Mark Partin has business pedigree with an athlete’s mentality. As the owner of B/SPOKE, one of the Boston area’s leading spinning and workout studios, he’s a consumer of his own product as well as a former long-distance runner. He’s also an MIT grad who did eight years at Morgan Stanley. So when the COVID-19 crisis started to show itself in January, the athlete and businessman needed to ask some tough questions: How could his business prepare for the worst? How could it continue to operate if the contagion spread from China? And most importantly, what happens to his staff and clients if things get bad?
For Partin and 38,000 other gym proprietors across the country, things did get as bad as they could. With a business that relies on sweat and close contact, it was evident very early on that a pandemic like COVID-19 could have devastating effects. While most retailers — and government officials for that matter — were not prepared for the seriousness of COVID-19, Partin was.
“I was like, ‘hey, we need to keep an eye on this.’ By no means does it seem like it's kind of a bigger thing, but you know, we should probably start kind of earmarking some funds for like a rainy day,” he said. “But I mean, it just escalated so quickly. I don't think anyone was in a position where they were able to brace for impact in any type of meaningful way. As early as the end of February we were literally doing design meetings with our architecture firm for a new permit studio expansion.”
And then the brakes were put on B/SPOKE and every other non-essential business in Massachusetts. With three studios in the Boston area, Partin and his team went to work. First, they asked themselves how they could pivot their business model. That meant amping up interactive channels with their customers through Vimeo and Instagram to try and keep the studios/ class schedule as close to normal as possible. Then the questions revolved around equipment, so b/spoke started a bike rental program for spinning. And then there were the communications themselves, which were put on the company’s blog.
“If you are feeling isolated, alone, or (dare we say) bored during this time of social distancing, know that you aren’t alone,” one post read. “Understand that no matter how many classes you have taken, how often you come to the studio, or where in the world you may be right now — you will always be able to find love and support from the B/SPOKE community. Fortunately, there continues to be ways to connect and stay in touch even when we can’t physically be in the same space. Find your people, reconnect with yourself, rebuild your routine, and take your time during this transition. We look forward to sweating, moving & connecting with you on Instagram & Vimeo, and can’t wait to be back in the studio with everyone in due time.”
Even with serious issues ahead, he’s planning for the future.
“So it’s definitely kept me up at night thinking about what is like the bounce back look like,” he said. “There's two battles that every business is going to have to wage and the first one is what we’re in right now. It’s about getting through this first month and getting to the end of it. After that it’s about being able to reopen your physical business, get the doors turning, get some semblance of revenue and look at what might be business as usual. But the second battle kind of immediately starts once you reopen your doors. That’s when you're on the clock again for rent, vendor repayments, everything like that and normal payroll.”
Partin has applied for federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds, but like many retailers is still trying to calculate what a comeback will look like for his business. Federal guidelines have said gyms can open with proper social distancing and protective equipment like masks for instructors and clients. But again, the tough questions check in: How long will it take to get back to 50 percent of revenue? What about 70?
“I think the longer we stay in this current period where we're not in full lockdown and staying within the isolation of our own apartments and houses, that's going to dictate people's attitude for going and immersing themselves into ... places like gyms and supermarkets,” he said. “So there are a lot of variables up in the air, but we're just realistic about expenses going forward. And I think like every business, nobody's going to have the luxury of ignoring those expenses. I think the lean startup model is going to be the way forward for everyone.”