This article is part of Owning the Future, a series on how small businesses across the country are coping with the coronavirus pandemic.
The routine has been the same for six years.
On Saturday mornings, Jason Atlas changes into a T-shirt, a pair of comfortable shorts and lightweight training shoes, then heads down to the basement gym of his home in Dix Hills, N.Y., on Long Island, where precisely at 10 a.m., he meets his personal trainer, Matt Sulam, for an hourlong, strength-training workout.
Mr. Sulam, 48, an independent contractor who until recently saw most of his clients in their homes, has become a familiar presence since he was first hired by Mr. Atlas, a lawyer, in January 2014.
“Matt actually knows the code to our side door,” he said. “He comes in, says a quick hello to our dog Hudson, who is waiting for him, then through the mud room, through the kitchen where he usually grabs me a water because I nearly always forget, and then heads down to the basement bellowing his nickname for me, which is J-Star.”
All of that has changed in the last two months. Except, jokes Mr. Atlas, “he still calls me J-Star.”
Their sessions are now virtual, via Google Hangouts — just one example in a field that is figuring out what the socially distanced future holds for those in a business that involves close physical contact with clients.
Like many other fitness professionals, Mr. Sulam saw his business come to a lurching halt when the epidemic struck.
On March 12, he got a call from one longtime client. “They were apologetic,” said Mr. Sulam, who has made a full-time living as a trainer since the late 1990s. “It was like, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t have you come to the house. We want to adhere to this shelter-in-place policy.’” Text after text followed from clients expressing similar sentiments. “It was an avalanche of cancellations,” Mr. Sulam said. “‘I thought to myself, ‘I have to shift on the fly.’”
And he did, with a grace that belies a 178-pound man with 18-inch biceps. His reimagining of the way he does business mirrors what many others in his industry (according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 357,000 fitness trainers and instructors in the United States) have done since the onset of the epidemic.
The day after his clients began canceling their sessions, Mr. Sulam was speaking to his brother, Benjamin. “He told me he was staying in touch with his friends using video calls,” Mr. Sulam said. “I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made a video call, but that’s when the light bulb went on. I said: ‘Wait a minute. I can do virtual training sessions this way. Most of my clients have some equipment at home. All they need to do is put their phone somewhere I can see what they’re doing.’”
In the course of a few days, Mr. Sulam did nothing less than reinvent the delivery structure for his service: He took a Google Hangouts tutorial online, and purchased, on Amazon for $10.85, an adjustable cellphone holder that allowed him to give his clients a better vantage point when he needed to demonstrate exercises. He also made a more significant investment with an upgrade of his Android phone to the model with the largest and highest-resolution screen; he even spoke to the daughter of a client who works in the film industry.
“I’m not trying to be a documentary filmmaker here,” Mr. Sulam said. “But I needed to know a little about framing, lighting, positioning and angles, so I can see everything you’re doing and you can see me demonstrating proper form on an exercise if needed.”
He then called his clients. “I told them, ‘This is going to be a seamless, productive new avenue to continue your training, without me coming to the house or without you leaving.”
He also set up an online payment account through his bank that allowed for easy billing and payment for his sessions ($95 per hour).
As of mid-May, all but one of his approximately 20 clients have continued training with Mr. Sulam on a virtual basis. Moreover, he has gotten inquiries from new clients who live out of state — business that he previously would not have been able to accept. “I can go anywhere now,” he said, with a laugh.
And where Mr. Sulam seems headed is to a more successful business model. “The savvy personal trainer is not sitting back waiting for things to return to normal,” said Mark Nutting, author of “The Business of Personal Training.”
Nancy Waldron, an entrepreneurship expert and associate professor at Lasell University in Newton, Mass., thinks that the lesson of Mr. Sulam’s pivot is relevant to all businesses — not just those that involve barbells. “So many small businesses have said, ‘I can’t sell my product, I can’t sell my services, I’m just going to have to shut down,’” Dr. Waldron said. “Without giving themselves the time to think about possible changes, and be innovative.”
