This article is part of Owning the Future, a series about how the pandemic has affected small businesses across the country.
On the evening of March 14, 2020, Kari Saitowitz, owner of the Fhitting Room, a small or “boutique” gym with three locations in Manhattan, returned from dinner to find disturbing news. A college friend who was a pulmonologist at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital had texted the alarming number of cases of the new, contagious respiratory disease they were seeing.
“The message was: ‘Please take this seriously,’” recalls Ms. Saitowitz. “And he specifically said, ‘Kari, you will probably have to close the gym for a while.'”
The next morning, she received emails from two of her senior trainers who had been teaching classes the day before. They too were concerned not only for their own safety, but also for their customers, some of whom were older.
“That was the turning point,” she says. After summoning a group of full and part time workers, including instructors and cleaning staff, she decided to close the studio. That afternoon, she emailed members saying that she was temporarily closing the fitting room “for the health of our community”.
The following day, March 16, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced the closure of all gyms, restaurants, bars, theaters and casinos.
Now, like so many other small business owners, Ms. Saitowitz was faced with another urgent decision: “‘How do I keep my business alive?'”
The key, she decided, was finding ways to keep delivering what her customers wanted – what they really wanted. “It’s more than just a workout,” she said. “People come here for conversation, for socializing, for fun and to motivate a class.”
How could she repeat that when the gym was closed?
The answer for Ms. Saitowitz and other boutique gyms – a broad term that includes Pilates and yoga studios, and facilities that focus on indoor cycling, or as in the case of the Fhitting Room (the name is a nod to HIT, the acronym for High Intensity Training), Group Fitness Courses – should rapidly expand the way their services could be delivered; an approach that some in the industry now call “omnichannel”.
For Ms. Saitowitz, that meant moving ahead with the creation of an on-demand video library of workouts, moving live classes to Zoom, and partnering with retailer Showfields in September to keep rooftop event space in its Bond Street building socially distant outdoor classes.
All of this has affected its members. “Before the pandemic, I was out maybe three times a week,” said Suzanne Bruderman from Manhattan, who has been a member of the Fhitting Room since it opened six years ago. “When the pandemic broke out, all of my behaviors changed and it basically became a habit that lasted five days a week.”
In business today
June 3, 2021, 8:18 p.m. ET
But all of these changes required more than a tutorial in Zoom; they required a radical rethink in an industry that has offered its products in essentially the same way since Vic Tanny’s first health clubs opened in the 1930s.
“Before the pandemic, customers had to go to a brick and mortar store to consume the product,” said Julian Barnes, CEO of Boutique Fitness Solutions, a consultancy for small gyms and fitness studios. The new multi-channel approach “means meeting your customer wherever he or she is,” he said. “If she wants to train live, give her the opportunity to attend a course live. If she works out at 2 a.m. and wants to watch a video of her favorite class, give her the opportunity. If she wants to train outside, give her the opportunity to do so. “
Mr Barnes estimated that before the pandemic, the United States had around 70,000 of these small gyms and studios. “Many of them have been uprooted from their original business model,” said Tricia Murphy Madden, who lives in Seattle and is the national education director of Savvier Fitness, a fitness product and education company. “What I see now is that if you still work the way you did 16 months ago, you will not survive.”
When Texas gyms closed, Citizen Pilates founder and president Jess Hughes was determined to keep her three Houston studios open. With little more than an iPhone and a ring light, Ms. Hughes and some of her instructors began producing video workouts in the studio. Citizen Virtual’s on-demand catalog now features over 100 home workouts accessible from any device with a paid subscription ($ 19 per month). She later expanded the offering by partnering with JetSweat, a fitness on demand library with 28,000 monthly subscribers.
The online presence enabled them to expand beyond individual customers. “We have also started running virtual private enterprise classes through Zoom,” said Ms. Hughes. These weekly classes enabled employees at a number of medium-sized Houston businesses to stay in shape and share experiences while working remotely.
She also began selling branded apparel with slogans like “Citizen Strong,” which proved particularly popular with reservations when the studio reopened in May. Moving all devices within two meters reduced their total capacity by 30 percent. (“We haven’t received rent reductions from any of our landlords,” she added.) But Ms. Hughes has managed to increase her membership by 22 percent, mostly locally. “What I like to say is that we were brand consistent but socially distant,” she said.
Social distancing wasn’t enough for Matt Espeut, who was twice forced to close his Fit Body Boot Camp gym in Providence when Covid cases soared in Rhode Island. Like Ms. Saitowitz and Ms. Hughes, Mr. Espeut was determined to stay in business and felt that offering new services was the way to go. Since weight loss is an important part of his gym’s mission, he invested his Small Business Administration loan in the cost of a medical body scan machine that measures body composition. “Now we can focus on people who are losing fat and building muscle,” he said.
The $ 6,000 machine, the additional nutritional advice – including supplements sold in the gym and online – and the many new, socially distant classes being offered, enabled Mr Espeut to achieve something he would not have thought possible a year ago: Him increased its membership by 15 percent to 196 from 170.
After reopening in January, he added something else: new furnishings, including a fresh paint job and new floor mats. “I think people would like to forget 2020,” he said. “I wanted people to see immediately that things are different.”
For many small gyms, they are – although expanding into different channels is still a means to an end: getting everyone back into the rooms that workout enthusiasts love to share.
“We didn’t panic at first,” recalls Lisa O’Rourke, owner of Spin City, an indoor cycling studio in Massapequa Park, NY. “We had a healthy business and thought it would only be temporary.” However, when the lockdown lasted into April, “the panic set in”. Ms. O’Rourke began offering members-only YouTube workouts with their teachers. Over the summer, this was expanded to include outdoor courses in the parking lot.
At the beginning of the lockdown, another thought occurred to Ms. O’Rourke as she surveyed her empty studio. “We had all these bikes there and we didn’t do anything,” she said. “That’s why we decided to lend them to our members.” While some studios rented their equipment – bicycles, kettlebells, and other equipment – Spin City offered the rental equipment for free.
“I had members who offered us money,” she said. “But we refused. You have contributed to our success, and during the pandemic you made yourself feel bad for everyone. You didn’t need any further expenses. “
A year after the pandemic began, Spin City gained a total of 50 members, in addition to 275-300 members prior to the pandemic. All bikes are now back in the studio – albeit two meters further apart. Ms. O’Rourke has speculated about what would have happened if she hadn’t opened up these new channels.
“You would have bought all of the pelotons,” she said with a laugh.