Virtual studios and online classes: What will Dubai's fitness industry look like in a post-Covid world?

Studios and gyms have had to get creative with their offerings right now, but how will they fare in the pandemic's aftermath?

The NRG Fitness centre in Dubai Marina now holds online classes. Courtesy NRG Fitness
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A move indoors for a prolonged period of time could seem like a death knell for anyone who made a living encouraging people to do the opposite.

After all, the fitness industry's USP is group classes and personal training; basically anything that involves sharing sweaty equipment, touching and breathing heavily, and anything generally the polar opposite of social distancing.

Last week, we hosted a live workout experience with someone in North America, Asia, Europe, Australasia and the Middle East in a single session

Which is why industrious trainers and fitness studios in the UAE have had to get creative over the past few weeks.

Gyms and trainers have answered the stay home order by making their group classes available online, or offering personal training sessions through a computer screen – whether it be live by Zoom chat or a preloaded Instagram or YouTube video.

Big names in fitness, from The Warehouse Gym to The Den, to TribeFit to UnderdogBoxn have uploaded sessions for free access. Many then supplement this with tailored workouts sent to clients; The Den, for example, has reduced its pricing and is sending daily workouts, with video exemplars, to clients. The Platform has introduced a new virtual workout programme, with unlimited monthly unlimited sessions at a cost of Dh397.

F45 Training is built on its group class offerings. Photo by Adam Meyer

The virtual workout has taken off out of necessity all over the world; in New Zealand, Les Mills even teamed up with the country's state broadcaster to offer daily workouts on free-to-air television.

And some fitness industry leaders believe this could be the new norm.

Could the bedroom workout stick around?

"It’s highlighted the fact the we can bring a virtual workout to anyone, anywhere," John Britton, manager at F45 Motor City, says.

That certainly seems to be the case for the famed F45. Its ethos is built around the group workout, conducted in a tightly controlled circuit-style manner, where bumping into people or exercising as a pair is all part of the fun. Instead now, F45 uploads pre-recorded workouts to Instagram for people to try in the comfort of their bedrooms or living rooms.

John Britton, manager at F45 Motor City, believes the home workout could become the new normal. Courtesy F45

"It has surprised a lot of people with how great of a workout you can get with the support of fellow team members and coaches online. It can certainly stay in the business model," Britton says.

While he believes the studio experience will always be preferred by the regular fitness crowd, the new online classes could be an option for travellers, stay-at-home parents or shift workers.

"There will be a market for it, especially after people have seen how effective it can be."

Conversely, he expects an imminent rush to get back to the real-life studios as soon as gyms can open their doors again.

"I think it’ll make people appreciate how great a post workout high-five or a live explanation of a workout is – and I think it’ll help drive people back to the gym and outside of their homes. Some online coaches betting on clients sticking around might be disappointed."

Gyms are likely to stay closed for a long time

But whereas larger gyms and chains have the infrastructure to aid them in tough economic times, smaller boutique studios are facing a struggle to stay afloat.

Dubai Marina's NRG Fitness is one that has managed to pivot its operations to be primarily online. It now offers daily workouts on Instagram Live, and rents equipment to clients. These are all free to view, with the gym having frozen all of its clients' memberships. But paid options are on the way, too, with the option of Zoom classes that an instructor can lead in real-time, too.

NRG Fitness co-founder and fitness coach Christina Guastella. Courtesy NRG

Co-founder and fitness coach Christina Guastella teaches a number of the online classes herself.

She believes the knock-on effect for the fitness industry will be wide-ranging, and perhaps more severe than we initially envisaged.

"My main concern is that people are still going to be too scared to go outside and do things in groups again," she says.

"Social distancing will continue and as much as we’d love to open the doors and have everything back to normal, we need to be realistic about what may happen."

Group fitness classes could permanently be much smaller

While Guastella acknowledges that the online classes have been popular, she knows there is no substitute for having coaches in the same room for guidance and injury prevention, the right equipment, and the energy of working out alongside others.

I am so hopeful that as soon as we're told we can go outside again, we can pick up where we left off, but I don't think that will happen for a while

"It’s sad that that has been snatched away from us, but we have adapted the best we can. I am so hopeful that as soon as we’re told we can go outside again, we can pick up where we left off, but I don’t think that will happen for a while."

NRG is planning to make permanent changes to how it does things post-Covid-19, too.

"In the future we will continue to limit the amount of people in a class, so there’s a safe distance, of course we’ve always been hygienic when it comes to cleaning the equipment, but this will continue to be to the highest standard once we open again," Guastella says.

"Our priority is keeping our NRG family happy and healthy and we will continue to do so whether that’s from their living rooms, or back in our studio."

Jade Palmer and Emil Pittman are both personal trainers from New Zealand. Courtesy Jade Palmer. 

A new normal: virtual fitness companies are being established during the pandemic

Then there are those who have started new ventures during, and because of, the coronavirus lockdown.

Jade Palmer was a trainer at Dubai fitness studio Bare before the gym was forced to close its doors because of the coronavirus. But rather than wait out the storm, she and her partner, Emil Pittman, also a personal trainer who had just moved to Dubai, decided the moment was right to launch their own venture.

Workout Went Viral is their answer to a newly virtual fitness industry, offering workouts purely conducted over Zoom.

Palmer started small, taking a handful of close friends and family through an online workout. Two weeks later, their client base is growing and they've been streamed in more than six countries.
For a monthly membership fee, Palmer and Pittman teach classes six times a day, seven days a week.

"Last week, we hosted a live workout experience with someone in North America, Asia, Europe, Australasia and the Middle East in a single session," Palmer says.

"Being able to bridge the gap between local and global markets has been the craziest part of the journey and a part of us knows we’ve only scratched the surface."

However, Palmer believes that real-time interaction, rather than pre-recorded videos, will be the key to virtual workouts having staying power.

"It's early days, but we're beginning see a shift in mentality within our community. #Workoutwentviral continues to push the boundaries of what is possible at home and people are beginning to see it as a new 'normal'," she says.
"There's no doubt fitness facilities will return to the peak of their powers, however, we believe we've challenged the status-quo and given a new meaning to an 'at-home workout'."

Could collaboration be the way forward?

So, perhaps the future of the fitness industry will be a hybrid version of what it was, and what it is now?

The Platform Dubai co-founder Stewart Miller believe so. After all, he and his co-founder, wife Marina, have "always had visions of what fitness would look like in the future".

“This is something we have been preparing for, since we opened our first studio in the Marina,” Miller says.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 30 OCTOBER 2019. Stewart Miller is co-founder of The Platform Studios fitness and lifestyle hub. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Kelly David Dunn: Business.

As well as their virtual class programme, The Platform now offers rental packages for spin bikes, in order to take part in spin classes on YouTube, and equipment rental for HIIT and barre classes. They now offer 23 live Zoom classes per day.

They recently collaborated with famous fitness entrepreneur Steve Uria, who held a class from his own studio in New York, which had 80 participants from across the world.

In the next couple of weeks, Miller says they will be announcing several new digital products – "one that focuses specifically on home cycle classes, and the other that will allow fitness instructors around the world to benefit and start earning again". They'd also be looking to share their expertise with other gyms or collaborating with them to help them get back on their feet.

"We believe that with the ability to pivot and adapt, our fitness industry will thrive once again."