A fifth punch in the gut for local gyms

A fifth punch in the gut for local gyms

Words by Emma Hartley

Another lockdown was the last thing inner city fitness venues needed after the steep downturn in business during 2020.

While most businesses, such as retail and hospitality venues, were able to open their doors again after the last lockdown ended on June 11, gyms and yoga studios had to endure another week of closure.

Now the two-week circuit breaker has added to the losses of the last four shutdowns for Parkville based The Gym Melbourne’s managing director Lonnie Pitcher.

“For every one month of lockdown, it could take two to three months to recover,” Mr Pitcher told Inner City News.

When the pandemic hit, Yoga Bhuja owner and teacher John Soper suddenly started to lose the solid customer base that he had managed to build up during the two years prior.

“There’s a real dearth of international students at the moment and no one coming in to replace that group,” Mr Soper said. “And less people working in the area and also academic redundancies too.”

What Mr Pitcher called “the knock-on effects” from the first three lockdowns had really taken their toll with the fourth lockdown.

In a letter addressed to members of the state and federal governments on behalf of the Victorian fitness industry, inner city fitness facility owner Andrew Ward called on governments to change their narrative around the industry.

“Our industry has been devastated,” he wrote. “We are now rebuilding Victoria for the fourth time and that is hard.”

So much more than fitness

The Gym Melbourne sits inside the Royal Children’s Hospital on Flemington Rd and has welcomed clients from the hospital and locality alike.

One purpose of the gym has been, “to add some colour, some energy for people doing stressful jobs,” Mr Pitcher said. “But also, the parents, I think that’s the biggest reward.”

The Gym Melbourne has operated as more than a space for fitness for some of its customers due to its unique location.

Mr Pitcher said the facility had seen a wide array of individuals, including “people coming from the middle of Queensland who have never stepped foot into a gym and use the treadmill for half an hour to watch Home and Away, to gym bunnies who are stuck in the little rooms upstairs and just need to get out.”

The lack of human interaction has been a major drawback for Yoga Bhuja in Carlton.

Mr Soper said that the online Zoom classes kept people on, and it had worked better for some clients such as one customer who had a chronic illness and did the exercise on her bed.

“But it’s not the same experience” he said. “And not everyone has the space at home.”

The Gym Melbourne also jumped on the Zoom bandwagon, but Mr Pitcher agreed – “People love that human interaction” – and some of the most human moments he has experienced have literally been built into the gym itself.

One of the facility’s rooms was constructed by a plasterer whose three-year-old child was in the hospital for a heart transplant.

That father befriended another parent whose child also had a heart transplant – he was a carpenter who volunteered to build the gym’s reception desk.

“We were just providing them something to do,” Mr Pitcher said.

Teetering employment

In his letter, Andrew Ward explained the struggle of having to restart a business “from scratch” for the fifth time.

He said it had been a challenging trying to care for staff when closure meant, “a loss of career” and “destruction of a passion”.

The United Workers Union said that around 35,000 workers were employed in the Australian fitness industry.

Fitness trainers and yoga instructors were particularly vulnerable because they worked in an industry that the UWU said had, “high rates of casualisation and contracting”.

The team at Yoga Bhuja has consisted of Mr Soper and two casual teachers throughout 2020 and 2021.

One of the teachers who moved out of Melbourne has been teaching remotely from around NSW thanks to the Zoom classes.

But Mr Soper is still unsure of the future and his feeling is, “things are going to be moving very slow for the rest of the year”.

The Gym Melbourne has lost five contractors since the first lockdown, including one yoga instructor who was running more than 60 sessions a week and was an employer herself.

“Her business went from all that to nothing,” Mr Pitcher said.

Fortunately, the gym hired two new staff members just before the latest lockdown and they were finally able to start the week fitness facilities re-opened.

Where to next?

Mr Soper has kept a good headspace.

He said the next steps for Yoga Bhuja were “trying to keep ahead, keep afloat.”

For the Gym Melbourne, the $7500 government grant has helped cover rent but Mr Pitcher said, “what helps is being open and being consistently open.”

He said that without customers, it’s difficult to build a business because no customer feedback means no improvements can be made.

Mr Pitcher was keen to welcome everyone back and, “to let everyone know we’re open” •

Caption: Andrew Ward, owner of Push! Fitness Docklands 

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