Forbes Business Council: Restoring the Boutique Fitness Industry

Becoming Stronger Together: Restoring The Boutique Fitness Industry

David Blitz

Forbes Councils Member

Forbes Business Council

Jul 13, 2020

Co-Founder of Studio Three, a community-based, first-class fitness company with a core of interval, cycle and yoga.

As our ability to return to our emblematic fitness routines is almost within reach, we’re all considering what we need to do in order to stay safe. This pandemic has changed how we experience almost every facet of daily life, forcing us to make choices to better protect our health and safety. In many instances, we are reliant upon others to control an environment for us, placing now even stricter protocols in place relating to sanitizing surfaces or the occupancy of areas. Without question, fitness facilities present special challenges.

A Powerful Industry

Boutique fitness clubs fall in their own category, set apart from the “big box” gyms on many levels. They strive to deliver the best fitness experience in their specialty. Boutique clubs serve almost every neighborhood we live in — a core motive of why people move to these surroundings. They have a very tight-knit community and often one small revenue-producing space. Their members are rooted in a commitment to personal fitness, and each other, where they draw strength and inspiration.

And because boutiques are so different from the big box when it comes to amenities, instruction and features, I recently co-founded the Chicago Boutique Fitness Alliance. My company and more than 200 boutique and community studios across Chicago have come together to ensure safety protocols are met and that we can survive among the big box. Across all industries, smaller businesses have a more difficult time weathering this storm, and we cannot fail our members and employees. From our statistics provided in the Alliance and derived from IHRSA research, boutique fitness in Chicago is a $500 million industry that provides more than 25,000 jobs in Chicago and 1,000,000 unique people visiting our facilities per year. We play a massive role in our customers’ mental and physical health day in and day out.

Reevaluating Member Experience

Despite our differences from big box gyms, we all share the biggest hurdle: the public’s reduced confidence in being in enclosed spaces/indoors in close proximity to others. As we collectively reconsider the member experience, how to (short-term) survive the economics of the current climate and how to (long-term) adapt business operations to the satisfaction of members/staff while complying with all regulations, backsliding on the guidelines is not an option. “Stronger Together,” right? This rallying cry now seems like an understatement since our survival literally hinges on everyone’s cooperation.

Like other industries that rely upon critical mass and contain a social element, modifying the fitness experience to comply with all existing guidelines has proven to be a monumental task. This requires not only changes to basic interpersonal behavior but also physical alterations to the club interior. Fitness instruction, especially in a boutique club setting like my company offers with interval, cycle and yoga, requires close personal proximity, and if you’re doing it right, a lot of sweat. So, it was easy to determine our highest priorities: increased cleaning protocols, social distancing, reducing class sizes — all without sacrificing the community experience.

Not surprising, our recent member survey generated the same top priorities: increased cleaning/limited touchpoints and reduction of class sizes to allow for better social distancing, since wearing a “workout face mask” did not receive much support. The best news from our member survey is that only 1.5% stated they would not feel comfortable returning to our club; approximately 45% said they would return immediately; and 31% would return within 60 days.

The New Frontier

As you prepare how to reopen, set out to create an almost touchless experience outside the classroom. Members must see a marked difference as they walk through the front door in order to keep their confidence in any facility. While we all collectively attempt to rip the vicious underbelly of Covid-19, we will need to control the front-of-house experience from the very first day. Members are accustomed to a clean space and will demand it now even more, especially in the most frequently trafficked areas.

However, the level of alteration must be kept in careful balance. While wearing a face mask and getting your temperature checked lagged far behind increased club cleaning protocols and social distancing in our survey, both will be important and implemented along with safety guideline signs/markers around the club. We are investigating medical-grade HVAC filters identical to the ones embedded in N95 masks that block virus transmission. Also, the next generation of sanitation electrostatic sprayers will be used, which surpass CDC requirements for solid surfaces and equipment. Finally, there will be an investment in UV technology to fully disinfect weights, shoes and other small props.

Then, there are common sense things like constant hand-washing. It’s so simple and so effective (and mandatory for staff upon entrance). Additional hand sanitizing stations can serve as reminders as well

One of the most difficult changes for boutique fitness is the social distance element. Because boutique facilities are smaller spaces, we are forced to whittle down class capacities and separate individual spaces with plexiglass barriers while finding ways to accommodate all member workouts, including the instructors who thrive on that interaction with them. Member connection to their instructor is powerful and a huge reason that people choose boutique facilities over the big box clubs, let alone elect wellness.

Stronger Together

Stronger together, for sure. And within industries, supporting a subset business community is key. Our competitors have become our greatest source of support. This crisis has shown us that we are reliant upon one another for everything, from our personal safety (individual compliance with CDC guidelines) to sharing best practices as we reopen the economy. Utilizing technological advances and possibly utilizing them in new ways will be fundamental.

If nothing else, this pandemic has better prepared us for future challenges and forced us to think about life, work and each other in new ways. We will come back stronger together.