From his seat as the CEO of PURE Group, Colin Grant shares how the premium lifestyle brand is navigating the pandemic globally.
The COVID-19 experience for gyms in the U.S. has varied, depending upon the state you reside in, local restrictions, the demographic make-up of your community and other factors.
This has also been the case on a global scale, with different countries and regions overcoming unique challenges and executing varied responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
For a global perspective on COVID-19 and its impact on the fitness industry, look no further than Colin Grant, the CEO of the premium lifestyle brand PURE Group.
PURE Group got its start in 2002 when Grant opened the first PURE Yoga studio in Hong Kong. Today, the brand boasts 43 PURE Yoga and PURE Fitness facilities across Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, New York and Beijing.
In addition, as part of its 360-approach to wellness, PURE Group has launched a number of complementary brands such as PURE Apparel, a performance activewear line; PURE Nutrition, which offers customers tailored nutrition programming; Nood Food, a healthy food concept; FUZE, a boutique training offering; and PURECAST, a digital content and service platform. Altogether, the group’s vision is to inspire and help people lead healthier, happier lives.
Based in Hong Kong, Grant first began hearing about the coronavirus pandemic becoming an issue in China in December 2019.
“We started hearing noise about the virus and I said to my team, ‘OK, let’s start getting prepared — because if this suddenly becomes a major issue, everyone is going to want to buy masks and cleaning supplies,’” recalled Grant.
Just a month later in January 2020, PURE Group’s facilities in Shanghai and Beijing were among some of the first to be mandated to close worldwide as the virus began spreading across the globe. As a result, Grant had no other fitness operators to turn to for advice. He and his team had to figure out a path forward on their own.
Step one of PURE Group’s response plan involved getting all 2,000 employees on the same page. The brand formed a COVID management team consisting of operations, marketing and sales executives, whose job was to ensure clear communication and consistent execution across the company’s 43 locations.
“Like so many other brands around the world, we had to completely change our plans due to COVID,” recalled Gary Wise, the regional marketing director of PURE Group. “For example, this involved switching all of our physical events to digital equivalents, reacting very quickly and appropriately with our customer communications, and managing brand reputation when there were PURE cardholders testing positive [for COVID]. The team had to work closely together remotely while we spent months working from home, and we had to build a future brand communications strategy as we predicted how society would react in the post-COVID world.”
From a marketing perspective, PURE Group prioritized three initiatives in its COVID response plan — the first of which was honest and transparent customer communications.
“We decided from the beginning we would let customers know as soon as we heard about any cardholders testing positive for COVID,” explained Wise. “We did this quickly and provided all the information we had, including contact tracing, details of exactly when they checked into our clubs, what classes they did, whether they visited the café, etc. I believe this transparency was one of the key ingredients that helped switch some of our customers’ perception from negative to positive over the last 10 months.”
PURE Group also prioritized digitally supporting its customers and the wider community through live-streamed classes. In fact, the PURECAST platform came about as a result of the pandemic. Launched in May 2020, the technology gives members access to more than 60 live online classes per day, virtual nutrition sessions and other on-demand services.
Additionally, PURE Group prioritized partnerships with like-minded businesses to maximize its ability to serve customers during this unprecedented time.
“As is often the case in times of unexpected crisis, people and brands come together in new ways,” said Wise. “We embraced new partners who worked with us for mutual benefit. With these relationships, we could both provide a valuable service to existing customers, while broadening our reach to new groups.”
For example, PURE Group held yoga and fitness sessions at hotels, and worked with other brands to host virtual wellness weekends at their locations and with their customers. It also provided specific sessions to communities within other brand partners, such as live-streamed sessions for Cathay Pacific Cargo employees, many of whom were in quarantine around the world.
From an operations perspective, PURE Group prioritized member and staff safety, recognizing the importance of minimizing the spread of COVID within its facilities.
“We are being extra cautious in our operations to maintain the safety of members and our team,” said Maggie Leung, the regional operations director for PURE Group.
For example, since February 2020 the brand has required staff and members who enter its facilities to complete a health and travel declaration form, which states they will not enter a PURE Yoga or PURE Fitness location for 14 days upon returning from a high-risk city or country. This policy also applies to members who are part of an airline crew and travel between Hong Kong and other countries.
“We have slightly adjusted the protocol among cities and countries, but the basic protocols are the same such as temperature checks, wearing masks, health and travel declaration, frequent cleaning and disinfecting, and maintaining certain social distancing in the clubs and studios,” continued Leung.
For PURE Group, requiring masks was a decision they made before being mandated to do so by law. According to Grant, he felt this was the best way to showcase to government officials they were taking the pandemic seriously, help customers and staff feel safe, and minimize the spread of the virus.
“We had one case where a member came in, they had a personal training session for an hour — close contact — and then the next day, they started to show symptoms, took a test and were positive for COVID,” said Grant. “According to the CDC, a person is likely infectious for two to four days prior to the onset of symptoms, so this person would have been infectious in our club and had a personal training session for an hour. But because we mandated staff and members to wear masks, the staff did not catch the virus. We shared that with the government, and it gave them a lot of comfort.”
Since the start of the pandemic in Asia in late December of 2019, PURE Group has since navigated three mandated shutdowns and been closed half the time since March 2020.
After the first closure, Grant became a founding member of the Hong Kong Alliance of Professional Fitness and Wellness Operators, recognizing the importance of the fitness industry having a united voice. The alliance’s goals include creating basic guidelines for keeping members and staff safe, and boosting the public’s image of gyms. To date, the alliance represents around 40% of all gyms in Hong Kong.
Grant has also invited government officials to visit PURE Yoga and PURE Fitness locations to witness first-hand the safety precautions that are being implemented. Plus, he has shared with them contact tracing data showcasing their facilities are not the main source of spread.
According to Grant, because they’ve taken the virus seriously and formed positive relationships with the government, each subsequent shutdown has seen them prioritized in getting back open.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has been extremely challenging for PURE Group and its teams to navigate, Grant is ultimately optimistic about the industry’s future.
In particular, Grant predicts that after such long periods of isolation, people will be craving community — presenting gyms with a great opportunity.
“Our first closure was two months, and when we reopened, so many people were coming to us saying, ‘I love the online classes, they’re great, but I want to go back to the club,’” said Grant. “People are social animals. We want to be in front of people. I think for our industry, there’s going to be a massive opportunity.”
With this in mind, Grant doesn’t view the growth of online and virtual offerings that has resulted from the pandemic as a threat but an opportunity to serve more people. “It’s going to be a combination of online wellness and offline traditional roles,” he said. “I think both are going to grow massively.”
Lastly, Grant predicts the pandemic has highlighted the importance of exercise and wellness among the general public — which could be another opportunity for gyms on the other side of the crisis.
“Your first line of defense is not the hospital — that’s your last line of defense,” said Grant. “Your first line of defense is your immune system. And you’re in control of that to some degree by what you eat and how much you exercise. Wellness is preventative healthcare.”
As a result, Grant believes moving forward there will be increased leverage for gyms to partner with insurance providers and the government to drive policy surrounding exercise, health and wellness.
“We’re talking to the government about having a bigger focus on getting the population exercising,” said Grant. “We’re talking to universities, hospitals and insurance companies. We had a program with an insurance company where if one of their policyholders had a membership with us, we could send their check-in data and it would lower their premiums. The government should be subsidizing our industry, because if everyone ate better and they exercised more, imagine the impact that has on the whole economy. I think there will be a massive opportunity to drive government policy around healthcare.”
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