No doors open, no takeaway revenue: what next for gyms? Why the right vaccination incentive could help

By Barrie Elvish | 19 Aug 2021 View comments

Unlike many other industries, such as hospitality and retail, who have been able to adapt to ‘take away only’ or online e-commerce sales, the Australian fitness sector, which has been closed for a minimum of 30 per cent  since 23 March last year, cannot.

In Melbourne alone, to date more than 52 per cent of all days have been lost due to lockdowns and this figure is set to rise further with uncertainty around the current lockdown timeframe. While in Sydney, despite only being into their second city-wide lockdown, 27 per cent of days have already been lost.

While many fitness businesses and operators have provided live-stream classes or online workouts, many of these services have been offered to members free of charge just to keep them engaged in their exercise habits.

These essential community activities that help people maintain their mental and physical health and wellbeing have received no customer income despite still having to pay fixed costs such as rent, rates, equipment rental and other utilities.

On top of these financial challenges, businesses are also focused on ensuring the wellbeing of their staff and trying to maintain genuine hope in an increasingly hopeless situation.

In a stark reality check of the impact of Covid on our sector, prior to the pandemic employment levels in the Sports and Physical Recreation Activities industry, which also takes in the health and fitness sector, substantially rose from 54,700 in 2000 to 117,800 in 2019.

However, faced with lockdowns, business uncertainty and poor economic confidence this figure dropped by almost half in 2020 to 61,200*.

Unfortunately, unlike the hospitality sector, their small business fitness and exercise equivalents have not had the benefit of government support through finance support packages or the various participation voucher systems implemented by most states to support business recovery, when things do open.

This double whammy is hard to comprehend when at the same time, the community is being reminded of the importance of daily exercise.

With the lack of income and customer participation caused by the lockdowns, serious consideration needs to be given to the “recovery” of our sector once cases drop, vaccinations increase and the two most populated states start opening up.

State governments, and their federal counterpart need to activate a voucher initiative as a priority to help propel the industry.

Indeed, for the target vaccination group of under 40s such an incentive may be especially attractive. A voucher incentive also has the potential for a legacy of participants not only starting an exercise regime but maintaining it; a legacy that does not apply to the hospitality sector except for perhaps the encouragement of more alcohol consumption.

Exercise and physical activity, wherever it takes place and in whatever form, is essential for the maintenance of positive physical and mental wellbeing.

Fortunately, we know the recognition of the importance of exercise is growing, as evidenced by our sector opening sooner from recent lockdowns, compared to last year.

What governments at all levels need to think about, now more than ever, is the broader health and long-term wellbeing of the community by encouraging participation and access to a variety of safe exercise options.