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Entrepreneur

What’s It Like Running A Gym In A Pandemic? Level Up Fitness’ Founder Talks Strategies.

When 2020 began, Kenny Sia had plenty to look forward to. A newborn, the 10th anniversary of his gym, Level Up Fitness, and 2 warehouses in KL to expand his business.

“The story of a humble East Malaysian making in-roads into the bright lights of KL was a prospect too attractive to ignore,” he said in his Facebook post.

After placing a deposit, the tentative date to begin operations was March 21, 2020. But it never happened.

Dancing In The Dark

Despite the beginning rise in COVID-19 cases around Sarawak where most of Level Up’s 13 branches resided, Kenny assured his team that everything would be okay. 

Then on March 16, the Sarawak Chief Minister ordered all public gyms to close, followed by Muhyiddin’s MCO announcement that same night.

For the first time in many years, the 24-hour gyms had to turn their lights off.

The 24-hour gyms had to shutter for up to 4 months / Image Credit: Kenny Sia

2020’s MCO became the most difficult time of Kenny’s life, a sentiment shared by many founders across all kinds of industries.

It’s difficult enough figuring how to survive by myself. But when you have 80 over employees depending on you to put food on their table? It’s an immense responsibility. I felt so terrible I had to even consider abandoning this responsibility.

Kenny Sia, Executive Director and founder of Level Up Fitness.

Throughout the days, he’d figure out how to pay employees with cash reserves leftover from March. Other times, he’d stay up to date by reading news articles, SDMC reports, along with government incentives and directives. 

Kenny told Vulcan Post that there wasn’t much trouble in terms of landlord negotiations. Keeping up his good relationships and punctual rent payments pre-pandemic with them had paid off.

Level Up also attempted to conduct classes digitally and uploaded several pre-recorded training videos. Sadly, they weren’t well-received as there were many other well-produced videos created by fitness influencers worldwide.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, the gym partnered with Les Mills (a fitness app). They helped market the app’s online BodyCombat and BodyPump classes to members who could try it for a free month.

But It Still Wasn’t Quite Enough

When June came around, Level Up was in a dire cash position. They wouldn’t be able to pay salaries if the MCO dragged any longer.

Refusing to lay off employees or cut anyone’s pay but his own, he put up a plea to members, begging them to pay their memberships.

Keny pleaded for members to pay their fees even though the gyms were closed / Image Credit: Kenny Sia

In return, members could carry those payments forward to cover for the months when the gyms reopened. They would also receive a voucher to bring a friend for free for the equivalent amount of months.

“In the end, a sizable number of members volunteered. That touched me because that gesture meant we could last an extra 1 or 2 months. At least we could breathe another day,” he said.

“This goes with my philosophy that we must always do right by our customers because we never know when we would need them again in situations like these.”

During the CMCO, Level Up’s staff returned to the gyms for a cleanup, or as Kenny puts it, a “KonMari” in the premises and storerooms.

Although the gym still had no income, it kept his employees productive and justified keeping them on the payroll.

Thankfully, the gym was able to reopen all of their 13 outlets on June 18, albeit under strict SOPs. Still, Kenny had to sell off one of the company’s cars to boost Level Up’s cash reserves for his employees’ salary.

He sold off one of his company’s cars to keep paying his staff / Image Credit: Kenny Sia

This breather didn’t last long though, as that extra cash was then used to weather the next month-long shut down from the Sabah elections.

In total, Level Up Fitness had to close for 4 months, or a third of the entire year of 2020.

Reeling Members Back In

Despite the whirlwind, Level Up still had a massive mountain to climb. This time, in convincing members to come back.

High carbon dioxide levels were inevitable from an indoor premise with everyone exercising, posing a high risk for the virus to spread. But the gym tackled this from a few angles.

For one, they invested in a carbon dioxide sensor to ensure that fresh air intake in the gym was adequate. They also installed UV-C germicidal lights on their ceilings to ensure air in the gym was sanitised regularly.

To encourage members to sanitise their hands and the equipment they used, trays of sanitising bottles were given to each member. This two-pronged solution also helped them keep track of how many people were inside the gym at one time.

The gyms were also newly equipped with online payment and booking systems to avoid crowding at the gym’s counter.

Level Up also uploaded photos and videos of their members exercising in the new norm. It was an effort to convince people of the gym’s safety that was comparable to dining in a restaurant.

Despite all these precautions and assurance, many were still hesitant to come. Even today, Level Up hasn’t been able to return to their pre-pandemic numbers.

“As of December 2020, Level Up Fitness’s monthly revenue had only resumed to 65% of its average monthly revenue pre-pandemic. Whatever profit earned in 2019 was completely wiped out in 2020,” Kenny told Vulcan Post.

Will There Ever Be A Crisis-Proof Gym?

They say that limitations breed creativity. With this in mind, it’s fun to think up a world where businesses are crisis-proof, all with social distancing and digital solutions in place.

Kenny too, had drawn up concepts of social distanced gyms that have equipment inside pods where only one person could access each time.

“But I quickly tore those plans away because no one is going to use such a sad gym once the vaccine has rolled out,” he said.

“I believe our current SOP in limiting capacities and distancing our equipment is working well. This is why we’ve had no infection spread within our facilities thus far. These will remain in place until the pandemic is over.”

Inside Level Up Fitness / Image Credit: Kenny Sia

As for business expansion plans, Kenny’s focus remains in smaller East Malaysian cities like Miri, Sibu, Sandakan, and Tawau. This is in case one town gets locked down, as with MCO 2.0, there would still be outlets in other towns generating income.

As for expanding to the big city of KL, he shared, “As much as I love KL, Penang, and Johor for their food, energy and vibrant culture, it’s unlikely we’ll open in those big cities for the stiff competition there unless I get an incredible deal either on lease or for taking over an existing outlet.”

But who knows? If Level Up Fitness is able to get a great partner who believes in the same vision as they do, Kenny believes he could make it happen.

  • You can learn more about Level Up Fitness here.
  • You can read other startups we’ve written here.

Featured Image Credit: Level Up Fitness

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