Independent gym owner’s “worst possible nightmare comes true”

Boutique fitness studio shuts due to lockdown-induced economic hardship
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TORONTO — On Sunday, boutique fitness studio BodyLove Inc, better known as BOLO, announced its permanent closure after two years of operation. BOLO declared the news in a company newsletter and on their social media channels, confirming the worst fear of many local gym goers and other independent studio owners.

Founder and CEO Caleigh Rykiss had to make the heart-rending decision to forsake the physical space of BOLO, a labour of love that was nearing its second-year anniversary.  “Even just getting one year felt like a huge win for us,” Rykiss told INN24 in a phone interview. “Hitting a pandemic within the second year was just a blow we couldn’t sustain.”

BOLO Team during August reopening (PHOTO: @boloinc on Instagram)

“It’s not easy to walk away.”

In March, BOLO’s prospects looked optimistic, and they underwent a $50,000-renovation to introduce two new businesses to their facility: an infrared sauna and a cryotherapy space to accompany the existing self-care services at BOLO, which include a café and a beauty bar. 

Unfortunately, BOLO members were not able to enjoy the new amenities due to multiple lockdowns. Nor would BOLO be able to break even from the investment, another financial burden on the small business.

“I feel so sad and so devastated but I’m also proud of myself for making a really tough choice,” Rykiss said about her decision to surrender the studio. “It’s my worst possible nightmare come true.”

“I know a lot of other business owners are in those shoes as well. It’s not easy to walk away but it’s also not easy to sentence yourself to a life of debt.”

BOLO’s statement on Sunday, November 29 — precisely one week since the Grey Zone lockdown — was their final farewell to their community. “With the financial, logistical impacts of a space of our size, along with the continued uncertainty for the industry, unfortunately, we couldn’t win the battle,” BOLO wrote.

The studio’s sudden announcement prompted heartfelt effusions from many of their 10K Instagram followers, turning the comments section into a veritable medley of sadness, regret, and gratitude.

“Love this space! But mostly, love this team and its spirit and its fearless leader. That can never close,”

Kathleen Newman-Bremang, senior editor of Refinery29

“BOLO has always been my home away from home...you created an amazing community of people who lift each other up.”

Isabella Khoo, Instagram user

“Thank you for all of the sweat and smiles. I love you guys so much and I know you’ll be back better and stronger."

Jax Irwin, Virgin Radio host
Smoothies from BOLO's in-house café (PHOTO: @boloinc on Instagram)

Independent gyms, casualties to inadequate state assistance

Rykiss said she had devised a long-term plan through the state of emergency declared in March to “reopen with optimism,” only to get mired in a 28-day shutdown on Oct. 10 and another lockdown on Nov. 23. By then, BOLO had already invested in extra personnel and sanitation equipment for reopening, knowing full well that their space would accommodate one eight of their previous attendance, Rykiss said. 

“It was more debt and less capacity to earn,” said the former television producer. “But we were willing to go all in on it and make sure that we offered a safe space for our community after being apart for so long.”

During the shutdown, BOLO could not maintain the in-person connections without a physical location but continued to nurture and support its community through online training and social events: virtual lessons; book and wine club; and DJ and cooking show hosted on Instagram Live.

Despite her team’s best efforts as well as crowdfunded support — Rykiss had launched a GoFundMe campaign in March, raising $9,000 of the $35,000 target — the beleaguered gym could not see itself through another lockdown. 

“The realities of our debts kept climbing to a point where we no longer could rationalize taking it on, personally or professionally,”

Caleigh Rykiss
Yoga class at BOLO (PHOTO: @boloinc on Instagram)

Part of the Save Health & Wellness (H&W) Coalition, BOLO fought tooth and nail alongside other impassioned fitness trainers, independent gym owners, and stakeholders, demanding the Ford government for better rent subsidies and fair treatment toward boutique fitness studios. Rykiss said she felt gym owners were excluded from the policy-making decisions that directly impacted their sector.

You can watch the interview with fitness trainer, co-owner of Fit Squad and the Save Health and Wellness Coalition, Jennifer Lau below. Lau and a group of industry workers are campaigning against the Ford government’s unfair treatment towards the fitness sector, stating that fitness is an essential business, too. 

“We weren't invited for a seat at the table to explain to [Premier Ford] the unique situations that we were in as small business owners in the first five years of our operations, which is a very tricky time at the best of times.”

Rykiss

According to IBIS World, the domestic health and fitness industry is worth about $4 billion and employs about 72,000 Canadians across the country.

Rykiss argued that the Premier’s lack of business experience rendered him ill-equipped to make decisions on the industry’s behalf. “Has Doug Ford ever owned a business? No,” she said. “He doesn’t understand all the little things that amount to something that is completely unsustainable in this climate.”

Like many independent businesses, BOLO was at the mercy of its landlord for rent payments during lockdown, which Rykiss said were near-impossible to fulfill when her business was “making almost zero dollars.”

As part of its COVID-19 support program for businesses, the Ontario government currently offers financial relief in the form of rebates on energy bills and property tax, temporary commercial eviction bans (not applicable to businesses receiving CECRA), and deferrals on pension contributions. These measures, Rykiss said, are not enough.

Citing BOLO’s COVID-19 sanitation costs, Rykiss said that the rent subsidies doled out by the province are not proportional to the additional expenditures necessitated by the unforeseen circumstances in the past year. 

“There was no consideration from the government about these investments that were made by small business owners that were going to be lost,” she said. “So thank you for your 10% rent subsidy. That’s not going to cut it.”

According to Rykiss, the provincial financial aid program for small businesses also neglected the difficulties that most start-up companies encounter in their first five years, the average duration it takes to break even. “We’re paying off other debts that we accumulated as a start up — that’s normal.”

Rykiss said she is proud to have empowered women to try new exercises for the first time, such as boxing (PHOTO: @boloinc on Instagram)

“It’s not goodbye, it’s TTYS”

Since its inception in July 2018, BOLO was more than just a gym: the Richmond and Spadina location was a hybrid fitness and wellness facility that, as its name suggests, promoted body positivity and mental wellness in its company mission. 

Rykiss said BOLO’s long-term legacy will be immortalized in its impact on Toronto’s fitness landscape. “I would like to be remembered as the space that changed the way that we consume fitness, especially in Toronto,” she said.

“It's the littlest things. It's women telling me that they, for the first time, felt comfortable just wearing a sports bra to class. It's someone trying boxing when they never thought they would be strong enough or confident enough to do so.”

Rykiss

BOLO will continue to run virtual classes and Instagram Live shows, and the team will still collaborate on a weekly basis to orchestrate their online programs. But Rykiss said that she will be giving herself and her team the time and space to process the monumental loss.

“Our team needs some time to recalibrate and heal,” she said. “It’s been super traumatic for everyone and a very sad loss, almost like a death for a lot of us.”

Wiki Production Code: A0409

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