After the nationwide closures of boxing stadiums and gyms on March 18, coaches and entrepreneurs across Thailand’s lucrative fitness industry have had to quickly adapt to service their clients.
Contrary to popular belief, and like any entrepreneur looking to capitalise on a market, finding a window into a new fitness medium was not going to be that difficult to overcome for the city’s fittest people.
In fact, the move to digital and race to online hasn’t come as much of a surprise to those in the industry. Some have even toyed with the idea for the last few years.
“I’m quite excited because I see the long-term benefits of this,” said Henrik Oloffson owner of the personal training studio Haus no.3. Henrik, a 33-year-old Swedish national and former ice hockey athlete, has taught and run online fitness programs since his gym opened in 2016.
For Oloffson, it’s about taking a few household items and making the most of what you have. A pair of slippery socks and resistance bands can be enough, he says.
One exercise, he describes as a back curl sees clients lay back down on the floor and drag their feet toward their torso curling their spine.
Without a trainer present sometimes a lack of motivation can get the better of some clients. However, when it comes to online training, Oloffson says, “people realize having that accountability when you’re not in the gym is really powerful.”
“It’s going to become the new normal, the industry is going to change more in two weeks than it has in two years.”
For Araya “Ploy” Boonbandansook, 26, a Tribe BKK rhythmic cycling instructor, it’s about finding a way to reconnect a community.
Since the rise of work from home situations, Ploy has seen a number of fitness challenges shared widely on social media with friends nominating each other for squat challenges.
While many gyms have frozen memberships, some, have switched to online alternatives.
In the past week Tribe BKK began a rental exercise program that saw contractors deliver and install exercise bikes from Tribe’s studio in client’s homes. Bikes are being lent for B500 with a B2,000 deposit meanwhile a two-week class package of daily streaming is a further B5,000.
“Initially there wasn’t a lot of interest but once we posted it on social media people began to rent it out,” says Ploy.
Tribe launched its first class on Thursday which saw 20-30 people tune in to a live-streamed cycling session broadcast from Tribe BKK studio and delivered through Facebook.
Although unable to see clients, Ploy had an assistant behind the camera letting her know who to encourage during the ride. She said responses were positive, “a lot of people missed it and craved it, that feeling from being in a spin studio”.
“Belonging somewhere and that sense of connection” is why people go to Tribe, says Ploy. The challenge now, she says, is “moving things online, figuring out how to do that and how to create that sense of community from a safe space.”
British national Guy Espley-Wilkes, 28, who runs Bangkok Knockout Boxing Studio and rhythmic cycling center RYDE says that the demand for online programs has risen, “people are eager now, obviously, because they want what they can’t have.”
However the transition to online isn’t without issues and trainers should remain vigilant. “You have to take it into account when you orchestrate these programs, the fact of the matter is you’re not physically there to adjust them,” he says.
For now Espley-Wilkes is working on an online program for his boxing clients. Some creative alternatives to training equipment clients can use are shadowboxing with filled water bottles in each hand, dining chair shoulder presses above the head and exercises with foam rollers, he says.
Although he notes his member base is strong and he’s yet to receive requests for membership cancellations, he predicts the online industry will bring about change. “I don’t think we’re going to see a massive influx of people flowing back”.
While Bangkok’s boutique studios face business challenges, a different sort of challenge is emerging for professional fighters and athletes.
Phuket’s Tiger Muay Thai head coach Shaun Kober has fighters unable to earn an income.
Tiger is what Kober describes as a “destination gym”. According to Thailand’s Tourism Authority Intelligence Centre, Thailand’s national sport, Muay Thai, sees 40,000 foreign nationals travel to train and fight in the Kingdom each year. Of those, 36 per cent travelled to Phuket.
Kober says he’s managing 150 staff and has had to move fighters and customers to other premises leased by the gym.
Although uncertain of the near future for Tiger, like many others, Kober offers a digital coaching program where he talks to clients over the phone about stresses in their life to understand and gauge their training ability.
His forecast is increased anxiety and depression from the isolation. His advice: “people should structure important things of their life throughout the day, do online courses, do the things you’ve been putting off to keep yourself sane”.
Long before a government recommendation to close fitness centers was given, gym owners had wrestled whether it was morally right to remain open.
“It just got to a point where I didn’t feel comfortable bringing anyone in,” says Espley-Wilkes. “The risk outweighs the reward.”