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Feeling better now: Fitness industry shows signs of recovery, growth

Michael Hardy works out on the treadmill at the HB & Lucille Horn Family YMCA. (Chancey Bush/Journal)

In 2019, Ashley Fathergill was looking to lease a yoga studio.

She started mobile yoga studio YogaZo in 2015, with classes in local breweries and spaces around Albuquerque. Fathergill was tempted to put down permanent roots for YogaZo — but something held her back.

“I was hairline close to signing the lease on a space really because I just was having this itch to have four walls around us,” Fathergill said. “But something just didn’t feel quite right.”

Just a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing gyms around the state to shut their doors. “Thank God, I trusted my gut,” Fathergill said.

YogaZo, always nomadic in nature and able to continue outdoors, was built for the COVID-19 pandemic. But other gyms with traditional studio spaces struggled to stay afloat, coming up with creative solutions to keep membership from drying up.

Now, almost two years later, the fitness industry is showing signs of recovery. While some pandemic-era changes have gone by the wayside, others have endured in the current fitness scene.

Natalie Jung teaches a YogaZo class at Sheehan Winery in Old Town. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

“You kind of learned to go with the flow during the pandemic,” said Albert Ramirez, executive director of the YMCA of Central New Mexico.

The YMCA introduced virtual classes during the pandemic. It still offers virtual classes, although Ramirez said that only a few dozen members have continued to attend online.

But, bringing in online classes helped develop YMCA360, a virtual, on-demand class program. Members can pick out classes on new flatscreen TVs in the gym.

“We had some platforms before, but this is kind of, I think this just kind of grew out of the pandemic, right,” Ramirez said. “We started doing it and everybody was doing it just kind of making it work … the (YMCA) invested in this and has put together a very nice platform.”

Ramirez said Albuquerque’s two YMCA locations at 4901 Indian School NE and 12500 Comanche NE lost between 40% and 50% of their membership during the pandemic. But Ramirez said membership numbers have increased substantially since that initial drop.

“Most YMCAs haven’t recovered their pandemic members,” Ramirez said. “We have. We’ve actually surpassed them a little bit.”

Ramirez attributed the recovery to the locations’ “value-add membership,” which he believes is unique to the Albuquerque YMCA locations. Pre-pandemic, classes and youth sports programs were available for an additional fee on top of regular membership costs. But, during the pandemic, Ramirez debuted a new system where almost all services at the YMCA were included, and even child care was available at half-price for members.

“We … kept the rates the same, but now you get everything, basically, that we offer, except for child care, included,” Ramirez said. “We used to have such specialty classes as yoga and spin that you charge for. And we just said ‘No, those are included.’ ”

After the start of the value-add membership, youth sports at the YMCA are at capacity this winter, Ramirez said, and he plans to keep the program in place.

Revenue has been a bit slower to recover, however. Much of the YMCA’s revenue comes from child care, including after-school programs and youth sports, Ramirez said. But, while fitness memberships have recovered, interest in child care still lags, continuing to pinch returns.

“The fitness part has come back quicker than those,” Ramirez said. “Especially the after-school program, after school is still trailing a little bit.”

During the pandemic, the preschool and Pre-K classes at the YMCA were suspended. At the Indian School location, the program is still shut down. Ramirez said the goal is to restart early childhood there eventually.

Like Ramirez, Fathergill wants to bring back some pre-pandemic offerings.

YogaZo was able to transition quickly to online classes, Fathergill said, so it didn’t experience as big of a hit as other fitness studios. But, in the past, part of the proceeds from classes were donated to a variety of organizations.

“The only big hit that suffered for us was a portion of our profits to our drop-in classes goes to nonprofits, so we weren’t able to donate,” Fathergill said.

Besides the donations, Fathergill wants to bring back more events, such as kitten and puppy yoga.

Crossfit Albuquerque trainer Jack Mullaney, right, leads a class at the studio’s new space at 5643 Jefferson NE. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Aaron Bubbico became the owner of Albuquerque CrossFit in 2019. This month, the gym moved to a bigger location at 5643 Jefferson NW.

Like the YMCA, 2022 membership at Albuquerque CrossFit surpassed pre-pandemic level.

“I couldn’t say that a few months back,” Bubbico said. “But now we are definitely pushing past our all-time highs.”

To keep membership from falling too low during the pandemic, Bubbico was loaning out equipment from the studio to members. That program has ended since gyms reopened around the state and close contact fears waned, and Bubbico was able to bring back group classes, which were suspended due to the close contact.

Now, with the lease on their former space up, Bubbico is looking to expand class offerings and programs in the new year, which he anticipates will be a popular time for signups.

“Our business is growing and we need more space,” Bubbico said. “People are wanting more than ever to get involved with fitness for themselves and also for their kids.”

One of Albuquerque’s biggest gym chains, Defined Fitness, has also experienced growth. Over the past four years, it has added four locations — doubling the number of Defined Fitness locations around the state. It opened its fourth new location last Monday.

“In the last four years, we have seen continued growth in membership and interest in health and fitness,” said Defined Fitness spokesperson Maria Lamar in a statement. Like CrossFit Albuquerque and Defined Fitness, Stone Age Climbing Gym is in a period of expansion. In 2020, the rock-climbing gym opened a second location next to Tin Can Alley.

Bryan Pletta and Cristina Radu, owners of Stone Age Climbing Gym, lead climb at one of their gym locations. (Chancey Bush/Journal)

Stone Age has been a staple of the Albuquerque fitness community for years, recently celebrating its 25th anniversary in September 2022. A lot has changed for the climbing gym, which opened in 1997 in a warehouse space. Membership has grown steadily since its opening and, as rock-climbing becomes more mainstream, Stone Age moved from a warehouse into custom-built buildings.

“(Climbing has) become an industry,” said co-owner Bryan Pletta. “I’m not sure we could really call it that when we first started. Our first gym was in an uninsulated warehouse with crumb rubber on the floor … now we have to-purpose built buildings that have 50-foot tall ceilings.”

The pandemic hit when Pletta and his wife, Stone Age co-owner Cristina Radu, were in the buildout for their second location.

“We were in the middle of building this building, right, and opening a second gym, and you can’t put the brakes on,” Pletta said.

Like Bubbico, Pletta and Radu had to look to alternative income streams during the pandemic, especially since the owners committed to keeping all of their employees. They added online yoga classes and called members to ask them to keep paying, although they couldn’t climb. They also listed about 1,400 products from the gym on Shopify to make extra income. Online yoga classes have ended, replaced with in-person classes. But, Radu said, although the gym doubled in size, Stone Age saw delayed membership growth. “The pandemic, that put us a year behind our projection,” Radu said.

Bubbico experienced a similar phenomenon at CrossFit Albuquerque. Pre-pandemic, he planned a second location in the city. But that has been put on the back burner.

“It’s been three years since the pandemic began, basically, and we haven’t … expanded. But we’ve grown internally as far as our quality and ability,” Bubbico said. “I would say we’re behind from the plans we had, but they’re the right timing. And, in that sense, everybody’s behind and everybody’s behind together, right?”

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