Like most studio operators in the United States, Julie Guttormson has had to temporarily close her VIM studio in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When VIM closed on March 15 in this town of 10,500 (not including the tourists who usually fill the resort community), Guttormson knew she had two options: She could hang tight and see what would happen, or she could be creative, innovative and stay connected to her community with the potential to grow it.
She chose the latter. On the day she closed, she announced she would rent out equipment and offer online options to her members during the pandemic-caused shutdown.
VIM offers strength, barre, rowing and yoga classes, but the studio is mostly known for its cycling classes.
Guttormson has 25 new Schwinn AC Power bikes in her studio along with 19 four-year-old Schwinn AC-Sports bikes in storage that are used for an annual Rock the Ride event she does to raise money for charity. She rents out the older Schwinn bikes for $75 per week with a two-week minimum and then $10 per day after that plus a $25 deep cleaning fee. She charges $125 per week with a two-week minimum and $17 per day after that plus a $25 deep cleaning fee for the new Schwinn bikes. Renters can pick up the bikes at the club or the club will deliver them for a $50 fee.
VIM also has 17 Water Rowers that Guttormson rents out for $90 per week with a two-week minimum and $12 per day after that plus a $25 deep cleaning fee. Renters must pick up the rowers themselves, and Guttormson recommends a covered truck and three people to move them.
She also rents out weights, kettlebells, sandbells, bands and other accessories for $25 per week.
By the end of March, about 70 percent of the equipment was rented out, she said. As of April 6, she had a wait list for the bikes, and the rowers are more than half rented, she said.
“People come and pilfer,” Guttormson said. “It's nice to live in a smaller community where I feel like I can get away with this. I understand this wouldn't work for everyone, but most everyone is connected to each other in some way around here. And that is mostly a good thing.”
She also offers free classes on the VIM YouTube page, but online classes through Zoom (which includes the classes for people who rent the equipment as well as those who don’t) require a current membership or a $10 Zoom drop-in fee.
Global Does Rentals, Too
Guttormson isn’t the only club operator renting out equipment. John and Cathleen Bonica, co-owners of Global Fitness Center in Leominster, Massachusetts, were forced to temporarily close their facility due to the coronavirus on March 17. During a virtual Club Industry Town Hall on the coronavirus that they attended, they heard about another club operator renting equipment to members.
The Bonicas have more than 100 sets of Mossa’s Group Power equipment at their studio along with even more Steps that they decided to rent out.
“We did not want to get into a monthly rental fee as we had no idea how long we would be closed, so we decided to charge $25 for a set of Group Power weights and a Step with special Core Risers for members doing Group Core at home,” John said.
They also rent out bikes from their group cycling room for $50. If the closure lasts beyond the end of April, he shared that they might email all the renters to ask for a voluntary additional rental fee.
“We have almost sold out of all our equipment, and our members have been absolutely thrilled and enjoying their at-home workouts,” he said.
The couple partnered with Mossa, their class provider, to offer 60-days of their at-home programming app for free to all the studio’s members who register.
“This has been a lifeline of epic proportion as approximately one-third of our daily visits are for a group fitness class or a small group training program class,” John said.
Global Fitness has created two small group training platforms, FIT-traxx and MAX-traxx, that service several hundred additional members each week. They also have been posting workouts for members that require no equipment at their homes.
Monica and Chuck Gray, owners of Loco Cycle in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, transformed their bike studio location during the temporary closure and found themselves with a new business model.
“We call ourselves Loco Cycle because our classes are wild,” Monica said. “We use lights, great music and dance on our bikes. But we saw the potential of a shutdown and decided to do something really crazy – we offered our members the bikes from our studio.”
Monica and Chuck gave their members the option to rent a bike from their studio for two weeks for just $99. Included with the bike was access to an online community consisting of virtual classes, fitness tips and accountability.
“We sold out in two hours,” Monica said. “We could have charged more, but we felt like we are doing right by the community and not trying to take advantage of the situation.”
Loco Cycle is evaluating extending their online content to a broader base of potential members who know of the club because of Monica’s Instagram presence.
