The fitness industry has been among the hardest-hit sectors in SA under lockdown. Initially closed for five months, gyms now face the prospect of smaller client numbers as people exercise greater caution and prioritise social distancing.
Bodytec co-founder Sandra Leyck says that the company’s franchise studios closed for months and the group didn’t charge membership fees from May until August. “We wouldn’t have survived as a franchise if it wasn’t for the rental relief support we got from most of our landlords and TERS funding for most of the personal trainers,” she says. “While our 40 studios were closed, the support office team was busier than ever before, working from home to prepare for reopening.”
Fit SA, the nonprofit representative body that works to assist and promote the South African fitness industry, has done a lot of work under lockdown to try to keep its members’ facilities alive. Spokesman Grant Austin says that Fit SA has assisted member gyms with rental relief guidelines that have helped them negotiate fair relief with their landlords, and engaged with government and the rest of the bigger players to set the protocols under which the industry reopened. It monitored facts and surveys from overseas to back up its insistence that gyms are part of the solution rather than the problem regarding COVID-19 transmission, lobbied government on behalf of the industry for reopening dates, and is currently investigating insurance relief options for members.
Bodytec waived the franchise and marketing fees and negotiated discounts for the group with its suppliers and service providers. “Two of our studios did close despite this – but we have opened two more since September and are opening another one in February,” says Leyck. “Besides financial support, there was plenty of mental support with a lot of one-on-one and group Zoom calls for everyone to compare notes and share lessons.”
“We have found SA to be far more health-conscious due to COVID-19,” says Austin. “People have finally realised that regular exercise is not just about looking and feeling good; it is more about keeping your immune system strong. COVID-19 has reinforced what gyms have been saying for the longest time: forget about your weight on the scale, good health comes first, then being able to lead an active life, and only then your outward appearance.”
Healthy eating a priority
Real Foods founder Dean Kowarski says that there is definitely more anecdotal evidence that South Africans are taking healthy eating more seriously in the face of the pandemic. Real Foods owns and operates the Kauai and Nü Health Food Café brands.
“We have opened seven new Kauai stores since lockdown restrictions have eased as we believe that the healthy-eating macro trend is even more important now during the pandemic,” says Kowarski.
“Several studies have highlighted the importance of a healthy immune system, and eating healthy food is one of the most important ways to boost and maintain this system. We have seen relatively consistent sales and basket sizes since our stores reopened, which indicates that customers are still prioritising healthy eating.”
Around half of the Kauai stores in SA are franchised and the other half are corporate. A retail store costs approximately R2.3-million to establish, ex-VAT. Real Foods head of franchising Guy Le Ray-Cook says that the company implemented a six-month royalty and marketing relief plan when the lockdown was initially announced – before even a single franchisee asked. “We set up chat groups and had regular Zoom meetings with the franchisees throughout lockdown, discussing how to best deal with the ever-changing environment including providing information on landlord negotiations and TERS, insurance claims and how best to motivate staff,” says Le Ray-Cook.