F45 Studio Owner & Surviving COVID: A Story of Resiliency

For some F45 Training studio owners, their past paints a different picture than their current life. They may have been stay-at-home moms, corporate employees or personal trainers working in overdrive. No matter where they come from, one thing is for certain: our franchise owners work hard to overcome whatever obstacles they may face.

Shelley and Anthony Clark, owners of F45 Wong Chuk Hang and F45 Quarry Bay, are no strangers to obstacles. They are both COVID-19 survivors and have a story to inspire other entrepreneurs to keep pushing, no matter their circumstances. Shelley tells their story from her point of view.

“When my husband and I moved to Hong Kong in 2015 I never thought I would give up being a lawyer to become a PT and own 2 F45 studios – and what a wild ride it has been!

My first F45 experience was when a work colleague suggested I come along to this gym owned by a guy who she met at a BBQ.  Intrigued by her description I headed off after work with a little bit of trepidation.  However, after that first session I was hooked, and spent the next few months convincing my husband, Anthony, to come along too.  Little did I know that this would be the start of something truly life changing!

Fast forward a few years and our first studio, F45 Training Wong Chuk Hang, is 2 years old, and it’s been almost a year since we took over the franchise of the Quarry Bay studio, recent Division Champions.   We have worked hard in this time to build amazing communities in both studios, not only providing our members with a fantastic F45 experience but also connecting members and supporting local businesses.

While owning 2 businesses is never easy, since June 2019 we’ve experienced some unique challenges here in Hong Kong.  Summer 2019 saw the city paralyzed at times by protests, both peaceful and violent.  Our equipment pack and flooring for the relocation of the Quarry Bay studio was held by the mainland authorities as it contained “prohibited” items (boxing gloves, resistance bands and cones), and we had to spend additional money importing more blue track via air freight to prevent delays with the fit out.  During this time, we also had trainers unable to attend work due to protest related road closures, Anthony and I were teargassed inside our own flat and we would have to plan an alternative course home from the studio on some weekends.  All in a day’s work really!

While 2019 seemed tough, 2020 has caused us to pull together like never before.  In December 2019 we started to hear of this mystery pneumonia suffered by some people in Wuhan, and by Lunar New Year in January 2020 Hong Kong was struck by panic toilet paper buying, mask shortages and overinflated prices for cleaning products.  SARS-CoV-2 had hit, and we were trying to adapt to the potential impact on our studios.  We purchased non-contact thermometers, stocked up on toilet paper and our fantastic members who work as pilots would return from travels bearing many cleaning product gifts.  

We are lucky in Hong Kong that the experience of SARS meant the city was more prepared for such a pandemic, and as the virus started to reach beyond China we were able to continue to operate until March 28, when the government finally required all fitness centers and other businesses to close or operate with some restrictions.  We had planned for such an event, and were all ready to pivot to our online and bootcamp operations when the next crisis hit – we received a call from the Centre for Health Protection to advise one of our members had COVID-19, and the trainers who were working in those classes needed to go into quarantine for 14 days.  I happened to be one of those trainers!

In the next 48 hours following this fateful call, both Anthony and I had been hospitalized for testing positive for COVID-19 (he had double pneumonia but I had only lost my sense of taste and smell), and the trainers who had been at our flat for a planning session were shipped to quarantine.  Needless to say, I was worried about my husband, our trainers and the impact on our studios but when one of our trainers also tested for COVID-19 I really felt the stress of the situation. 

However, thanks to our amazing team we were able to roll out part of our plans – the trainers who were in quarantine were filming short workouts for uploading to our closed Facebook group, and the trainers who were lucky enough to have not been at our flat were able to film the Live sessions in the studio.  And best of all, the trainer who was hospitalized was only a mild case and was released from hospital after a couple of weeks. 

Meanwhile Anthony and I were trying to manage memberships while in hospital – transitioning people from full memberships to Live memberships or membership suspensions.  We had a large number of members wanting to continue their normal memberships while the studios were closed, which meant both studios did not suffer as much of a revenue loss as we were expecting.  A few amazing members and another F45 owner also brought food and other supplies to our hospitals for us! This to us is the true spirit of the F45 family! 

I was released from hospital after 15 days, but Anthony remained locked away for a total of 35 days.  Unfortunately, I experienced a bad reaction to the anti-viral, leaving me physically weakened and impacting my liver, but we still had 2 businesses to run.  With the support of our trainers we were able to begin bootcamps, increase the Live sessions and continue with the member engagement. 

After 6 weeks of closure the Hong Kong government allowed fitness centers to be reopened, but with some confusing limitations.  We began by running classes with only 7 people plus the trainer, and in a studio as large as our Quarry Bay studio this was like working out in a ghost town.  We had to add more classes each day to cater for demand, which has increased the workload of our trainers, and every night Anthony and I would (and still do) check the waitlists, requesting people who have booked into 2 classes to choose only one, advising people on the waitlist to check their app regularly to see if they have been booked in, and encouraging members who cannot attend the class to cancel early.  

After the first few weeks I was able to attend LegCo (the Hong Kong parliament) as part of a delegation of fitness center owners to speak with the Secretary of Home Affairs and the Commissioner of Sport about the restrictions.  We were able to obtain clarification on the way the regulations could apply to F45s, and could lobby for changes to the regulations which enabled us to begin to allow more members into the studio.  This was a great win in our mind, but we still face the completely desirable problem of having more members wanting to come in than we can get in to the popular classes!  

We manage this demand in our Wong Chuk Hang studio by limiting the class numbers, then once the studio is set for the next day and we know how many people we can fit and still comply with the government requirements, we increase the class numbers and advise all impacted members. Our Quarry Bay studio is large enough that we have no issues complying with the government regulations. This is a very time-consuming process, however we know that our members appreciate this personal care and attention.

We believe that it’s this personal service, and our ongoing contacts with new leads during the closure, that meant we have not experienced a significant loss of members as a result of the virus and closure.  

Each day is a challenge still, with the constant worry that we will be shut down again if there is an uncontrolled community outbreak or another COVID-19 case in our studio.  I still experience fatigue which my doctor believes is related to the COVID-19, and at the time of writing I’ve only managed to complete 1 full F45 workout since my release from hospital in April.  However, we have a strong community of trainers and members happy to support us, and we are growing the membership base again, which helps to keep me focused on getting through this pandemic.”



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