Egypt's fitness trainers go online to keep business in shape

Coronavirus pandemic has forced booming sector to turn to apps such as Zoom

itness instructor Sarah Helmy leading a workout on the video conference application Zoom at her Nile-side studio in Cairo. Photo by Abu Bakr Shaaban
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Egyptian fitness entrepreneur and coach Ali Ismail first heard of the video-conferencing application Zoom only last week. On Saturday night, he used it to instruct a class of about 60. 
At a time when authorities have closed sports clubs and gyms to control an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus, Mr Ismail is counting on the app to keep his business going.

Social distancing, strongly recommended to avoid spreading the deadly virus, means that even group sessions in private homes are out of the question.

Covid-19: Egypt declares night-time curfew

Covid-19: Egypt declares night-time curfew

For Mr Ismail and others in Egypt's fast-growing fitness industry that caters to a small minority with deep pockets and an interest in healthy living, harnessing social media effectively has become essential to keeping their clientele.
"Give a thumbs-up if you're OK," Mr Ismail, his face filling the screen, urged his class between sets during Saturday's session. 
"You guys are still alive?" he asked participants following him from living rooms, terraces and gardens. "When you are done, give me your feedback on WhatsApp and post photos of the workout on Instagram."

Fitness instructor and businessman Ali Ismail. Photo is courtesy of Move
Fitness entrepreneur Ali Ismail has launched online classes through Zoom. Photo courtesy of Move

Mr Ismail, a former sprinter, launched his fitness business, Move, four years ago.
"Our aim is to survive this crisis with the least possible damage," he told The National. "When we figure out a way for online payment, we will do three to four sessions a week on Zoom and they will be held during the curfew hours when everyone is struggling to keep busy." 
Egypt's highly competitive fitness industry took off nearly a decade ago, with the serious revenues that allowed growth coming mostly from select brands plying their trade in exclusive sports clubs, high-end gated communities and boutique studios. Walk-in sessions for most classes start at 150 pounds (Dh35) and go all the way up to 300 pounds in boutique studios in affluent areas such as Zamalek or Fifth Settlement in Cairo. Monthly packages cost 3,000 pounds or more - a decent entry-level salary for a university graduate.
But the industry's young entrepreneurs must find creative ways to survive the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, which has caused 36 deaths among nearly 500 cases detected so far. And no one knows how long it will be before normal life resumes in the country.


Beside the Zoom classes, Mr Ismail has invited clients to borrow his exercise equipment to use at home. Until his trainers worked out how to use Zoom, workout videos were posted on Instagram and WhatsApp. 
Such efforts have proved a hit with clients stuck at home during the 7pm-6am curfew, or those who have voluntarily gone into a total lockdown.  While some people have turned to binge-watching TV shows and films, others have taken up cycling, or working out in the gardens of their residential compounds. Many just jog in the streets.

"We have people who work out now to pass the time, working out to strengthen their immunity, or those who are eating too much at home and need to burn calories," said Alhassan Mourad, a senior coach at Move and the running back of an amateur American football team in Cairo. "There are also the people whose lives must include working out." 
Mr Ismail is confident that his business, with three outdoor locations and two gyms spread across Cairo, will outlast the coronavirus crisis, but boutique fitness studios that cater to fewer but more affluent clients might struggle to survive.

Abu Bakr Shaaban and his wife Sarah Helmy run a high-end fitness studio in Cairo that has depended on word of mouth rather than social media to attract clients. But since March 15, Mrs Helmy has been holding classes on Zoom - with great success.

itness instructor Sarah Helmy leading a workout on the video conference application Zoom at her Nile-side studio in Cairo. Photo by Abu Bakr Shaaban
Sarah Helmy demonstrates an exercise in front of her computer. Photo by Abu Bakr Shaaban

"We are taking new clients and we are so far offering the classes free of charge," said Mr Shaaban. "It's all new to us and we don't have an online payment system, but at the end of the day we have a business to run, employees and rent to pay. I think our clients will start to pay if we ask them to."
Sarah Taha, an eight-year fitness industry veteran, is both an instructor and one of a handful of partners who in 2018 set up Vibes, a boutique studio in Zamalek with limited membership and personalised service.

Fitness instructor Sarah Taha, left, leading a class in her boutique studio in Cairo. Photo courtesy of Vibes.
Fitness instructor Sarah Taha, standing, runs a boutique studio in Cairo. Photo courtesy of Vibes.

"Right now, we need to keep our clients engaged and we need to support them out of a sense of responsibility toward them," she said. "But if this goes on for too long, we will have to change the business model since we are highly dependent on daily operations to maintain a healthy cash flow," 
Miss Taha is looking into the feasibility of renting out equipment to clients and, like others in the industry, for a way to make online classes pay. 
In the meantime, she has started holding classes on Zoom and plans to put out a weekly schedule for her clients. 
"Zoom is user friendly, makes the session more interactive and creates a sense of community. The feedback has been good and it made me feel like I need to do more," she said. 
"People were desperate to do the workout with other people rather than alone."