When TRX Master Instructor Chris Cygul first heard reports about the novel coronavirus earlier this year, he decided FEAR was his only choice. In his case, FEAR is an acronym: Face Everything And Rock-on.
Cygul owns TRX Training St. Augustine, an award-winning northern Florida fitness studio. This year, believe it or not, has been good for his business so far. While most trainers and gyms were hard hit by the almost-overnight stay-at-home shutdowns, Cygul said years of experience weathering both financial and meteorological storms taught him to prepare for this moment.
The secret to Cygul’s lockdown-era success essentially boils down to five principles...
1. Remember, you’re running a business.
After weathering economic downturns following the Dot Com Boom, 9/11, and the mortgage crisis, Cygul has learned some valuable lessons - in the literal sense - about working in a tough economy. “One of the biggest things, and this seems so obvious, is the importance of cash flow and being diligent in charging for all the great services you're providing."
"Let's be real," Cygul continued, "most of us trainers don't get into this business for the money, we do what we do because we're passionate about fitness and even more passionate about helping people. Unfortunately, when times are tough, your passions won't pay the bills. So you just need to remember to stay business-minded. It seems simple but it can be an easy thing to lose sight of."
2. Act Fast: the window of opportunity in a crisis is small.
Weeks before the mandatory shutdown in Florida, Cygul could feel a change was coming. While there were no reported cases of Covid-19 in St. Augustine at the time, Cygul’s clients had elderly and at-risk family members at home, and they were hesitant about coming into the gym.
Cygul knew the first step was to make sure he kept his loyal clients, and the best way to keep clients was to ensure they had the equipment they needed to continue training. He reached out to his representative at TRX and ordered lots of TRX Suspension Trainers and door anchors. He packaged up the TRX Pro4 Suspension Trainers from the studio. He asked anybody who could afford to buy a strap to buy a home kit, and offered the Pro4s as loaners to everyone else.
One of TRX St. Augustine’s greatest assets heading into the shutdowns was a thriving virtual coaching practice, which Cygul said represented about one-third of his business before coronavirus. He knew he needed to move quickly to transition his in-person clients to virtual clients in order to keep the business running. “We immediately started to do workouts live that we recorded. We’re using Zoom because the Zoom Pro platform is the one they’ve been using for years anyway. “
Cygul saw business owners on social media asking clients to show their support by writing positive reviews and buying gift cards, but he knew that wasn’t the right strategy for his studio. “We’re not a gym that operates on a recurring billing revenue model. We do a lot of personal training, and we rely on daily and weekly sessions. We realized, based on how we sell our personal training sessions in packs, the most money we could make was to sell our largest packs and have [clients] pay ahead of time,” he said.
So that’s what he asked for.
Cygul reached out to clients and offered a discount on training packs. Next on the “support our business” suggestion list was buying a gift card or pre-paying for group training. Then came the free value stuff: leave us a Google review or tell a friend. His plan worked. Cygul converted about 80 percent of his clients to virtual training, and—despite being closed the last 10 days of March—saw year-over-year growth.
3. Relationships matter now more than ever!
Cygul warns, gyms can’t take retention for granted. “Nobody saw the pandemic coming, but the biggest thing I saw—years ago—was that if we didn’t have a great relationship with our people, we couldn’t weather any type of storm.”
Considering the staggering unemployment rates across the country, a lot of people may end up cancelling their gym memberships. In other words, it’s a critical time for gym owners and trainers to be checking in with their clients who are still in it and haven't cancelled. But that doesn’t mean dishing out non-stop free training, especially if there's no end goal in mind. "You'll probably find that the clients that haven't cancelled and are sticking by you are the ones that you have a relationship with. They should be made to feel special. And if they’re not, they’re going to go somewhere else.”
“What I would caution against is putting up free content that you can’t track,” Cygul said. “You need to be able to track engagement, whether you plan on turning it into something bigger in the long run or not. How many people are you adding to your Facebook group right now? How many people are you adding to your email list? How much are you spending on marketing right now? If the answer is nothing, there’s a problem.
4. Cleanliness may end up being be one of your best marketing tools.
Studios that have been dependent on discounted services like ClassPass to make ends meet are also at a crossroads. “I would assume that when we go go back there’s going to be some level of social distancing and people are going to want to know more about where they’re going,” Cygul said. “They're going to be more conscious about the studio’s policy on cleanliness and virus spreading and social distancing, etc. I think there will be more loyalty in some ways - especially if you make those things a priority. People will still do ClassPass, but they’ll be sticking to maybe three, instead of six, places in order to limit their exposure.”
As early reports about coronavirus started rolling in around February, Cygul stocked up on cleaning supplies, took photos of them in front of the studios awards, and posted the pictures on social media. His goal? To project cleanliness and assure clients that the gym was taking the matter seriously.
“What’s going to buy people time now is showing people how clean their studios are becoming to get ready to open,” he said. “Go hire a sanitation company. Get a cleaning crew in and take marketing pictures of it. Leverage the fact that you’re small and you limit the amount of people as part of your business plan. I think it would be a lost opportunity for small studios to not market that they’re small.”
Regardless of what happens in the future with the coronavirus, Cygul says TRX St. Augustine will continue with the same strategy every flu season. Clients will step on a shoe-cleaning mat when they check in, and be instructed to wash their hands. “We’re going to be at the forefront of cleanliness. That has been the number one reason people are appreciating what we’re doing.”
5. Respond to the time.
The fitness industry’s usual summer beach/vacation body marketing will come across as tone deaf right now, but health can still be a priority. As Florida prepared to reopen, Cygul said his clients were emailing with jokes about gaining the “Quarantine 15,” and chomping at the bit to get back in shape.
TRX St. Augustine increased its virtual coaching offerings through the lockdown, but they chose which battles to fight. “What we haven’t been doing through this stay-at-home mandate is bother people about what they're eating and drinking,” Cygul said. “The last thing we want to do is push folks away right now and make them feel even worse.” Still, Cygul notes that he sees the bottles in the neighborhood recycling bins each week, and it’s obvious that everyone’s been drinking more while staying home.
“We know when we get back to it, there’s a conversation of ‘You’ve gained a little bit. But we’re going to get after it and get you in better shape; to not be included in those statistics of people who succumb to coronavirus because of preexisting conditions like diabetes and hypertension.' Trainers and coaches should leverage their knowledge about nutrition and plan for some 30 day challenges or cleanses,” Cygul suggested.
As for his own clients? “I think the next strategy for us is to keep them away from cardio gyms that they think will help them lose the weight quickly,” he said. “There’s already another strategy on the horizon, and that’s using the benefits of our strength training and HIIT to burn more weight than cardio on a treadmill or a rower.”
It’s a wild time to be in the fitness industry. Thousands of gyms and trainers have scrambled in the last six weeks to find ways to help their clients and remain financially viable. Chris Cygul’s success at TRX Training St. Augustine offers hope for weathering this downturn. Even if you’re late to the virtual training game, there’s still an opportunity to get your most loyal clients on board. If your state or city has a re-opening plan, think about how to communicate to your clients that their safety is your priority. And, most importantly, use this moment to plan for how your business can prepare for whatever comes next.
Chris Cygul is a TRX Senior Instructor, fitness studio owner and executive level marketing and business development professional residing in North Florida.