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Laurie Benenati, owner of Lagree NY, teaching a class / Photography via Lagree NY

In Queens, a Fitness Studio Struggles to Recover

COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | Lagree NY, a boutique gym in Astoria, is still feeling the acute impacts of COVID-19. Published: October 26, 2021

Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday. Thanks for reading!

Have you been back to a gym yet? I haven’t. At this point, my nonparticipation is a product of habit, not any kind of deliberate avoidance. When group fitness settings were out of the question, I found an online fitness platform, started streaming its classes regularly, and, well … just haven’t stopped. But the other day, I ran into a friend who was just coming from the gym, and she told me how great it is to squat and jump and lift without her work laptop in sight and the sounds of her roommate bingeing Love Island UK ringing through the walls. Immediately, I realized how much I missed that space — not just space to work out, but space from all the other stuff. Bed-Stuy YMCA: Here I come!

COVID has ushered in manifold lifestyle shifts, both minute and tectonic, and it’s still too early to predict what will linger. But some trends appear to be stickier than others: though many gyms reopened over a year ago, data shows that people aren’t jumping to reinstate their memberships. This week, I’m featuring a fitness studio that’s grappling with untenably low attendance: Lagree NY, a 4-year-old studio in Astoria, Queens specializing in the low-impact, high-intensity workout method for which it’s named. Since reopening in September 2020, owner Laurie Benenati has not seen foot traffic anywhere near what she was used to pre-COVID, and she’s at a loss for how to get it back. Keep reading for our conversation.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get into the Lagree method?
I've been into fitness since I was 10 years old. I've had a lot of knee surgeries, so [after those], I wasn't able to do high-impact workouts anymore. I was doing Pilates — I'm certified in Pilates — but then a friend of mine told me about Lagree, which is very high intensity, but it's not high impact, so I was able to get the cardio burn without hurting myself.

What impelled you to launch the studio?
I got my bachelor's in accounting, and I [worked] in corporate America after college. Ever since I got into corporate America, I couldn't wait to get out of it. I did a lot of soul searching ... I went on a trip to Bali and I came back and it was a different kind of dread going back to work. I was sick to my stomach. I was talking to my friend who introduced me to the method, and she said, “You should open [a studio] in Queens.” I live in Queens, and I thought Astoria would really appreciate something like this. I emailed Sebastien Lagree, who is the owner of the Lagree fitness world, to see how I would go about getting a license for it, and he wrote me back right away. It was so fast — it happened in three weeks. I came back from Bali at the end of April, and I was signing a lease and a license agreement by Memorial Day.

How were your first few years running the business before COVID hit?
The first year was very challenging — I’d never run a business before. Then, when I finally felt like I was finding my groove, my father died unexpectedly. Thankfully, I have a very wonderful team and clients who are supportive and understanding. Then, once again, when I finally found my groove — we were doing really well, and even starting to talk about opening up a second location — I heard on Monday at 11:00 a.m. that all gyms needed to close by 8:00 p.m. that night [editorial note: then-Governor Cuomo made the announcement on March 16, 2020]. And that was it. We were closed for over seven months. I had a feeling we were going to have to close, but I thought it would be a couple of weeks.

How did you pay the bills during those seven-plus months?
We were teaching classes on Zoom, but it's hard to teach the method virtually because we're based on a Megaformer, a piece of equipment. We had to learn to teach new things. It was tough figuring out what equipment [clients could use at home] to resemble a Megaformer, and how to get Zoom up and running. Software issues were a challenge. I don't even know how we did it. It was a blur. We were taking one day at a time and going into each one totally blind. When the weather was nice, we were teaching in the park.

What happened to your staff?
I didn't lay anyone off. I wanted to keep them busy, I wanted their morale to be high, I wanted them to feel good about themselves. I gave them classes to teach on Zoom and brought them to the park with me. Unfortunately, probably half of my staff moved out of state.

Did a lot of your clients move, too?
Yeah, unfortunately. A lot of them moved, a lot of them lost their jobs, and some don’t feel comfortable coming back yet.

When did you return to studio classes, and what did it take to do so?
We reopened in September of 2020. We had 21 pages of guidelines to follow, so we ended up spending over $10,000 on PPE equipment. I had to get a whole new filtration system. I'm fortunate enough to have a large space, so we were able to keep the machines six feet apart and I didn't have to cut my class capacity. I wasn't able to offer as many classes as I normally would because we had to have time to clean, take temperatures, and do a health screening every time [clients] came in. It was a lot, but at the same time it felt so nice to be open again.

Are things finally getting back to a semblance of normal?
As things are getting better, we don't have to do temperature checks anymore. We’ve got our cleaning down to a science. When I first reopened, we were at 13 classes a week; now, we're back up to 30, so we're slowly building it up.

laurie Laurie on a Megaformer / Photography via Lagree NY

How is staffing going right now?
I reopened with half of [the staff] I started with. I have the same amount of people that I did in September 2020, but I can't offer them as many classes because we don't have enough demand for it. Our class attendance has been pretty low.

What do you attribute that to?
I'm trying to figure it out. I think it's a combination of people who moved, people who are not vaccinated, people who are afraid to be in a gym, people who have lost their job and can't afford it anymore ... It's a whole slew of reasons.

That's so hard. Did you get any emergency loans or grants?
We received the PPP loan, but it was so small. That's it.

How do you feel about the government’s response to this crisis on behalf of small business owners?
They have treated us terribly, especially the gyms and the restaurant industry. We were closed for the longest. We have been given the strictest restrictions. Then we got this very small PPP loan, which barely covered a month of expenses, and we haven't gotten reimbursed for any of the equipment that we had to purchase or any of the new policies that we had to put in place. They don't give us any guidance. With the New York City vaccine mandates, they didn't tell us how to check. I feel like they don't care if we survive. They protect large corporations. If I have to check a vaccine card, how come somebody [working at] Target doesn't have to do that?

Have your relationships with other small businesses owners in the area evolved?
It brought a lot of us together, especially different fitness studios who I would look at as the competition — I don't look at them like that anymore. I’m talking to people who I never talked to before, because we’re all in the same boat. We've been able to bounce ideas off each other, and it's been very supportive. That's the one good thing that came out of it.

Do you think your clients have developed new relationships to fitness?
Yes. I kept in touch with a lot of my clients while we were closed, and COVID affected them not just physically, but mentally. When they came back, they didn’t even need someone to train them in a fitness routine; they needed the support, they needed to feel like they belonged to a community. A lot of our clients live alone, some of them don't have a lot of family.

How are you trying to bring more people back to the studio?
We are really struggling. Right now, we're trying to figure out why attendance is going down. How can we bring clients back? How can we make them feel safer? I really don't know. I have no idea what’s next, if there's going to be another wave. If I learned anything from this it's that you have to take one day at a time. I don't know what else I could possibly do at this point. We're just waiting, and working hard, and thinking up new class ideas.

How to help:

Until next time,

Curated By

Frances Thomas

Quiddity Content Editor

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