The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first scenario the Castle Hill Fitness team has faced that’s required grit, patience and stick-to-itiveness.
In some ways, the circumstances the organization faced around eight years ago were even more challenging — involving the passing away of the organization’s beloved founder, and the ups and downs of a transition to new ownership.
For nine years, Castle Hill Fitness was owned and operated by founder Paolo Minissi, whose vision was to build a community devoted to health and fitness in Austin, Texas. After Paolo tragically passed away in 2011, the business was left to his daughter, Rita Minissi, at the age of 26.
Together, Rita and the Castle Hill Fitness team maintained Paolo’s legacy and the gym continued to thrive. Ultimately, however, Rita decided to pursue other passions and put the gym up for sale. As a result, they began looking for a new owner who could build upon the organization’s already established success.
This is where Clayton Aynesworth, the gym’s current owner and president, comes in.
Aynesworth was already very familiar with Castle Hill Fitness as both a friend of Paolo’s and former yoga instructor for the organization. In fact, Aynesworth had done his capstone thesis project for graduate school on Castle Hill Fitness, and had put together a 75-page analysis of its organizational model and leadership style.
“Since I had written this capstone and done this analysis of the company, someone approached me and said, ‘Would you be interested in buying it?’” recalled Aynesworth. “I only had 30 days to decide, and I was going out of town for 20 of those days. So I just thought about it. When I got back into town, as I was landing on the tarmac, I turned my phone on and there was a message informing me there were two other interested buyers, and that I needed to make a decision.”
Aynesworth became the official owner of Castle Hill Fitness on August 27, 2014. However, right off the bat he recognized he wouldn’t necessarily be welcomed with open arms.
“How do I come in as someone who was just a yoga instructor and be accepted by the managerial group who were basically my bosses?” said Aynesworth. “How do they trust I know what I’m talking about? And how do I earn that trust over a period of time? That was the real challenge of buying the business, and that was the real excitement for me.”
From Day One of purchasing the club, Aynesworth would spend the next four years earning the Castle Hill Fitness team’s trust, and infusing the business with the organizational leadership skills and model he’d honed throughout his graduate program. That model was a collaborative one that recognized the importance of the stakeholders in an organization being empowered to make decisions. “It really took about four years to make all the changes slowly and introduce a lot of these ideas,” he said.
To add to the mix, in 2017 Aynesworth bought a second location in Austin to add to the Castle Hill Fitness portfolio, which required an additional adjustment period. “Throughout that time, we were trying to figure out how we would integrate these two disparate cultures,” he said, adding the two businesses had differing leadership models and ways of operating.
“There was a lot of turnover, and people were thinking, ‘Are we able to survive if this person leaves?’” recalled Aynesworth. “And then we realized, ‘Yes, we’re not actually surviving, we’re thriving.’ We did that enough times to where the beginning of 2020 was set to be a banner year.”
And then COVID-19 hit.
On Friday, March 13, 2020, Aynesworth went on a three-hour hiking trip in the mountains for his birthday. When he got back to his car, he had 15 missed calls.
Earlier that morning, a prominent figure in the local public — and a Castle Hill Fitness member — had announced on Facebook they’d potentially been exposed to COVID-19 and had been in the gym. Because Aynesworth was unreachable, the Castle Hill Fitness leadership team took charge, discussing the best course of action for how the organization should respond.
“They had locked themselves in a room — they couldn’t tell anybody what was going on — and they figured it out,” recalled Aynesworth. “They decided we needed to immediately shut down the club, and they just needed my approval. I said, ‘OK, that’s what we have to do.’”
According to Aynesworth, this moment was the culmination of all the hard work the team had put in over the last six years to become a truly collaborative organization. “From my perspective, it launched the culture of our decision-making in our executive group forward by a couple of years,” he said.
Within 10 days of temporarily closing its doors, the Castle Hill Fitness team had pivoted to online classes. According to Michele Melkerson-Granryd, the general manager of Castle Hill Fitness, the goal was to maintain the personal connections between members and staff as best as possible.
