James Balfour, chief executive, 1Rebel Gyms
‘The job is to win the war of perception. There are a lot of myths out there, like you can catch coronavirus from sweat’
Seven weeks ago, the fitness industry was put in lockdown. After five years and something like 2m workouts, 1Rebel, the boutique fitness company I run, had to close its doors. We spent the week before trying to manage how our staff would respond. Sometimes when you’re acting you can mask your own reactions, but I have felt utterly depressed at times.
At least we now have more clarity. We have government guidance about when we might reopen so now the job is to win the war of perception. There are a lot of myths out there, like you can catch coronavirus from sweat. It just isn’t true.
Ultimately, there’s never been a better time to keep the nation fit against a vicious and cruel respiratory disease.
We’ve had our ventilation system surveyed and it’s safer than an aeroplane. We’ve also looked at buying temperature scanners and have 10,000 face masks in stock. They’re not the ones the NHS use — those should be on the front line — but we were able to source fitness masks that have a “personal protective equipment” rating. The kind of thing that a courier on a bike might have.
Looking back, talking to the staff was one of the hardest things. Five days before we shut I told them I thought that we would be shut for three months and that we might have to look at voluntary pay cuts. We didn’t know about the government furloughing then.
It was tough. I bloody love my business and the people who work with me. We are nothing without them.
Straight after closing was chaotic. There was the flurry of government initiatives to react to and constantly checking daily infection and death rates. The business is shuttered, but if anything the work has increased. I live in a small one-bed flat that’s lower ground, which is annoying because there is not enough daylight. My office is a chair: I’m sitting with my laptop, doing Zoom calls. There’s never been more of a need to communicate with people but I’ve never been less able to do so and the excitement of the day tends to be going out for the food shop. If this is a window on to retirement, I am not ready for it.
The immediate aim for the business was to stop cash burn, furlough employees and attempt to engage with banks, who are overrun with applications for business interruption loans.
1Rebel was a successful business before this and we can be again. We had seven clubs in London and were about to open in Australia. We had packed classes with live saxophonists, lights, even a sound system that only we and the Sydney Opera House have. It was quite an experience.
And we never needed debt. We have had to go through the red tape of credit committees to access government-backed support which is impossibly slow, leaving us — and many others — with little comfort over when we will receive these coronavirus business interruption loans.
I’ve not been able to sleep uninterrupted. I go out to exercise and come back home to start my day. It’s better than it was when we did not know how or when the crisis would ease up. There’s a positive feeling that we might be able to see friends again soon, although it is amazing how the statistics from the daily Downing Street briefing can still affect my mood.
I feared for our instructors hugely to start with. Overnight we went to zero income. We looked after our instructors, who are self-employed, over and above the industry average. I even wrote to their landlords to request a rent-free period but regardless, the longer this goes on the longer it will hurt them.
We do still face a Catch-22. We will need busy classes and high occupancy rates to keep going, but we must also be able to tell people that fitness clubs are a safe space. It is as difficult as you can imagine and every operator has their own issues when mulling over whether they are viable in a world of social distancing.
In the end, you can’t come out of this thinking you are the same business. But I am an optimist. I’ve signed up for the second Imperial College vaccine trial, which I go in for next week, and I hope that reflection on our values could have some lasting change beyond this lockdown. I have been contemplating how much money I’ve saved with so little to buy. But is it money saved or money once wasted? My clothes still fit and serve their purpose, my phone still makes calls. The need to consume things now seems pointless.
One thing is certain now: your health is your wealth.
As told to Alice Hancock
Candace Lewis, Glamis Adventure Playground manager, east London
‘We’ve continued to stay in touch with some parents over the phone. A lot of them are finding things really hard’
The thing I’m missing most is face-to-face interaction with the kids who come to our adventure playground. The ethos of play is at the heart of what we do. Children come to build and create things, play in nature, and learn some life skills in the process. It’s impossible to move all of this online. As our activities are all very hands-on and practical, our work hadn’t undergone a digital transformation like the rest of the world. We weren’t prepared in any way for working from home.
We service inner-city children from the age of eight to 16, and provide them with play opportunities in natural open spaces, where they are often deprived of other open spaces. We also try to tackle inner-city hunger by providing a healthy meal for every child that visits. A lot of children are dependent on us, and up to 200 kids can pass through on any day during the summer months.
One of the best parts of my job is managing to reach the kids through one-to-one chats, when they can talk to you about whatever is on their mind. Normally we don’t talk to the children online, but during the lockdown, the internet has given us the chance to stay in touch with some of the regular attendees, to check up and stay current in their minds and lives. Individual chats are something we are working towards, as well as group chats — but all activities online will always have two members of staff, for safeguarding reasons.
When we’re open normally, we create a hub where parents can come and meet other parents, discuss community issues and share advice, helping to reduce isolation. We’ve continued to stay in touch with some parents over the phone during lockdown. A lot of them are finding things really hard, and are having problems trying to keep their children entertained. Many parents have spoken about not having enough laptops, tablets or smartphones for children to do their homework or to keep them entertained, so we’re trying to raise funds so that we can give out some resources.
We’re faced with a conundrum because our idea of “play” and internet activities like Zoom are very contradicting. Children’s attention spans are shorter virtually too — we have a 10 or 20-minute window. Over the next few months, the entire youth work sector will have to think very hard about what our services will resemble in the future.
With all our staff furloughed, I’m finding the workload tough. I’m constantly losing track of time and end up working longer hours. I’m in lockdown on my own, and often feel like I’m going to bed, waking up at work, and then going to bed again. One thing I’ve found very useful is looking inwards through meditation, and trying to zone out of my physical situation. When you can’t go anywhere, you can take yourself somewhere else mentally — out of the confines of your four walls.
I was an adventure playground kid myself, and made friends for life. Working with the children gives me energy and hope, knowing that they’re the future. For now, I’m trying not to overthink what will happen in the next few months, and to take things step by step. The sooner we can provide something close to what we normally do for the kids, the better.
As told to Amy O’Brien
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