The virus crisis poses major challenges for the fitness industry. In November, Rainer Schaller, founder and owner of McFit, was calm about the Corona rules. He is now taking the German pandemic management into court tougher.When the measures against the corona virus are relaxed, fitness studios are also affected. In some federal states, the companies are already opening their doors again.
Our editorial team spoke to McFit founder and owner Rainer Schaller about the state of the fitness industry, outdoor studios and a letter he sent to Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Prime Minister last week.
The entrepreneur is happy about the first steps in opening. As a gym operator, he still feels abandoned by politics. Schaller says: “The fullest confidence in the Corona policy no longer exists.”
Question: The fitness studios in Hessen are opening again today. How do you view this step?
Rainer Schaller: Well, first of all, it’s Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein – Ms. Schwesig decided at short notice to open the fitness studios there too. We are very happy about it. There couldn’t have been a better gift for our female members on International Women’s Day, if you ask me.
They had to keep the doors closed for a relatively long time. Is it a relief if operations are now resumed in at least two federal states?
Schaller: This is a huge relief for us. In addition, Bavaria has set a very big example today. Mr. Söder and the Bavarian government have approved our concept for the “outdoor gyms”, which is why we are opening many cities in Bavaria today – just in the outdoor area.
That is certainly a nice sign. How has McFit got through the crisis so far?
Schaller: In the last few weeks and months one had to say: “Too big to fail” no longer exists. In this crisis, in which the fitness studios are forcibly closed, this affects small, medium-sized and large companies, there are hardly any differences. To make matters worse, the promised aid was not paid out.
We have received exactly 50,000 euros in the past few months, that’s not even a drop in the ocean. We can’t generate sales, it’s a catastrophe for the entire industry. If you look to America, you can see what will await us in Europe in a few weeks.
“The gym landscape is a desert in the USA”
What do you mean by that?
Schaller: In the US, four of the ten largest gym chains are bankrupt. I was in the US two weeks ago in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Houston. And the fitness studio landscape is really a desert because so many companies have now closed.
There are over 1000 branches that are closed, just four chains that will no longer open. That will also happen in Germany. In this country, many gym members continue to pay their dues faithfully because they know they want to go back to training if it is possible.
The problem is that this is not sales that we are generating now – but an advance payment. The contributions now paid are, so to speak, behind the scenes, hence the postponement. In the USA it is not allowed to withdraw money, so of course you can see the consequences of the crisis immediately. What’s happening in the United States right now will happen here in three to six months.
What is the mood like among your employees? You hear from many industries that the mood is very tense. Especially with a view to late aid payments, which you have already mentioned. What do you see from the workforce?
Schaller: The situation among the employees is catastrophic. One always speaks in the media of companies that are suffering from the Corona crisis, but one forgets the employees. That is the much bigger tragedy.
Because the closure of the studios naturally means 100 percent short-time work for our employees, and many of them are unable to make ends meet. That is why we have set up an emergency aid internally, where we make money available for employees who are in need. It is used very actively every month. That way we can keep the employees afloat, but of course it’s just a sad situation overall.
Where does the money come from for the emergency aid with which you support your employees?
Schaller: The company has to bear that, including me. The executives donate some of their salary because they say they currently have more than the normal employees.
I would also like to see this solidarity from politics. Well-paid politicians could also give part of their diets to support employees who are struggling to survive financially.
You also recently turned to politicians directly.
Schaller: That’s true. Without agreement, but in parallel with the Olympic Sports Confederation, we have written to Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Prime Ministers of the federal states, in which we draw attention to the dramatic situation in the field of sports as a whole.
Fitness is also important for health. If I can’t train, if I can’t do anything for my health, I may have to struggle more with the coronavirus if I get infected. A healthy immune system is more important than anything else.
In the letter you also explain that it is already “5 past 12” and suspect a “catastrophic scenario” should the gyms not be able to reopen soon. In the “Bild” interview in November 2020 you said you had “complete confidence” in the German corona policy. How did this change of heart come about?
Schaller: In the first lockdown, we all – not just us in the industry – had the feeling that a large majority fully understood the corona protective measures. After all, the virus was not yet known. I was indirectly affected myself: My partner was infected with Corona, we didn’t know what was happening. I said at the time that I had complete confidence, that was true.
The first doubts came to me personally when the government allowed professional sport again on the basis of a “sophisticated hygiene concept”. It’s been like that for a long time now, ten months for sure. I once took the trouble and looked at this concept. In the end, it really just consists of testing, testing, testing. You can also do quick tests in the gym or while bowling to find out why this is not possible, politics does not provide any answers.
In addition, fitness as an individual sport is significantly safer than football, for example. We even stopped personal training to reduce the risk of infection to almost zero. Ultimately, even body-friendly services such as visits to the hairdresser are allowed again, individual training that takes place alone, but not in most federal states.
Politicians do not provide any answers to that either, there are so many questions. And that’s why I changed my mind about the corona policy. Today I say: The fullest trust is no longer there.
You sound upset.
Schaller: Yes, the coronation came last week in Wiesbaden. We were asked by the public order office to close the outdoor fitness area that we had set up there because there was a risk of infection. And then today the message comes that we are allowed to reopen in the indoor area in Wiesbaden. It’s just difficult to have faith in politics.
Schaller calls the closure of the outdoor gyms “devastating”
You just mentioned the outdoor space, a new concept that you launched in February. Interested parties were able to train outside in ten German cities. But only for a short time because the outdoor areas were closed again a little later. How did you experience this situation?
Schaller: It was devastating because the closure in the various federal states where we had put fitness equipment on our parking lots came so soon. In some cases, the regulatory agency provided outrageous arguments. For example, once it was said that it was too loud, the branch in question is located in an industrial area and no music was playing.
Other branches were closed completely for no reason. In some cases we even tried to speak to the responsible mayor, but got no response. Ultimately, we continue to fight and we have filed lawsuits for all closings.
We are sure that we will win there too. In our eyes, the best example is Bavaria, where the outdoor gyms were even officially approved today. Two weeks ago they were completely banned in the Free State.
After the success in Bavaria: Do you think the outdoor gym is a future-proof concept? That may also be used in post-corona times?
Schaller: We are enthusiastic about the system and have outdoor gyms open in California and Italy, for example. The only complaint we received from the police in Milan was that the officers would have liked to exercise, but it was too cold.
So they asked if we could turn on the heater. I believe that this is a model for the future. Even in Germany, where it was sometimes minus 15 degrees in February, people came to our outdoor areas and trained.
I’m not a virologist, but if there is another lockdown, I find the opportunity to train outside very attractive.
Last question: What do you want in terms of corona management?
Schaller: Dialogue with politics is really something that we miss in the fitness industry. You have the feeling that fitness is falling behind and does not get the same media attention as football or other sports.
At the same time, fitness is one of the world’s most popular sports. 12 million people go to the gym in Germany alone. You should be heard.