Hanging tough: How Detroit fitness entrepreneurs, gyms are staying afloat during the pandemic

Over the past several years in Detroit, the rise of boutique gyms, community-based exercise groups, and other entrepreneurs seeking to make the city healthier has led to an emerging fitness culture in the city.


But with COVID-19, like many small businesses, gyms have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. According to the fitness lobby group International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, as of Sept. 30 15% of gyms had permanently closed, and the industry had lost more than $15 billion in revenue and shed nearly 500,000 jobs.


Local fitness entrepreneurs have felt the impact, with some closing their doors for good. But some gyms and entrepreneurs have persevered.

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For Sterling Wise of The Wise Decision, he had to permanently shutter his downtown Detroit location. Opening at 25% capacity didn’t make business sense for him because the overhead cost is so great, he says. He still has a satellite location in Grosse Pointe but the plan is to look for a new space for the main location. In the meantime, he’s shifted most of his fitness and weight loss services online.


“One thing that COVID has taught me is that there's a need to have multiple streams of revenue when it comes to the business,” he says. He created a nutrition company to offer protein meal replacement shakes and a preworkout supplement. He’s also offering merchandise like T-shirts, face masks, and headbands.


We Run 313 co-founders Joe Robinson and Lance Woods also got into the merchandise game, launching an online store for the first time, selling goods such as crewnecks — their most popular item — tanks, hats, and more.


They also engaged their community online when they weren’t able to have the large group runs they were known for. They launched virtual campaigns and encouraged people to tag them. They also show themselves running, training to qualify for the Boston Marathon, to inspire others to get out there even when it’s 20 degrees.


“The pandemic has made everybody, small business owners and anyone like that, have to pivot,” Robinson says. “During the peak of the pandemic, we had a campaign called Run Solo. And that's the first change that we made … [letting] runners know that, hey, running isn't banned. And to stay safe, you should probably run solo.”


Woods says with their online campaigns they’ve seen people across the nation and as far as Canada tap in, which has helped them increase brand exposure for We Run 313.


The pandemic was an opportunity for businesses like community-oriented Yoganic Flow, which aims to make yoga accessible to Detroiters, to strengthen its partnerships.


They started offering virtual classes after one of their community partners, Sidewalk Detroit, reached out to them to enlist their help to serve northwest Detroit residents. That helped Yoganic Flow kick off their own virtual programming.


“We've had to really keep an open mind and try things that we've never tried before. For example, our classes were in elementary schools and community centers. And with those closing, we had to a lot of teachers who lost their work. So we had to figure out how can we still serve that community, people who really need yoga, students, the seniors.”


Addressing the digital divide was another challenge. Yoganic Flow aims to bring yoga to underserved parts of the city where there are no yoga studios.


“A lot of times we found that, just from our correspondence, with the nonprofits we work with [that serve] youth, there are three [youths] maybe even more sharing one computer in the household. Also parents sharing that computer. So it hasn't been as easy for us to reach students. And in those instances where we do have the opportunity to work with students, we had to do that in person because, you know, the digital divide is real in Detroit and all of our kids don't have that ability and space to get online.”


They’re looking into how to offer in-person classes safely, but she’s looking forward to when the weather warms up so they can get back outside.


For gyms with physical locations, it’s been more challenging.


William McCray of WillPower Fitness reopened his Clawson gym’s doors in September. “It's been tough. COVID has had a detrimental effect on the fitness industry as a whole.


“We've had to pivot our model to pretty much focus the majority of our training, virtually even though, you know, gyms have been given the green light to open. Now, there are a lot of people that are reluctant to come back to the gyms. … And I suspect that the reluctance will last probably for another year or so until the numbers start to level out.”


Despite that, the longtime fitness entrepreneur has learned a few things over the years, mainly how to adapt.


“The good thing about my particular facility is that it’s not one of the big-box gyms, so we're able to kind of adapt quicker and take a different approach, as far as our model was concerned,” he says. A year and a half before COVID-19 hit, he developed an online training program so he can reach clients around the world. He also developed a brand-new 30-minute high-intensity workout that can be done at home. These adaptations, he says, have “kept me afloat in allowing me to thrive in the midst of this chaos.”


At Live Cycle Delight, the pandemic has hurt business at the West Village studios, but they’ve been keeping busy, says founder Amina Daniels. “Quarantine has kept us on our toes. And we're coming up on a year being in the pandemic. So it's been an interesting journey, I have become a pivoteer. All I do is pivot, pivot to the virtual classes, pivot to selling more products, pivot to enhance our virtual experience. And pivot to offer classes outside, making sure we're continuing the studio experience to the best of our best ability and making sure we're keeping clients safe.”


For her it was “absolutely worth opening,” she says. “We have mastered that creating a safe experience for clients, staff, and instructors.” At the two locations in West Village, which houses three studios, each studio has an anti-microbial air purifier and sanitizing stations and they took out bikes to ensure physical distancing. The hot location is the only place right now where they have shields but she’s researching prices for shields for the other studios. Everyone’s temperature is taken with a contactless scanner and mask wearing is enforced. During warmer weather, workouts are held outside.


Another pivot was adding barre classes to its offerings of yoga, hot yoga, Pilates, cycling, and TRX. “That has been tremendous. We have added four barre instructors during the pandemic [because] barre has taken off.”


Local boutique gyms like hers have to compete with the fitness giants like Peloton, SoulCycle, and Instagram celebrity trainers.


“In order for our communities to really have small businesses, we need the community to support those small businesses. So as these huge companies get big, everyone talks about Amazon getting so big, but nobody really talks about the small businesses that closed because Amazon is growing exponentially. Or really, for me, in my case, the Pelotons of the world. [During the pandemic], everybody bought a $3,000 bike. But what about your neighborhood studio? … If the small businesses aren't able to survive this pandemic, then the value of the neighborhoods go down. We lose jobs in the community. And it's just so much harder to keep things in the city.”


But she’s determined to keep going. “We’ll be rocking it out all pandemic, continue to get folks to be safe and healthy. And stay COVID free.”

Read more articles by Dorothy Hernandez.

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and business. She has contributed to NPR, Midwest Living magazine, Eater, and a variety of other publications. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dorothy_lynn_h.