Having a fitness class at Zeal Aerial Fitness is akin to joining Cirque du Soleil. Members love the feeling of flying while they do their stylish workouts on hoops and silks suspended from the ceiling or on their poles. It’s a very unique type of fitness, much different than the normal gym.
The owner, Christina, is a former teacher. Back in 2008, she discovered the world of aerial fitness while in Utah, where it was very popular. Upon returning to western Michigan, she found that no studio was offering all the aerial apparatuses under the same roof. It was a niche waiting for her. Her husband encouraged her to take a women’s entrepreneurship class. Six months later, she made the terrifying leap to leave teaching and open Zeal.
Christina’s been running Zeal Aerial for around a year and a half. Her members are primarily women in their thirties and forties. In January and February, it seemed like 2020 was promising to be a great year. She had record sales; her base had expanded and she opened new classes. She even did a session of Kindersilk, in which young kids explored basic creative movements and beginner silk techniques. It was a great success and she planned to open a second session. It was very exciting to see the momentum of the business moving forward.
In March, she had just found out about her second pregnancy when the executive order came through for the lockdown. Immediately, her business model went into disarray.
Zeal’s members have annual contracts, but the majority of the revenue comes from monthly fees. In April, Zeal launched daily online classes to try to give some value to the contract. She also tried to sweeten the deal by telling members if they did not cancel their membership, Zeal would add half of the months lost during lockdown onto the back of the yearly period for free. Quite a few people did do this, but many others just didn’t have the money to pay membership fees. By May, though, people exhausted of Zoom and Skype calls. On top of this, it was getting warmer and nicer outside. Her members wanted to do aerial fitness, not sit around and do yoga by a computer.
In June, because of the way the executive orders were worded, Zeal was able to open their doors again. They were listed as a club, and they would be opening up only for their members. Christina took the safety guidelines very seriously. All the staff had health screenings. There were temperature checks for members coming in. Sanitizing stations were placed all around the studio. There were a lot of changes to the facilities as well. Nobody was allowed to share equipment. There would be no back-to-back classes. Whereas towels had been used before, towels were replaced with paper towels. All the tape was removed from the hoops because metal is more easily sanitized. Zeal was very careful.
Members were really excited to get back to aerial fitness. Because of the no-sharing rule, the classes were smaller. An eight-person class in the past became four; people really liked those reduced classes. The classes filled completely.
All this ended at the end of July. Another executive order came out, which forced Zeal to close their doors again. The double shutdown has been disheartening. Casinos have been able to stay open, but Zeal can’t. She understands why big gyms like Planet Fitness need to close, but Zeal Aerial Fitness is a different type of fitness center. Aerial fitness doesn’t require the same vigorous exercise, panting, and raised heart rate that other gyms require. They also have two-thousand square feet, and with the reduced classes, that meant four or five people within two-thousand square feet. They were socially-distanced. To be indiscriminately grouped in with other fitness centers and gyms has been very frustrating.
It’s tough to think about how the aerial fitness center will financially survive the year. Even during June and July, before the second shutdown, Christina wasn’t making a profit. Revenue from membership was less than the rent of space. Membership fee deficits had always been offset by doing bachelorette parties, and in June and July she was still open for parties, but Zeal could only do one per day. Enough time had to be allocated to sanitize everything in between and wash everything that needed to be washed. They were lucky if there was a party on Friday and on Saturday.
Getting help from outside sources was also difficult. Christina technically doesn’t have any employees as each of her instructors was a 1099 contractor, so she wasn’t able to apply for a PPP loan from the federal government. She was able to get a loan in which the Small Business Administration paid the first six months and she will pay the next six months. At least there is some money coming in.
She has started outside classes, and they are sold out. She hopes that she will be able to continue holding outside classes until October, but that is pushing it. Fall in Michigan can still be really cold. After that, she prays that there will be an executive order coming that will allow her to open up. If she can’t open up by January, she’ll probably have to close the fitness center for good.
“Everyone’s like, ‘pivot.’ How can you pivot [this business]? I’m really sick of the word pivot because there are certain things you can do that can only be in person.”
Christina has talked to a lot of people who own studios around the Grand Rapids area and Michigan. It’s hard for everyone right now. Everybody’s going through the same thing. She doesn’t want to blame anyone. In her mind, nobody knows what the hell they’re doing. All the executive orders that are flying around at the state level are confusing and there’s no clear picture.
“It is super frustrating. I have a lot of friends who are teachers. They’re going back to school, and in Michigan, there’s no standard for what the schools should be . They were given no guidance from the state level. There’s obviously no federal guidance. There are guidelines, but nothing that’s required. So it is frustrating because I feel like everyone’s just flying by the seat of their pants, and nobody tells you what’s right or what’s wrong.”
For Christina, the situation is further compounded. She is pregnant and about to have her second child. On top of this, her husband, who has marching-band uniform business, is having troubles with his business. Thinking about the future is terrifying. She’s thinking that she may have no choice but to find alternative income. Teaching and substitute teaching will probably not be possible this year. She’s starting to apply for other jobs, but she shouldn’t have to. Zeal Aerial Fitness has the proper safety protocols set up to safely open.
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