“We found that some members already had bikes at home but would be willing to pay for the programming,” she said. “It’s a new opportunity that big guys like Peloton already do, but we found that we might be able to do this, too.”
Like a Library
Not everyone is renting out equipment. Some are just offering a loan of sorts. Crystal Alosa Reynolds, owner of 43 Degrees North Athletic Club in Concord, New Hampshire, and her team created Fitness On The Go bags from existing equipment at her studio and loaned those out to members. Each bag contained a jump rope, a gliding disc, weighted ball and a Bender ball.
“Members check out the materials—like at a library—and sign a document promising to return or be charged for the equipment,” Reynolds said. “We don’t have the same resources as a huge operator, but this approach allows us to keep a strong local connection and tie to our membership so they don’t drift away and decide they don’t need our club.”
Members are guided through workouts they complete at home on their own schedule via a private Facebook group, or they can participate in real-time, interactive classes using Zoom.
“On every platform, our instructors wear their club uniform, introduce themselves just like they would in studio classes and offer virtual thumbs ups and shout outs to the membership,” Reynolds said.
Whether you rent out equipment or lend it like a library book, doing so exposes studio owners to liability risks, according to Jennifer Urmston Lowe of Sports & Fitness Insurance.
“We really do advise not renting out equipment with moving parts, but we recognize that people are doing it,” she said.
Small, portable items such as free weights don’t expose you to much risk, but larger equipment such as bikes and ellipticals do have greater liability risks.
Studio owners would need to check with their insurance company to find out if they have liability coverage for the transportation of larger equipment to the renter’s home.
Beyond that, risk exposure exists if the equipment is not set up properly in the person’s home or if the person gets injured on it while using it at their home. If the equipment is stolen or damaged while in the renter’s home, it is not covered under the studio’s policy but under the renter’s homeowner policy. If the equipment is leased, that set up becomes more problematic for the studio owner, who is ultimately responsible for the condition of the equipment in the eyes of the lessor.
Lowe recommends studio owners work with their attorney to draft a rental agreement with a liability waiver and a clause requiring the renter to insure the equipment and reimburse the studio owner for the equipment if something physically happens to it while in their home.
Guttormson admitted that she doesn’t have a contract with her equipment renters.
“I wish I could tell you I had a contract, but in our community I have known everyone I have dealt with who already are clients,” she said. “They have accounts with me, which means that is the only waiver I have. I know now it is all trust. Not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but at this point I am flying and don’t have the time to go back.”
Staying in Touch and Surviving
It’s not enough to just rent out the equipment, the studio operators agreed. You also must stay in touch with your members in other ways during this time.
John and Cathleen of Global Fitness are staying in touch with members through a Facebook Live Weekly Update where they share what they are doing at the club and updates on potential opening dates.
“The member engagement for those videos have been very high,” John said. “We are hopeful of retaining most of our members as I think people are going to be a little ‘house happy’ and will be anxious to be with fellow members once the pandemic has subsided.”
After the pandemic is over, people will be more in tune with their health and maintaining a strong immune system that can only be achieved with exercise, John said.
Guttormson also keeps in touch with her members on social media, offering positive pictures and words daily.
“All joy. No doom and gloom. Just my own brand of magic,” she said, adding that she keeps the stories fun and funny.
She also engages on Zoom after the Zoom classes are over. Because many of her members belong to her studio seasonally and live elsewhere at certain times of the year, people join the Zoom classes from all over the country. After the Zoom classes, some of the attendees stay on Zoom and drink coffee together, laugh and commiserate, she said.
“We are really having as much fun as we can and that is my specialty anyway, so I am thrilled to be able to offer that still,” she said. “You can't get that with any app.”
Studio operators who stand the greatest chance of surviving this shutdown are those who are innovative, stay connected with their community, remain positive and continue to work to maintain and grow their community, Guttormson said.
“They need to not only stand out right now, but they need to be the place people think of when this is all said and done,” she said.
[Anthony Dominic, content and analytics manager, and Merrill Richmond, contributing editor, contributed to this story.]