Most fitness facilities have implemented new safety protocols in recent months to keep members safe during the COVID-19 pandemic — from mask mandates and contact tracing to the spacing of equipment and extensive cleaning procedures. Some operators have even gone the extra mile, offering members the option to engage with programming in the great outdoors.
However, it's the lucky gym owner who has a parking lot or green space surrounding their facility large enough to offer outdoor programming. That's where shared-use agreements can be helpful, as they allow a private entity like a gym to safely and legally use spaces, such as parks or school grounds, for outdoor fitness classes or personal training sessions.
Sounds like a great deal, right? But where does one begin the process of obtaining such an agreement?
In October, the American Council on Exercise rolled out the Shared-Use Agreement Toolkit that aims to help gym owners, personal trainers and other exercise professionals request shared-use agreements and permits from their local community organizers, schools and churches.
"We actually organize those materials for our professionals to be able to prepare the letters, explain how it would work, show what they have in place in terms of their credentials and insurance and things to protect the communities, and request the right permits that are necessary, or the permissions that are necessary, to do those things legally," says Graham Melstrand, executive vice president of engagement at ACE.
The need for more shared-use agreements between private and public entities has only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in most cases Melstrand says communities understand the value in these relationships.
"What our fitness professionals have found to a large extent is that those people who are in those positions of authority are like, 'That sounds like a terrific idea. We know that health and physical fitness are important to our communities right now. Sure, based on what you're sharing, we would like to be able to support that,' " Melstrand says.
Acting as an intermediary and advocate has been part of ACE's skill set for some time now.
"For about 10 years, ACE has been working with our participants that deliver bootcamps and stroller exercise programs, and facilities that are looking to deliver sports performance programs," Melstrand says. "We've provided guidance with how their municipalities and communities deal with these types of situations and how to approach them. So, this is what we'd like to do, this is what it would look like, here's what's in it for us, here's what's in it for you, here's how you'll be protected, and this is why it's good for the community."
For shared-use agreements to be successful, fitness professionals need to be aware of their impact on the space, as well as the community. Melstrand notes that back in 2013, ACE intervened when the City of Santa Monica moved to block all fitness and personal training classes from public areas along its shoreline, as residents in the area complained that they were essentially being forced out of those areas due to heavy traffic related to fitness classes.
As much as shared-use agreements have historically been about attenuating liability for the entity that owns the land, Melstrand says they're also about offsetting some of the costs related to wear and tear on the property, which in the case of public properties such as the shoreline in Santa Monica, typically falls to the taxpayers in the community.
"We actually worked with the City of Santa Monica to build a permit structure, and then also to provide some guidance for professionals so that they can be a good steward and a good neighbor and be more respectful of other users," says Melstrand.
ACE is looking beyond the current pandemic, hoping that shared-use agreements will enable fitness professionals to better serve their clientele and their communities even after things return to normal.
"We do think that during the pandemic it's an opportunity for evolution in this space," he says. "We're not just thinking of this in terms of how we can continue to operate our facilities and continue to serve members and participants during the pandemic, but perhaps being able to expand the footprint of our fitness businesses, facilities and individual businesses after the pandemic."
ACE suggests the following lasting benefits of shared-use agreements:
• Shared use creates additional offerings for clients and members, particularly those who may be reluctant to return to the gym.
• Offering outdoor workouts creates a new revenue stream.
• Gyms will be better prepared to respond if or when another pandemic or similar event occurs.
• Offering classes and workouts outdoors provides greater visibility, exposing businesses to a whole new set of participants and clients.
• Working with local parks and/or government may create opportunities for additional collaborations in the future, such as offering classes through community or recreation centers.
To learn more about ACE's Shared-Use Agreement Tool Kit visit www.acefitness.org
This article originally appeared in the January | February 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Shared-use permits offer fitness pros room to operate safely." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.