It’s been two tough years for gyms, an industry that has been hit hard in California by pandemic shutdowns and capacity restrictions.
For James Innocenti of the Bronx, the mandates meant closing dozens of Planet gyms in 2020, including 17 in Southern California. He fired 70% of his staff and, to stop the financial bloodshed, applied for federal bailout loans.
“It wasn’t enough to keep us afloat,” he recalls in an interview with Zoom last week from Costa Mesa.
The World Health and Fitness Association estimates that US gyms and fitness studios have lost nearly $30 billion in revenue during the pandemic. At least 1.5 million employees have lost their jobs and 27% of all fitness studios have gone out of business.
Innocenti said the low-cost Planet Fitness Club is often found in communities with low incomes, many of whom have been hit hard by job losses and the coronavirus.
One of his most difficult pandemic days was the furlough of employees who came from those neighborhoods.
“It was a really difficult conversation because we knew they had families and themselves to support,” he said.
Lockdowns, vacations, capacity limits and new sanitation protocols all taught Innocenti’s franchise group, PF Supreme, how to pivot quickly. Today, instead of contracting, that means expanding and even capitalizing on pandemic failures. This month, the group, which operates 76 gyms in four states, opened its newest club in Lake Forest, replacing the indoor Crunch gym. Another Planet Fitness fitness program debuted this summer at the Diamond Bar.
We spoke to Innocenti about the challenges of the pandemic and what he expects for the future. His answers have been edited at length.
Q: A lot has happened in the past two years. I was one of the few gym owners who actually closed while others didn’t, defying closure orders. Can you take me back to that time and what were you thinking?
a: Obviously, it was a very tough time we’ve all been going through, but when the governor came out and said there were going to be some mandates and that health and fitness facilities would have to close, we were all in the health and fitness industry.
This was a crisis. So we understand that. We knew it would be tough. We assumed it would only be for a short time, just like everyone else did. So, we closed our doors. I think it was March of 2020, hoping this one, like everyone else, will go through the process and then we’ll reopen in 30 days or something.
Unfortunately, an entire year passed before we reopened our door.
Q: This must have been a tough year for you guys. How many gyms do you have in California during lockdown?
a: We might have had about 16 or 17 installations. One was preparing to open right before closing. So yeah, it was really hard. We have gyms in other states, but you know, California has been tough. In New York, our doors have been closed for about six months. Hawaii, like that. Massachusetts, same thing, but California was the one that shut down the longest.
Q: What did you tell your employees at that time? How difficult is that conversation?
a: It was a very difficult conversation. We put our team members first and foremost. We’re in a lot of societies that are really difficult societies. We usually recruit from within that community. So, unfortunately, we had to furlough most of our team members at club level. We kept the payroll of about 30% of our workforce, probably from the club’s general manager all the way through the company’s offices.
Q: Were you able to apply for any of the loans that were granted by the federal government? And if so, did they help?
a: We applied for the PPP loan and got it already. We are grateful for that. But that wasn’t enough to really keep us afloat. We have our biggest fixed cost, labor…and rent. And fortunately, we have really good relationships with our landlords. I think the landlords really value us as a tenant and really look at us as long term partners.
Unfortunately, 25% of gyms haven’t made it past the COVID, but I think our landlords know what we’ve been doing and the way we’re running things. If there is anyone who will succeed, it will be us.
Q: The Lake Forest facility will go to the former Crunch fitness facility. So, was that an opportunity for the pandemic – that you were able to look at the facilities that didn’t work?
a: This is absolutely true. I think they reopened (Crunch) after COVID but shortly after that, they couldn’t do that. So we kind of looked at that as an opportunity to go there. There is certainly a gap in the area, especially with the closure of a facility like Crunch.
It’s tough, people have been left without gyms, and we know how important that is, especially after the pandemic. So we had a situation where we were able to get in there and service members, and at least for this community, they have a fitness facility that’s back.
Q: What have your customers told you that they want to get out of the pandemic?
a: Well, I think there are two things. There is a lot of awareness now about health, fitness and wellness. A lot of the people we cater to are casual fitness people who don’t work out three or four times a week. People live very hectic lives, and that was not a priority. We’ve always had that philosophy and that kind of customer, even more so now.
With the awareness of health and fitness with everything that has happened during the pandemic, we are seeing more people coming in. What we call “off the couch” and into the gym.
It was really exciting to see so many people trying to get into fitness for the first time coming to the gyms. And that’s something our facilities do – it makes people’s entry really convenient.
About PF (Planet Fitness) Supreme
Founded in 1994, two years after Planet Fitness’s dad debuted
It owns and operates 76 Planet Fitness companies in four states
Headquarters: Yonkers, New York with a secondary office in Costa Mesa
1400 employees in all markets
The chain has a slogan called “The Judgment-Free Zone”.
Parent company Planet Fitness has 15.2 million members and 2,254 clubs in 50 states.
6 Questions with James Innocenti, COO of PF Supreme
Favorite exercise routine? Weight training classes and HIIT classes.
Any new epidemiological habits? Add hiking to my routine.
Best business advice you’ve ever gotten? Be humble and don’t take things personally.
Any words of wisdom for anyone working in business or franchising? Be smart and adaptable in this type of environment.
The pandemic’s biggest takeaway? trust the people closest to you; You cannot do it alone. Try to find a good work-life balance.
How did you get into this job? I was really passionate about exercise and wanted to get into a business where I could positively impact people’s lives. I thought having a gym would be the best way to do this based on what I was interested in. My brother and I teamed up and opened our first gym in the Bronx, New York, where we grew up, in 1995.