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From top left: Eric Olson, Chris Dunham, Macy Mitchell and Shelli Luke
SBJ photo by Christine Temple
From top left: Eric Olson, Chris Dunham, Macy Mitchell and Shelli Luke

CEO Roundtable: Fitness Centers

Posted online

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson talks physical and mental wellness with Chris Dunham, owner of Dunham’s Martial Arts Training Center; Shelli Luke, operations manager at SWET Hot Yoga and Fitness Studio; and Macy Mitchell, co-owner of CrossFit Republic.

Eric Olson: Where do you see the intersection of wellness and the corporate workplace? What are some best practices and tips that companies can do to care for their employees?
Shelli Luke: I know that we have a lot of Springfield Public Schools employees that get reimbursed for coming in. Whether it’s six times they get half of their membership reimbursed, or if it’s 12 times a month then they get their whole reimbursement. Obviously, they’re getting discounts for having better health.
Macy Mitchell: That’s probably one of the No. 1 things. We have another family business that has 30 staff. If you’re knowledgeable about the group plans out there, insurance companies don’t – and there may be new information I’m not aware of – typically cut rates for groups that are 50 or under. If I throw an incentive for the employees here to go to my gym at a discounted rate or maybe offer them nutrition coaching from our gym or try to entice them other ways, what’s funny is everyone likes it, but (they need an) incentive for them monetarily. Sometimes smaller businesses can’t do that. The best thing that we can do is offer it ... and maybe reach out to corporations and say, “Hey, can you offer a discount? Can you budget it in where you offer them a plan that works for them?”
Olson: You can do all that you can do on the employer side, but they’ve got to meet you somewhere.
Chris Dunham: Teaching self-defense, fitness and personal development, for us our big focus and draw a lot of times is that we can have the fitness element, like a lot of the gyms, but the self-defense competence with stress reduction that we do. We’ve done a couple of things with Expedia here in town and some of the different companies. There’s a lot of people who really enjoy the extra benefits that they get from the workplaces that are able to add that benefit when they come into our school to train and they get those discounts. As long as they get that financial incentive.

Fresh air
Olson: Getting outside and being more active with personal wellness, through this pandemic, that’s been a huge uptick. For obvious reasons there around mental health and we have more time on our hands. With what’s happened this year, how has this trend impacted your businesses and what ways are you capitalizing or can you capitalize on it going forward?
Luke: We saw a lot more people outside during the stay at home. We also immediately started offering virtual classes to keep people engaged. I think that helped us really keep our membership in line. Otherwise, I think we would have lost much more.
Olson: Have you guys noticed a shift in your members or the way you’re marketing to them?
Mitchell: As soon as things started closing down, you immediately see there was just inaction. They didn’t know what to do. They’re used to us motivating them. They’re used to the community motivating them. The same thing happened to my family. You quickly realize, wait, the fun things are available: bike riding, shooting the basketball, throwing the football around, walking a trail. Before you know it, people realize we can do this on our own. I wasn’t offering virtual classes, but I went ahead and did decide to close for six weeks and I cut off their memberships completely. It did keep loyalty from me to them because they said, “Hey, he sees the need. He’s going to adapt with us.” Of course, then everyone starts buying home gyms. They’re realizing maybe I can do this on my own now. When we got back up and running, I offered a recovery package for all of our members: 50% off that first month back and then 30% and then 10% off. A lot of people have been hit financially, including us, but we’re in a good place to do so. As health professionals or people that care about that like we do, we’re applauding them. We’re saying, “Yes, you can do it by yourself.” And at the same time, we’re like: “Get back in here.” [Laughs] Now there’s a balance, they’re coming back. They realize they need those friends and that accountability.

