Ahead-of-the-curve thinking helped keep City Gym strong in the early days of COVID-19 when the weight of the pandemic dropped on people-focused industries.
“We lost a fair amount of members — maybe they couldn’t financially afford it anymore, maybe they didn’t feel safe,” said Hailee Bland Walsh, founder and owner of City Gym in Waldo. “A lot of people said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be back, it just doesn’t feel right now.’ … I felt a tremendous amount of grief, honestly. But then I put my big girl pants on and thought, ‘We’re just going to have to do this.’”
And for an industry built on physical connectedness and in-person activity, the challenges were clear, she said.
“I’m in the business of being inside and breathing hard and touching things,” said Bland Walsh. “It has been quite a time for us to navigate, but I keep saying, ‘Creativity is up in COVID.’”
While pivots to online and outdoor classes have met displaced members of City Gym where they are, it’s the Kansas City fitness hub’s decade-old policy against forcing people into intimidating contract memberships that might have saved it from total defeat, Bland Walsh said.
“Ten years ago, no-contract was crazy,” she said, citing industry standards she looked to change when she opened City Gym in 2011 — an effort born out of her career as a professional soccer player in North Carolina, a trainer in San Francisco, and a desire to get back home to Kansas City.
Click here to view City Gym’s current offerings and membership rates.
“Experts said, ‘You’re never gonna make it,’ but I just kept [thinking] ‘I hate being locked into something I’m not using or happy with. Wouldn’t it just be better if we earned their business every month?’”
Such a philosophy gained the gym more than 1,000 members — each free to end and pause their membership whenever necessary, no strings attached.
“We wanted to create community, family, and belonging through our actual policies and practices,” she said.
Space for the ‘biggest, fullest expression’ of self
As City Gym’s members start to return, Bland Walsh is reminded of why she got into the fitness space to begin with — and why making the passion entrepreneurial has been well worth long days and late nights, she said.
“Gyms are already intimidating places and the folks who need us most are the folks intimidated to walk through the door,” she said, highlighting the importance of inclusivity in fitness and reasons why City Gym earned the attention of Google, which celebrated the business in a nationally televised commercial.
“We created a workout group that was specific to trans men and Google found out about it. It ran on ABC during the ESPY’s and something like 4 million people saw it,” Bland Walsh recalled, adding the momentum has resulted in even more widespread community work with trans youth.
“I had parents reaching out to me with questions and I felt obligated to help because of their inquiry, but I didn’t have any true experience [with their needs,]’” she said, noting research led her to Transformations KC — a local transgender, gender non-conforming (TGNC) and gender expansive youth group for teens 12-18, where Bland Walsh currently serves as executive director in addition to her duties at City Gym.
“I feel like my job is creating space for people to show up and be the biggest, fullest expression of themselves. I often times feel a sense of responsibility to generations who came before me to help create more seats at the table that allowed me as a woman, as a member of the LGBT community to have a voice,” she said.
“I feel quite a sense of responsibility to pay that forward and that’s part of why I do this work, because there’s someone 20 years ago who was having conversations, creating space for me and I want to pay that back or pay that forward by creating things for others.”
Click here to learn more about Transformations KC or to get involved.
A nurturing home in KC
Space making is equally as vital in building entrepreneurial communities, Bland Walsh said.
“When I first moved back to Kansas City, folks were very generous. At first it took a little bit of trust to believe they genuinely wanted to help me,” she said.
“If you tell someone in the Bay Area your best idea and they’ve got more money, they can steal it. But Kansas City really welcomed me and absolutely nurtured me.”
Such a sense of belonging ultimately helped City Gym flourish, with Bland Walsh feeling she could bring her true self to the business — in turn creating an authenticity engine that’s changed lives across the metro.
“I feel really lucky to have a really awesome network of people and if someone comes to me and they need something I can help them and if I can’t, I know someone who can. I love having those kinds of relationships,” she said.
“That’s the way Kansas City entrepreneurs are and can be.”