Mr. Sulam, she said, is making himself even more valuable. “In a year or two, his clients are going to say, ‘That was a hard time, but he was there for me in a way I didn’t expect,’” she said. “That matters to clients.”
Other personal-services providers in the fitness and health industry have also changed what Dr. Waldron calls this “value proposition.”
When the lockdown in California began and she realized that her livelihood was on hold, Sarana Miller, a yoga instructor in Berkeley, responded in true yogi fashion.
“I took a deep breath,” she said.
She then began to think about how to keep her practice — usually done in studios or homes or on retreats — alive. She decided to take a stab at virtual teaching, even though she had no experience with it. Within a few days, Ms. Miller, 45, had downloaded the basic version of Zoom and set up lights and a camera in her home studio.
A test class for friends went well, Ms. Miller said, “so I thought, ‘Let’s open it up to a larger audience.’” She sent emails to students, new and old, inviting them to a Sunday morning class on March 29. “Just before we started the class, we reached 100, which was the limit for my version of Zoom,” she says. “I had to upgrade to Zoom Pro two minutes before the class started.”
Now, her Sunday classes average 135 participants, compared with an average of 30 to 35 before. Students log in from across the country, as well as Mexico, France and Austria.
“I’ve grown my business in a way I would have never expected,” she said.
For Travis Macy, an endurance-sports coach in Evergreen, Colo., the challenge was not solvable with a technology reboot. “It’s less of a supply issue, and more of demand,” Mr. Macy said. “All the races my clients were training to do have been canceled.”
Mr. Macy thought about how he could create new demand for his niche business. “We’re now saying, ‘OK, so if such and such a race isn’t happening this year, is there a cool mission or journey you’d like to take?’” he said. “‘Something meaningful to you?’”
He found clients eager to develop and prepare for such personal challenges. One plans to ride the Colorado Trail — 485 miles from Denver to Durango, through the Rocky Mountains — on a mountain bike. Another has expressed interest in a bike-riding tour of the West this summer with his wife. Others are planning to compete in virtual races.
“It’s highly individualized,” said Mr. Macy, who charges a monthly retainer for his services. “My role now is to help with identifying the goal, planning and guiding the client’s training and maybe helping with the route and gear.”
While many are trying virtual training, some fitness pros are going low-tech and taking advantage of improving weather. A longtime personal training colleague of Mr. Sulam’s, Bob Phillips, 56, has been offering outdoor exercise sessions to two to three clients at a time. Meeting in local parks that have remained open, Mr. Phillips, who lives in Melville, N.Y., brings equipment — kettlebells, cables and the suspension trainers known as TRX — and puts clients through a 60-minute, socially distanced, circuit workout.
While he respects what his friend Mr. Sulam has done with his virtual training, Mr. Phillips said: “It’s not in my nature. To me personal training is still hands-on, face to face.” He intends to keep the outdoor sessions as an option for clients, keeping each station in his outdoor circuit six feet apart. Each piece of equipment is wiped down between sets.
Those who want to stay in the field for the long term, though, will need to be as nimble as Mr. Sulam has been.
Mr. Atlas, for one, appreciates it. “Of course, it’s preferable to have him here, because he’s part of our routine,” he said. “But the virtual training sessions are a phenomenal substitute.”
Dr. Waldron of Lasell University suggests that small-business owners ask themselves, “Can I find an opportunity within all this chaos?” To help look for those opportunities, she recommends adopting the following practices.
Practice environmental scanning. “Read everything you can, not only in your industry, and watch everything from your neighbors to the media,” she said. “This will help you identify trends on the horizon.”
Identify the new normal — remote work, social distancing, more time spent at home — and see how they relate to your business, or a potential new aspect of your business.
Go mobile. Improve your ability to run your business digitally, including everything from payments (Venmo, Zelle) to your ability to gauge customer attitudes (HubSpot, Buffer, as well as Mention, which allows you monitor online reputation and manage your social media accounts).
Communicate. Consistent customer engagement is a hallmark of small-business success. “Send customized texts with a deal of the day, or to offer new services, and short one-question surveys,” Dr. Waldron said.