Danny Sharpe feels good about membership trends at Biltmore Fitness, the Asheville gym he’s owned since 2014.
“The last six months I’m extremely happy and optimistic,” he says. “Very happy.”
Mindee Mettee, senior general manager of Asheville Racquet Club, has similar thoughts about the club’s two fitness centers. And the folks at the YMCA of Western North Carolina estimate in-person workout usage shot up about 50% last year.
For many local gyms and workout facilities, the story’s the same. After seeing membership plummet in 2020 and 2021, things took a positive turn in 2022. Most say they are at or near pre-COVID numbers.
“Now that people feel safer and they see that they are safe at the Y, they’re coming back and they’re bringing their families back,” says MaryO Ratcliffe, senior vice president of membership and marketing for the YMCA of Western North Carolina.
Still, the pandemic has had lasting effects on the way gyms do business, with virtual offerings, outdoor exercise and smaller exercise classes now a reality.
And some folks simply still aren’t ready to return to indoor workout spaces. A recent national survey by UpSwell Marketing found that nearly a third (27.71%) of all respondents had not yet gone back to their gyms since the 2020 shutdown. Of those, 26.9% had no plans to return.
“That is definitely still a thing,” says Matt Coomes, executive director of the YMCA of Western North Carolina.
Going online and outdoors
When Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order shutting down gyms across the state in March 2020, the YMCA went virtual.
The group, which operates seven locations in three Western North Carolina counties, started by offering its popular exercise groups on Facebook Live.
“We had our instructors doing exercise classes in their garages, in their backyards, in their living rooms,” Ratcliffe says. “We had dozens and dozens all day. Our instructors have very devoted followings, and they wanted to keep that sense of community alive.”
When it became clear the shutdown was not temporary, YMCA officials knew a Band-Aid approach was not going to cut it. They soon started offering outdoor classes. In December 2020, they launched Virtual Y, which allowed members to access live and on-demand classes.
“We just have been able to offer people more options so that they can stay connected and stay healthy,” Ratcliffe says.
Outdoor classes and Virtual Y remain part of the YMCA’s offerings to members.
“We never did close our doors, really, because we always had ways that we could keep people engaged,” Ratcliffe says. “And I think that that helped them get through it.”
Still, membership numbers fell in 2020 and 2021. At the worst, membership numbers were down by about 60%. And in April 2021, COVID-related financial difficulties led the Y to permanently shutter its Fletcher branch.
Things started to pick up in 2022, and the Y’s overall membership revenue in January was about 83% of what it was in January 2020.
But some members, particularly seniors and people with preexisting conditions, still are hesitant to return to indoor exercise spaces, she says. The Y’s virtual options, along with smaller class sizes and the ability to check fitness center capacity in real time online, have eased some of those concerns, she explains.
Safe at home
Neomi Negron is one person who has no intention of going back to the gym.
Before the pandemic, the Asheville woman was a member of Anytime Fitness on Hendersonville Road. With trips to the gym no longer an option once restrictions hit, she started working out on a Peloton bike and using free-standing weights.
To her surprise, she found she loved working out at home.
“I like the cost of it better, that’s for sure,” says Negron, owner of Buggy Pops gourmet ice pops. “I feel more motivated because I don’t have to get dressed to leave the house. And I love the fact that I can shower immediately after and not drive home in the winter, all sweaty and cold.”
In addition, she says, she’s eating better because she’s able to prepare food at home rather than grabbing something on the go.
Asheville Racquet Club actually saw tennis membership numbers spike at its two locations in 2020 because people felt safe playing an outdoor sport. But like the YMCA and others, it experienced big membership losses for its fitness centers.
Also like the Y, the club moved exercise classes outdoors and started offering online classes.
And now, as COVID fears have eased, the club has increased in-person programs substantially in all departments, says Mettee, the senior general manager. For instance, it now has eight stand-alone pickleball courts and hundreds of pickleball members.
“We are very fortunate at ARC to have a very loyal membership base,” she says. “The members that were able to continue paying during COVID supported us, and those that were unable have come back to us. Our current membership base has exceeded our 2019 membership numbers.”
Sharpe, the owner of Biltmore Fitness, made headlines in May 2020 when he temporarily reopened his gym in defiance of Cooper’s executive order. He reopened for good a few weeks later, and people started coming back in droves. At least at first.
Sharpe wasn’t trying to make a political statement. Rather, he says, he could not understand why gyms were forced to close while places selling liquor and cigarettes and other nonessential businesses remained open.
“You can go to those places, but you can’t come into a gym to improve your immunity and your quality of health?” he says. “We’re adults; give us a little bit of consideration. This is how we stay healthy.”
Sharpe, who has owned the gym since 2014, strictly enforced mask mandates while they were in place. He makes sure machines are thoroughly wiped down after use, encourages social distancing and no longer holds fitness classes.
The business was able to keep many of its members initially, he says, but by the fall of 2020, cancellations increased as financial hardships started to take their toll on many local people. At the worst, Biltmore Fitness saw its membership numbers decrease by about 40%-50%.
But things have taken a turn for the better in the second half of 2022 and into 2023. “This is the best January I’ve ever had as far as membership sign-ups,” he says. He estimates membership numbers are up about 90%-95% of what they were in January 2020.
Sharpe says the numbers are encouraging from a business perspective but also because he believes it is vital for people to have a place to go for exercise.
“The people that don’t work out on a consistent, regular basis, they don’t understand the mental health side of this,” he says. “It’s therapy for many, many people. And during that shutdown, I didn’t lose it, but so many people did. It just broke my heart.”
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