As companies like Peloton see slowing demand for at-home exercise offerings, the YMCA of Greater Waukesha Countyreports an inverse trend of climbing membership after it lost a quarter of its members during the initial pandemic hit.
YMCA of GWC leaders say its rebound in membership reflects a widespread desire for the social interaction fitness centers provide and a fatigue associated with working out at home.
The New Berlin-based organization was on a growth track prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, both in membership and programs offered. It completed several expansion and renovation projects between 2015 and early 2020 in an effort to upgrade its facilities and compete with an array of boutique fitness centers entering the market.
Then, it was forced to shutter its doors for two months in the spring of 2020; and, like fitness centers across the country, its memberships took a hit. The organization reported roughly 30,000 members at year-end 2020, down from about 44,500 a year prior.
Membership has bounced back to about 40,000 today.
“We were strong going into COVID, which I think helped us be strong during and coming out of COVID,” said chief executive officer Chris Becker. “I think it’s accelerated some of our rebound effect.”
The organization committed to keeping its full-time staff employed through the initial closure and ensuing recovery, Becker said. It managed to maintain its full-time staff thanks to federal relief, including a $1.8 million Paycheck Protection Program loan.
“That was our lifeblood for our Y,” Becker said of maintaining its full-time employees. “We knew as we reopened and members started to come back and families wanted more programs and services for their kids and families as a whole, that we needed staff to drive that rebound effect."
While many other facilities remained closed, YMCA of GWC expanded its before- and after-school childcare and summer day camp programs. Those offerings also helped buoy the organization’s non-member paid program participation, which was also up year-over-year as of December 2021.
The Y also expanded the availability of its digital YMCA360 platform, which provides members access to on-demand and livestreamed classes, and installed video screens in all branches. Some members who remain reluctant to join live classes at the Y have the option to reserve an exercise studio and stream a class with a smaller group or by themselves using that platform.
A hunger for social interaction has been a driving factor for members who have returned to the Y’s six branches, said Laurie Schlitt, associate director of strategic development. Those in the senior reimbursement group have been the highest growth demographic among new members over the past year.
“As well as the physical and health side of things, the social and emotional part of coming back to the Y and being part of something was so important,” Becker said.
The Y’s gradual return to pre-pandemic levels stands in contrast to many fitness centers across the country. According to a January 2022 report from Club Industry, one quarter of U.S. health clubs and 30% of studios have permanently closed since March 2020. The report projected continued closures into the second quarter as the omicron variant stunted the usual influx of new members at the beginning of the year.
The omicron variant didn’t hurt the Y’s rebound, Schlitt noted.
“We did not take a step back during that variant. We did see membership growth during that time and we saw program participation increase. And I think it all comes back to the fact that we’re more than just a swim-and-gym. … People want to belong to something, whatever their reasons, that means something and that they can hold on to,” she said.
With fewer options overall for those seeking a fitness center, Becker said there is an opportunity to recruit new members to the Y’s facilities.
“They (will) see the Y as an organization that has staying power and is also connected to and for the betterment of the communities we serve,” Becker said.
As part of its annual investment in facility upgrades, the YMCA of GWC this spring is refreshing the weight-lifting area and adding new equipment at the Southwest branch, located in Greenfield.