The COVID-19 shutdowns affected almost every business in town – and our community came together to support them. We bought gift cards from our favourite locally owned retailers. We purchased copious amounts of alcohol from breweries, restaurants and bars.
And we did a lot of Zoom workouts.
From cycling to boxing to boot camps, Waterloo Region is home to some amazing fitness entrepreneurs. Like every business in town, they were faced with tough choices on how to weather the closures.
“I had a feeling it was coming – the shutdown – as soon as sports started to get cancelled,” said Mark Gough, owner of the Four Bells Fitness Emporium. Gough moved to Canada from the U.K. seven years ago to pursue a career in training. He worked at a local CrossFit studio before deciding to focus on personal training. “I love people. It sounds cheesy, but I love that I could craft a career with sports science and be able to hang out with lovely people,” Gough said.
Photo courtesy Mark Gough
Gough made the call to close down on March 16 right as the pandemic hit. “Right up to that [date], we did a few sessions and people looked the saddest they’ve ever looked,” added Gough. “People weren’t sure if they were spreading COVID.”
At the Four Bells, Gough offers small-group training that bridges the gap between large-group training and personal training. On the day after the shutdown, Gough started to offer his clients their workouts via email, YouTube videos and Zoom classes. “I said to my other coach, Ben, let’s do this the way we do the classes. We don’t work out with you, we coach. So we bought some used video gear and got started,” said Gough.
When Stage 3 of the province’s reopening plan gave fitness businesses the green light to reopen, Gough was ready. “We were pandemic ready before it was cool,” said Gough. “We were obsessive about cleanliness before COVID. Our rule is: If you touch it, you wipe it down.”
Gough is aware that not every one of his clients is ready to come back into the physical space. “We sent out a questionnaire asking what they wanted to see in the space and 70 per cent wanted to come back,” added Gough. The Four Bells reopened on July 20 with additional space thanks to an agreement with the firm’s landlord. It now has 12 workout areas for up to six people where everyone is at least 10 feet apart.
Similar to Gough, Freedom Cycle owner Alana Arthur moved to the area to pursue her dream of running her own fitness business. Arthur was a marketing manager by trade working out of Hamilton. Outside of her day job, Arthur was a kettlebell instructor who was introduced to spin classes five years ago. “I tried spin and fell in love with it,” said Arthur. “My vision was to start a spin studio that was inclusive and welcomed everyone.”
Arthur was commuting from Hamilton to Kitchener for work and fell in love with the community here. “It’s inspiring to open a small business here. The community is so invested in small businesses. It’s really about supporting one another,” said Arthur.
Photo courtesy Freedom Cycle
Freedom Cycle had its last pre-COVID class on March 15 and shut down on Mark 16. “I was optimistic to the bitter end,” added Arthur. “When the decision came down, we had to just make sure the priority was on rider safety. We will get through this, we will be okay.”
Offering online workouts required a little more work for Arthur and the Freedom Cycle team. “We took a little time for ourselves. We had to be okay in order to bring amazing experiences to our riders.” On March 22, Freedom Cycle offered spin bike rentals to its clients and all 24 bikes were rented out almost immediately.
With Stage 3, Freedom Cycle has been offering outdoor classes. “We did a kind of pop-up and sold out in three minutes,” said Arthur. The studio is continuing with outdoor classes for the time being. “We believe that getting insight and feedback from riders is important – we’re confident that riding outside is the right thing to do,” added Arthur. “I cannot believe that people are so committed to movement. It gave us hope that we’d weather this storm.”
Navigating the shutdowns was difficult for many business owners. For Volpe Martial Arts owner Adam Volpe, it meant finding a way to save his dream business. Born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Volpe has been a martial arts student since the age of nine. After moving to Waterloo, he started to train in Kung Fu. It was then that he realized operating his own school was what he wanted to do. “In tech, you’re always moving from company to company. Each time I’d make a change, I wondered if maybe now was the time to do it,” Volpe said.
Two years ago, Volpe decided to commit and open his school. “Even though there are over 40 different martial arts studios in KW, I saw there was a gap in the style I teach – Shaolin Five Animal Kung Fu and Hapkido,” added Volpe. With experience from his day job as a customer success leader, Volpe knew he could handle the business side of operating his school.
