Gyms turn to social media to make up for coronavirus losses
By Omar Khan and Chen Yilin

Similar to many other industries and businesses across China, the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak are being felt in what are now empty weight rooms and fitness centers.

Much of the country has gone into a quasi-lockdown, with local governments ordering public places of gathering and private businesses to close their doors with the aim of preventing further spread of the deadly coronavirus. The measures, which have been widely supported, however, are resulting in economic and financial impacts on all types of business.

And coming off of an extended Chinese Lunar New Year, many would have hoped to get back into shape at their local gyms, cycling classes or personal training sessions. That, unfortunately, will have to be put on hold.

According to a report by CGTN, the growth rate of new gyms in 2018 was 31 percent, reaching 98,000 locations. In the same year, research found that fitness clubs in China generated a whopping 6.9 billion U.S. dollars. Yet the room for further growth is staggering, with one market research firm finding that less than 3 percent of people in China have signed up for gym membership.

Some experts have also said that the demographics of gym-goers in China is shifting to a younger age group, meaning those with greater disposable incomes will be fueling the fitness sector.

But this entire industry has seemingly come to a standstill.

For gym owners, the woes are growing.

"In the gym industry, we mainly rely on memberships and personal trainer services to maintain our revenues. So in this regard, we will definitely feel the impacts. Our monthly rent and fixed labor costs are still to be paid, so there's also this added pressure," says Wen Youming, the owner of AlphaFitness, a 24-hour gym in Guangzhou.

Wen Youming, owner of AlphaFitness, a 24-hour gym in Guangzhou. /CGTN Photo

Wen Youming, owner of AlphaFitness, a 24-hour gym in Guangzhou. /CGTN Photo

Her location operates around the clock, serving an estimated 1,000 members. Many of them have purchased personal training courses, with others partaking in scheduled classes. For the rest of her customers, they have monthly or yearly memberships.

These days, however, her gym is empty, yet bills still have to be paid.

"Our members have declined, so our staff don't have any service to provide. We can only rely on some online guidance to maintain some sort of interactive contact with our members," she adds.

And that's exactly what Youming and her 14 workers have done. Making use of China's vast social media platform, WeChat, they've been able to connect with some of their members, with the hope of keeping interest and enthusiasm toward exercise.

"The trainers really want to come back to work. So at first, they were sending videos to each other in our private work chat group. Then we thought, why not post these videos on our WeChat Moments? This could help inspire our members to join us in keeping their enthusiasm for exercise," says Youming.

Trainers are taking coaching online. /CGTN Screenshot

Trainers are taking coaching online. /CGTN Screenshot

China's online platforms, be it social media-based or e-commerce, are nothing new to an average person's daily life. Adding convenience or efficiency has long been acknowledged in what is now an even more and more digitalized society.

But with the current epidemic, experts are now calling on industries, including the health and lifestyle sector, to rely more on digital forms of teaching and learning.

"Many gyms currently provide online services, including domestic and international brands. But this time, they're accelerating the process of online and offline integration. Because of the epidemic, more companies are launching online services, such as 1-on-1 services, including those in private education. We've seen guidance being provided through live broadcasts, video, text and pictures," says Zhou Liangjun, dean of the College of Sport Management and Leisure at Guangzhou Sport University.

Zhou believes more and more people in China are seeing the importance of fitness and keeping a healthy lifestyle. Commenting on how the industry has been transformed in China, he says the industry itself has catered to customers and clients by providing higher quality products and services to meet demand. According to him, "western fitness culture" has been an example and has provided a degree of influence, leading developed cities in China to popularize fitness culture.

In today's current circumstances, Zhou also says that online services have an opportunity and gap to fill.

"By providing online services, be it live broadcast or online 1-on-1 learning, we can actually reduce the cost of rent and staff. It also provides an opportunity to upgrade our fitness industry. We have to look forward to new development opportunities."

The economic damage and impacts remain to be fully understood, and that goes for China's economy across the board.

For those running a business like Wen Youming, she believes that supporting the preventative measures will eventually lead to the containing of the virus and a return to business as usual. After all, as a Guangzhou native, she witnessed her country's battle with SARS in 2003, and how the country recovered.

"We're quite supportive of the government's measures as the virus can spread rapidly. Our gym is a place with a high flow of people. Though it's tough for our 24-hour gym to suspend business operations, we support the measures for the safety of our employees and our members."

It's expected that some fitness centers and other business operations could open towards the end of February or early March.

(CGTN's Wang Yanan contributed to this story.)