“Gyms and health clubs thrive on their personal connections between members and staff, so when everything shut down, it was even more important for us to keep the voices and personalities of our community intact,” said Melkerson-Granryd. “Our trainers and instructors created workouts we sent out daily to our member base. Our personal trainers went virtual and have continued to work virtually with clients after we reopened — either because the client is out of town, immuno-compromised or just not ready to come back. We provided a virtual class schedule within a week of shutdown, which everyone loved because of the sense of normalcy it created during that time.”
However, the Castle Hill Fitness team quickly recognized online classes couldn’t be the only solution.
“Like toilet paper, fitness props became hard to find and some members did not have the equipment available to maintain their fitness while in shutdown,” recalled Melkerson-Granryd. “That’s when our focus shifted to reopening — how to navigate all the science coming out daily and translate that into a set of best practices we could implement in our clubs.”
By April 2, the Castle Hill Fitness team had created an entirely new vision for the business centered around 98 individual fitness pods — each equipped with an air purifier, sanitizing supplies, a fan and personal cubby — that could be reserved for 30 to 60 minutes at a time.
According to Amy Rogers, the marketing and brand manager for Castle Hill Fitness, exercise pods weren’t a brand-new concept for the organization. The club’s downtown location had already carved out some spaces that were available by appointment only.
In light of the pandemic, the team decided expanding that concept within the two facilities would create an experience a step above the pre-COVID gym model, and certainly beyond the reopening guidelines put out by the state.
“Castle Hill Fitness caters to a wide range of higher-risk clients, and we had to keep them in mind as we planned to reopen,” explained Rogers. “This led to additional features like air filters, as more data was being discovered about the novel coronavirus.”
During the construction of the fitness pods, there were some initial challenges with availability of materials like plexiglass and sanitation supplies, but those eventually caught up to demand.
Ultimately, the response from clients and staff to the shift has been overwhelmingly positive. “With the personal workout pods we can provide a lower risk experience that provides ample physical distance from others, but still has the social interaction we crave and need as humans,” said Rogers.
When asked if he felt Castle Hill Fitness would have been as successful with its reopening without the transition to the fitness pods, Aynesworth said, unequivocally, no.
“I could look at the spaces we created and say, ‘Who else went to this much trouble?’” said Aynesworth. “Basically, where’s my competition? Clubs that just put tape on the floor and said, ‘Stay in this box’ — that just wasn’t going to cut it for those members who had even an ounce of concern [about COVID-19]. So immediately the value of what we are providing skyrocketed, especially in our market.”
In fact, the fitness pods have opened the team’s eyes to an entirely new way of doing business, at least for the foreseeable future.
“In January of 2020, we had our best day with 505 check-ins,” explained Aynesworth. “Between the two locations, we have 98 pods. So we have about a hundred spots and we have about 10 hours in a day those could be used. So in a day, we have the capacity for a thousand unique member visits. That’s twice as much as what our max was in the old model. If we can hit 50% of max in this new service model, then we’re doing better than 100% of our best month in our best year with the highest membership we had.”
As a result, explained Aynesworth, the expanded fitness pod concept is likely to be a permanent addition.
“A lot of our clients are saying, ‘We hope this never changes, because we love having a private space that no one else is going to come into,’” explained Aynesworth. “When we have a vaccine and people are more comfortable, we’re going to take some of the pods out and double the spaces, and we might take half of the walls out, but we’re staying agile.”
Since pivoting to the fitness pods and online classes, the Castle Hill Fitness team has also added on additional services as reopening guidelines in the state of Texas have allowed, such as outdoor fitness classes. However, they realize the importance of staying flexible.
“The reality is the pandemic is going to be here for awhile and so we are continually brainstorming new ways to support our clients in the long-term,” said Melkerson-Granryd. “On-demand videos, new membership structures and at-home equipment sales are all potential solutions to the roadblocks our community is encountering right now.”
No matter what challenges the rest of 2020 throws their way, the Castle Hill Fitness team will keep the power of human connection top of mind.
“Gyms are social places, but what happens when that space is mandated to close?” said Rogers. “How do you reopen safely? The lesson we are learning is humans will still find ways to connect, and so to preserve your business and brand you may need to reinvent yourself and invest in ideas that seem on the edge. No one knows the importance of exercise to mental health and immunity better than fitness professionals, so go beyond what’s required and think outside the box. Your clients will thank you for it.”