Gyms in the Philadelphia area are still recovering memberships after being closed due to COVID

When Virtua Health’s William G. Rohrer Fitness Center reopened in September 2020, following a pandemic shutdown that began six months earlier, company executives expected it would take time for many members to return.

But not that long.

The massive Voorhees facility — with its full fitness center and three pools — is now set to close for good at the end of November, unable to survive any longer with membership only about half of what it was before the pandemic, when the center had more than 4,000 members.

“We actually had one of our best years in 2019, and we haven’t been able to come back from that,” said April Shetler, Virtua’s assistant vice president of community programming. The drop in membership has resulted in a “significant deficit” for the fitness center, she said, but declined to say how much.

“We’re trying to fight that battle,” Shetler added, “but we’re failing.”

The impending closure is one of the worst results in the fitness industry’s ongoing battle to recover business lost during COVID-19. Nationally, 25 percent of health and fitness facilities that were open in March 2020 had permanently closed by the end of last year, according to an analysis by the industry trade group, IHRSA.

Now, the gyms that survived are tasked with not only winning back members who switched to home or outdoor workouts, but doing so while dealing with staff shortages, rising labor costs, inflation and issues with supply chain.

“Our biggest headache was the equipment,” said Lisa Alberta, director of marketing for La Maison Health and Fitness in Wayne. “If a treadmill breaks down, trying to get the replacement parts” was a challenge.

Several gym owners and managers said they have experienced delays in replacing weights, cardio machines and other equipment.

At Royal Fitness in Barrington, Camden County, employees have been running to Target or Wawa to refill the refrigerator with bottled water because of problems with bulk orders, fitness director Daniel Zakami said. At the same time, the cost of filling the site’s juice bar has increased “tremendously,” she said.

As Royal struggled to fill vacancies, particularly for certain positions such as yoga and barre instructors, the gym had to increase employee wages to compete with other part-time job opportunities, Zakami said. To keep up with those rising costs, the import for new members increased by $3 a month earlier this year, she said.

Still, “we’re doing relatively well,” Zakami said, noting the gym has more than 3,000 members and is down just a few hundred from its pre-Covid count.

“It doesn’t come without effort,” she said. “There are a lot of things we’re doing to try to be proactive.” That includes continuing to schedule half of the classes outdoors and half indoors this fall to accommodate members’ comfort levels related to COVID.

If the 40-year-old gym no longer owned the building, Royal Fitness wouldn’t have the same flexibility to offer outdoor classes, Zakami said. Combined with rising rent costs, she added, the business might not have been able to survive otherwise.

In Wayne, La Maison Health and Fitness also experienced the benefits of ownership, which was especially helpful given the sharp drop in membership — from about 4,000 before the pandemic to 2,000 now, said Alberta, the marketing director.

“It’s definitely a big hit on the bottom line,” she said. “Fortunately, because we are family owned, we really own our building. I know so many gyms across the country and in the area have had to close because they couldn’t pay their rent.”

Like Royal Fitness, La Maison has reduced the number of scheduled classes, Alberta said. The Main Line facility also stopped offering a coffee bar, she added, but kept free towel service.

To compensate for the loss of members, the club now sells three levels of membership: one cheaper and one more expensive than what was previously offered. The top tier is a $120-a-month VIP package that includes personal training and unlimited hours, Alberta said. The club also stepped up its marketing this summer, she said, with a special no-enrollment offer that attracted 60 new members in June, most of them former members who left during the pandemic.

» READ MORE: As of April 2020: Devastated by pandemic closures and layoffs, Philadelphia’s fitness industry struggles to stay afloat

At Riverton Health and Fitness Center in Burlington County, owner Jason Ciocci said he’s gained several hundred members in recent months and now has 800 members. Before COVID, he said, the center averaged about 1,200.

With less money coming in from memberships, Cioci said he cut his staff from six people to two. It also increased the cost of new memberships from about $25 to $35.

Thanks to those decisions, “we are in a good position to continue,” he said.

The situation downtown would have been very different, he said, if hundreds of longtime members hadn’t allowed the gym to continue collecting its fees even when it was closed during the shutdown.

“I was going to lose the building,” Chochi said. “I was going to lose my fitness. I would be desperate.”

Meanwhile, in Camden, personal trainer Rick Gaines said he’s gotten more business from people who don’t feel comfortable going back to traditional gyms and training with others indoors.

“People who never thought they’d come to a personal trainer came to me because of the virus,” said Gaines, who was also encouraged by the opening of a supplement store affiliated with his Body Designers personal training studio. “They just didn’t feel comfortable going back to the gym.”

At the soon-to-be-shuttered Rohrer Fitness Center, members tend to skew older, Shetler said, and one of the reasons Virtua cited for the decision is “shifting fitness preferences among the public.”

“Really, a lot of people canceled right away, saying they’d come back when they felt safe,” Schettler said, and many still haven’t felt comfortable enough.

“The fitness industry has changed so much during the pandemic and people who were committed to exercise found other ways,” she said. “They turned to virtual means or just went outside and went for a run or a bike ride.”

And Virtua, a nonprofit health care system, has the option to eventually repurpose the fitness center space for something else. Medical and surgical offices are located in the same building as the gym; Shetler said officials have not made a final decision on how to use the space.

As for Rohrer’s staff, all are employed by a fitness management company, not Virtua. One of the reasons for announcing the closings in advance is “to ensure that staff have time to map out their next steps,” Virtua spokesman Daniel Moyes said.

And Schettler said she’s confident Rohrer’s other gym members will be able to find plenty of other options nearby.

“There is no shortage of fitness centers in the region,” she said. “We think strategically our investment could be put to better use.”

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