Wellness businesses primed for rebound from COVID?

By Scott Carlson

In a time when staying healthy has been more on people’s minds because of the COVID-19 pandemic, wellness and fitness businesses have been challenged to stay afloat.

From yoga and fitness centers to community block nurse programs for seniors, wellness providers have suffered big drops in serving customers and clients and have had to reach people in new ways during these socially distanced times.

Take Healing Elements, a yoga studio in St. Anthony Park. Owner Samantha Shvetzoff reported, “We’ve been operating at about 40 percent revenue compared to 2019 and previous years through 2020. Things are looking a little brighter in 2021.

“However, there is still an incredible amount of uncertainty and weariness in the wellness industry as to how to proceed with returning to business as we once knew it,” Shvetzoff noted. “We are seeing clients for massage therapy, and our yoga classes have been virtual since March 2020.

“While we had a great holiday season with retail, I attribute that to our quick implementation and creation on an e-commerce site where we have been selling all of our merchandise,” she continued. “Gift card sales were down nearly 80 percent this past holiday season compared with previous years. We’ve had to make some pretty difficult decisions over this past year in terms of how we operate our business, the positions we employ and seeking out federal and county financial aid to keep our doors open.”

Shvetzoff said the pandemic was “the unexpected push” her business needed to open its e-commerce store and create an on-demand virtual yoga studio. “We now have what we call our ‘member portal’ which houses recorded yoga, fitness and meditation classes as well as bodywork tutorials and spiritual content,” she continued. “We currently have 60 virtual members and we’re very proud of that adaptation we implemented! It has been a great opportunity to connect with teachers and practitioners virtually who we may not have had the opportunity to partner with otherwise.”

Meanwhile, wellness businesses have had to implement a myriad of health and safety protocols to resume in-person classes and services. For example, Healing Elements has a COVID-19 preparedness plan that includes increased cleaning and sanitized practices, mandatory mask wearing and physical distancing, germ guards and making personal protective equipment easily available for all staff and clients.

Suzy Levi, owner of Defining You Pilates & Fitness, is shown offering
instruction via a Zoom session with students spaced for health safety.
Photo submitted by Defining You Pilates & Fitness.

At Defining You Pilates & Fitness, owner Suzy Levi has installed a commercial grade, clean-air filtration unit in her space, 550 Vandalia Tower, in south St. Anthony Park, to safeguard the health of club members and instructors. Her studio space is about 3,200 square feet in a building that has 14-foot ceilings.

Levi said her new air filtration system recirculates air, greatly minimizing the possible presence of the COVID virus. As a result, she is able to hold small in-person classes. That’s a start for Levi in rebuilding her class participation numbers. “We had to be creative to keep revenue going.”

She added, “We have seen an increase in one-on-one classes.” But even if the COVID pandemic eases, Levi said she believes that a portion of her studio’s class offerings will remain online.

At the Como/Falcon Heights Block Nurse program, executive director Lisa Kane said her group is offering senior exercise classes virtually. But that switch has come at a cost with total participation down more than 50 percent from when the program offered in-person exercise classes at various senior facilities and town halls.

Meanwhile, the story of wellness and fitness centers in St. Anthony Park mirrors the trend across the Twin Cities, according to Dawn Bryant of Sweat United Inc., a loose collaborative of fitness and wellness operators she founded a year ago following first pandemic-related business closings.

“I just wanted to create a bridge for people to find ways to get healthy and keep a pipeline of clients open for all the businesses,” Bryant said. “What started as simply sharing information ended up being a host of five huge live virtual events with fitness professionals, all of the Twin Cities.”

Bryant said that while some fitness operators have quietly gone out of business, “most businesses have been able to successfully pivot.”

“The tone early on in the pandemic was one of fear and scrambling, and as everyone got their arms around everything, the attitude shifted to one of determination.

“Initially, many fitness businesses offered classes online for free just to keep their clients moving and engaged—everything from launching virtual classes, to on-demand programming, to sourcing, selling and renting exercise equipment for home workouts,” Bryant said.

“Now, most places have business models that can be executed in-studio (or in-gym) and virtually,” she noted. “In theory, it makes their reaches so much broader. And they’re embracing it.’’

Going forward, Shvetzoff, of Healing Elements, said her personal business goals include slowly resuming in-person yoga classes. “I think the most realistic thing we can do is plan for a year similar to 2020 and hope for the best.”

In the end, Bryant predicts, “The businesses that can bring their communities beyond the walls of their gyms and studios will do best. And there will always be a place for gyms and studios because nothing can take the place of a room full of equipment and experts that can help you, educate you, motivate you and inspire you.”

Scott Carlson is managing editor of the Bugle.

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