Hoping For The Next Phase

By Kyle Hanlin, posted Aug 21, 2020
Jimmy Gilleece, owner of Jimmy’s at Red Dogs, has found new ways to keep the business open. They have branded clothing and merchandise and started renting electric bicycles for beachgoers to get around town. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)

To sustain, many, if not most businesses, depend on repetition of customer and client behavior.

Fitness centers offer memberships in hopes that members will return and put in more, well … reps … in advancement of their health and wellness goals. And, along the way, spend more on classes, protein bars and workout gear.

The film industry churns out sequels hoping that moviegoers will buy tickets and to try to replicate the experience of seeing the original. And theater operators hope movie­goers will spend more on popcorn, candy and extra-large sodas.

Bars offer drink specials, live entertainment and immersive sports-watching to encourage establishment loyalty and frequent returns. And, along the way, bar owners hope revelers will spend more on drinks, drinks, drinks and sometimes T-shirts and hats.

But on Aug. 7, as part of the state’s continued response to and handling of the coronavirus pan­demic, Gov. Roy Cooper extended Safer at Home Phase 2, the executive order that will keep such businesses shuttered until at least Sept. 11.

The announcement was Cooper’s Rocky V; the sequel many never wanted.

Where Do We Go Now?

“About the third or fourth week, we started trying to figure out something else to do,” said Jimmy Gilleece, owner of Jimmy’s at Red Dogs in Wrightsville Beach. “Our windows fold down, so we started selling to-go beer and T-shirts, and the community came out big time and started buying T-shirts.

“We put in an outrageous amount of orders for T-shirts, hoodies – anything you can think of, and we’re still doing that today. But it still wasn’t enough, so we had to think about something else.”

That something else led Gilleece to take on a project he had long considered.

“We decided to start the Jimmy’s Mobile Bar Service,” said Gilleece. “I searched for a horse trailer, found one, bought it and, like anything else, to get it right and nice enough to do weddings and stuff was going to take a lot of time and money. But I had put some aside so we have that, and it’s been in the works for a couple of months.”

To complement the short-term business of selling T-shirts and other Jimmy’s at Red Dogs memorabilia while the trailer is being outfitted, another idea of Gilleece’s took shape.

“We bought a bunch of electric bikes,” said Gilleece. “We’re going to start renting them out of Jimmy’s – hourly, daily, weekly. People rent a house in Wrightsville Beach, and with the parking situation, you want to be able to get in your rental place and never get back in your car until you leave. These bikes kind of allow that. They’re pretty cool once you get on them. They turn you into Lance Armstrong immediately.”

For the fitness industry, having gym doors locked is resulting in tremendous losses.

“We are doing virtual personal training, which is great for our trainers and it also helps the company a little bit,” said Doug Warf, president of MDO Holdings, which owns O2 Fitness with four locations in Wilmington.

“We are trying to continue to push our virtual group fitness classes, which is really a loss to us, but it’s a gain to our membership base, and that’s the way we want to see it. Those somewhat neutralize each other,” Warf added.

Interviewed in early August, Warf said, “It is hard for us, when you can’t have your members inside the clubs right now and you can’t draft them for their membership, to make significant amounts of money. And even what we make on virtual personal training, we are still at a 90% loss on year-over-year revenue. It is a challenging thing to do.”

Digging a Deeper and Deeper Hole

Cooper’s recent announcement moved the goalpost for potential reopening of bars, gyms and theaters to Sept. 11. But there are no guarantees that state leadership will elect to make changes anytime soon.

“I had very little hope that we would go to Phase 3 [on Aug. 7],” said Gilleece. “From the get-go we were thrown off because it was supposed to be two weeks. That turned into three weeks, and we were supposed to be part of Phase 2. We ordered beer for Phase 2. We ordered supplies. We had meetings about safety with our employees. We were ready to go, and then we were heartbroken that we weren’t included.

“We thought it might be another few weeks, and it’s turned into more than 150 days. I don’t see any end in the future. I think it will go past the elections.”

A major source of frustration for Gilleece was that other establishments similar to his were permitted to reopen under Phase 2.

“I don’t think it’s any one person’s decision to pick winners and losers,” says Gilleece. “What really set me off was strip clubs being open. “I have no problem closing the bar down. I have no problem that that decision has been made, but I just feel that it needs to be across the board. If you’re going to close bars, you close them all. You don’t let a bar open that serves hot dogs until 10 and then stops serving food but stays open serving drinks until 2,” he added.

Such disparities are not relegated to establishments that serve alcohol.

In May, O2 Fitness banded together with Planet Fitness, Orange Theory, TrueFitGym and Crunch Fitness to form Fitness Operators for Responsible Reopening (FORR). Thus far, the coalition’s efforts to get the state’s official go-ahead to reopen its operations in North Carolina have not come to fruition, but Warf is confident the companies’ facilities can open safely.

“The state has put out their guidance for gym operators who are servicing medically-necessary clients right now, and they have told us that they are not changing that guidance,” said Warf.

Warf added, “I think everyone in our coalition will go further than the state’s guidelines. The five gyms O2 Fitness has open in South Carolina – we are much deeper than what the state guidelines are. We cap at 25% capacity. Every person who comes in gets their own individual sanitation spray for the equipment. Masks are mandatory inside of our clubs. We close midday and do a fogging, so we do a full sanitation fogging twice a day, once in the middle of the day and once at closing.

“All of those pieces will be in place in North Carolina.”

As of press time, 47 states had reopened fitness centers in some capacity.

“There is no data that the virus is transmitted any more in a gym than anywhere else,” said Warf.

Some Reopen Anyway, Others Plan

In Wilmington, local Planet Fitness locations announced earlier this month that they had reopened to members in the area.

Three Planet Fitness locations joined other smaller area gyms, such as Anytime Fitness, TF Fitness + Nutrition and Axis Fitness, which reopened in June following a letter released by the attorney general’s office that indicated gyms could be open to members whose medical providers have directed them to exercise.

Dale Coleman, vice president of Charlotte-based Stone Theatres, which owns and operates The Pointe 14 movie theater in midtown Wilmington, said he feels theaters, like gyms, have a leg up on establishments already allowed to open under Phase 2.

“We certainly understand the governor’s concerns and very deliberate actions to keeping North Carolinians safe,” he said. “We truly believe that movie theaters, with all of our planning, the comprehensive reconfiguring and restructuring of our theaters and auditoriums, that we can keep our guests and our employees as safe or safer than restaurants or other retail establishments.”

Gilleece said he hopes that by the time the governor’s current order expires Sept. 11, that Jimmy’s can reopen in some form.

“I would be happy with 25% occupancy,” said Gilleece. “I would be fine closing at 11 p.m. We would probably lose half of our revenue, but if the goal was to stay safe, we could stay just as safe as a restaurant.”
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