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Sonoma gyms, fitness studios tasked with coaxing back members

As gyms, yoga and pilates studios reopen this week after almost a full year of closure, they face an uphill battle to lure back members.

“Our fight is far from over,” said Sonoma Fit owner Adam Kovacs, who said he lost more than two-thirds of his membership during the pandemic, despite quickly pivoting and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on virtual classes (SoFit TV), outdoor workout platforms, tents and weather-proof gym equipment.

The cost of owning and operating a gym varies by size, location and type of facility but across the board health club operating costs tend to be high compared to other businesses. The rent alone, for Kovacs’ three gyms in Sonoma, Novato and Petaluma, totals $95,000 a month. And whether clubs own or rent their machines, gym equipment is expensive.

Arturo Jimenez, owner of Sonoma’s Fitness Factory, said his club lost almost every one of its monthly members as the shutdown wore on, while his bills mounted.

“We been paying and paying and paying and the bills keep coming, with no income at all,” said Jimenez.

As Sonoma’s fitness facilities, large and small, prepared to reopen over the weekend, a half dozen owners and managers looked back at the past 12 months and the challenge that still lies ahead.

“We can’t just say ‘Yippee, we’re open!,’” Kovacs said. “The real fight – getting our members and our income back – is still ahead of us.”

The pitch to rejoin

Sonoma Valley’s four biggest gyms – Sonoma Fit, Parkpoint Health Club, Anytime Fitness and Fitness Factory – have all reopened in the last 48 hours.

Parkpoint reopened on March 15 and Sonoma General Manager Jennifer Anderson said she is “thrilled” to welcome back members. She doesn’t expect everyone to immediately feel comfortable working out inside so Parkpoint will continue to offer outdoor workout options for the forseeable future.

“Many of our members have enjoyed being outside for their workouts,” she said.

But it is more than just the services offered that will lure members back, said Anderson.

“They have told us how much they have missed Parkpoint because it has always been the place where they can connect,” she said, noting that’s been missing as people have tried to work out on their own for the past year.

Jimenez and Kovacs agree that sense of community, companionship and access to advice and motivation from gym trainers will likely be crucial in the attempts to re-sign members who walked away during the pandemic.

‘The real fight – getting our members and our income back – is still ahead of us.’ Adam Kovacs

Just as important, however, will be reassuring wary customers with a variety of coronavirus safety control measures. All Sonoma fitness studios contacted by the Index-Tribune listed a litany of new safety measures from distancing of equipment to electro-static (hospital grade) disinfecting to HVAC upgrades and heavy-duty air purifiers and a greater emphasis on fresh air circulation.

Fitness Factory and Sonoma Fit have also joined Anytime Fitness in being open to members 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Jimenez hopes being open longer hours will be a draw.

“Outdoor classes weren’t an option for us because our members want to work out with equipment,” he said.

Without access to outdoor space in its location in the shopping center, Anytime Fitness has been closed for the better part of the year. It reopened on March 16 at 11 a.m.

“We aren’t going to pressure anyone to come back in who isn’t comfortable yet but we’ll do everything we can to communicate the additional safety measures that have been taken and all the good reasons to get back into a workout routine,” said Anytime Fitness GM Laura Kirley.

Small boutique studios face occupancy challenges

Sonoma’s yoga and pilates studios have resumed classes indoors but while restaurants, museums and theaters now allowed to resume indoor operations at 25 percent capacity under red tier guidelines, fitness centers must max out at 10 percent capacity indoors, which is doable for big gyms but a real challenge for boutique operations.

“Because we can have only four students in the room at a time, we’ll leave it up to the teachers whether they want to continue doing virtual classes until that number increases,” said Yoga Community owner Lisa Willet. Willett will add capacity by putting her tent back up at Sonoma Garden Park and holding outdoor classes there as soon as the weather improves. She also undertook a “pandemic pivot,” offering a community supply store in unused studio space this year; it will also stay open indefinitely.

Sonoma Like it Hot yoga studio also reopened this week and owner Inna Vassina said her studio has stayed afloat over the past year by offering private, outdoor and virtual classes.

“And we prayed a lot,” she said.

Other specialty fitness studios like Studio M pilates and First 2 Fight boxing studio will also reopen this week. First 2 Fight owner Alex Ventura said that because he has outdoor space and all his client work with him one-on-one, this year hasn’t been as hard on him as other fitness studios.

“I feel for the bigger gyms,” he said. “I’m a one-man operation, with a decent rent and I was able to keep seeing clients.”

Susan Aslin, owner of Studio M Pilates, during a private lesson.
Susan Aslin, owner of Studio M Pilates, during a private lesson.

Studio M pilates owner Sue Aslin expects to begin offering private lessons, duos and trios in person, well-spaced with masks, this week.

“We closed our doors and scrambled to figure out ways to bring in income,” she said. She developed classes and offered private lessons first on Zoom, and then on an app called Mind Body.

“We ended up renting out many of our Pilates Reformer machines to our clients to bring in some income,” she said. “We had to keep hustling to figure out a way to survive.”

A hard road ahead

“Every morning when I wake up I am more in debt,” said Kovacs, noting that gyms, unlike other businesses, have received almost no financial support from the government.

As happy as they are to have reopened, local gym owners agreed that rebuilding a membership base is a daunting challenge.

“Some people are scared to go back to the gym, not understanding all the precautions we have taken and how safe it is,” said Kovacs. “But the science proves that gyms are safe and that the best defense against disease is a healthy body so we’re hopeful people will remember how much they loved working out with us before all this happened.”

Reopening inside this week

Anytime Fitness, 500 W. Napa St., anytimefitness.com

EA’s Crossfit, 19698 Eighth St. E., eascrossfit.com

Embark Circuit Training, 250 W. Napa St., embarkcircuittraining.com

First 2 Fight Boxing, 50 Lictenberg Ave., first2fightboxingclub.com

Fitness Factory, 999 W. Spain St., thefitness-factory.com

Iron Built Fitness (personal training only), 17465 Sonoma Highway, iron-built-fitness.business.site

KOB Pilates + Yoga, 1262 Broadway, kobpilates.com

Pilates Sonoma, 450 First St.. Suite J, pliatessonoma.com

Parkpoint Health Clubs, 19111 Sonoma Hghway, parkpointhealthclub.com/sonoma

Pure Barre, 201 W. Napa St., purebarre.com/location/sonoma-ca

Sonoma Aquatic Center gym, 17350 Vailetti Dr., sonomaaquaticcenter.com

Sonoma Like It Hot Yoga, 721, W. Napa St., sonomalikeithot.com

Sonoma Fit, 19310 Sonoma Highway, sofitsonoma.com

Sonoma Training, 19800 Eighth St. E., sonomatraining.com

Studio M Pilates, 721 W. Napa St., studiompilates.com

Yoga Community, 577 Fifth St. W., yogacommunity.net

(Personal trainers are not included on this list as they have been previously allowed to reopen.)

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

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