Safaa Nielsen admits that a pandemic wasn’t high on her list of eventualities for the business plan she prepared before she opened Anytime Fitness in January 2019.

Just as unexpected was how fast things changed once Covid arrived in the NWT, quieting the sounds of fitness classes and exercise machines in her 24-hour gym when it and many other local businesses closed on March 21.

“We had big goals for 2020 because we had an amazing first year. You learn and you evolve and you’re ready for the next year and you’re excited,” Nielsen said. “But we basically had to go back to the drawing board and focus on what we could do rather than what we couldn’t do.”

Safaa Nielsen, left, and Alex Nielsen, co-owners of Anytime Fitness, have seen most of their pre-Covid customers and members return to the gym since it reopened in June.
Blair McBride/NNSL photo

With all of the gym’s regular classes halted, revenue plunged.

The end of the classes came as a “shock” to Anytime’s members, Nielsen said.

The gym received a flood of calls, emails and social media inquiries about when it might reopen.

“There was a lot of mental strain on members. To a lot of people, the gym is a huge, vital part of their physical and mental health. We noticed that and so we had to quickly discuss with our team and our coaches and trainers what can we do to help them.”

During the months of closure it was hard for Nielsen to not be able to work, see gym members or know what the future had in store.

“One month went by and you’re just curious what the next month was going to look like. What’s the future of your business? I think for any business owner that’s always a scary reality, not knowing. You plan very well for a business. You have a business plan. So Covid had other plans, which we didn’t know, so we just had to take it day by day.”

Along with her co-owner, Alex Nielsen, Safaa rolled out some ideas to keep things busy and to help meet the health needs of their members.

One plan involved renting out gear such as spin bikes, kettlebells and dumbbells, which Alex delivered around town.

“Everyone has stairs in Yellowknife!” Alex joked. “We didn’t do any treadmills or any big cardio equipment. I think we did receive one inquiry for an elliptical. But getting an elliptical around town is not the easiest thing to do. Those things are quite heavy.”

Anytime’s coaches also held some virtual workout classes for members, and the gym’s online sales of health supplements were ongoing.

But that interim plan was more about engaging with the gym’s members than earning revenue. The earnings they made didn’t remotely recoup the losses from the gym’s closure.

“We charged a very small amount for accountability so they return the bike. But it wasn’t about money whatsoever. There’s nothing that we did during Covid to take any kind of revenue from members. Even supplement sales were really just because they needed it,” said Safaa.

“(It was) to help them get to their goals,” added Alex. “There’s not just the physical (aspect) that people take from this, it’s the mental health too. Having that spin bike at home and getting something done.”

In the few weeks before the NWT entered phase two of the recovery plan in June, Anytime began several one-on-one personal trainer classes. Those didn’t bring in a lot of revenue either but they helped get the gym back into a pattern of activity for when it reopened on June 15.

Since then, the fitness facility has seen almost 90 per cent of its members return, with about 100 people working out in the gym throughout a regular day, though Safaa declined to specify how many members Anytime has overall.

“It’s been very slowly picking up since day one,” she said. “We had people still not coming back to the gym because they’re still worried about Covid, which makes complete sense. And we’re giving members a very flexible way to do that. They don’t need to come back right away. We’re offering them extended freezes if that’s what it takes.”

Most of the staff have come back too. The gym employs more than 20 people, including cleaners, trainers and coaches. Fewer than 10 are full-time staff.

While the gym is once again busy with exercise buffs, program formats have changed compared to before the pandemic.

Personal training classes have grown in membership as group classes have declined. Trainers’ client numbers have doubled from about five before the pandemic to around 10 now. That is partly because spacing out the exercise machines as required by physical distancing protocols has taken up more space than the classes would’ve occupied in pre-Covid times.

Rules on gatherings that apply to all indoor spaces in the NWT also constrain Anytime’s activity. Before March 21, peak times at the gym could see as many as 40 people inside at once. To enable compliance with the limit on 25 people inside,  Anytime members can reserve limited spots in the gym using the custom app or website that tracks capacity at periods of time.

Even though the gym, like almost all businesses in Yellowknife, is not yet be back to complete normalcy, Safaa is encouraged every time a customer returns.

“We’re so connected to our members. We feel like we’re very close to them all,” she said. “Seeing them come in and doing their first workout was one of the most satisfying feelings.”

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

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