It’s painful to think back to the sensationalist headlines the fitness industry had to endure in March 2020.
Quoting Australian physician Dr Norman Swan, a Daily Mail headline screamed “Gyms are a high-risk location for coronavirus”.
“You’ve got these big blokes pumping away and you never know, one of them might be a super spreader,” Swan had told ABC News.
Even in May, growing positivity about our sector was threatened by The Times newspaper which reported on private discussions between industry representatives and government officials, saying: “Gyms won’t be open any time soon”.
With such a wave of negativity to contend with, it’s testament to the serious, professional and well-resourced public affairs capability of the industry in the UK that this situation has been turned around.
I’ve been in awe at the strength in depth of the powerful industry advocates for our sector who have taken this cause forward. Wave after wave have taken to the airwaves to make the case – powerfully and to the great credit of their organisations.
I expect nothing less from my former colleagues at ukactive – they were built for moments such as this, to show their full value to our industry.
What I’m most impressed by is how the crisis has inspired the leaders of the major brands in our industry to become powerful media contributors in their own right, working from an aligned narrative and with full industry-wide coordination. This new voice could have a positive, lasting legacy for our industry.
The professionalism with which gyms re-opened has also demonstrated the quality of our sector and its irrefutable record on safety.
Conclusively, the narrative has subsequently been changed – gyms are now seen as part of the solution, not the problem.
Expectations have grown with the success of this public affairs work and now we’re tackling the biggest challenge – making the case for the classification of our industry as an essential service.
Thanks to this new-found voice from industry leaders, their true belief in the power of the public affairs capability that stands at their service and the spirit of collaboration that prevails, it’s only a matter of time before this aim is achieved.
I’ve long believed our sector is unlike many others. Yes, this is an industry, but it has much more in common with a campaigning movement.
This is because people in our industry do what they do out of passion and love. They’ve seen what our industry does for people, the buzz that comes from making a positive impact and they commit their lives to making that impact every single day.
I was privileged to witness the power of this movement when we unleashed it to support common goals, such as National Fitness Day, but nothing that has gone before can compare to what we’re seeing now. The industry today is functioning at a totally different level.
This crisis has seen our campaigning movement become infinitely stronger. Not only do we now have professional public affairs experts on our side, but they’re also joined by “general public” affairs. And my word, haven’t the general public stepped up to support us?
In my view, it’s this mobilisation of the general public in support of our industry that has been a decisive factor in our recent gains.
It certainly was a major contributor to the success in Liverpool, where campaigning independent operator Nick Whitcombe (see page 14) was able to rouse nationwide support to overturn the unjust closure of gyms as part of tier 3 restrictions in the city.
Whitcombe raised £53,500 via crowdfunding to pay fines and supported a Parliamentary petition, which has been signed by 650,000 people and counting.
For sure, professionally managing the interface with central and local government and public officials, such as the city and metro mayors, was critical to the decision to allow gyms to open in tier 3, but it was the groundswell of public support that won the day.
This groundswell was secured by major national chains joining with Nick and hundreds of other independent operators to mobilise their customers – respectfully, articulately and intelligently making the case for our industry.
It was customer voices that made a difference, explaining how essential our services are – most powerfully, in my view – for mental, as well as physical health.
Campaigning for kids
This campaigning spirit has also been seen in the drive by footballer Marcus Rashford to expose the callousness of the government in not doing absolutely everything possible to prevent children from going hungry during school holidays.
Political arguments about the economic viability of offering such support, or arguments that it was the responsibility of parents to feed their kids, were blown away by a true campaigning movement, backed by real experiences, facts, and an unwavering sense of what is just.
This movement has been decisive in securing something we’ve desired for many years – for government to back a nationwide programme of holiday clubs to ensure children can be active and well-fed during holiday periods.
The result – funding for holiday support – is something the team at ukactive has campaigned on for years, but it was put in the back of the net by a true ‘general public affairs’ campaign that helped secure the breakthrough policy moment.
Connecting with members
Our great strength in lobbying for reopening has been our ability to identify each and every user of our facilities, communicate effectively with them in the event of a COVID-related incident and reassure those working in Track and Trace that we’re unlike any other sector in that regard.
In our battle to prevent closure in tier 3 and make the case for ‘essential’ status going forward, we’ve found our customers are just as passionate about our industry as the people working in it. They’re ready to make the case for our sector and show its value to their own lives.
What a powerful thing this could become. Mobilising our customers to help us drive this movement forward, engage more people and spread the word that being physically active is essential to building resilience to whatever future shocks might be ahead in our lives.
If 2020 has proven anything, it is that resilience – in our organisations, our families and our lives – is the greatest strength we can cultivate. As a result, our industry has found a new mission in strengthening the resilience of our nation.
I believe the recent news on vaccines conclusively confirms our position in the second half of this marathon. It has been a testing time and we’re already seeing some who are sadly unable to finish the race. We have to continue to pace ourselves, not take undue risks and make sure we make it through to the other side, as there’s still a long way to go, and testing spells lie ahead.
It’s frustrating that, despite this feeling of being in the second half of the marathon, someone has unhelpfully removed all the mile markers, so we’re running blind – unsure if we’re at mile 13 or mile 25 – and we have to act accordingly.
This makes it all the more important that we take energy from those who are cheering us on and the discovery of the powerful support of customers must give us the boost we need to make it to the finishing line.
Then we can plan the races we want to run, safe in the knowledge that this pain we’re suffering has been a life-changing experience that will only make us more resilient in the decades to come.
• Steve Ward, former CEO of ukactive, is chief transformation officer for Ingesport, the parent company of GO fit