'It's critical': Shuttered fitness studios move online to stay afloat in era of COVID-19

COVID-19 has forced owners of gyms and fitness studios to close their doors, but many are opening up online in hopes it will help get them through the pandemic.

Wave of digital workout options flood the market in wake of COVID-19 closures

Instructor Dana Cantarutti records her latest spin class for Spinco's new online service in the company's empty downtown Toronto location. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Canada's fitness industry is undergoing a major technological shift due to COVID-19, as owners of gyms and fitness studios jump into the digital world with both feet, hoping for a new way to keep money coming in while clients can't.

There are some obvious hurdles to moving their operations from real to virtual, from the right setting, technology and know-how to the fact that Canadians may not have much income to spend right now. Still, some studio owners feel like they don't have any choice but to innovate — and quickly.

"This was devastating for our business," said Dana Cantarutti, the director of strategic operations for Spinco spin studios, with locations in B.C., Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

All of Spinco's 15 locations across the country have been closed for more than two weeks, so in a move to create a temporary source of revenue the company decided to rent out its bikes at a cost of up to $250 per bike, per month, for three months or until the studio is able to open again.

"It was an overwhelmingly positive response," said Cantarutti.

Revenue 'dried up'

The company also launched an online platform with pre-recorded spin classes, called Spinco On Demand, open to anyone for a monthly fee of $29 — or free with the Spinco bike rental.

"This enables us to earn a little bit of revenue in a creative way across the country, and allows us to keep some of our staff and some of our instructors employed," said Cantarutti.

SAANA Yoga instructors use Instagram Live to host free online classes from their homes, twice daily. (Instagram/saana_yoga)

Ontario-based SAANA Yoga also closed its doors more than two weeks ago, and soon after began offering yoga classes through Instagram for free.

"The immediate drive was to connect to our community and just to keep our community alive," said Jacqueline DiRenzo, co-founder of the SAANA Yoga brand and co-owner of the downtown Toronto location.

The studio launched a GoFundMe campaign to help pay the teachers for their time, most of whom are contract workers.

"Their access to making money and their sources of revenue dried up right alongside ours," said DiRenzo.

DiRenzo is considering applying for some of the business assistance the federal government is offering, such as the new Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), a program that will offer small businesses interest-free loans of up to $40,000, but she's wary of taking on new debt.

"It's not relief in the traditional sense of the word, like 'Hey, here's a bailout,' for example," said DiRenzo, who worries about how loan repayment will impact her business when she reopens.

The free classes aren't helping the bottom line either, so SAANA Yoga is exploring other online options to bring in some money. 

On April 14 it's launching a 30-day yoga challenge that includes two daily classes and other workshops using the video-conferencing platform Zoom, for $59. Front-line health care workers such as doctors, nurses, paramedics and hospital support staff can have access at no cost.

Permanent paid online offerings are also in the works, including live online drop-in classes for a fee of $6 each, or access to a catalogue of pre-recorded classes to take anytime for a monthly membership fee.

Jacqueline DiRenzo, far left, alongside SAANA Yoga’s other studio owners before non-essential businesses like theirs were forced to close. (Submitted by SAANA Yoga)

DiRenzo hopes it all adds up to enough to help her get SAANA Yoga through this pandemic and out the other side intact. 

"It's critical really... I won't mince my words: It's not an easy time," said DiRenzo.

'Defining times'

But digital innovators stand to benefit from a captive audience of potential customers, as Canadians are trapped in their homes, looking for connection and ways to stay healthy.

A dance studio owner in Toronto sees it as his chance to go all-in online. 

The Underground Dance Centre currently spans two buildings in downtown Toronto with six studio spaces, and about 230 drop-in classes offered each week, from hip hop, jazz and dancehall to Bollywood, heels and contemporary.

The Underground Dance Centre’s studios are closed due to COVID-19, but owner Aaron Libfeld is launching an online class-streaming service to get dancers into the studio virtually. (CBC)

The owner hopes to recreate the in-studio experience online, and he says he's investing any money he can muster to do it.

"There are two ways you can look at this: that this is just going to be a bump in the road, or this is going to be the start of a new road," said Aaron Libfeld.

The Underground Dance Centre's new online service is set to launch on Monday, with a variety of class styles and skill levels. (CBC)

On Monday, Libfeld's new on-demand service will go live, with a catalogue of more than 20 classes to start and new ones to be added each week. The membership fee is $39 per month, or a promotional price of $99 for a full year — which will eventually go up to $199.

The 30-year-old entrepreneur, who is also the father of a four-week-old and a two-year-old, is running on little sleep but a lot of optimism.

"I think for small business owners and medium sized business owners, these are really defining times — this will really define who you are. Maybe not for the next year, but possibly for the next 10 years," said Libfeld.

Share your favourite new online fitness offerings in the comments below.


Jacqueline Hansen

Senior Business Reporter

Jacqueline Hansen is a senior business reporter for CBC News. Based in Toronto, she's been covering business and other news beats since 2010.

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