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The Importance of Government Relationships in Boston

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Mark Harrington Jr, the president of Healthworks Fitness Centers and co-founder of GymIt and Republic Fitness, shares his successes and struggles with government relationships in the greater Boston area.

A year ago, things were going great for Mark Harrington Jr, the president of Healthworks Fitness Centers and co-founder of Republic Fitness and GymIt. Ending one of the best years they have ever had in 2019, and heading into 2020 with the best January new member sales to date, 2020 was looking promising.

However, like many other clubs across the U.S., they had to shut their doors in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in a year full of highs and lows. Harrington had to close his clubs for four months, reopening again in July to a different marketplace than what they were used to.

“At our high volume, low cost clubs, men in there 20s were back as soon as we reopened,” said Harrington. “But the 32-year-old, professional woman who’s working from home was much more reluctant to come back into the clubs. We were seeing about three times the number of people virtually every day as we were seeing in person, even though our clubs were open. And it was kind of a crazy world.”

Despite the closures, their high volume, low cost gyms were doing well. That momentum kept up through the summer and into the fall.

In early December, government officials were concerned about a spike of COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving. This allowed Healthworks to experience firsthand the importance of having good relationships with government officials.

Having multiple locations in the greater Boston area, the clubs operate in a variety of jurisdictions, meaning they had to have conversations with multiple leaders.

“We had some really great conversations with the City of Cambridge, and really had a successful job at kind of sharing the data that our side provided,” said Harrington. “They tightened business restrictions, but left gyms open because they were comfortable with what we were doing in the data where we presented that they could be done safely. We had three or four wins like that — Cambridge being the most prominent — but no one in the city of Boston would talk to us.”

The City of Boston announced in early December they were going to shut various other businesses, including gyms, again.

“It was very disappointing,” said Harrington. “They kind of went back to the plan the state had created in May, which was very out of date. They didn’t look at the data and the recent stuff, like all their cities and towns did.”

The shutdown lasted seven weeks. Boston gyms will be allowed to reopen at 25% capacity on February 1. While Harrington is excited to reopen his Boston locations, this experience was a learning lesson. 

“I think we’ve found it takes time to develop these relationships,” said Harrington. “And I think us and the industry as a whole probably were a little flat footed when this happened. And I think it’s a huge learning opportunity moving forward that these relationships we’re building are going to stay and we need to keep them up to date, and we need to figure out how to build them with the City of Boston.”

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Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown is the assistant editor for Club Solutions Magazine. She can be reached at taylor@peakemedia.com

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