Once recognized as the savior of commercial landlords losing tenants to e-commerce competition, experiential retail took a big hit from the COVID-19 pandemic and its related lockdowns and restrictions.
And when it comes to experiential retail, largely defined as services that can’t be delivered through the internet, such as eating in a restaurant, fitness businesses sustained some of the pandemic’s biggest losses.
But now, after widespread vaccinations and other safety measures assuage fear and more of their customers are venturing out again, fitness concepts are staging a comeback and advancing plans for expansion here.
Doreen Argenti-Colombo knows firsthand about the damage done to gyms and related fitness businesses during the height of the pandemic. A partner in Gold Medal Gymnastics, which has six Long Island locations, her business had to close for six months and was further impacted by restrictions on capacity.
“I had to close my six gymnastics schools and it was horrendous,” Argenti-Colombo said. “I’ve never had to close a gym for more than a day, for a repair or bad weather. So to have six locations close for six months without any revenue coming in was an absolute nightmare. Not knowing when we were going to reopen and what that landscape would look like and then there were the restrictions and extra expenses for sanitizing.”
As her existing gymnastics business recovers, Argenti-Colombo is optimistic that fitness businesses will continue to thrive. So much so, that she and her husband Joe Colombo, are bringing a new fitness concept to Long Island.
The Colombos are franchisees for RockBox Fitness and expect to open the area’s first two RockBox studios here later this year. The couple is building a 3,232-square-foot studio in the Hauppauge Shopping Center at 371 Smithtown Bypass in Hauppauge and a 3,075-square-foot location in the Levittown Mews Shopping Center at 3361 Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown.
Argenti-Colombo said she sought to expand her fitness portfolio with some kind of adult fitness model.
“My goal was to expand with an adult fitness franchise because everybody is exercising and looking to do something to get healthy and make their lives a little bit better,” she said. “I researched quite a bit looking for something new and exciting that wasn’t just the same old kind of thing. When I came across RockBox that was it, it was the total workout that I’ve never experienced where you feel totally different after a workout.”
Joe Colombo, a financial planner with Charter Oak Financial in Melville, is no stranger to the fitness world. A long-time body builder, Colombo previously owned five Gold’s Gyms on Long Island which he sold in the late 1990s when faced with increasing competition from large big-box gyms and health clubs.
Colombo now favors the smaller, boutique fitness concepts like RockBox that provide a more personal experience.
“The value here is it’s not basic fitness,” he said. “You have your trainer who knows your name and turns around and says let me show you how to do this differently and you go at your own pace.”
RockBox got its start when professional fighter Steve Halloran opened his first fitness studio in 2013, but the concept exploded a few years later after former pharmaceutical executive Roger Martin joined forces with Halloran and rebranded the business. North Carolina-based RockBox began franchising in 2018 and has since sold more than 130 franchise licenses in 22 states, with 40 studios currently open and operating.
Martin, the RockBox CEO, acknowledged the struggles the company faced during the pandemic and how they kept its customers connected during a difficult time.
“We were there for them during the pandemic with online offerings, Zoom workouts and motivational coaching from the studio into their homes, offering nutritional guidance as well,” Martin said.
Today, the chain is healthy again.
“Growth has been great. It slowed during the pandemic, but it’s picked back up,” he said. “A lot of our same-store sales have come back and have increased over 2019.”
And though there are plenty of fitness concepts here to compete with, Martin says that’s not the company’s main opponent.
“Our biggest competitor is apathy. It’s people sitting on the couch watching Netflix and saying I’m going to get in shape next month,” Martin says. “It’s people not making fitness a priority, which is easy to do, there’s so many distractions.”
The all-in cost to open a RockBox Fitness franchise ranges from $234,993 to $463,900. The Long Island studios will sell monthly memberships from $179 to $229 and will also offer the company’s line of nutritional supplements.
The Colombos have a five-studio deal and plan to open three additional locations here within the next couple of years. Another franchise group with a 10-store deal will split its locations between the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Long Island and expect to open two or three RockBox studios here in the next year or so.
Besides RockBox, there are many other boutique fitness concepts expanding on Long Island. Broker Daniel Glazer of RIPCO Real Estate represents Xponential Fitness, an Irvine, Calif.-based franchisor which has 10 boutique brands in its portfolio. Glazer says some of those, including Stretch Lab, Club Pilates, AKT, Yoga Six and Rumble, another boxing-centric concept, will soon be opening more locations here.
“These boutique fitness concepts are more personalized. It’s almost like personal training in a group setting,” he said. “As opposed to spending X-amount of dollars on a gym membership and then an additional $100 a session with a personal trainer, they get it all in one shot. It breaks up the monotony, and they can join two or three different types of fitness concepts and round out their routine.”
Glazer, who also represents some retail landlords, says the fitness businesses are a boon for increasing customer traffic, bringing in 1,000 people a month to their properties.
“They bring a lot of activity to the shopping centers in the locations they’re in,” Glazer said. “People like to do one-stop shopping if they’re in a strip center that also has their bank or their smoothie place.”
Robert Delavale, vice president and director of leasing for the Breslin Organization, which signed RockBox for its Levittown studio, says it’s always been a numbers game with fitness tenants, and the most important of those numbers are size, parking, and length of customer visit.
“The larger format gyms, while problematic because of parking demands, have always provided a landlord with the ability to backfill unleased larger spaces formerly occupied by dry uses,” Delavale said. “Breslin did this recently at our center in Hampton Bays where we took a long vacant 16,000-square-foot former pharmacy and backfilled it with a Planet Fitness. Since we made this move, our leasing activity at the rest of the center has increased dramatically as the center looks much busier.”
However, Delavale said that the smaller, boutique fitness concepts also fill an important role for retail landlords.
“The newer, smaller format gyms which have become prevalent post pandemic, have their own value to a landlord,” he said. “The majority require no more than 2,000 to 4,000 square feet. And instead of cannibalizing an entire parking field, they now take up no more than 10 to 20 parking spaces at most for individual scheduled classes.”
Meanwhile, Argenti-Colombo is looking forward to getting RockBox into the boutique fitness mix here.
“What I like about RockBox is it never gets old. The workouts are never the same, they combine boxing and functional fitness in a 55-minute class,” she said. “You’re getting the workouts, you’re getting the trainer, and you’re getting the nutrition piece, and that’s 80 percent of your results. The music and the lighting totally separate this from anything else out there. It’s fight club meets nightclub.”