During the pandemic, gyms of all sizes had to prove they were fit enough to survive the crisis. The results were painful; as of July 2021, over 27% of the 40,000 fitness facilities operating in the U.S. had closed permanently. After the dust started to settle, the facilities that were left standing often weren’t the big box brands, which faced a deluge of cancellations. Companies like Gold’s Gym, 24-Hour Fitness and Flywheel Sports were just some of the businesses that filed for bankruptcy protection. Instead, it was the smaller, independent studios that emerged in victory. Based on my conversations with our customers, these studios survived largely because they embraced streaming options and more personalized customizations for clients that their larger cousins found more difficult to implement and maintain. In other words, they were willing to pivot to serve their clientele.
Why Small Studios Went Online
Like other businesses, gyms were forced to play a ping-pong game of rapidly shifting safety regulations. Virtually all of them were forced to hold classes outside anywhere they could, including parking lots and parks. Many larger fitness facilities depended on equipment like bicycles for their classes, and owners and instructors had to physically exhaust themselves to move all of these tools every time they wanted to offer a course. At the same time, policies surrounding what was adequate in terms of safety, such as plexiglass guards, were never stable. The gyms were constantly revamping their setup and moving their equipment just to stay open; for many studios, this involved buying bigger tents to protect exercisers from rain and harsh weather, and that came with a high price tag. Neither the exertion nor the costs were sustainable for the long-term.
Amid the chaos complicating operations for larger gyms, small studios typically enjoyed a closer relationship with their customers. Some had recognized even before the pandemic that streaming could be a viable way to attract consumers, and many studios already had plans to tap streaming options down the line. By keeping their ear to the ground, they recognized during the crisis that the demand for streaming classes was exploding and that they couldn’t wait to implement those solutions. It made sense for them to bring fitness online as quickly as possible.
Merging Courses and Payments
Among our clients, we observed that smaller fitness studios had a flexible mindset and were willing to dive online. Meanwhile, competitors were throwing Zoom links out to classes, but there wasn’t a way to make money from them because the links weren’t integrated with a payment solution. My company had already been trying to help gyms by developing software to handle the high number of cancellations and rescheduled classes due to Covid-19. During a Zoom meeting of my own, however, I realized that we were also capable of providing the missing class-payment integration. Within just a few weeks, we were able to bring Zoom and payment together for our gym clients.
These kinds of solutions mean that, as people start going back to gyms, small studios have the option of offering a hybrid model that included both in-house and online classes. Instead of having just 10 to 20 people come to class, they can include anyone from anywhere in the world. They also now can have better control over their pricing, with the capacity to charge different rates for classes based on whether they are hosted on-site or online.
Small Studios Explode in a New Marketplace and Tap Trends
Generally speaking, most big-box fitness brands offer a lot of the same types of classes with the same instructors. But as small studios go online, a new marketplace is emerging. This marketplace, which you can think of as a sort of YouTube for fitness, provides thousands of options from many different teachers. The consumer gets to decide what works for them, and the content with the highest quality and best price gets the most views. This encourages studios to be incredibly creative and professional about what they deliver. Global Market Insights projects that this online fitness industry will enjoy 30% growth through 2026.
As smaller studios start working within the marketplace, they’re also looking at connectivity. Tech-centered workouts are a massive trend, with some companies already letting you use your fitness tracker to create progress records, adjust your program on the fly or let your instructor monitor you. The gamification of fitness, such as earning points for the workouts you do, is also popular. Now smaller gyms are exploring what they can do to deliver the same options. This could only add to the woes some bigger gyms are having. Although they tried to compete by live streaming, they’re finding that many consumers are leaning toward the classes that don’t require their customized or pricey gear. That’s where boutique fitness studios can shine.
The Shift Online: Letting Small Gyms Win for Years to Come
As Covid-19 makes its way toward becoming endemic, traditional gyms are starting to see more people walk through their doors again. But now that people have more streaming options that require less equipment, space and money, smaller fitness studios might finally be able to gain a fairer share of the market. At this point, many consumers have tried streaming, enjoy it and aren’t likely to let it die. My company and others are supporting this shift by providing the technological tools that even the playing field. By tapping these solutions and keeping a flexible mindset, small gyms can monetize all the trends the “big guys” do, plus more, to ensure their future is in great shape.