How a busy suburban club survived a COVID-19 scare and still managed to acquire new members

The pernicious spread of COVID-19 means it’s likely a case of when, not if, an infected member will attend your class. Here’s how one major club chain dealt with a case, avoided community transmission, and even attracted new members in the immediate aftermath.

It’s every Instructor’s worst nightmare: being alerted to the fact that a member who has contracted COVID-19 has been in your class. However, for the team at Les Mills Takapuna, based in Auckland, New Zealand, this event was one they had been anticipating for months. When they learned that an infected member had attended three group fitness classes within the space of 24 hours at the start of September, they had an action plan prepared and ready to deploy.

Due to the effectiveness of their preparation and actions, not a single further case was discovered – despite 86 members coming into close contact with the infected member – and the club was able to remain open for business. So how did they contain the virus so successfully? And how did it feel to be the Instructors who were teaching those classes?

Plan ahead

“We took the pandemic very seriously early on; we started talking about it back in January which meant we were getting organised in February,” says Dione Forbes-Ryrie, Managing Director for the Les Mills New Zealand chain of 12 gyms. “We started planning so early that Exercise New Zealand, our bank, and even our auditor thought we were being a bit over the top!

“The reason we did take it so seriously was that many of us had worked in the business when the Christchurch earthquake occurred, which locked down 24 percent of our assets back in 2011. We knew what the world looked like when things really go pear-shaped. When COVID-19 came onto our radar we immediately thought, ‘have we got another Christchurch coming at us?’ We established a critical incident team and started training up different working groups so that we were ready when and if lockdown did hit.”

Ironically, Les Mills New Zealand were already planning to run a practice drill of a COVID-19 case in another branch of the gym chain the week that the real-life case was discovered in Takapuna. That meant that plans were already in place and draft communications had been prepared for a variety of scenarios.

“Relatively speaking, this case was pretty clear cut, but it could have gone either way if we didn't have the processes in place,” says Guy Needham, Head of Marketing and Sales for Les Mills New Zealand. “Had we not planned ahead in advance, this could really have gone quite badly, especially when you consider that the person visited the club three times within 24 hours.”

Deep cleaning measures were implemented

Naturally in these times, some of us are cautious about returning to exercise facilities, particularly when the facility in question has had an actual case of the virus in-club. However, when Les Mills members saw how seriously the club was taking the threat of the virus, they felt reassured to continue attending.

“When we came out of the first lockdown, our attendance immediately dropped to around the 60 percent mark, but it was back up at around 95 percent after three weeks,” says Dione. “People started to see what precautions we’d put in place in terms of social distancing and cleaning protocols, and they felt safe to come back. Partly that was from our own social media posts, but a lot of it was word of mouth – the braver members coming back first and then telling their friends they felt safe.”

Les Mills Takapuna member Joanne Buchanan was initially a little apprehensive, but those worries quickly eased. “As soon as I walked through the doors and saw all the hygiene and distancing measures in place, I felt totally confident.” She has been attending live classes with no concerns. “Absolutely nothing compares to the buzz you get from a live class – I thrive on the energy of others and push myself so much harder.”

“What’s come through time and again in our member feedback has been how much they appreciate the precautions that we are taking,” says Dione. “This ranges from the regular cleaning they see occurring at the gym, as well as the measures we ask that they take themselves: bringing a sweat towel with them, ensuring that they clean all equipment before and after use, and of course that they stay away if they are experiencing any symptoms of the virus.”

Social distancing measures are in place

In order to comply with social distancing requirements, many classes have been modified to avoid too much movement and 15-minute windows introduced between classes to allow for cleaning. In the cycle studio, some bikes have been removed to ensure there is adequate space between exercisers.

“I’m teaching LES MILLS GRIT™ from the stage, rather than floor coaching the class,” says Les Mills Takapuna Instructor Livi Kitson. “The 15 minutes between classes gives members more than enough time to wipe down equipment and set up for the next class, and the dots on the floor seem to be doing their job with everyone spread out in their own space.”

The Instructor experience

Livi Kitson and her partner Jon Clark were part of the Instructor team who taught the affected classes, which meant they also had to self-isolate for two weeks. So how did it feel to be in their shoes?

“It was hard to leave the club and self-isolate, as we love the gym, our members and the team,” says Jon. “It’s like a big family. My entire BODYCOMBAT™ class had to self-isolate and I know they really missed the class and the program. When we came back after isolation, the class was buzzing and you could tell everyone was so happy to be back.”

To stay engaged with the members, Jon hosted a livestream BODYCOMBAT class on his Instagram page at the normal time that the class would have been held. He also posted on social media to share how he felt during the isolation and reassure followers that they weren’t going through it alone. Additionally, he regularly checked in with his members and helped them with workout ideas.

It would be perfectly understandable if Instructors were hesitant to return to teaching at the club, but Jon explains: “The gym really made a huge effort to reassure us we were safe to teach with the two metre distancing, the sanitizer stations and regular cleaning.”

Fellow Instructor Zoe Ballantyne taught her LES MILLS GRITÔ Cardio class two days after the case was discovered and says she felt no qualms in returning to the stage. “Everyone in my class has been incredible at sticking to the rules, sticking to their dots on the floor and bringing a sweat towel,” she says. “They still want to get a workout in as it’s the best thing for their physical and mental health. I think the fact that someone went to Les Mills Takapuna with COVID-19 – and this person didn’t transmit or infect anyone else – shows just how seriously the gym is taking cleanliness and guidance from the government.

86 people were recognised as having been in close contact with the infected member and immediately went into self-isolation. Of these 86 people, all returned a negative result when tested for the virus. Due to the diligence of the club in already conducting extensive deep cleans at the time of the incident, the local authority advised that the club was able to remain open. Despite this, the company also conducted an additional full deep clean of the club, followed by an anti-viral fogging treatment.