• 7 – 10 April 2022
  • Exhibition Centre Cologne

15 October 2021, by Julia Bernert

Back to ‘boutique business’: How smaller studios can restart successfully

The pandemic has threatened the operators of small(er) studios in particular. The strategies they have been using to combat this threat were the topic of discussion at the FIBO partner event ‘The Future of Fitness’ organised by Club Industry.

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In 2020, many studio operators were fighting for their very survival. 2021 has been a year of turmoil, and uncertainty reigns for 2022 – particularly when it comes to smaller studios looking to restart their businesses again. Club Industry shined a spotlight on what comes next for ‘boutique gyms’ as part of its online event ‘The Future of Fitness’ in mid-June. As part of its virtual panel discussion ‘The Path Ahead for Studios Around The World’, Kari Saitowitz (CEO and Founder of Fhitting Room), Anabel Chew (Co-Founder of WeBarre) and Joanne Mathews (CEO and Founder of Ten Health & Fitness) shared valuable insights into their strategies for overcoming the crisis and other topics. Their honest dialogue on today’s challenges and market conditions in the USA, Great Britain and Singapore offered good reasons to be optimistic. 


The boutique business before the coronavirus

Personal, specialised one-to-one support in an exclusive ambience at selected locations – these are the factors that allowed boutique fitness clubs to attract their clientele. Online services in this segment were still in the infancy – or entirely non-existent – and those that were available were generally limited to members of the clubs in question. As a result, the financial situation in this segment quickly became critical, regardless of whether these clubs were located in the USA, Great Britain or Singapore. 


Boutique gyms under pressure

“Before the coronavirus struck, we only offered our Barre classes in our seven studios in Singapore and Hong Kong. We had plans to expand in Asia, and Japan was at the top of our list,” reported Anabel Chew, co-founder of WeBarre, adding that: “We did not initially plan on offering on-demand videos or live streams because our personal support and dialogue were some of the things that our customers cared about most. However, the lockdowns and the coronavirus regulations have put a great deal of pressure on this analogue training concept.” Before the start of the pandemic, the programme offered by Ten Health & Fitness in London was similarly ‘non-digital’. Fhitting Room, a New York studio chain specialising in HIIT, kettlebell and strength training, was the only one of the three that had been offering its members an exclusive on-demand service before the time of the coronavirus.


Wake-up call for digital services 

According to Joanne Mathews, CEO and founder of Ten Health & Fitness: “Our concept closes the gap between conventional fitness training and medical fitness / rehabilitation applications, something that sets us apart from typical boutique gyms.” Thanks to this concept, her ten studios were able to remain open for medical training – even though many of her customers were afraid to come into her studios on account of their underlying ailments, forcing the studios to reduce their capacities as a result. Joanne remembers vividly how the pandemic served as a wakeup call: “It was really a dramatic situation, particularly because we did not have any online programmes. We had to reinvent our business and learn how to use new technologies to serve our customers from afar.” 


The new business essentials: outdoor studios and film sets

That is exactly what is being done by Anabel Chew and her team, who are now offering 50 live streams on Zoom every week, while Kari Saitowitz, CEO and founder of Fhitting Room, has drastically expanded her already existing online programme as a means of retaining current members while also acquiring new customers: “We added an online shop and opened up our live streams and on-demand videos to non-members as a standalone service.” It is a strategy that also impacted their physical premises. Saitowitz: “In order to be able to produce more videos, we had to convert one of our three studios into a film set. To do this, we transformed our rooftop lounge into a fully-equipped outdoor training facility.”


Leveraging technology beyond the B2C segment

It is not just in the B2C segment that boutique gyms have been catching up digitally. Addressing technological aspects is also increasingly important for their own infrastructures and B2B relationships. Joanne Mathews predicted that tech partnerships will be inescapable in future: “Not only because Apple and the like are conquering the market. We have to accept the fact that more and more of our customers use wearables and that they want to be able to take advantage of their training data.” 


Creating touchpoints and optimising processes

Kari Saitowitz demonstrated how studios can make their own infrastructures more professional and digital. In addition to setting up its own intranet and CRM support for B2B sales teams, Fhitting Room has developed a virtual learning management system for in-house training. “We have escalated our internal touchpoints and are working to be able to offer external training in the medium term. Already, we are using our training software for our own certified trainers. With the help of this software, the instructors learn how to carry out our specific workouts cleanly, allowing them to focus on building up personal relationships during their time in our studios.”


To do: develop hybrid business models

While few were actively looking for the new business models that have been created during the coronavirus pandemic before the crisis struck, it will not be possible to simply turn back the clock. Joanne Mathews came right out and said it: “I’m certain that we cannot simply try to regain what we had before COVID-19,” and the rest of the panel was in full agreement. 

Kari Saitowitz shared her belief that they needed to take their existing business models even further: “People have grown used to working out at home, and they are going to want to continue this in future – at the very least as a supplement to their time in the fitness studio. Customers’ demands and expectations of us have changed. To reinvigorate our studio operations, we need to analyse what our customers want from us, and we must clearly define the things that we can do. As well as the things that we don’t do.” 


Finding focus and streamlining businesses

Saitowitz’ appeal touched on a trend that Anabel Chew also addressed: “Nearly two years ago, studio operators undertook a major diversification of their programmes and made big moves to outdo one another. Unfortunately this does not help things in the new market situation. Being big is not a big help, today in particular, where our competitors and customers are spread all around the globe and time zones are suddenly meaningless.”


New technologies should be selected with care

When resuming operations, studios should step back and streamline their training programmes to focus on their roots, while carefully supplementing this with practical new offers that are in keeping with their concept. The use of gamification elements, virtual reality and artificial intelligence to significantly upgrade core programmes and services can be beneficial here – if they are used properly and can be organically integrated into the operation. A close study of the new technological possibilities on offer is absolutely essential. That is the only way that a studio can move to a hybrid service model that is fit for the future. Anabel Chew encouraged her colleagues to act: “We have to take advantage of the new opportunities on offer so that we can remain competitive in future.”


The sessions from FIBO’s ‘The Future of Fitness’ partner event are available on demand. Simply register free of charge at https://futureoffitness.clubindustry.com