For more than a year, indoor fitness studios have been deprived of the atmosphere that fuels their appeal: crowded spaces, colorful lights, bumping music. A high-intensity, heavy-breathing, communal experience.
And as the long months of the pandemic dragged on, no one quite knew when people would be allowed to do that again, or more importantly, if they would want to. But since the lifting of most COVID-19 restrictions a few weeks ago, studio owners say clients have been steadily trickling back, a sign that a once-thriving industry in Boston is making a resurgence.
Watching people fill up the treadmills and stationary bikes at Tread Tabata in Beverly, without masks or plastic barriers, has been “pure joy,” said owner Kathy Glabicky. During the pandemic, she moved an altered version of her signature workout class to the parking lot outside her studio, and many clients preferred that to working out inside with a mask.
But, she said, widespread vaccination rates have made people more comfortable with group workouts, and you don’t have to wear masks inside anymore. Plus, Glabicky said, people want to get back in shape.
“I’m not at 100 percent [business] yet, but I’m getting there,” she said. “Everybody was ready to go inside.”
According to fitness booking app ClassPass, there are roughly 300 fitness studios in the Boston area that offer classes through its platform, about double the number for San Francisco or Miami. Reservations in Boston are up 270 percent since January, said spokeswoman Mandy Menaker, and 32 percent since May 29, the day Massachusetts lifted nearly all pandemic restrictions.
Of course, not every fitness company made it through the pandemic. As of December, it was estimated that 17 percent of fitness clubs and studios in the United States had closed permanently, according to the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association, a trade group based in Boston. Shuttered gyms dot strip malls and main streets across Greater Boston.
And even at studios where there is a steady uptick in bookings, owners say that getting traffic back to pre-COVID levels has been an uphill battle. Some clients splurged on at-home workout equipment during the pandemic, such as the Peloton bike, got in a new workout routine or — even worse for their local studios — moved away. Predicting their return, or realizing it won’t happen, is tricky.
“People don’t buy a Peloton and then e-mail you and say ‘Hey, heads up, you’re no longer going to see me buying 10-class packs,’ ” said Lauren Meyer, co-owner of the Boston fitness studio Mystryde. “It would be great if everyone who used to come here told us what they are doing and what they want, but we don’t have that data.”
That puts pressure on studios to bring in new clients to make up the difference, said Becca Skudder, Meyer’s business partner and founder of Mystryde. The gym is trying to retain clients through membership sales, she said, since it is a more predictable stream of income, compared to drop-ins. But signing on members has been tough since suddenly there is so much competition for people’s time.
“People have ten weddings because five of them were supposed to be last summer,” she said. “People are working from home, so they can leave for a few weeks.”
At Tread Tabata, a lot of clients — both new and returning — are dipping a foot in the water with drop-in classes, Glabicky said, signing up for a full membership only when they’re ready to come back on a consistent basis. That initial drop-in class is important however, she said, since many cite concerns about being out of shape.
“Some of the people that come in say they haven’t worked out at all during the pandemic,” she said. “We’re glad they’re here.”
While some return to indoor studio workouts, others are flocking to large-scale outdoor programs that also took a pandemic hiatus.
November Project hosts free outdoor workouts year-round, but last March went fully virtual when COVID restrictions made it impossible for hundreds of people to gather in one place. The Boston nonprofit restarted outdoor programming last fall, but with small groups scattered across the city, instead of one big workout, and participants had to wear masks and socially distance. In June, November Project resumed its massive workouts again, including climbing the stairs at Harvard Stadium in Allston each Wednesday morning.
“The people who come to November Project don’t want to work out by themselves,” said Emily Saul, coleader of the Boston chapter. “It feels normal [to be together], and that is the bizarre thing about going back.”
And the group learned a lot in the months it was apart, Saul said. Leaders decided to maintain virtual programming — something Saul never thought they would start — and be more intentional about where November Project holds workouts around the city. Saul said the nonprofit realized that virtual workouts and small group sessions spread around Boston made the group’s events more accessible and inclusive.
November Project is free, but gym and studio owners said it was difficult to monetize virtual offerings, so they are scaling them back. Glabicky said “everybody and their mother started online workouts” during the pandemic, and Skudder said it was tough to compete with already established online fitness companies.
Gyms are seeing a post-COVID boost, too, but Ed Mazzuchelli, owner of Train4Life in Marshfield, said the pandemic caused a noticeable shift in consumer spending habits, so the gym had to tweak its business model.
Before the pandemic, most of the gym’s revenue came people seeking personal training memberships, one-on-one fitness coaching that could cost $200 to $600 per month. Those were the first clients to cancel when COVID-19 hit, and the least likely to come back during various phases of reopening with their mask rules and distancing protocols.
“That was an ‘oh crap’ moment,” Mazzuchelli said. “It wasn’t overnight, but we realized it was time to pivot.”
After a not-so-successful attempt at creating virtual content, Mazzuchelli turned his staff into “painters and fixer-uppers” while the gym was closed. He also bought new equipment, remodeled the juice bar, and focused on selling more traditional gym memberships, for $40 to $50 a month.
“We’ve gone through the roof in terms of adding new members,” he said. Train4Life now has about 1,000 members, 25 percent more than before the pandemic.
The most rewarding outcome, he said, is the number of people who still casually thank him for keeping the gym’s doors open. People are better at wiping down equipment after they use it, too.
“I think people took gyms for granted before,” he said. “There is a level of appreciation now.”