Originally published in Personal Fitness Professional.

With vaccine rollouts, people everywhere are excited to finally “get back to normal.” But there isn’t really going to be a return to the way things used to be — and that’s a good thing because social distancing restrictions introduced a number of conveniences that otherwise may have taken years to establish.

Creating a touchless economy required incredible digital transformation efforts in just about every industry. Depending on the nature of the business, these transformations ranged from impressive to downright incredible. In almost every case, the changes made to accommodate touchless transactions have also created a new level of convenience for the consumer — online ordering, improved delivery or curbside pickup options, and measures to reduce crowds and shorten lines are all examples of new solutions that consumers won’t want to give up.
The more an industry relied on face-to-face interactions before the pandemic, the more creative their solutions needed to be. In the fitness industry, the adaptations have been particularly impressive. Gyms have created at-home content, new sanitation procedures for equipment, and even contactless systems for granting facility access to members, among other innovations. Even when things go back to “normal,” gym members will expect these conveniences to continue.
So, what does the new customer experience look like? Is this the end of fitness as we know it? Well… not exactly. It’s no exaggeration to say though that the pandemic is driving a new paradigm shift that will permanently change the way we think of gyms and the fitness industry in general.
Gym owners know how difficult it’s been to meet the needs of their membership over the pandemic, but they must also accept that these changes are generally here to stay. The good news is that, in most cases, the hardest part of this pivot has been coming up with solutions and creating the necessary infrastructure to support a socially-distant gym experience. Now that that’s done, it should be comparatively easy to keep these solutions going.
Fitting into the fitness-anywhere movement
The first new trend that will likely continue is at-home content. The pandemic saw skyrocketing success in home workout solutions. For example, the bike-centric home fitness solution offered by Peloton doubled the company’s annual sales in 2020. Kettlebells, yoga mats and other at-home workout equipment were in short supply, while fitness-related hashtags became popular trending topics on Twitter.
For many gym owners and personal trainers, this massive shift to at-home workouts spelled disaster. But others saw opportunity instead, creating online digital workouts and finding a new market in catering to the home workout enthusiast.
Some good lighting and a decent video camera will lay the groundwork for your fitness content creation, whether you choose to do pre-recorded sessions or live video classes through Zoom or a similar platform. But this doesn’t mean virtual training sessions will be easy. There are a number of hurdles to overcome, but the potential payoff is substantial. Virtual training sessions essentially open up your services to anyone, anywhere, meaning that you can dramatically increase your audience — and your income — should you find success training online.
Meeting new in-person expectations
The next trend we expect to see stick around is an increased awareness around sanitation, ventilation and overall in-gym environments. Are there sterilizing wipes next to all equipment stations? Are there enough fans to keep fresh air moving through the entire facility? Even for gyms that practiced impeccable cleanliness before the pandemic, members may have just taken it for granted. They won’t anymore.
This is a great time to invest in new sterilization equipment for your facility and to double-down on your cleaning routines. But it’s also vital that you make your efforts known, even if you’re not actively changing anything. Gym members already know that the towels you offer are clean, for example, but it could be a great time to put up a sign reminding them that you wash used towels at a temperature that kills harmful viruses.
Again, the purpose here is twofold. You want to make sure current members feel safe returning to your facilities, but you also want to make sure prospective members see your gym as the cleanest (and therefore safest) one around.
No one wants to return to a crowd
We’ve all been eager to get out of isolation, but nobody is excited to go stand in line or fight for space in a crowd. This is true whether social distancing regulations will still play a role, or years from now when this pandemic is just one lousy memory. Businesses have spent the past year creating solutions that allow people to avoid lines, and there’s no reason to abandon them once we get the all-clear to return to normal.
There is also a great opportunity to improve procedures to reduce bottlenecks and lines. This could include automating the keycard-swiping process that allows access to the facilities, or using automated texts to provide real-time updates about facilities’ availability. As things begin to ramp back up, this will help avoid situations where people are gathering in large groups. But going forward, it’s just going to be a matter of maximizing efficiency and avoiding wasted time.
After all, we’ve got a whole lost year to make up for.