For small gyms, handling the pandemic meant expanding

By John Hanc

On the evening of March 14, 2020, Kari Saitowitz, owner of Fhitting Room, a “boutique” fitness studio with three locations in Manhattan, returned from a dinner out, to find a disturbing message. A college friend who was a pulmonologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital had sent a text about the alarming number of cases of the new, contagious respiratory disease they were seeing.

“The message said, ‘Please take this seriously,’” Saitowitz recalled. “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 taught classes the previous day. They, too, were concerned, not only about their own safety, but also about their clients, some of whom were older.

“That was the tipping point,” she said. After convening a group of full- and part-time employees, including trainers and members of the cleaning staff, she decided to close the studio. That afternoon, she sent an email blast to the membership, saying that “for the health of our community,” she was temporarily closing Fhitting Room.

The following day, March 16, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the closure of all gyms, restaurants, bars, theaters and casinos.

Now Saitowitz, like so many other small-business owners, faced another urgent decision: “‘How do I keep my business alive?’”

The key, she decided, was to figure out ways to continue delivering what her customers wanted — what they really wanted. “It’s more than just a workout,” she said. “People come here because of the conversation, the socialization, for the fun and motivation of a class.”

How could she replicate that when the gym was closed?

The answer, for Saitowitz and other boutique fitness gyms — a broad designation that includes Pilates and yoga studios, and facilities that focus on indoor cycling or, as is the case with Fhitting Room (the name is a play on HIT, the acronym for high-intensity training), group fitness classes — was to quickly expand the way that their services could be provided, an approach that some in the industry are now calling “omnichannel.”

For Saitowitz, it meant ramping up the creation of an on-demand video library of workouts, switching live classes to Zoom and, in September, striking a partnership with retailer Showfields to use a rooftop event space on its Bond Street building to hold socially distanced outdoor classes.

All of that has had an effect on its members. “Before the pandemic I was going maybe three times a week,” said Manhattan resident Suzanne Bruderman, a Fhitting Room member since it opened six years ago. “Once the pandemic hit, all of my behaviors shifted and it basically became a five-day-a-week habit.”

But all of these changes required more than a tutorial in Zoom; they necessitated a radical change in thinking in an industry that has been providing its product in essentially the same way since Vic Tanny’s first “health clubs” opened in the 1930s.

“Prior to the pandemic, clients had to visit a brick-and-mortar business to consume the product,” said Julian Barnes, CEO of Boutique Fitness Solutions, an advisory firm to small gyms and fitness studios. The new multiple-channel approach “means meeting your client wherever he or she is,” he said. “If she wants to work out live, give her that ability to take a class live. If she wants to work out at 2 a.m. and pull up a video of her favorite class, give her the ability to do that. If she wants to work out outdoors, give her the ability for that.”

Barnes estimated that, before the pandemic, the United States had about 70,000 of these small gym and studios. “A lot of them were uprooted from their original business model,” said Tricia Murphy Madden, based in Seattle and national education director for Savvier Fitness, a fitness product and education company. “What I’m seeing now is that if you’re still operating the way you did 16 months ago, you’re not going to survive.”

“We didn’t panic at first,” recalled Lisa O’Rourke, co-owner of Spin City, an indoor cycling studio in Massapequa Park, New York. “We had a healthy business going, and we thought it was going to be temporary.” As the lockdown extended into April, though, “the panic set in.”

O’Rourke began offering members-only YouTube workouts featuring her instructors. Over the summer, that expanded to include outdoor classes in the parking lot.

Early in the lockdown, another thought occurred to O’Rourke as she surveyed her empty studio: “We had all these bikes sitting there doing nothing,” she said. “So, we decided to loan them to our members.” While some studios leased out their equipment — bikes, kettlebells and other equipment — Spin City offered the loaners for free.

“I had members offer us money,” she said. “But we turned them down. You know, they helped create our success, and during the pandemic, you felt bad for everybody. They didn’t need another expense.”

A year after the pandemic began, Spin City has gained 50 members, on top of 275 to 300 members pre-pandemic. All the bikes are now back in the studio — albeit 6 feet farther apart.

O’Rourke has speculated on what would have happened if she hadn’t opened these new channels.

“They would have all bought Pelotons,” she said with a laugh.

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