Health & Fitness

Gym owner on surviving Covid crisis

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Patrick Namwambah the owner of Saints Health Club and Bima Health Club in Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY

On the day I’m visiting Saints Health Club in Nairobi to interview its CEO Patrick Namwambah, his phone barely stops beeping. Tens of clients are calling to enquire about equipment, both for hire and sale. At one point, Patrick excuses himself to demonstrate to a customer how to install an indoor cycling bike at home.

“I’m decommissioning 50 percent of the equipment,” he says as we settle down on planks in an empty room that normally serves as the fitness studio.

“I’ll replace it when business is fully back,” he says.

Free weights, cross trainers, stability balls, and exercise bikes are on high demand at the moment, he tells me.

It may seem drastic, but Patrick who also runs Fulana Sports, which operates gyms at All Saints Cathedral and the Treasury, says he has studied the feasibility of this strategy for months.

“It’s pointless to hold on to equipment I won’t need for an unknown period of time. Many people are training at home. Why not lease it out or even sell to them?”

It’s not difficult to understand his logic: he has utility bills and salaries—of his few remaining assistants —to pay, and a family to fend for.

When the government ordered all public places and non-essential businesses shut as a containment measure of coronavirus, Patrick asked himself a flurry of questions. What would happen to his crew? Where would he take the equipment? Would his clients ever come back?

Coming hard on the heels of a new investment worth more than Sh3 million, he had no money to keep his employees on the payroll.

“We had to declare redundancy and to renegotiate payment plans for our bank loans. Operating in a church environment has been our saving grace. The landlord was kind enough to suspend rent.”

The bee in his bonnet though has been the fluidity of the crisis. Patrick had foresight. Long before the virus arrived in Kenya, Saints Health Club had developed a 20-point safety framework—by drawing lessons from gyms in countries that were already battling the virus.

“Our members were jittery. We had to guarantee their safety at the gym,” he recounts. Within weeks, the virus arrived and the business landscape was turned on its head.

“We froze all subscriptions. It was only fair to our members, even though it hit us hard,” he adds, tugging at a hair from his obviously overgrown beard. If anything captures his hard luck for the past three months, his beard does the job. I’m curious to know: has he been coming to work? “I’ve reported for six days every week since we closed down. We have a strong internet connection here. I come to study what other fitness centres around the world are doing to cope,” he says.

The world over, fitness coaches have been offering virtual training to consumers. Patrick though says that after analysing its suitability, he ruled out this option.

“Essentially, we’d be offering free content to web users.”

Instead, he and his team of instructors have been generating instructional material in video and PDF every week to share exclusively with members.

“We also gave them the option to rent out some equipment for use at home,” he says.

Three months later, things are starting to look up. Many gyms are resuming operations, albeit with a litany of safety measures to observe. But as I gather from him, the storm is far from over.

With slightly over 200 members, the gym ordinarily accommodates 50 people at any given time. With social distancing to observe, only 15 people will train at the facility for every 90 minutes.

“Operations will be schedule-based,” he explains.

“Unlike before where members simply came and signed in, they’ll now have to book a slot to exercise.”

To avoid straining equipment, locker rooms, and showers, male and female members will be admitted on a 5:4 ratio.

Operating time has also been contracted drastically. Instead of the usual 5.30 am to 9.30 pm running time, the gym will close at 3.30 pm.

“This is to allow us to clean and disinfect the facility for use the following day. Our crew will also have enough time to get home before the curfew starts.”

Will members still share equipment? And how will they ensure that hygiene protocols are adhered to?

“Screening will be mandatory. We’re using hospital-grade disinfectants and sanitisers. We’ll also provide our members with wipers to clean the equipment. Our staff will be monitoring everything at the gym.”

60 to 90 days

All subscriptions have now been reactivated.

“If all goes according to plan, we hope to have 90 percent of our members back between 60 and 90 days,” Patrick says.

He admits, however, that this will be a gradual process, and in phases. “Our performance in phase one will help us to develop guidelines for phase two.”

People have lost jobs, others have been forced to take pay cuts. Some employers have withdrawn benefits such as gym membership for their employees. Pushed to the brink, the middle class has expunged their expenditure on comforts.

I wonder if Patrick is worried that some of his clients may discontinue their subscription.

“Losing members hasn’t crossed my mind. We have loyal clients,” he says, and adds with brisk confidence: “We hope that they’ll all return.”

How will he recoup his lost revenue? Might he consider reviewing the rates?

“Lowering the rates doesn’t guarantee an increase in subscription,” he says.

While it is fair for the gym to hike the rate, Patrick notes that the move “would be suicidal given the tough economic times.”

In the future, the gym hopes to go virtual.

“We’re building an elaborate video library. Soon, we’ll start giving virtual offerings so that our members can exercise on the go. They don’t need to come to the facility.”

What’s the longest he has gone without training? It turns out Patrick has not exercised all year. I tell him it is hard to believe if his muscly frame is anything to go by. He laughs almost reflexively, lifting the gloom that has been sitting among us as the third person.

“I injured my Achilles tendon in January when preparing for Mt Kilimanjaro marathon,” he recalls.

“It took me 12 weeks of healing without training to avoid tearing the tendon.” Just when the enthusiastic marathoner had recovered, he developed blood clots in his lungs and had to be hospitalised for two weeks.

Is he happy where he is now? “Nothing makes me more pleased than being content, selfless and empathetic to others,” he says.

A father of two sons, aged 20 and 21, he describes himself as a ruthless disciplinarian. With his sons, he says, he talks to them like adults. “They’re free to make their own decisions, but I always remind them that they must make the right choices,” he says.

Patrick distinguishes himself as a steadfast bookworm. He spends an annual average of Sh30,000 on business and self-development books.

“I’m currently reading The Subtle Body: The Encyclopaedia of your Energetic Anatomy by Cyndi Dale,” he says.

A vegan by choice, he has not consumed sugar for 25 years, a personal conquest.

“My family understands me. We’re very clear such that I don’t impose my lifestyle on them.”

His gym may be back in operation, except Patrick is apprehensive that the crisis might escalate. What’s the most anxious about at this point?

“A total shutdown would be injurious to business. It would also hurt me to reopen only for the facility to become an infection hotspot. We either work together as a team or we perish as a team. If a member fails to co-operate, we’ll simply terminate their subscription,” he says.

With that, he stands to answer his phone. In the background, he discusses with a client the terms of leasing out another bike.