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This article is part of Owning the future, a series on how the pandemic has affected small businesses across the country.
On the evening of March 14, 2020, Kari Saitowitz, owner Fhitting Room, a small or “boutique” fitness studio with three locations in Manhattan, returning from dinner, found an alarming message. A college friend who was a pulmonologist at New York Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital sent in an alarming number of cases of a new infectious respiratory illness they were seeing.
“The message said, ‘Please take this seriously,’” Ms. Saitowitz recalls. “And he specifically said, ‘Kari, you may have to close the gym for a while.”
The next morning, she received emails from two of her senior coaches who had taught the day before. They, too, were worried not only about their safety, but also about their clients, some of whom were older.
“It was a watershed moment,” she said. After bringing together a group of full-time and part-time employees, including coaches and cleaners, she decided to close the studio. On the same day, she sent all members an email stating that “for the health of our community,” she was temporarily closing the Fhitting Room.
The next day, March 16, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced the closure of all gyms, restaurants, bars, theaters and casinos.
Now Ms. Saitowitz, like many other small business owners, is faced with another urgent decision: “How do I keep my business?” “
The key, she decided, was to find ways to continue to deliver what her customers want – what they Indeed wanted. “This is more than just training,” she said. “People come here because of the conversation, socializing, fun and motivation of the class.”
How could she do that when the gym was closed?
The answer for Ms. Saitowitz and other boutique fitness rooms is a broad term that includes Pilates and yoga studios, as well as indoor cycling-oriented spaces or, in the case of Fhitting Room (title is a game from HIT , an abbreviation for high-intensity training), group fitness classes – was to quickly expand the possibilities of providing their services; an approach that some in the industry now call “omnichannel”.
For Ms. Saitowitz, this meant building up a video library with on-demand workouts, switching live activities to Zoom and, in September, partnering with a retailer. Showfields use the rooftop space on Bond Street for socially distanced outdoor lessons.
All this affected his members. “Before the pandemic, I went maybe three times a week,” said Suzanne Bruderman from Manhattan, a member of the Fhitting Room since it opened six years ago. “When the pandemic hit, my whole behavior changed and it became a habit five days a week.”
In business today
But all of these changes required more than a Zoom tutorial; they demanded a radical change in the mindset of the industry, which since Vic Tenney’s first “health clubs” opened in the 1930s.
“Before the pandemic, customers had to visit regular businesses to consume the product,” said Julian Barnes, CEO Boutique Fitness Solutions, a consulting firm for small gyms and fitness studios. The new multi-channel approach “means meeting your customer wherever they are,” he said. “If she wants to practice live, give her the opportunity to teach live. If she wants to work out at 2 a.m. and watch a video of her favorite lesson, give her the opportunity to do so. If she wants to practice outdoors, give her the opportunity. “
Prior to the pandemic, Mr Barnes estimates that there were about 70,000 such small gyms and studios in the United States. “A lot of them were out of touch with their original business model,” said Tricia Murphy Madden, who lives in Seattle and is the company’s national director of education. Savvier Fitness, a fitness and training company. “Now I see that if you still act the way you did 16 months ago, you will not survive.”
When gyms in Texas were closed, Jesse Hughes, founder and president of the company Citizen Pilates, was determined to keep three of her Houston studios open. Using little more than an iPhone and ring lights, Ms. Hughes and some of her instructors began doing video workouts in the studio. Citizen Virtual now has over 100 home workouts available from any paid device ($ 19 / month). She later expanded the offerings through a partnership with JetSweat, an on-demand fitness library with 28,000 monthly subscribers.
Internet access allowed them to go beyond individual clients. “We’ve also started running virtual private enterprise classrooms through Zoom,” said Ms. Hughes. These weekly sessions have allowed employees at a number of mid-sized Houston companies to stay fit and share experiences while working remotely.
It also began offering branded clothing with slogans such as “Citizen Strong,” which proved particularly popular when the studio reopened with restrictions in May. Moving all equipment six feet away reduced its overall capacity by 30 percent. (“We got zero rent discount from any of our homeowners,” she added.) However, Ms. Hughes was able to increase her membership by 22 percent, mostly locally. “I would like to say that we adhered to the brand, but were excluded from society,” she said.
Social distancing wasn’t enough for Matt Esput, who was twice forced to close Fit Body Boot Camp gym in Providence when the number of coronavirus cases in Rhode Island skyrocketed. Like Ms. Saitowitz and Ms. Hughes, Mr. Espe was determined to keep the business going, and he felt that offering new services was the best way to get there. Because weight loss is an important part of his gym’s mission, he invested his Small Business Administration loan in the cost of a medical grade body scan machine that measures body composition. “We can now focus on people who are losing fat and gaining muscle,” he said.
A $ 6,000 trainer, additional nutritional advice, including nutritional supplements sold at the gym and online, and a host of new socially distanced activities have allowed Mr. Espe to achieve what he could not have thought a year ago: he increased his gym membership is up 15 percent, to 196 from 170.
After opening in January, he added one more thing: new decor, including a fresh coat of paint and new rugs. “I think people would like to forget 2020,” he said. “I wanted people to immediately see that things are different.”
For many small gyms, this is the case, although expanding to other channels is still a means to an end: bringing everyone back to places that workout enthusiasts love to share.
“We didn’t panic at first,” recalled Lisa O’Rourke, the Spin City, indoor cycling studio in Massapequa Park, NY. “We had a healthy business and we thought it would be temporary.” However, when the isolation lasted until April, “panic began.” Ms. O’Rourke began offering member-only coaching on YouTube with her instructors. This expanded in the summer to include outdoor lessons in the parking lot.
At the beginning of the quarantine, Miss O’Rourke had another thought as she looked around her empty studio. “We had all these bikes that did nothing,” she said. “So we decided to lend them to our members.” While some studios rented out their equipment – bicycles, kettlebells and other equipment, Spin City offered tenants for free.
“I asked the participants to offer us money,” she said. “But we turned them down. You know, they helped us succeed, and during the pandemic, you felt sorry for everyone. They didn’t need additional expenses ”.
A year after the start of the pandemic, Spin City gathered a total of 50 members, in addition to the 275-300 people before the pandemic. All motorcycles are now back in the studio – albeit six feet further apart. Ms O’Rourke wondered what might have happened if she had not opened these new channels.
“They would all buy Pelotons,” she said with a laugh.
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