It’s been a tough two years for fitness gyms, an industry hit hard by pandemic lockdowns and capacity limits in California.
For Bronx native James Innocenti, the mandate meant the closure of dozens of Planet Fitness gyms in 2020, including 17 in Southern California. He laid off 70% of his workforce and applied for a federal bailout loan, to stop the financial bloodshed.
“It really wasn’t enough to keep us afloat,” he recalled in a Zoom interview last week from Costa Mesa.
The Global Health Fitness Association estimates that American fitness gyms and studios lost about $30 billion in revenue during the pandemic. At least 1.5 million employees lost their jobs and 27% of all fitness studios went out of business.
The low-cost Planet Fitness Club is often found in communities with low-income residents, Innocenti said, many of whom were hit hard by job losses during the lockdown and the deadly coronavirus.
The furloughed workers from those neighborhoods were in one of their toughest pandemic days.
“It was a really difficult conversation because we knew he had family and himself to support,” he said.
Closures, furloughs, capacity limits and new sanitation protocols all taught Innocenti’s franchise group, PF Supreme, how to pivot quickly. Today, instead of contraction, the company is expanding and even taking advantage of the pandemic’s failures. This month the group, which operates 76 gyms in four states, opened its newest club in Lake Forest, replacing a closed crunch gym. Another Planet Fitness debut took place at Diamond Bar this summer.
We spoke to Innocenti about the challenges of the pandemic and what he sees next. His answers have been edited for a long time.
Q: A lot has happened in the last two years. You closed shop defying lockdown orders while other gym operators did not. Can you take me back to that time and what were you thinking?
A: Obviously, it was a very difficult time that we were all going through, but when the governor came out and said there was going to be some mandate and the health and fitness facilities were going to be closed, we were all in because we were inside. are the health and fitness industry.
It was a crisis. So, we got it. We knew it was going to be tough. We assumed this was only going to happen for a short time, as did everyone else. So, we closed our doors. I think it was March of 2020, hopefully, like everyone else, it will go through the process and then we will reopen in 30 days or something like that.
Unfortunately, it took us a full year to reopen.
Q: It was a tough year for you guys. How many gyms did you have in California during the lockdown?
A: We probably had about 16 or 17 facilities. One that was just preparing to open just before the lockdown. So yeah, it was really tough. We have gyms in other states, but you know, California was a tough one. In New York we were closed for about six months. Hawaii, similar to that. Massachusetts, the same, but California was the one that closed the longest.
Q: What did you tell your employees at the time? How difficult was that conversation?
A: It was a very difficult conversation. We put our team members before everything. We’re in a lot of communities that are real tough communities. And we usually hire from within that community. So, unfortunately, we had to fire most of our club-level team members. We put about 30% of our workforce on the payroll, and that’s probably through our corporate offices from the club’s general manager.
Q: Were you able to apply for any of the loans offered by the federal government? And if so, did they help?
A: We applied for PPP loan and we got it. We are grateful for this. But it really wasn’t enough to keep us afloat. Our two biggest fixed costs are our labor… and our rent. And luckily, we have a really good relationship with our landlords. I think landlords really value us as a tenant and really see us as long-term partners.
Unfortunately, 25% of gyms didn’t make it through COVID, but I think our landlords knew what we were doing and the way we run things. If there was anyone who was going to make it, it was going to be us.
Q: The Lake One facility is moving to a former Crunch fitness facility. So, was it a pandemic opportunity — that you were able to see features that didn’t make it?
A: That’s perfect. I believe they (crunch) reopened after COVID, but soon after that, they couldn’t make it. So we saw this as an opportunity to go there. There’s definitely a hole in the area, especially with the crunch-like feature turned off.
It’s tough, it left people without gyms, and we know how important it is, especially after the pandemic. So we had a situation where we were able to get more service members there, and at least for that community, they have a fitness facility that came back.
Q: What were your customers telling you that they wanted to come out of the pandemic?
A: Well, I guess a few things. There is a lot of awareness now about health and fitness and wellness. Many of the people we meet are casual fitness individuals who aren’t working out three or four times a week. People’s lives are very busy, and this has not been a priority. We’ve always had that philosophy and that kind of customer, now more so.
With the increased awareness of health and fitness along with what happened during the pandemic, we are seeing a lot more people coming. What we call “off the couch” and in the gym.
It’s really exciting to see so many people trying fitness out to the gym for the first time. And that’s something that our facilities do – make it really comfortable for people to come over.
About PF (Planet Fitness) Supreme
Founded in 1994, two years after the debut of Planet Fitness’ parent
Owns and operates 76 Planet Fitness franchises in four states
Headquarters: Yonkers, NY with a secondary office in Costa Mesa
1,400 employees in all markets
The series has a motto called “Decision-Free Zone”.
Parent company Planet Fitness has 15.2 million members and 2,254 clubs in 50 states.
6 questions from PF Supreme Chief Operating Officer James Innocenti
Favorite workout routine? Weight training and HIIT classes.
Any new pandemic habits? Incorporated hiking into his daily routine.
Best business advice you’ve ever received? Be polite and don’t take things personally.
Any words of wisdom for someone going into business or franchising? Be agile and able to adapt to this type of environment.
Biggest pandemic takeaway? Trust the people closest to you; You can’t do it alone. Try to find a good work/life balance.
How did you get into this business? I was really passionate about exercise and wanted to get into a business where I could make a positive impact on people’s lives. I thought going to the gym would be the best way depending on what I was interested in. My brother and I opened our first gym together in 1995 in the Bronx, NY, where we grew up.