Coronavirus is making India’s gyms and dance studios sweat

Nearly 90% loss in business in March. …

In February, when news of the coronavirus outbreak started surfacing in India, Tanvi Mehra was hopeful that she would be able to run her business smoothly with some alterations.

The 32-year-old yoga instructor who owns Tangerine Arts Studio in Bandra, Mumbai, had plans to celebrate the sixth anniversary of her fitness and dance studio with an exciting line-up of workshops throughout March.

Even before the first case of Covid-19 emerged in her city, Mehra started requesting people who had travelled abroad, or were unwell, to not attend any workshops at the studio. She also told everyone to bring their own yoga mats and frequently use the bottle of hand sanitiser she had placed on the premise.

But nothing turned out as per plan. By March 15, Tangerine had to cancel all its classes as the situation worsened across India and several malls and gyms were temporarily shut down. Mehra is now bracing for a big financial hit.

And she is not alone.

The over 12,000 studios and gyms listed on Fitternity, a Mumbai-based fitness discovery and booking app, have seen nearly 90% loss in business in March. Several gyms and health studios were voluntarily cancelling sessions in early March. Once the Maharshtra state government imposed a lockdown on Mar. 14, the rest of the classes had to be called off, too, Fitternity co-founder and chief operating officer Jayam Vora told Quartz.

“Gyms and fitness studios run on real-time cash flows, which are massively hit. The working capital of the current month is used to pay for expenses incurred for the previous month, Vora added.

Outside Mumbai, too, the dance and fitness community is expecting to stay out of work for the foreseeable future. Studio owners in several parts of the country are struggling to keep their heads above the water, and instructors, who earn money on a class-by-class basis, are out of jobs.

The blow

Studio owners understand that closing shop temporarily is the best thing to do given that the number of coronavirus cases in India is spiraling by the day. But that comes at a huge cost.

“It’s easy to wait for the situation to reach its peak and then take a stand but that would be the wrong thing to do,” Kamna Arora, an instructor and owner of Delhi’s Yellow Stripe Dance Company (YSDC), told Quartz, adding that almost all studios in the city have shut now. “We may be losing a lot of business but for us right now it’s more important to look at the situation from a larger perspective.”

Arora and her business partner Utsav Malhotra lost 90% of their studio earnings in March. Their alternative stream of income—wedding choreography—has also slumped as Indians reschedule and cancel weddings. Nine out of 10 weddings booked by YSDC in April have also been indefinitely postponed.

For others in creative professions, it’s the same story.

Prateek Aneja, a Mumbai-based dance instructor, who also earns from acting gigs says: “There are no auditions, and no introductions until April 15 at least. This market is also shut,” he told Quartz.

Shreya Nathani, 23, is a fitness trainer with Cult.fit as well as a singer whose gigs have been cancelled as bars are shut.

Amid all the frenzy, “salaries don’t stop and neither does the studio rent,” said Arora of YSDC.

Vineet Bangera, the owner of Studio 11 in Bandra, has requested that enrolled students not ask for refunds. “Should we not receive your support, we may have to consider shutting down our studio, fearing if we will be able to pay our rent in the future as we live month-to-month mostly,” he wrote in an Instagram post. Pending classes will be rolled over when sessions resume.

Looking online

When the crisis started, instructors weren’t looking for alternatives. They hoped things would look up soon.

Aneja had saved up enough doing wedding choreographies in Delhi in 2017 and teaching workshops in Mumbai thereafter to tide him over for some time. Nathani is on Cult.fit’s payroll for now as she works from home to complete tasks, make choreography, and so on. A commercial hip-hop instructor in Mumbai, Hemanshi Choksi, has not yet figured out an alternative income stream since she has her family’s support for the time being.

However, what initially looked like a short-term fix could spiral out of control and last for weeks, if not months, the industry is quickly realising.

Fitternity has already extended loyalty membership plans by 15 days and will extend it further if the lockdown persists. To help continue a revenue flow for studio partners in the meantime, the portal is running a campaign offering services and subscriptions “at lowest rates to incentivise users to pre-pay for these services with an ability to start their membership when the gyms and studios reopen.”

One big avenue that could help such professionals earn income is online learning. Already, Tangerine’s Mehra has been putting up yoga flows on her Instagram TV (IGTV) daily. On Mar.19, Aneja did his first instruction over Instagram Live. Malhotra of YSDC did one, too, on the same day. Although these online instructions were free, they could become full-fledged revenue generators for creators.

A US-based dance instructor, Rohit Gijare, for instance, hosted a live dance class where he gave students the option of making donations. If such sessions become routine, they could become paid modules. In fact, Fitternity is working with partners to create virtual one-on-one classes. “Additionally, we will also be making real-time group sessions available, collaborating with well-known fitness trainers from a variety of workout forms (Zumba, Pilates, etc) to host sessions that will be screened live on the Fitternity app,” Vora added.

Arora is also using the time to take advantage of other online opportunities, such as creating content for YouTube and TikTok. “We also do brand promotions and social media influencer advertisements,” she said. “That is what I am focusing on right now to keep the promotions and financials going.”

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