Valley News – Future of UV fitness won’t resemble the past

Leslie Carleton moved out of her yoga studio on North Main Street in White River Junction this week.

She made the tough decision to close down Upper Valley Yoga and switch to a fully virtual format. Classes can be found on demand, and she’ll soon offer live online lessons, too.

The location and live, in-person instruction that used to sustain her business just doesn’t have a place during this time of COVID-19, she’s learned. The company started in 1999 and has built a community that Carleton is confident will follow her to the web. For now, she’s operating at about 50-60% of what she used to.

Plus, Carleton can’t foresee what the winter will look like or what it could mean for her business.

Like many other Upper Valley fitness center owners and executives during this time, she’s learned all you can do is adapt.

“No matter what else happens in the future, the business is going to be a hybrid business,” Carleton said in a Wednesday phone interview. “And I think almost every yoga studio and fitness center will tell you the same. Whatever else I do, I’m always going to have online classes, because for some people it works really well.”

At Lebanon’s Carter Community Building Association, the pandemic has completely changed how the association — first established in 1919 as a nonprofit — operates. It shut its doors on March 16 and didn’t reopen until June 16, after New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s June 1 order allowed gyms and other fitness centers to reopen.

Executive director Kerry Artman kept her entire staff on payroll despite losing her main source of revenue, because memberships couldn’t be sold. The organization, however, also had several members continue to pay their memberships, and others made individual donations.

The closure also made her busier, working to anticipate what changes she would need to make. The entire facility was reconfigured so members could be guaranteed more than 6 feet of social distance. Equipment that wasn’t needed was pulled out, and second-floor cardio machines were moved into the third-floor gym.

Overall membership is down roughly 50 percent, Artman said on Thursday, but she knows summers are slow due to nice weather. She’s starting to see participation rise as temperatures start to cool.

And in preparation for the winter, a bipolar ionization unit is being installed in the Witherell Recreation Center. One is already installed at the preschool in the neighboring Carter Community Building.

Integrated into HVAC systems, the technology utilizes specialized tubes that take oxygen molecules from the air and convert them into charged atoms that then cluster around microparticles, surrounding and deactivating harmful substances like airborne mold, bacteria, allergens and viruses.

“I think all of us are reinventing a little bit of who we are,” Artman said. “There’s certain things from the past we just can’t continue to do. You have to be adaptable. We’re excited about the growth opportunities in front of us; we’re seeing a big uptick in personal training. People just want small group interactions.”

For Elizabeth Asch at the nearby River Valley Club, the pandemic has given her a chance to take stock of what people are really looking for when spending time on their personal health.

In her second year as full-time owner, she’s launched a reopening dashboard that allows members to see when the club has the most check-ins and activity, allowing people who are craving distance or socialization an idea of when it’s best to go.

The RVC also erected a tent in its parking lot this summer to cater to members who weren’t ready to start exercise indoors.

Asch furloughed her entire staff of 230, which includes FitKids Childcare at RVC, keeping only those vital to day-to-day procedures, going with the hope that unemployment benefits would cover the rest. She’s since brought back roughly 90 employees.

Membership’s been up and down, but new membership is trickling in while others bow out. She’s attributing it to people moving to the Upper Valley.

“We screen everyone who comes in the front door,” Asch said on a Friday call. “We’re very careful about who is allowed in to the club; everyone has to schedule every location in the club. If you want to come in and change your clothes in the locker room, you have to reserve the locker room.”

Unlike the CCBA and RVC, the Woodstock Recreation Department is run by the town. The department took down an entire wall in their building during the shutdown so they can now properly distance 11 members to use equipment.

The department has put a focus on making sure it’s still providing an outlet for youth sports, too. Participation hasn’t dropped this fall, as the department offers soccer and field hockey, and while teams are staying local and players are required to compete with a mask on, the opportunity to get outside and socialize has been accomplished.

Still, the state of Vermont has yet to announce what organized winter sports will look like, or if they will be allowed.

“Right now, we really have no idea what basketball might look like or if it will happen,” said Gail Devine, the department’s executive director. “What we do on our end is prepare like it will happen, and then we wait and see what is happening. Obviously, a lot can change between now and basketball season.”

The Upper Valley Aquatic Center’s busiest time of the year is always the winter — “prime time,” as executive director Joe Major likes to say. This summer has been a chance to get all protocols in place introduce members to new procedures.

Major said the center’s lost about a quarter of its membership. He understands that just working out can be a chore, so trying to exercise inside during this time can be a lot.

Like other fitness centers, the UVAC has put procedures in place for when members enter the facilities. But with a 48,000-square-foot facility that houses an 11-lane competition pool, a separate warm-water instructional pool, indoor splash park with lazy river, water features and 110-foot water slide, Major said he has spent tens of thousands of dollars to make sure the UVAC is compliant. He’s also hired more cleaning staff.

He’s hoping people will trust his decisions this winter.

“It’s been a tough climb,” he admitted. “I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years, and I’ve never experienced anything like it. But what’s the old saying: ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?’ I think, when we get to the end of this, that we will be stronger as a facility.”

Pete Nakos can be reached at [email protected]

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