Many industries involved in face-to-face work with clients – like personal trainers and dance instructors – moved their mahi online during the pandemic. For some, it worked so well that they’ve kept it that way.
Like most personal trainers, Sheree Hannah worked most of her career in a gym, training clients in a face-to-face setting. But when Covid-19 forced thousands of indoor facilities across the country to close its doors, she suddenly found her normal routine was no longer a viable option. Things had to change quickly if she wanted to keep going, so like many of us at the time she turned to the internet, using a combination of Zoom, social media, and personal training apps to keep her clients engaged even from far away.
“Initially, it was a bit of a shock. But I was very lucky to be in a supportive coaching container at the time which had the mentality and the foresight to go ‘let’s not pause, let’s pivot’, and instead restructure the business,” she recalls. “At the time, I had clients that were like ‘I want to carry on, I don’t want to lose my progress’, and others that were like ‘I just want to hit pause, this is all overwhelming’. So for me it was just a matter of trying to navigate how best to support my clients, but at the same time sustain a business. That’s when I really started to think about how I could shift things and move into the online space a little bit more.”
Shortly before the country’s second lockdown, Hannah made the executive decision to transition her business completely online. It’s where her business has stayed since, and has even pivoted to incorporate elements from her degree in nutrition and take a more holistic approach to health and wellbeing.
“I could tell something more was coming [after the first lockdown] and I didn’t want to be stuck in the same position because it actually really limited me. It limited my income, it limited my ability to grow, and I realised that being in a gym alone meant I wasn’t able to broaden my reach as much as I wanted to.”
As outlined in the Embracing Digital Transformation report by Toi Mai, which explored the ways five different sectors applied new digital delivery models due to the pandemic, experiences like Hannah’s weren’t uncommon among those in the personal training industry, whose common story was one of “small-business survival”. While some respondents noted feeling hindered by their lack of competency and skills working in an online space, others found social media and online classes to be a valuable way to retain existing clients as well as attract new audiences further afield.
“I was very fortunate to feel like technology was actually the way forward,” says Hannah. “I think for me, [moving completely online] was where I was going, but the pandemic really sped up the process. It kind of forced me to make a decision that maybe I was a little bit afraid to do… because it had to be done.”
For Christchurch-based personal trainer Jessee James, Covid-19 also meant moving her business online – a transition somewhat softened by an app she’d already been using with her clients as an additional service since 2018. Once in lockdown, James offered the app to all her clients, allowing them to log and keep track of their customised workouts, on top of video training sessions with James primarily through Zoom or Skype.
“The app turned out to be quite handy to have in place because as soon as it was announced that we were going into lockdown, there wasn’t a lot of time to prepare [for the transition],” she says. “It was already there as part of my toolkit, and it just meant that it was another service I could provide if people weren’t already on it.”
Today, despite having returned to the gym and resumed in-person training since the easing of Covid restrictions, James continues to offer online training as an option, catering to those who prefer to workout from home or simply aren’t able to come into the gym due to health reasons.
“At the end of the day I just want to help keep people moving, hence why I decided to keep that service as an option.”
Online training, however, does have its limitations, proving in many cases to be “a lot more draining and exhausting” than in-person training, James says. “It’s because they can see you and are constantly looking at you. They know you’re watching them, and you kind of feel like you’re performing. You’re more aware of your presence than you necessarily would be in person. In person, you can pick up body language and certain cues that people make, but online that’s something you obviously don’t have.”
For Hannah, the transition online also hasn’t been without its challenges, warning those thinking of making the jump not to make the move lightly.
“Initially, it’s almost another full time job learning how to set everything up and market yourself,” she says. “I went through a massive phase of burnout just trying to get everything set up and making sure I was on top of not just supporting my existing clients but onboarding new people as well. So I think there’s a big misconception that it’s actually easier to just jump online when there’s actually quite a bit of setup involved before you find your feet.”
Despite mixed levels of success across the sector, it’s clear many in the personal training industry adapted relatively successfully to the digital transition imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. For the dance instruction industry, however, that transition proved to be far more difficult. According to Toi Mai’s report, dance teachers found they had “substantially more work [to do] for online classes in comparison to in-person classes”, something which co-owner and director of DANZA Ben Harper-North also reported seeing following the studio’s transition online.
“Initially, we offered pre-recorded classes our students could watch in their own time as most of our students were already spending a lot of time online for school. But the trouble with that was it became a huge admin job for our teachers setting up cameras, editing their classes, and finally uploading these classes online. So what would normally be an hour’s worth of work suddenly became three hours of work, and as a business we pay them for their time so it ended up costing the business more to operate.”
Soon the studio shifted to Zoom classes instead, but the problems didn’t stop there. Toi Mai’s report notes that one of the most frequent lines of conversation around the limitations of working online for the dance instruction sector was around music and rhythm, something which Harper-North says also proved to be a huge issue for DANZA’s classes.
“We offer musical theatre classes, and having 20 students try and sing all at the same time with glitches in the streaming service wasn’t good,” he explains. “And then for classes like tap, which is a very percussive dance that’s all about sound, having to correct kids on the percussion of their tapping was also a really hard thing for our teachers to do via Zoom.”
With these limitations ultimately unavoidable, Harper-North says many of DANZA’s classes instead took on a more social nature, acting as an escape for its students stuck at home. “It focused less on the technical aspects and more on the social aspects,” he says. “What we were providing for the kids turned out to be more beneficial in terms of mental health and also keeping physical throughout lockdown.”
In fact, the mental health aspect of engaging with clients online appears to be a common thread across both the dance instruction and personal training sectors. Online sessions provided a means not just for learning, but for maintaining social connections and keeping people active during a challenging and unprecedented time.
“I wasn’t actually a huge fan of being a personal trainer online. I felt really stagnant since you’re kinda just sitting there counting people through reps,” says Hannah, who’s since shifted her business to focus more on nutrition and wellness. “But it was good to keep the connection there because I think people actually needed the mental and emotional support more than they actually needed the physical support during that time. So a lot of the conversation was more about making sure they were just mentally OK.”
James describes a similar experience, stating that a big reason for continuing classes online was simply to “claw back some normality” for clients who were used to meeting up regularly for sessions.
“Personal training isn’t just about exercise. The majority of it is just having that person that gives you that attention and support. For that period of time, they have someone who focuses on them 100%… My intention was to provide as many options for them so they could still access me but also access things that would help not just their physical health but also their mental and emotional health as well.”
With DANZA’s studio now back in full swing following the end of lockdown restrictions, Harper-North says he’s not looking to take the business back online anytime soon. For the relatively young business – launched in 2018 – Covid-19 came as a significant blow, and much of its focus for the last two to three years has centred simply on retaining its existing clients.
“We knew that if people dropped off and we lost a lot of our clients, the studio wouldn’t be in a place where we could reopen after the pandemic. So we kept saying to the parents [of the students] that while the classes weren’t necessarily going to be the same quality, the goal was to provide the kids with something during this period of time and then when we return there’s still something to return to,” says Harper-North.
Out of this experience a strong sense of community, fostered between instructors and their students and families has emerged. “Because we had such frequent communication with our clients, we felt like our relationships with our clients after Covid has stayed really strong.”
“Our local arts community came together but only by our merit and doing. Ultimately I think it would’ve been really neat to have had a bit more leadership shown from the government and local arts leaders to bring the community together.”