Photo courtesy Volpe Martial Arts
Like Arthur and Gough, Volpe didn’t plan on having to shut down due to a worldwide pandemic. “It was already tough as a new business,” Volpe said. “We were meeting the metrics for revenue and members, but we weren’t profitable yet.” Volpe knew that martial arts training online would be difficult, but something that had to be done. “We went fully Zoom right away and I added in an additional 15 minutes of private training for each student to make sure they were progressing to their next rank,” added Volpe.
As a registered provincial sports organization, Volpe was able to start offering outdoor classes during Stage 2 of the reopening. With Stage 3, the school is still focused on outdoor classes. “[Stage] 3 hasn’t changed our approach. Our members have been super supportive and our landlord has been too.”
Volpe Martial Arts offers adult and child classes. Physical distancing restrictions have meant that children have to spar with their parents. “Parents want to get their kids to do something that’s not video games all day long. For many, it’s been the one consistent thing for their kids since the beginning.”
Finding a way to offer training was just one of the issues facing SydFIT Health Centre owner Syd Vanderpool. “I have an athlete that was training for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo,” said Vanderpool. “They had a qualifying tournament coming up – how were we going to do that?”
Vanderpool is well known in Canadian boxing. In 2004, he was ranked No. 1 by the International Boxing Federation in his weight class. “When I retired in 2005, I knew that I wanted to open my studio and Kitchener is the best place to be. It is home to a rich history of boxing success.”
When COVID-19 hit, Vanderpool knew he needed to shut down for the safety of his staff and clients. He worked with Matt Symes of Sympicity Organizational Development to build out a plan to manage through the shutdown. “It was great to have a coach to walk me through that,” said Vanderpool. “We had also already been playing around with online platforms. We were a little ahead of the curve and were able to jump right into it.”
Photo courtesy Syd Vanderpool
Like Volpe Martial Arts, SydFIT is a designated provincial sports organization and has been able to train its athletes during Stage 2. Training at SydFIT won’t be the same as it was before COVID-19. “I don’t think we’ll ever offer large classes again,” said Vanderpool. SydFit now offers small group training with a max of eight people. “I’m excited about it,” Vanderpool said.
Changing the way classes are offered is just one small change that Rise Fitness clients will see when the gym reopens on Aug. 10. The gym, located on Charles Street, was formerly called Xtreme Bootcamp. “I didn’t come up with the name,” said owner Sandra Leelook. “My business partner had come up with it – but the name never matched the feel of the place.”
As a teen, Leelook would turn babysitting her little sister (and now co-owner Tanya Elinesky) and friends into personal training. “I would convince my friends to come over and use [my] babysitting money to buy them pizza. But they could only have the pizza if they let me work them out first,” said Leelook. After graduating and starting a job, Leelook found herself drawn to training. “I had graduated, got a 9-5 job, had a baby and all the while, got more and more into fitness and training.” She turned her basement into a home gym and started personal training. Leelook and her former business partner started offering boot camp training out of a Muay Thai studio and the business quickly took off. “It grew from three classes a week to 30 classes a week. We decided to quit our jobs, rent a space and start our gym.”
When the shutdowns started, Leelook initially thought it was going to be short term. “I was in a bit of denial,” said Leelook. “Once I saw the severity of it, I was completely unsure of what was going to happen. I thought it would be the end of the gym.”
Photo courtesy Rise Fitness
The gym has been running classes using Zoom since the shutdown. Towards the end of Stage 2, they started to offer outdoor classes too. “I was terrified of not just letting our clients down, I also feel a strong responsibility to our staff of trainers.” In April, Leelook was able to work out an arrangement with her landlord and she started planning their reopening. “It brought me comfort knowing I wasn't the only one in this situation,” added Leelook.
While many of us made plans to clean out attics or take on a long put off project during COVID-19 shutdowns, Leelook took the time to reimagine her gym. “I have the time to open the gym the way I want to,” said Leelook, “I’ve always been so busy running the gym, I never had time for it before. I’m thankful to have the time to focus on what I love to do.”