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How are boutique gyms staying afloat amid the coronavirus? At least one has reopened in a parking garage

How are boutique gyms staying afloat amid the coronavirus? At least one has reopened in a parking garage


CLAYTON — About two dozen people in spandex are up early on a recent Saturday, investing 45 minutes into ensuring their glutes and abs will keep reminding them of this workout for the next couple of days.

“This is where you get better,” cheers instructor Caroline Spagnola, during interminable rounds of burpees and planks. “This is where you get stronger!”

But the class is in an unusual locale: the top floor of a five-level parking garage in Clayton.

TruFusion fitness studio in Clayton took over the top two levels of Washington University’s West Campus garage in mid-June as a way to follow the social distancing requirements aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus. The unconventional setup means more classes can be offered to more people than if they were squeezed into the Forsyth Boulevard studio itself.

Since the shutdown in March, gyms have had to get creative to maintain commitment and generate revenue. Many turned to virtual workouts, teaching clients to use what was on hand — book-stuffed backpacks for weights and pantyhose for resistance bands — to tone and strengthen.

After gyms were allowed to reopen last month, equipment had to be shifted, schedules and price structures revamped, and outdoor spaces reimagined. Instructors accustomed to circulating the room to offer hands-on repositioning and high-fives have had to rely on verbal cues and miked-up whooping.

Class-focused boutique gyms face different constraints than large fitness centers, which can fall back on a broader membership base, longer hours and extra square footage to keep everyone spread out. Sales of home gym equipment skyrocketed during the early weeks of the pandemic, an investment that could keep many former clients from returning.

To woo back their members, small gym owners have to convince them that safety is the priority and that the community, accountability and expertise they offer make it worth the time, money — and risk.

“We were worried about losing our momentum,” said Gillyon Alexander, the co-owner of StrongHer, which focuses on functional fitness for women.

The business was already well practiced in outdoor instruction. Most of the year, its weight-training classes are held at Oak Tree Park in Brentwood. In the winter, StrongHer rents space at the Richmond Heights community center.

Now, a little extra preparation — outlining individual workout boundaries with sidewalk chalk, finding sanitizing spray that won’t rust out barbells — goes into classes, and child care has been suspended. Most of StrongHer’s 50 regulars have been eager to return.

“People are just missing any type of interaction,” Alexander said.

Kate Ferguson of CC Fly Fitness has taken a multipronged approach to keep her clients engaged. Her St. Louis Hills studio, which specializes in barre, yoga and cardio, is paring down the virtual offerings it has been streaming since March. About 24 classes are taught each week in the studio and another half dozen are held outside, at nearby Francis Park.

“I want variety for the classes,” said Ferguson. “We want to make sure clients are safe, instructors are safe and do what’s best for the community.”

That means limiting class size to six. No rotating between circuits; no sharing equipment. Everyone brings their own mats.

The feedback from her clients has been good, said Ferguson, but CC Fly is at less than half the capacity it was in February.

“Right now, it’s a lot of anxiety for a business owner,” she said. “We’ll be OK for a while, but if we have a second wave of this, I don’t know if we’ll survive.”

‘What if we put bikes here?’

Joe Goldberg, owner of TruFusion, is confident his gym will weather the virus now that he has the extra space afforded him by Washington U.

But it took weeks of him ping-ponging ideas before he landed on the garage gambit.

TruFusion’s “studios within a studio” format means a turnstile of clients revolve through a variety of room setups: hot yoga and regular yoga, hot Pilates, indoor cycling and a fitness-room catchall for boxing, boot camp and circuit training.

“Our model is based on volume,” said Goldberg.

Before the pandemic, an average of 600 people took one or more of 28 daily classes. They lifted, stretched and sweated on hundreds of pieces of equipment and often stuck around to socialize afterward.

Opening the studio back up with a fraction of clients allowed inside didn’t make sense, Goldberg said: “Our costs would go up. We’d need more staff, more classes, more cleaning.”

One evening in May, as he was looping through the garage on his way home, Goldberg had an epiphany. Most of the 1,600 parking spaces were empty, abandoned since Washington U.’s employees had started working remotely.

“I had run through every possible scenario for reopening,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘What if we put bikes here? What if we put punching bags there?’”

The next day, Goldberg approached Rachel Siegert, the university’s assistant director for real estate.

“I was curious to see how everything would materialize,” said Siegert, who has been a TruFusion member since the gym opened more than two years ago.

Long term

After the university agreed to let TruFusion use the space for free, indefinitely, Goldberg secured special-use permits from the city of Clayton. He rolled over carts full of equipment. Clients who had rented bikes during stay-at-home orders dropped them back off. The new “studios” began to take shape.

The biggest challenge was noise. Pulsing music and exuberant encouragement from instructors are the backdrop of most TruFusion workouts, but the sound waves crashed throughout the cement walls of the garage and echoed outside.

Goldberg tried to dampen it with foam, then curtains. In the end, industrial fans did double duty, providing white noise and relief from the heat.

Much of the rest of the $20,000 Goldberg invested in the move went into nearly two tons of rubber flooring, cut into individual rectangles and positioned to ensure social distancing. He bought amplifiers, a thousand feet of extension cord, and several electrostatic sprayers to hose everything down with sanitizer between classes.

All the effort has been worth it to Jen Pelc of Clayton, a boot camp and Pilates regular.

“I feel like Joe has taken the extra measures to keep us safe,” she said. “It feels so good to be back. It’s not about the place, it’s about the people.”

More than two-thirds of TruFusion’s clients have held onto their memberships, and Goldberg anticipates those numbers will rebound once people return to work and school.

He’s already thinking of long-term accommodations: hiring a security guard, anchoring resistance straps to the walls so he can resume TRX suspension training and finding efficient ways to heat the garage when the weather cools.

“I’m not going to make money like this,” Goldberg said. “But we’ll make it through.”

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