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Innovative Fitness used technology to fast-track plans to go online amid COVID-19 closures

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Curtis Christopherson, president of Innovative Fitness, at the company's location in Surrey, B.C., on April 21, 2020.DARRYL DYCK

Innovative Fitness was working on a way to make its boutique personal training and wellness services available online by the end of this year. Then COVID-19 hit.

Since the business largely involves human interaction, it voluntarily closed its 12 brick-and-mortar locations (11 in B.C., one in Toronto) as of Mar. 16, before non-essential businesses were ordered shut in B.C. and Ontario.

But instead of waiting out the shutdown, Innovative Fitness went into brainstorming mode.

“We had to pivot quickly and adapt to the situation,” says Curtis Christopherson, chief executive officer of the Vancouver-based company, which offers services such as one-on-one training, rehabilitation and nutritional coaching.

Development was already underway at the company to build a unique platform for online services that weren’t available from off-the-shelf software. Innovative Fitness needed its own platform to provide high quality video-conferencing that would work for personalized training, coaching and small group work. It also needed the service to provide activity tracking for clients as well as organize operations, scheduling and administration such as billing for more than 250 employees.

And it needed it very quickly.

Working closely with Coquitlam, B.C.-based software developer SaaSberry Innovation Laboratories Ltd., the online version of Innovative Fitness was up and running by the end of March.

“In a very short period of time, we’ve launched our virtual coaching and we have 35-to-40 per cent of our existing client base and revenue online – when we could have had zero. And we’re now seeing people we could never have offered service before,” Mr. Christopherson says. “We’re serving people completely outside our geographical regions,” including places like Boston, New York, and Los Angeles.

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Mr. Christopherson's Vancouver-based fitness company offers services such as one-on-one training, rehabilitation and nutritional coaching.DARRYL DYCK

Before COVID-19 forced many businesses to close their doors, online business in Canada was increasing by 15 per cent every year and businesses with an e-commerce presence saw higher revenue growth than those without, says Pierre Cléroux, vice-president of research and chief economist at the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC).

Yet, according to BDC research, only about half of small- and mid-sized enterprises in Canada have a website.

In a recent survey of 1,500 clients, BDC asked small- and mid-sized businesses what they have learned from the COVID-19 crisis.

“The No. 1 answer when we ask them ‘what are you going to do differently?’ is to be more present online,” Mr. Cléroux says. “I think many companies are doing it right now.”

It’s much easier than it used to be technically and not as costly, he says.

“I think a lot of companies are taking this opportunity, or they’re kind of forced to, because if you’re not online in many businesses you’re basically closed. It’s forcing many businesses to do it now or to improve what they have been doing in the past.”

From late February to the end of March, as the spread of COVID-19 led to business closures, online sales for food and from restaurants have increased 194 per cent, while online sales of furniture, 84 per cent, according to BDC.

Even after public health restrictions are lifted, Mr. Cléroux believes e-commerce will continue to accelerate.

“We’ve seen in other countries that consumers remain cautious even after restrictions are lifted,” he says. “They are not rushing to stores; they are not rushing to shopping malls because they are cautious about their health. I think the online business is going to stay strong after this crisis.”

Business has also taken off at SaaSberry, according to its CEO Chris Cade.

Mr. Cade says online technology has advanced and the cost to install and deploy it has come down in recent years, making it more attractive to more businesses. Still, based on his own experience, he says about nine out of 10 small- and mid-sized companies were reluctant to invest even a few months ago.

Now everybody wants in.

“The pandemic fast-tracked it,” Mr. Cade says. “This has been happening to business for years and years. Now, it has happened overnight.”

SaaSberry has added many clients to its roster in the past five weeks amid the pandemic closures, from mom-and-pop bakeries to retail outlets.

“There are ways you can fight this, rather than just close your shop. There are ways to make money. We just have to think differently,” Mr. Cade says.

The software that SaaSberry built for Innovative Fitness, which uses a secure browser link for video-conferencing rather than an app users have to download, would have cost millions of dollars just a few years ago, Mr. Cade says. Today, businesses can adopt e-commerce solutions at a much lower cost.

“Every single business can leverage technology today. I don’t care what size they are; they can be doing something,” Mr. Cade says.

Mr. Christopherson believes the online fitness platform will be a new revenue stream for his company, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. And, with SaaSberry, Innovative Fitness hopes to licence the software to others.

“We’re continually developing. This isn’t the full solution … but we have a live product being used right now that we can continue to build and develop,” Mr. Christopherson says.

“This pandemic just demonstrated the importance that technology can play and the opportunity that technology offers. For us, it was do or die. Either you do it or you risk not opening up again.”

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