Virtual programming strengthens and expands connection

NEW YORK, NY –Before the days of socially distanced workouts, there were days when the fitness industry could promote togetherness and encourage social connection as an essential part of the human experience. We lost some of that in the first days when the pandemic shut down many fitness and community centers, but what Exos-managed Manny Cantor Center soon discovered was that social connection is possible via virtual fitness – and no amount of distance can stop a determined fitness community.

MCC provides so much more than fitness

MCC’s strong and active member community in New York City’s Lower East Side enjoyed frequent (even daily) visits to the center pre-COVID to participate in its many family-focused programs. MCC has always been a hub for the local community, offering its 3,000 members access to community service opportunities, education and kids’ programs, and even art classes. 

Assistant General Manager Sarah Folkins says the community center’s fitness classes were also a big part of its attraction. She explained that human connection is the common thread that makes MCC so popular.

“[MCC is] like a second home,” Sarah said.

The impact of the first lockdowns on a close-knit community

The year 2020 was still full of hope and promise at MCC when March came in like a lion with the arrival of COVID. Fear and illness gripped New York City, and the pandemic shut-down required MCC to close its doors to the members who counted on the center to provide a social gathering place for fitness and connection.

MCC was quick to respond to that need, designing and launching a Zoom-based group exercise schedule and personal training option in just two weeks.

“We shut down March 13, [but] our executive director had already organized meetings with us before the closure so that we could deliver virtual options,” Folkins said. “We knew we had to get virtual classes up and going as soon as possible to serve our community. We have a strong group exercise space here, and we knew we could stay in touch virtually.”

“It’s our job as a community to create connection.”

Staff, member dedication keeps the virtual “doors” open

MCC’s determination to provide its members with digital fitness programming comprised an “all-hands-on-deck” approach that began with some research into delivery platforms. The second week of March, MCC Fitness Manager Michelle Sholtis began researching Zoom conferencing and calling instructors to verify that they could offer classes from their homes. On April 1, MCC launched 20 of its most popular group exercise classes using Zoom, including plenty of variety to appeal to members’ interests, abilities, and how much room they had to move inside their homes.

In the beginning, the classes were offered completely free and didn’t require MCC membership.

“When we first started, members who wanted to keep paying [monthly dues] had that option,” Folkins said, adding that she, Sholtis, and MCC General Manager Michael Gordon called 1,200 members personally to ask whether they would like to keep paying dues and/or make donations to keep the center financially solvent during the shut-down. “We’ve been able to keep many members paying full dues as tax-deductible donations because we are a community center.”

Continued financial support allowed MCC to launch online programs on a much larger scale than many of its counterparts, even while group exercise classes were free to the public. Most importantly, the value of the group exercise classes and livestreamed workouts from kept membership cancellations at a minimum during those first few weeks, allowing the center to keep the lights on and keep its people employed.

“If we didn’t have online classes, we would have nothing,” Folkins shared. “At least when people call, we have an option. Otherwise, we would have no way to reach out to people. Our group exercise instructors have been employed this whole time, in the middle of lots of furloughs. Without this offering, and the generosity of our members, we would not be here today.”

The evolution of a global fitness community

While New Yorkers began navigating a world where so much was unknown, Manny Cantor Center offered familiar faces and daily opportunities to connect with distant friends. The Zoom classes were structured much like in-person classes, but with added time for socializing before and after the workouts. 

The program’s popularity demanded an expansion of class offerings, so MCC partnered with the 14th Street Y to add more classes. In July, the partnership expanded the class schedule to 27 classes a week as a new format for members-only group exercise. The move required that members pay monthly dues and register for classes in advance, allowing MCC and The Y to track utilization in a way that now informs programming changes and member communications.

“Our only goal was to have things set up for our community to be a part of,” Folkins recalled. But, what she found was that the online class format was attractive to a wider audience than in-person classes could ever be. “One benefit [of online programs] is that suddenly your gym is open to the entire world, essentially. You don’t have to live in New York to be a part of MCC.”

MCC’s digital fitness initiative has proven essential for members who have left NYC since the pandemic began, and has extended the community center’s reach to as far away as London. Folkins said an American expat sought out a virtual fitness membership after learning she could take Sunday yoga classes with her favorite instructor, Leorna.

“She knew Leorna and loved her,” Folkins said, adding that keeping members who move away has been an unexpected benefit of going virtual and could be a game-changer for many gyms nationwide. “To be able to continue the [virtual class] offering to your members no matter where they are, you could keep them for the rest of their lives.”

Forging a new path for fitness beyond 2020’s challenges

“We plan on continuing virtual classes and always having that option for members,” Folkins predicted. “It’s a benefit to us right now in New York City because we’re not allowed to have onsite classes for the foreseeable future. Also, some members may not be comfortable coming in when we are able to be in person. [The virtual class option] allows us to have a form of engagement.”

Folkins said the success of MCC’s virtual community-building has been a bright spot in a year of COVID that she’s excited to help nurture.

“As the world changes and people may be less comfortable working out in person, we hope to still be engaged with [members], especially in the vulnerable populations, and respond to our membership needs and wants,” she said. “I’m interested to see how this changes the fitness industry as a whole, and how many people continue to work out from home.”

The future of virtual fitness programming

Exos Senior Director for Community Center Relationships Leslie Meyers says the future of community center connection is closely tied to the future of virtual fitness for some members.

“What we’ve learned from team members like Sarah is that there are tangible social benefits to creating these virtual options, and that it’s possible to provide connection and build community engagement through online classes,” Meyers said. “We want to provide impactful programs that improve our members’ lives, and at Exos-managed community centers, that programming must include human interaction and relationships.” 

As Exos virtual programs mature and the pandemic abates, Meyers said she and her team will be closely monitoring MCC member participation rates, feedback, and revenue to further refine the Exos community center management model for online program delivery.

“It only makes sense to follow our members’ lead when it comes to providing the programming they want and the feeling of connection they need,” she said. 

That focus on members has certainly made a huge impact on the Lower East Side. Folkins offers sage advice for any community fitness center not already delivering virtual classes and enrichment programs:

“Don’t be afraid to try; just do it,” she urged. “It’s better to have to pull back your offerings because they didn’t work out than to have nothing. So, just try.”

Learn more about Exos Community Fitness Center Management services by visiting