By Pam Hersh
I am old, I am elderly, I am in the COVID high-risk category. Numerous times during the past seven months, caring people looking out for my well-being have made sure to remind me of my age – a fact that I tried but failed to forget. At least my memory is in tact – in spite of my age.
With the wisdom of an old person and looking out for my own well being, I knew it was time to talk about my age and COVID vulnerability with my friend Bruce Traub, whom I have known for 16 years. Bruce worked with me at Princeton Hospital where he was a senior vice president and chief financial officer until he left in 2012 to become a partner and chief financial officer at Fitness and Wellness Professional Services (F&WPS), which owns and operates nine hospital-affiliated fitness centers in New Jersey and one in Pennsylvania. Since 2012, I had run into Bruce several times at the various F&W facilities (Plainsboro, Montgomery, Hamilton, New Brunswick). I often would vary my locations depending upon the locations of my job-related meetings. He would be doing his secret shopper/undercover boss routine by working out at the various facilities in order to get a hands-on consumer experience.
The F&W New Jersey facilities, which had been closed since March 16, re-opened for business on Sept. 8, and I was desperate to return. My outdoor walking/jogging routine was becoming increasingly hazardous. Early morning and evening walks now were in the dark. Daylight walks/jogs faced intrusions from hordes of unmasked young people huffing and puffing and talking and spitting as they sprinted past me – way too close for my comfort. My infamous tendency while jogging to lose myself in thought about the state of the world and the state of my soap opera life often resulted in my tripping over a variety of unseen objects and uneven surfaces. And falling, like COVID, is something really bad for someone of my “advanced age.”
As eager as I was to embrace a treadmill or elliptical machine again, I was worried that going to the gym would be analogous to playing a game of Russian roulette. So I called Bruce to pepper him with questions.
The first thing I noted was his lack of whininess and complaining about the past several months. He was calmly philosophical and determined to pursue a thriving business under COVID-mandated conditions.
“It certainly was jolting to come to work on Monday, March 16, and told we could no longer make a living. I thought that there had to be some sort of a mistake. ‘How can this happen?’ I kept saying. Well, it happened, and instead of worrying about the quality of the experience we were providing in the gyms, suddenly we were worried about managing our unraveling world: our 1,600 employees who were laid off; our landlords to whom we owed rent; and, of course, the 55,000 members whose memberships were placed on hold and therefore no longer were providing a revenue stream. To add to the stress, we initially were given a July 4 opening date and then that was yanked,” Bruce said.
Gyms were portrayed as lethal petri dishes of COVID viruses, so Bruce and the leadership team knew that overcoming the negative image would be a marketing challenge equivalent to running an uphill marathon. Instead of dropping out of the race, F&WPS exercised its determination to succeed.
“Because all of our facilities are joint ventures with hospitals (five different health systems in New Jersey), we have a huge responsibility to implement the COVID protection operations laid out for us by the state with unrelenting discipline and to go beyond the minimum. People come to us to get health and stay healthy – we have to get this right,” Bruce said. Everyone who walks into the facilities – employees and members – are screened (temperature), questioned, hand sanitized – each time they enter; all machines are six feet apart; capacity is limited to 25%; trainers continually clean machines; wipes are more plentiful than in a Lysol plant; hospital grade air filtration system (MERV-13 filters); trainers continually pacing the facility to watch for any protocol violations; classes take place, but registration is required and all participants are masked and positioned at a safe distance from one another.
“I think it is riskier to go into a supermarket than to come to one of our gyms,” Bruce said.
What about the health of the business, I asked Bruce.
“Some individuals have frozen/paused their membership or cancelled completely. But interestingly enough, we have made up for that with new memberships. Since reopening, we are selling memberships at a pace that we never expected. I think the pandemic has made people focus on being healthy and are eager to get to the gym and work with our extremely well-qualified trainers (most have four-year college degrees and all have attained special national fitness training certification.
“I am optimistic that we will make all this work and get to a post-COVID place stronger than we were before COVID. All this has given me an opportunity to grow personally and professionally in unexpected ways. … It all builds character,” he said.
I would bet, however, that Bruce has had enough character building and would like to focus on muscle building.