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The Coronavirus Economy: Taking a private gym virtual via Zoom isn’t that simple

April 10, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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While chasing his dream to play professional football after graduating college a few years prior, Mike Morales had spent a lot of time in gyms growing up before opening his own.

“Coaching people to achieve their goals was fun and rewarding,” says Morales. “It never felt like work.”

Morales started by helping out a local bootcamp class and training youth athletes. Eventually, the gym where he started coaching in San Carlos, Calif., approximately 30 minutes south of San Francisco, was going out of business. So he took a leap of faith and decided to invest everything he had into buying the equipment, taking over the lease, putting new systems in place, and rebranding it as Advanced Sports Performance & Fitness when he opened in 2013. Today, the facility offers group fitness classes and personal training, and Morales continues to work with young athletes.

Fortune spoke with Morales for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how COVID-19 has affected his business and his plans for the future, and to get a sense of how he has been handling this news, both emotionally and financially. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Mike Morales opened Advanced Sports Performance & Fitness in 2013 south of San Francisco where he works with young athletes.
Courtesy of Advanced Sports Performance & Fitness

Fortune: When did you realize that the outbreak of COVID-19 was going to affect your business? How has it so far?

Morales: I knew it was going to affect business on March 9. That day, our neighboring county banned gatherings of 1,000 people or more, and it was all anyone in the gym wanted to talk about.

In what I thought at the time was acting in an abundance of caution, we started deep cleaning the gym daily and changed our programming so everyone was working out far apart and stopped sharing equipment. Our coaches held everyone accountable for using Clorox wipes on everything they touched. As Governor Newsom’s announcements became more frequent, we maintained optimism as our team was already complying with what he was enforcing.

Then everything changed on March 16. That Monday was the shortest and longest day of my life. I learned that one of our members tested positive for COVID-19, and we began to shut the gym doors for two weeks. As we were drafting communication to our members and informing staff, Newsom announced a mandate that businesses like ours would need to close without an end date.

The next 12 hours happened in an instant. We informed members of the positive case (including when they were last in the gym), announced that we would be holding classes virtually via Zoom, and invited those who felt comfortable to pick-up and borrow equipment for the foreseeable future. By the midnight shelter-in-place deadline, the gym was empty. More than 50 people came by to grab equipment, and we had more than 100 responses from members committing to stick with us as long as they could. Our adult members have endured with us, and so far we have only lost four monthly memberships.

We are far from a technical team, but the independent gym owner community came together quickly to share best practices on Zoom set ups, and apart from my daily struggles with Comcast for bandwidth, I think we’ve figured out a great virtual experience that our members are enjoying. We have an on-demand video series, accountability sessions, happy hours, and even an April monthly challenge where the weekly prize is toilet paper.

I still haven’t figured out a way to maintain revenue streams from the youth programming or personal training sessions, so I’d be remiss if I said that I’m confident that the business will endure. Every bit of positive feedback from our members is keeping our team optimistic that we’ll have a business to come back to. Our members have completely rallied around us, and I have to admit that there are tears every time someone tells me to renew their subscription. Happy tears.

Your gym launched a daily video podcast, The Quarantine Chronicles. What do you want your members to get from it, and have they provided any feedback? 

We started filming short, pre-recorded videos the same day shelter-in-place was ordered to provide flexible workouts with a sense of continuity and comedic relief. More than 50% of our members have been with us for more than three years, and they’re used to watching our coaches interact in-person and poke fun at each other.

We’ve come to learn that a good number of our members are essential employees and can’t make our live Zoom bootcamp workouts, so in addition to posting those for them to follow along with whenever they can, we have these shorter videos that they can choose instead. The videos are free, and it’s been fun to see our members post them to social media and challenge friends and family to complete them. We’ve gotten positive feedback on the content of the workouts, but the majority of feedback is related to the interaction between our coaches and gym dog—or their disapproval of our outfit choices.

Morales figured out a great virtual experience with an on-demand video series, accountability sessions, happy hours, and even an April monthly challenge where the weekly prize is toilet paper.
Courtesy of Advanced Sports Performance & Fitness

For members and non-members alike, do you have any recommendations for how people in self-isolation can get in a bit of exercise while at home?

The biggest thing anyone can do to maintain their fitness is create a schedule for themselves. Commit to carving out that time in your schedule for exercise, and if working out hasn’t been a priority, then prioritizing at least 30 minutes a day to be active.

We understand that there is an overwhelming amount of fitness-related content flooding social media, and the most important thing is to find out what works for you and commit to it. It can be as simple as choosing two to four exercises, doing 10 to 20 repetitions of each, and repeating that over and over again for 10 minutes. Sometimes simple is best.  

Aside from business, how have you been coping—emotionally, mentally—from day-to-day during this tumultuous time?

Every day is a rollercoaster of emotions. From the fight-or-flight aspect of shutting our doors, to learning and implementing the technology needed to run a virtual gym, while providing reassurance and a sense of calmness to members and employees. It’s basically starting all over again.

There isn’t a shred of doubt that we would be closed for good without the support of our members. As much as I hope we’ve been keeping their spirits high, they keep me going. Also, I think I have the only dog not enjoying quarantine. Branston (the gym dog) usually gets to greet at least 150 people a day at the gym, and he wants to know where everyone is.

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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
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Subscribe to Fortune’s Outbreak newsletter for a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus and its impact on global business.