadians are struggling with right now. Without the help of health and wellness providers, how are they going to get through that? What is that going to look like at the end of the day coming out of this? You can't ignore how important this industry is for Canadians.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

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