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Selling normality in Ukraine

In the Ukrainian city of Odessa, Formula Wellness & Spa has re-opened its doors to offer members and employees a sense of normality in the face of the ongoing war. General manager Mariia Brezytska speaks to Kate Cracknell.
Published 6. December 2022

Tell us about your club

Formula Wellness & Spa is a large and beautiful club right in the heart of Odessa. It’s a very interesting building architecturally, as it was a theatre until it opened as a health club and spa in March 2006. It was also the first club of its kind in Odessa, with such a wide range of facilities all under one roof, spread over three floors and around 4,500sq m.

We have a 25m swimming pool, a gym and over 30 types of group exercise class, from HIIT to indoor cycling, dance to pilates, TRX to aqua classes. There are also dedicated yoga and CrossFit studios, two squash courts and a fitness café. Alongside this is a separate spa zone with a Turkish steamroom, Finnish sauna and a salt room, as well as spa treatments including medical treatments conducted by doctors.

“Indoor cycling isn’t a big thing yet in Ukraine, but it’s working well for us. Before the war, our cycling classes were waitlisted”

Our members typically live, work or go to school nearby and it’s a very family-orientated club: the average age of our members is around 45 years, as parents come with their children of various ages, many of whom go on to become adult members themselves. Membership, including access to all facilities, costs €1,000 a year.

The spa centre and the pool only re-opened in October 2022

How popular is indoor cycling?

Indoor cycling is fairly new at our club – we only introduced it about two years ago – but it’s my favourite group exercise class because the results are amazing. 

Indoor cycling isn’t a big thing yet in Ukraine and it’s quite unusual for clubs in Odessa to offer it; there are only one or two that do. Even in Kyiv, only a few clubs offer indoor cycling classes. 

It’s working really well for us, though. At first, our members were unsure about it: they worried it would be too hard a workout. But then a few people tried it and enjoyed it and the word spread. Before the war, it had got to the point that our cycling classes were waitlisted. We were really proud of that.

Dead weight lift fitness studio Ukraine
Formula was the first club in Ukraine to offer so much under one roof

How has the war impacted your club?

The war has brought a lot of changes. When it started, we had to close our club for three months and stop all our activities. It was only at the beginning of June that we decided to slowly start back up again, with our swimming pool and spa centre only re-opening in October. We’re still offering less group exercise at the moment: around 25 per cent of our usual class schedule. 

In terms of our membership, before the war we had 1,500 members and we welcomed around 450 people a day. Now we have 1,000 members and maximum 200 visits a day. 

Of those 1,000 members, around 70 per cent were our members before the war. The other 30 per cent have either moved over from other local clubs – Odessa might be safer than other parts of the country, but it isn’t 100 per cent safe and many clubs are still closed – or else they’re people who have relocated to Odessa from hotspots of the war, moving to our city for its relative safety.

What we are seeing, though, is that people aren’t committing to annual memberships any more, or even six-month memberships. They’re buying a month, maybe three months at a time – sometimes even just two weeks. 

Pool area in Ukraine formula wellness
Formula Wellness & Spa occupies an interesting building in the heart of Odessa that used to be a theatre

How close to the fighting are you?

Odessa hasn’t been one of the war’s main hotspots so far, but some of our members and team members have gone to the front to fight. It’s impossible to contact them or know where or how they are, but we’re incredibly proud of them and hope they will return safely so we can thank them for their bravery.

There have been times when the war has come very close, though. On 23 July, rockets attacked the sea port right in the centre of Odessa. It was like a horror film. There were fortunately no victims, but children were crying, people were running everywhere, our team members couldn’t remember what to do – where to take our members to ensure they were safe – even though we’d built a shelter on the ground floor of the club before we re-opened. It was the first time any of us had experienced anything like this and people panicked. It was an important lesson in embedding our safety procedures.

“People aren’t committing to annual memberships any more. They’re buying a month or three months at a time – sometimes just two weeks”

Now, I actually feel safer at work than I do at home – ours is a big, strong building with a shelter, which I don’t have at home – but as we speak, the last few days have still been horrible, as our city has been under constant drone attack.

Even now, I find it so hard to believe all this is really happening. I feel like I’m watching a movie, or else I wake up in the morning and feel like it must all have been a bad dream.

Baby swimming
Formula is a family-focused club, with parents bringing children of all ages

Why re-open Formula so soon?

Choosing to start things back up again was the hardest thing we’ve done, and we thought about it for a long time before we actually did it. We didn’t know how many of our members were left in Odessa, because when the war came, many of those who had a chance to move out of Ukraine did so. We also didn’t know how willing people would be to spend their money on fitness.

“No matter what happens now, I will stay here with my team. This is my country and I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

So, we didn’t know if we’d have enough money to pay our team’s salaries or our utility bills. Choosing to re-open could have been more damaging to our brand and our business than staying closed until things were more stable.

We also have a smaller team now as some people have moved away – as indeed I did for a while. I’m a single mother with two children and I was afraid, so initially I moved to Moldova to escape the war. However, I came back when we decided to re-open the club. No matter what happens now, I will stay here with my team. This is my country and I don’t want to be anywhere else.

And honestly, our team has been fantastic. The most positive thing to come out of all this was their response when we told them we were going to re-open. We asked who was ready to work and everyone who was still in Odessa said yes. 

Additionally, not one of them asked about salary. They just wanted to know the schedule and how they could help get Formula up and running again. They’ve been so dedicated and have worked so hard to make re-opening possible. Everyone tells me they’ve really missed having a routine, going to work and speaking to colleagues and members. People are working for the pleasure of feeling normal again.

Our members also tell us they’re so glad we’re open. People need to do something with their stress at the moment, and fitness and sport are the best possible things for this.

“Everyone tells me they’ve really missed having a routine. People are working for the pleasure of feeling normal again.”

Will the war change things forever?

I’ve been at Formula for 13 years now and I can confidently say our club won’t change as a result of the war. We’re confident the business will come back. People need to do familiar things. They need to deal with stress. Our members tell us they’ve missed their fitness and spa treatments. They’ve missed being able to look after themselves.

So for now, we’ll work to build the club back up again, getting memberships and revenues back to how they were before the war. And then, in the second half of 2023, we’ll look to do all the work we had planned for 2022.

Because we had big plans, including building a new reformer pilates studio and launching new spa treatments for face and body. That’s all on hold while the unbelievable horror of the war continues, but it is just a pause. We’ll get back to our plans in 2023.

Formula Ukraine interior
Formula is a big, strong building with a bomb shelter on the ground floor. “I feel safer at work than I do at home,” says Brezytska

What are your hopes for the future?

I always try to think positively, so I look forward to a future – just a couple of years from now – when all our cities have been rebuilt and restored to their former glory. I hope it will be a new era for our country, when Ukrainians return home and we welcome tourists and share our experiences with them.

In the meantime, I simply wish for a peaceful country where I don’t have to worry for my children every time they go to school. My hope and belief is that before the end of 2023, we will have peace.

Information correct at the time of publishing

Published 6. December 2022

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