Lesley Giltinan doesn’t hold back when describing how much of a blow the lockdown has been. The fitness coach and personal trainer had spent eight years building up her business.
What had started as an ambition for 10 students per class three times a week was catering for 500 across 18 classes, out of the Cork Constitution premises in Ballintemple.
The call to cease trading, she says, felt like “the bottom falling out of my world”.
“I, like so many other business people the world over, did what was asked of me, without hesitation or question. I put on a brave public face, but, underneath, I was crushed. My business is more than just my livelihood, it is very much a part of who I am. I love what I do and the community of people I train. The thought of losing all that I had worked so hard for was frightening,” Giltinan says.
The enthusiasm of her clients, many of whom used to meet for coffees before or after classes at Cork Con, was the spur to get going again.
Other boosters were her own mental resolve and an entrepreneurial spirit that had already established what she describes as the “ammunition” needed to combat this most unexpected of threats.
Her husband Paul’s work in IT had prompted the idea in 2018 for an app that could cater for clients who were away on holidays or sidetracked by work.
That wasn’t its only function. It would lessen the physical load on Giltinan, who, while aided by a team around her, was participating in 70% of the classes.
A former financial advisor who had always been a devotee of fitness, Giltinan puts great store in her physical wellbeing. Even so, that sort of workload wasn’t sustainable long term. All told, the LeanWithLesley app made a lot of sense for a number of reasons, but neither Giltinan nor her husband could have foreseen just how central this branch of the business would become.
A renewed promotional push for the product on Instagram, Facebook, and Giltinan’s website, six months ago, has proven especially prescient, given everything that is happening now — while support from the local enterprise officer facilitated an investment in a videographer Darragh Ryan, with whom she put together a number of promotional videos.
Giltinan had always been conscious of the need to upload fresh content, but she has added again to her digital offering with a free, live Instagram class on a Saturday morning. Three weekly Zoom classes, included with the monthly app membership, available at €4 a go, have also been introduced.
The business now is a family affair. Her own living room serves as a studio, with Paul behind the camera and their boys, Vince (himself a qualified PT instructor), Harry, and Jack chipping in on the technical side.
Underpinning the whole venture is Giltinan’s own brand of energy, enthusiasm, and expertise, without which all the gadgetry in the world would be obsolete.
Influential bloggers, such as Cliona O’Connor (aka leanmeanmomma) and Suzanne Jackson (aka SoSueMe), have given shout-outs and the result of all this has been impressive: An Instagram account that has gone from 3,000 followers to 7,000 and 42,000 people taking part in her online workouts in the last six weeks.
“It’s unbelievable, really. Percentage-wise, sales in the app are up 500% to 600%. My main audience was the Cork people that I had coming to me and they weren’t so inclined to use the app because they could come to me in Cork Con, but I encouraged people to try it out,” Giltinan says.
“The message I got back was that they never realised how much they could get out of it and it spread from there. It’s just taken off.”
So much so that a business that once drew its clientele from, perhaps, only as far away as Glanmire, is now attracting custom from all four corners of the world.
“The community that I thought I was leaving behind in Cork Con has joined me and we have come together with people who are living in America, Australia, New Zealand, UAE, UK, and all of Europe, to get fit and stay fit, to get fit and to stay strong, physically and mentally,” Giltinan says.
She isn’t alone in that global reach. Joe Wicks, otherwise known as The Body Coach, has caught the imagination with his daily PE classes for schoolchildren, and Hollywood celebrities, and GAA, rugby, and soccer stars have posted videos with fitness tips. That’s on top of those who work full-time in the fitness industry and who have gravitated online.
CrossFit Ireland was doing remote coaching and training programmes before coronavirus, but is now providing a number of daily Zoom classes. Coach Sean Brown, who is also a weightlifter aiming to make the Tokyo Olympics, has found that the virtual world can be more exercising than real life.
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“You can’t just sit on a couch when you’re doing these classes with people online,” he says from his home outside Kildare Town.
“I find I’m actually exercising more now. I’m doing two or three classes a day and my own training then, as well. I’m doing, maybe, 15 to 18 Zoom sessions a week.”
There are 800 instructors of various stripes on the Register of Exercise Professionals in Ireland and not everyone has that type of flexibility or technical expertise.
A study last year, by Deloitte and EuropeActive, found that there are over 700 health and fitness clubs in Ireland. Their income has all but evaporated and yet costs don’t go away, as Barry Walsh, owner of the three Iconic Health Clubs in Dublin, explains. “Currently, we are still paying property service charges, utility fees, rates [excluding commercial], insurance.
“We are also topping up some key staff wages, as we need the buildings monitored daily. We have two swimming pools and, although we have reduced costs by about 30%, it still runs at over €10,000 a month,” Walsh says.
The industry, like so many others, insists it will require government assistance to get back on its feet and what’s clear is that it is too big, and too important, to the nation’s health to fail. More than 500,000 people were estimated to be exercising in gyms before the closure.
Another 300,000 swam in pools. Something in the region of 10,000 people are employed in the sector at large and it’s worth to the economy comes in at €500m.
“The leisure, sport, and fitness sectors have been among the most hard-hit in the Covid-19 crisis and are scheduled to reopen in the latter phases,” says Conn McCluskey, of Ireland Active, which represents roughly half of those centres.
“It has not been possible to generate income in the way that other sectors have been able to. If we wish to have a sport, swimming pool, and fitness infrastructure, and over 1m people returning to exercise after this crisis passes, with the enormous economic, physical, and mental health benefits that it delivers to society, then government is going to need to support the sector,” McCluskey says.
Ultimately, everyone is champing at the bit to get back to something approaching normality, but social distancing will keep profitability at arm’s length for some time yet. The question is how much business will return to the ‘real’ world and how much will stay online, because nobody is generating the type of income now that they were before the lockdown.
Then again, it has only been two months.
“It just has to be part of life, going forward, now that we are experiencing what we are going through, at the moment,” Giltinan says.
“This is a great opportunity for people now. We can see that it is working and working quite well.”