Loyal customers
Dunham: With martial arts, everything is generally pretty close contact, hand to hand working on pads and bags. It’s not necessarily something where people are used to just coming in and getting a workout. When we first heard about the pandemic and the shutdown, we tried to shift as quickly as we could and were fortunate enough to figure out how to get online training going real quick. And then we very slowly just had a trickle of people that were losing their jobs. We’ve got such a big community. We want to support people that are here. We had a “no student left behind” policy. We’re going to continue training and the tuition is going to stay the same. Everything’s going to keep as is other than online training. However, if anybody’s gotten any financial challenges, we’ll front you for a few months. I think that helped out a lot of people to kind of maintain just for that first month that for a lot of people was chaos. We’re very fortunate that we didn’t lose a whole lot of students in the beginning. Over time as people started to realize it was going to last longer than a couple of weeks, we started losing more students. As far as marketing wise, we hit real hard on the adults. We knew adults were pretty easy to keep socially distanced in class. We’re still having everybody wear masks. So far everybody’s been having a blast. We were kind of worried that masks and fitness weren’t going to be good hand in hand, but we modified some things and it worked out real well. With kids, it’s a little harder to keep them from getting too close, but we’ve found over the course of a few weeks that the kids really enjoyed coming in and they got used to the new kind of protocols. We actually, over the last couple of months, have hit some of our record numbers for our adults coming in to join us.
Mitchell: In our situation, it is a little bit different. We have an 11,000-square-foot space. So, it allowed us a little bit more flexibility. A lot of times that social distancing, we started off slow. We’re not going to be the first gym to open and have some type of outbreak. Of course, there’s the contact tracing and all the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines. It was brand new at that time. And all of us were concerned about flattening the curve. We opened and, luckily, it was summertime and warm where people would social distance and wait for the next class. We were only allowing certain amount, under the occupancy of what Greene County was offering, and we’re not in Springfield. It’s a little bit looser in Republic. Nonetheless, we wanted to adhere to what Springfield was doing. We wanted everyone to feel comfortable wherever you came from. We actually have white boxes that are about 9-by-9, and their own pieces of equipment in every box and we have about 35 set up through the gym. It enables every person to stand six to 10 feet apart and they’re able to do their workout and really stay socially distanced. We have everyone clean their equipment at the end. Luckily, my gym manager who leads our cleaning team, she’s a registered nurse and she works for the [Springfield]-Greene County Health Department. You can’t get any better than that. If there’s social time, we ask them, “Hey guys, let’s take it out with the beautiful weather. Let’s take it out in the parking lot.” We went to a lot more online-based stuff, too. Instead of people scanning in or signing waivers that are physical, everything is now on an app and they tell us they’re going to be there before they even walk in the door. I think one thing that COVID has really done with our businesses is, for better or worse, allowed us to reset some of our things that maybe were being abused or the ability to tighten things up and do adapt.

Overcoming controversy
Olson: We’ve seen some recent controversy in your industries. In the yoga realm, there was a debate here in some Christian circles, whether they should be participating in it. CrossFit for some time has had claims and questions about the overexertion on the human body. How have your businesses overcome them, whether you were central to the controversy or not?
Luke: The yoga community got hit really hard here. Honestly, we were so new and just opening up. We didn’t talk to anyone about it. For us, it was more about just feeling better. It was more about the strength, the wellness, it wasn’t about practicing a traditional style of yoga. It was more Westernized. For us, it wasn’t a major issue. We did not see a huge loss from it. Everyone wanted to talk about it and we really tried to keep that out of our lobby. We wanted it to be a good place to come and get the workout.
Mitchell: Shelli hit it on the head. In general, a lot of times when there’s a problem, the more attention you bring to it, the worse off you’re going to be. People will come to you for the right reasons and the reasons that they feel comfortable with. I’ll go and hit the CrossFit overexertion argument. I mean, you hear it all the time. A lot of times I will hit that head on if I need to with the new person. We’ll try to calm down any narratives that maybe one CrossFit gym ruined it for another. As far as overexertion is concerned, there’s so many things that go into that. Let’s be real, you do too much of a good thing, you’re going to get hurt. I don’t care if you’re training for a marathon. People come away with stress fractures and hurt ankles, hurt knees. First of all, it’s who’s the most self-aware of their body? Are they doing a yoga class? Are they stretching in front of the TV at night after the kids go to bed? Or are they just coming in here and beating their bodies up and then going home, getting in the car? Our workout regimen focuses on technique first, but, as you intensify, that’s how you see results. You’ve got to baby your body afterwards if you’re going to put yourself through that. We really stress engaged coaching. If you’ve got a good coach around, you’re probably not going to overexert or get injured because that coach is going to naturally see, OK, technique, doesn’t look right. Let’s take some weight off the bar. Let’s do this movement correctly. Secondly, a lot of times it’s ego. You get that dad that comes in that remembers the glory days from 20 years ago and he sees some young guy over here doing something that he’s like, “I used to be able to do that.” And then he tries to do it. We always say, leave your ego at the door.
Olson: The CrossFit CEO earlier this year had some inflammatory remarks that ended up causing him to resign from his position. He was speaking really against those who were supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of those things, as a franchisee, it’s out of your hands. When something like this happens, how did it affect CrossFit Republic? Another franchisee in Springfield looked at what was happening and said, no way, I’m going to disassociate with this. Are you considering a similar action?
Mitchell: I always want to bring wisdom to every one of these situations. We immediately sent out a verbal statement – it was on June 7 – not condoning the comments and that we don’t align with that, our staff or community, and that we’re disappointed. Now, the next take was to see what CrossFit HQ was going to do with that, because let’s be real, there’s 10,000 to 15,000 affiliates across the world. Each one of our gyms governs ourselves. The only thing we do is pay, honestly, $3,000 a year to use the CrossFit name. I market our gym how I want to, and CrossFit HQ gives us the freedom to do so. I write my own workouts. We listen to our own music. We develop our culture how we see fit based on our area. It doesn’t matter what your background is, what your color is, what your shape is, who you are, you’re welcome in our gym. I didn’t want to break up what we had. One man doesn’t control all of us and what we’ve evolved to build. Greg Glassman immediately stepped down and put somebody else in charge.

