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50 Businesses; 50 Solutions #24

Published Monday Aug 24, 2020

Author Kelly Burch, Granite State News Collaborative

The doors to the River Valley Club, a health and fitness center in Lebanon, reopened in July for the first time since the pandemic closure in March; but owner and CEO Elizabeth Asch anticipates that only a small portion of the club’s 3,600 members will be rushing to work out.

Because of that, River Valley Club (RVC) is making long-term changes to help patrons feel safer working out. At the club there is more space between machines, stronger air filters, increased cleaning and even a new staff position to help enforce social distancing within the club. Temperature checks and screening questions are in place at the door and Asch is adamant that anyone who has travelled outside Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont recently won’t be allowed in.

Even with those changes, Asch recognizes that many people won’t be comfortable exercising indoors during a pandemic. So, she and marketing manager Ross Dutille sat down to brainstorm what their value proposition is to customers, and how they can deliver on that during COVID-19. 

“We took a step back and figured out what is most important at RVC, and that is our community. So, we had to decide how can we enhance the community while everyone is at home isolating?” Dutille said.

They settled on digital memberships, which give patrons access to 15 live-streamed group classes each week. The instructors got creative for students who were stuck at home with no equipment, having them load up backpacks with household items to use as weights, for example. The digital membership also gave access to more than 200 recorded workouts. The memberships cost $50 a month — about half the usual cost of a membership at RVC.

The idea wasn’t to have polished, produced workouts like patrons could find from any number of online fitness apps. It was to bring the personal connections — quirks and all — to community members.

“All during COVID, the fancy companies like [fitness app and bike company] Peloton had gorgeous instructors in gorgeous places,” Asch said. “Ours is not like that. It’s authentic. We know each other.”

The club had been toying with offering streaming classes even before the pandemic.

“We’ve talked about streaming for a while now, but COVID is what pushed us to doing it. We’d had full classes and didn’t necessarily see value in streaming it before. It’s a lot of work to pull off, and we were happy with class attendance.”

With the club shut down, however, streaming became an important way to stay in touch with customers and connect with the community.

RVC made the digital memberships free for first-responders, and gave away about 500 memberships that way. Altogether, about 650 people have digital memberships. Although the number is small, Asch plans to make the digital membership part of her business for the long term.

“That will be here forever, and we’re planning to grow that,” she said. The club has also started offering online personal training sessions.

5050Asch has noticed that some people who feel uncomfortable coming to the gym have thrived with a digital membership that they can use from their home. RVC, which is located right across from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, is frequented by hospital leadership, Asch said. That can make some employees of DHMC uncomfortable at the gym.

“They never had the nerve to come over here and show up in spandex when the head of the hospital is here,” she said. “It’s been really interesting to see the success that those people are having with digital memberships.”

For people who are eager to return to the fitness club but are wary of exposure, RVC has erected a large tent in the parking lot. It’s filled with weights, a stretching machine, ropes and other equipment to get a great workout outdoors.

“We expect that to stay out there for the foreseeable future,” Asch said.

Although things are far from normal at RVC — staffing and maximum capacity are still vastly reduced, Asch is embracing the challenge of keeping business going during the pandemic.

“It’s the most creative time of my career,” she said.

This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series, shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative, that aims to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops, to large corporations have adapted to meet the challenges and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus in the hopes others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations. Tell us your story here. For more information visit

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