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Saturday September 26, 2020
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Heather Dupuis, Vie Fitness & Spa

Virtual Fitness

"We turned it on overnight, like a light switch," says Vie Fitness & Spa owner Heather Dupuis.

by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds

From the September, 2020 issue

When Michigan shut down in March, Dupuis decided she "didn't have the luxury to sit back and analyze, strategize, and plan." Her husband, Carsten Hohnke, an MIT-trained engineer, spent the first stay-at-home week building a recording studio in their basement. Sophisticated cameras, microphone, lighting, and music systems help her simulate the experience of a boutique fitness class online.

Meanwhile, she offered to rent all her fitness equipment to clients. Twenty stationary bicycles went out the door, to be used for online group classes and one-on-one training. She hired former employees to work remotely with her clients, and former clients who had moved out of state have rejoined classes. "It's been a fun blast from the past to see these friends again," she says. She now plans to continue virtual programs after Vie reopens--"though they're never going to replace on-site classes."

Even when it looked like gyms might be able to open in July, Dupuis decided that she'd reopen no sooner than September. That turned out to be prescient: After resurgent infections halted an earlier statewide reopening plan, fitness centers, indoor gymnasiums, recreation centers, sports facilities, and exercise studios now can't hold activities inside until at least September 4.

"We have every intention of reopening as soon as we can do so safely and our clients are ready," Dupuis says. But even when the governor gives the go-ahead, she expects to take at least thirty days to get the right equipment in place and train her staff before reopening.

Other fitness centers have made different choices.

"We gave virtual classes some thought, but decided against them," says Ryan Van Bergen of Blue Lion Fitness. "Camera angles don't show us all we need to know to make sure muscles and routines are working properly.

As soon as Michigan's weather turned warm, Blue Lion moved its equipment into the parking lot and began outdoor training classes--though social distancing shrank sessions by two- thirds, to just seven people.

"People are going to have to

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realize that their fitness experience will change--but they don't have to decide between doing nothing or taking a health risk," says Van Bergen. "It's important for everyone to maintain a regular fitness routine."

Anticipating the earlier reopening date, he and his business partner Daniel Roth retrained staff in June and divided the facility into alleys, each with its own sanitation stations, turf, cardiovascular areas, and equipment for one person at a time. But "until the Covid situation changes, fitness centers and gyms may become a seasonal business," Van Bergen cautions. "We all should have a Plan B. We could potentially lose half of our fiscal year if the virus comes back in the fall."

Mike Coval of COVAL Fitness went on Zoom only four days after the shutdown offering three options: a program tailored to clients and their own at-home equipment, a Facebook workout group, or one-on-one virtual sessions.

"The first week-and-a-half was incredibly stressful," he says. "We took a sixty percent hit in revenue. But we managed." He's divided his gym into 150-square-foot workout pods and installed a touchless entrance and exit, hands-free sanitizers, towels, and soap dispensers, and a new filtration and HVAC system. "We're just waiting for the green light" to reopen, he says.

"As soon as we hear the go-ahead from the governor, every social media platform will be swamped with messages from Planet Fitness, announcing our reopening," promises Jeremy Schweda, manager of the chain's Ann Arbor location on W. Stadium Blvd. "The biggest change here has been the rearrangement of equipment, to respect social distance, especially in the cardiovascular space."

Jes Reynolds of Elevate Fitness had just launched an online education program in January, so she was able to add virtual classes immediately after the shutdown. "Continuing a regular exercise routine helps people feel at least some part of their lives is normal," Reynolds says. "They see me, I see them, and now I can offer Zoom classes where my clients can participate anonymously if they want."

Like Dupuis, she is taking a conservative approach to reopening. "In this business, people breathe heavily," she says. "I want everyone to feel safe and be safe--including the owner of the studio."     (end of article)


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