When shelter-in-place orders took effect across the country, fitness studios and gyms were forced to find ways to connect with clients outside the typical four walls. As a point of reference, Mindbody reported that 91% of brands using its platform offered virtual classes and events and more than 85% of class-goers started doing livestream classes every week, compared with just 7% of users in 2019. Not surprisingly, outdoor workouts also became popular.
Besides meeting online and outside, studios and gyms thought of other clever ways to connect with clients. To showcase leaders in fitness who found creative ways to stick to coronavirus restrictions while still expanding their reach—and to offer some ideas for how you can expand your own business and community—we talked to “fitpreneurs” across the country. Their methods may inspire you to keep thinking of revenue streams beyond the physical studio as you connect with clients in new, effective ways.
1. Gear Sales and Rentals
Living rooms became the new go-to gym space when the pandemic hit, as exercise enthusiasts turned to at-home workouts to maintain their fitness. With that shift came a shortage of gym equipment and a backup on orders for kettlebells and dumbbells, for example. Some equipment manufacturers found themselves temporarily out of stock (Schultz 2020).
Meanwhile, fitness studios started renting and selling their own equipment so clients could follow workouts online with the proper setup. Speakeasy of Strength, a personal and semiprivate training facility in Brooklyn, New York, offered kettlebells, ultimate sandbags, minibands and more for sale in August. “While stuck in the uncertainty of the shutdown and what reopening would look like, I wanted to find a solution that would allow us to serve our Speakeasy crew members and neighbors,” says founder and owner Stephen Holiner. “With our expertise, we can guide customers to the right weights and equipment in a way that other online stores can’t. That direct connection with buyers allows us to stick to our mission statement of empowering our neighbors through strength and movement.”
Indoor cycling studios, including CycleBar, which has about 200 studio locations across the country, rented out their bikes when physical spaces shut down in April. “The bike rentals allowed us to successfully pivot to virtual classes and keep our members engaged in not only their workouts but also their studio community,” says CycleBar president Trevor Lucas. “It allowed our owners to provide work to their instructors during such a difficult time and bring some joy to both riders and our studio staff across the country.”
2. Virtual Certification Programs
Sadie Kurzban, founder and CEO of 305 Fitness, a dance-based workout with studio locations in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. (as well as other pop-up sites), wanted to bring her signature workout to communities outside major cities. But instead of franchising her business, she decided to “invest in the individual” with a certification program. She charges $190 for a week of learning—which moved to Zoom when pandemic restrictions started—and she’s taught her methods to thousands of new instructors.
Instructor certification sign-ups have grown nearly tenfold this year, Kurzban says, and now you can find 305 Fitness–certified instructors across the United States and in France, Brazil, Singapore and Israel. “All of our core values—fun, ownership, action, inclusivity, self-expression, adaptability—are incorporated throughout the weeklong sessions,” Kurzban says. “It was equally important for us to train both the physical skill sets of cuing and counting and the intangibles of how to be an effective and thoughtful leader.” The reason she chose this certification method for expanding her reach? “It comes back to our core value of inclusivity,” she says.
3. Personal Business Extensions / Subscription-Based Offerings
The benefit of virtual workouts and streaming classes is that individual instructors have a chance to build their own brand—even if they’re a part of a larger, better-known fitness company. Take Sydney Miller, for example. A SoulCycle instructor, she originally created her own workout called HOUSEWORK in 2017 for SoulAnnex, a division of the SoulCycle brand that allowed instructors to come into a living space in New York City and teach their own unique class. When the coronavirus hit, she decided to move that method online.
When she launched with Zoom live for her core-meets-HIIT classes, Miller had more than 100 people in attendance. So, she decided to create a subscription-based, on-demand platform, available via an app. In just 2 months, with the help of a developer, the HOUSEWORK app went live to users.
Other instructors formerly associated with big brands have created their own workouts, now streamed to the masses. Founders of Bonded by the Burn, Lucy Sexton (of the brand SLT) and Tracy Carlinsky chose to team up and stream their workout mid-pandemic. They quickly realized they could turn their class into a digital business, and with the help of Vimeo OTT, they made it into a mostly subscription-based, on-demand model, with live Zoom classes mixed into the platform. “The online space is a volume-driven business,” say Sexton and Carlinsky. “Compared to brick-and-mortar boutique fitness, you are no longer limited to 10 machines or 50 bikes, and you can reach clients all over the world.”
4. New Spaces and Partnerships
Gavin McKay, founder and president of Unite Fitness in Philadelphia, says he has pivoted his business model four times since COVID-19 struck the U.S. In early 2020, he was in the midst of expanding to Washington, D.C., but the virus abruptly changed that. McKay put his in-person studio expansion on hold and focused on live, virtual classes, which then expanded to on-demand workouts. In June, the strength and HIIT studio also started offering outdoor classes.
Unite Fitness’s newest venture involves teaming up with a local event space in Philadelphia, the 23rd Street Armory, which has largely suspended its events. Thanks to the more than 14,000 square feet of space, plus an open-door entry way and a top-notch ventilation system, Unite can host more class participants while staying up to code on coronavirus safety precautions. McKay says this space will replace most of its outdoor classes, especially as the seasons change.
Equinox has taken a somewhat similar approach: It created an outdoor club in Los Angeles and New York City to allow members to work out while staying socially distant and safe.
5. Frequent Community Events
In addition to hosting virtual workout classes, many studios have turned to digital community- building to maintain connections between clients and instructors. Pure Barre® studios across the country, for example, focused on retail events and wine nights, dubbed “Sip & Shops,” to get their community together. Pure Barre employees showcased the latest apparel in real time. They also provided a postworkout toast for members and a chance for people to chat after a “Wine Down Wednesdays” class.
Fhitting Room, a New York City-based strength and HIIT studio, often hosts charity events to align with the current social climate. One successful event, called Strength Against Racism, allowed the company to donate more than $50,000 to Color of Change, NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Harlem Academy. Fhitting Room has also expanded class offerings to special populations, like pre- and postnatal clients, seniors, kids, and healthcare workers, providing a free class to frontline employees, starting at the beginning of the pandemic and continuing every Saturday.
As challenging as the past year has been for the fitness industry, many business owners took it as an opportunity to thrive and implemented creative ideas that helped them maintain a close connection with clients and members, proving that wellness wins when it matters most. Be inspired by the steps taken here and develop your own path to renewed interaction.
Schultz, A. 2020. Inside the great kettlebell shortage of 2020. GQ.com. Accessed Nov. 9, 2020: gq.com/story/inside-the-great-kettlebell-shortage.