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By Thea Holden and Chris Ellerby-Hemmings, Owners of EmpoweredFIT, Wirral

When the sector closed back in March, little was known about what the effect would be on our business. The reality is, we suffered a £120,000 loss of revenue. We entered lockdown with 1,200 active members, however, when we reopened on 25 July we had dropped to 560 members who had continued to pay for their membership throughout the closure period – something which we will forever be grateful for. We spent the closure period updating and refurbishing the gym to make it bigger and better once we reopened.

We adapted through lockdown. For example, we provided members with kit to use at home, we ran three online classes per day and did outdoor classes in our carpark once we were allowed to. Since reopening in July, our membership demand has increased significantly and we now have 1,400 members and have had to start a waiting list. We made the choice to cap memberships to ensure we stayed COVID-secure.

On Sunday 11 October, when the media leaked the news that gyms would be forced to close in Tier 3 across the Liverpool City Region, panic hit. Ultimately, we were filled with worry for our members and staff, particularly for their physical and mental wellbeing. Almost instantly our phones were inundated with panicked messages.

We had been staying up to date with COVID data in relation to gyms provided by the ukactive Research Institute. When the news broke, we knew that this decision was not based on science, evidence or data. It was at that point that we decided that we had an obligation to our staff and our members to stand up for their wellbeing by campaigning to stay open.

We shared our thoughts with Nick Whitcombe, who is the owner of BodyTech gym, which is also on the Wirral. He shared our thoughts and agreed to stand shoulder to shoulder with us, stay open, and simultaneously post the scientific evidence. We knew this would create noise as we are both influential gyms in the local area. Social media was our greatest tool to get our message not just heard but supported, and within the first 24 hours of sharing the campaign the EmpoweredFit social posts had be liked and shared more than 5,000 times and Nick’s video had been viewed more than 300,000 times.

From here, we created a Facebook group and a WhatsApp group with other gym and studio owners from across the Liverpool City Region, who were all supportive of our stance. We had approximately 50 gyms stay open and stand with us, a petition was launched which to date has more than 600,000 signatures, and we forged a plan to write to every local MP as well as the City Region Mayor, Steve Rotherham, and the Liverpool Mayor, Joe Anderson.

When the media got in touch just hours after EmpoweredFIT and BodyTech posted their ‘staying open’ statements, we decided that we would handle all media together. This gave our evidence-based argument great strength because we all said the same things over and over again, to reinforce the data from ukactive. The more we shared the figures, the more the media came to see our point and supported the movement.

When ukactive reached out to support us, and we had some large gym chains reach out to us directly and offer us support, we knew that we were gathering pace. I felt proud that this movement had brought the industry together in such a positive way – this was a shared fight.

EmpoweredFit had used the ukactive Framework for reopening, along with all other gyms in the area – so we knew we were COVID-secure. We took the decision to lead our campaign messaging with evidence and data and it became clear quickly that this was the way to get momentum and be taken seriously. The media tried on many occasions to trip us up but we stood firm and cited facts and figures, rather than leading with our emotional bias.

To get the decision to close gyms in the Liverpool City Region reversed within eight days was amazing, and we could not be more proud of this industry.

“When I reflect back to the moment I found out, I feel quite emotional. My phone notifications went wild and I felt this overwhelming need to cry. We had done it – two gyms paved the way together and had changed the path for gyms UK-wide.” – Thea Holden

Reflecting back on what we have done, we are not sure that we would do anything differently – apart from try to get more sleep. Though this journey was stressful, the industry has been positively impacted by the Liverpool City Region standing together. We have forged relationships with many more local gym owners now that we hope will remain.

Thank you to the industry we love and the people of the UK for supporting us.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ukactive

Look out for the latest stories and blogs in our Together series on the ukactive News page and Journal. For the latest sector guidance and daily analysis, visit the ukactive COVID-19 hub.

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