Mind matters
Olson: Mental health has really become at the forefront in our workplaces and in our homes now, and as you address those needs, physical activity comes up as a recommendation to improve mental health. Have you guys worked that into your businesses. Are you seeing any overlaps with the mental health world and what you guys offer in physical fitness?
Luke: We’ve kind of seen that from the beginning. We have a lot of vets and just interacting with people that have had PTSD or have PTSD. It’s helping them just to work through that. I’m sure that as this progresses, we will see more of that. We’ve added some meditation to our lineup of classes, just to try to give another avenue to quiet things and help with people’s overall stress levels.
Mitchell: The connection of mental and physical health and well-being, I think it’s more important than ever. At CrossFit, I think community is completely different. We try to base it around the 99% health and longevity. And with that comes this loving community. They probably wouldn’t show if their best buddy wasn’t going to be there with them. I’ve got a mom that has two autistic kids. She was way overweight. She came in depressed, anxiety. At the end of it, she came in, she was surrounded by a community, by other healthy, well women, she made some great friends and she realized that it was OK to be strong. Before you know, it wasn’t even about the fitness in the end. And now her kids, she was teaching them it’s all right to do hard things. Now, her whole family is reaping the benefits just because she decided to turn her life around and get in the gym and start moving around. That physical well-being all of a sudden goes into the mental and emotional well-being.
Dunham: One big thing that our business always kind of put first and foremost is we teach self-defense. For us, self-defense is holistic. It’s emotional, it’s physical, it’s against violent attackers, but we always say you’re more likely to die of a cheeseburger heart attack than you are somebody coming out and stabbing you with a knife. So, we teach the physical, but use that as kind of a conduit to help work through some of the other things. We’ve become known for the personal development aspect. We call them Miyagi-isms, like “Karate Kid.” We try to infuse little life lessons. Self-defense, fitness and personal development or confidence, those are the top reasons most people come in. It’s hard for me to say if we’ve had an uptick on people coming in specifically for mental wellness, just because that’s what we’ve been doing for 20 years. We’ve been getting a lot more adults lately than the kids. And there seems to be a larger number of them that are coming in overweight, middle-aged and “this shutdown kind of got me bored and got me thinking and I’m tired of being out of shape and I’m tired of always being depressed.”
Mitchell: Members have stopped looking at the scales so much and realize that quality of life is what’s important. They feel good about what they’re doing and feel good about who they are because of confidence that’s built up. It’s like they look in the mirror and they say strong is the new beautiful. Now I can chase my kids again and I can get out and I can be mentally healthy with my friends.

Excerpts by Features Editor Christine Temple, ctemple@sbj.net.

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