Celeste Foley has been a regular presence at Life Time’s Schaumburg, Ill., athletic club for over 20 years.
The 54-year-old elementary school teacher takes group fitness classes like kickboxing and cycling, and when the facility closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked out from home as instructors moved their classes online.
But Foley missed the sense of community in-person classes offer, and as soon as the club reopened, she went back and picked up right where she left off.
“It’s made a huge difference. I really missed it when I was gone,” Foley said. “I didn’t realize what a huge part of my life it is.”
Foley is one of many Chicagoans returning to in-person workouts after gyms across the city were hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic. As vaccinations continue to roll out and with the mask mandate lifted, a number of gyms are seeing an influx of new and returning members — something they expect to continue in the coming months.
There were over 39,000 members throughout Chicago Athletic Clubs’ seven locations before the pandemic, according to owner Patrick Cunningham. Then “someone flipped the switch and we went down to 14,000 members.”
Things have improved at the club in recent months during the city’s phased reopening. Membership has grown by 2,400 since May, and now stands around 23,000.
Business was doing so well at Studio Three’s two locations in Chicago before the pandemic that it committed to a third location, which opened in February. While the gym saw a 70% to 80% drop in membership, CEO David Blitz said they’re now almost at pre-pandemic levels.
But not every gym is recovering so quickly.
Membership at River North Gym, located inside the Merchandise Mart building in Chicago, is 56% of what it was in 2019. With many people still working from home, owner Bernie Lecocq said corporate fitness facilities will be the slowest to rebound as they wait for companies to chart a return to the office. About 85% of the gym’s clientele worked in the building before the pandemic.
River North Gym is emblematic of the larger issues the fitness industry is facing. While many gyms made it through the pandemic, countless others didn’t. Seventeen percent of the estimated 41,370 health clubs in the U.S. permanently closed by the end of 2020, according to a report from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.
Consumers have adapted as well. Outdoor workouts became common during the pandemic as people looked for a reprieve from being cooped up all day. Interest in workout equipment also soared, with sales for everything from dumbbells to Pelotons climbing.
Home fitness equipment sales grew 84% in 2020, according to Matt Powell, vice president and senior industry adviser for the NPD Group, a market research company. And during the first part of this year, from January through May, sales climbed another 121%. This trend may wane as the year goes on, but it presents a challenge for gyms as they work to rebuild their membership levels.
“Consumers who have a sunk cost in home fitness equipment are likely not going to rush back to gyms,” Powell said.
As a result of the changes in consumer habits and preferences, gyms are evolving to keep up with the times. Cunningham said Chicago Athletic Clubs will have a free on-demand library for members so they can still work out in case they’re stuck at home or traveling. Life Time launched a digital membership through an app that members can use for one-on-one training, small group training and nutrition coaching.
“Finding where the members want to be served and how they want to be served, it was a clarion call for us,” said Steve Larson, senior vice president for club operations at Life Time.
While the pandemic-induced closures were a financial challenge, they presented gyms an opportunity to make upgrades — such as adding new equipment or improving the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units — that would otherwise be tough to pull off during normal business operations. At River North Gym, returning members will arrive to freshly painted walls and a new layout on the gym floor.
“When people come back, I wanted it to feel a little different, a little clean. When they came back, I didn’t want it to feel like the same old gym they had been at before,” Lecocq said.