The edge local fitness studios have over big gym chains during Covid-19

Small studios go virtual.
Small studios go virtual.
Image: AP Photo/Matias Delacroix
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Around 11:30 am on a recent Saturday, I was lying on my apartment floor in plow pose—legs up and behind my head, toes touching the floor. My sight was blocked by my thighs. I listened intently for cues from Jarrick, my yoga instructor, who normally teaches at my local studio in Washington DC, speaking through my laptop. He reminded me and the other class participants to focus on our breath, keep our cores strong, and try to avoid falling into our upper backs, despite being completely flipped over.

I could hear the bedroom door creak open behind me, but gave it little thought as I listened to the whoosh of my breath, in and out of my nose. My mic was muted, so I knew no one could hear my partner’s footsteps behind me.

But then, a pair of legs came into my field of vision. I realized with horror that my partner had emerged from the bedroom completely naked. He was dancing. Any other time, this would have been a welcome interruption; I would have wiggled along from the floor. Instead, I yelled in a panic, “THE CAMERA IS ON!”

He leapt out of frame. I collapsed and immediately checked the screen to see if others could have seen. The camera likely caught everything, but the instructor calmly continued teaching. The other participants, including my mother and brother calling in from Virginia, still had their legs over their heads in plow.

I tried to keep my cool through the end of class, unsure of whether to apologize or keep quiet. After I logged out of Zoom, I frantically emailed Jarrick explaining what had happened, and apologized if we had offended him or any of the other participants. He responded later that he had seen, but that he knew it wasn’t malicious—it was funny! And he thought he was the only one who had noticed. My partner and I giggled about it for the rest of the day, relieved to keep the mishap between the three of us.

Though I was mortified, I was glad that it was Jarrick on the other end of the email. When the Realignment Studio, where he works, was open, I went as often as I could to his Monday night class. I liked that Jarrick was playful, reminding us all not to take ourselves so seriously, even as we focused on our poses and breathing. We’d hug to greet each other, and exchange brief words before and after class. I trusted that he knew there had just been a misunderstanding, and that I wasn’t trying to disrupt his class. Had it been a stranger, I probably would have still emailed an apology, but then immediately blocked the address and never taken another class out of embarrassment.

Fitness studios across the world have been scaled down to the size of a smartphone or computer screen because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But large chains have handled the shift differently from small operations. Several bigger companies, like Solidcore and Barry’s, are offering classes at a reduced cost, or completely free, to make up for the fact that these at-home offerings pale in comparison to what they could do on-site. They can afford to build up their brands right now, even if they’re not bringing in new money.

Smaller, local fitness studios, though, don’t have the luxury of offering their services at a reduced cost. Many of them are still responsible for rent at their physical locations, even if the studios themselves are unoccupied. They have no choice but to keep charging for classes, even knowing that they’re reaching participants in an imperfect format. And while these costs could make them unattractive to some potential users, local studios are banking on the key advantage they have over bigger brands: Strong personal ties among clientele, who now more than ever want to feel connected to others as they exercise

Nowadays, customers take more comfort than ever in seeing a familiar face. Bonding with those we knew before lockdowns began gives us a sense of normalcy, and serves as a reminder that we can see them again as restrictions ease up. With so many people starved for contact, that recognition can be priceless—or at least worth the continued costs of classes.

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Creative solutions

When the lockdowns for Covid-19 hit, they came with little warning. Most studios didn’t have time to roll out carefully-considered plans for continuing classes at home–they just did it on the fly.

“I thought the greater risk would be staying open and having a case be connected to our studio, or having one of our students get sick,” says Alyson Shade, the founder and co-owner of Realignment Studio. Shade and her co-owner Betsy Poos made the decision to close the doors to their Eastern Market storefronts on Friday, March 13. They cancelled all the classes, which held up to 26 and 35 people at a time depending on the studio, scheduled for the weekend, and by the following Monday, were offering classes using Zoom.

Yoga can be one of the easier workouts to recreate in a digital space. In the studio, Realignment provided mats and blocks for students, but this equipment isn’t too difficult to recreate at home. Sneakers will work to do yoga in a pinch to make the ground stickier if there’s no mat, and books or board game boxes can suffice as blocks.

It’s much harder to replicate other types of studios. When Emma Suttles, the founder and CEO of MPower Pilates and Cycling in Birmingham, Alabama, was forced to close her two studios’ doors on March 15, she was at a loss. Her classes relied on students using the bikes or lagree machines—specialized equipment weighing hundreds of pounds. Part of the reason clients come to the studio is because of these machines.

Suttles and her team of 28 instructors improvised to create classes at home. They started out on Instagram Live with free cardio classes mimicking pilates moves. When they realized that some people were watching the sessions later, Suttles had an idea: They could set up classes on demand. For a flat fee of $40 per month, users could watch unlimited fitness videos whenever they wanted. They would also offer $5 one-off classes that could be viewed for 24 hours. Even though the exercises weren’t the same—“most [exercises] are more challenging on the equipment,” Suttles says—it still keeps the muscle groups active.

Those prices are lower than MPower’s typical offerings: Before, baseline class prices were $16 for a cycle class and $20 for a pilates class, with discounted packages and unlimited passes. Instructors were paid for each class they taught. This hasn’t changed, but instead of teaching multiple classes a day, instructors may just come into the empty studio to teach one per week to go online. Suttles says that so far, they’ve been able to keep up with overhead because so many members of their regular customers have bought digital packages, but that they’re looking into some of the federal grants to help cover studio rent costs in the long run. (They decided to keep the Instagram Live classes twice per week for those who can’t afford those options.)

Shade at Realignment has also had to make adjustments. She and Poos are still taking their salaries, but they had to temporarily let go most of their other instructors, who were classified as independent contractors. Those they’ve kept on are each paid for the three classes per week that they teach. She and Poos have applied for some of the federal grants for small business owners, but their applications are still in queue. Even if they are approved, Shade estimates they’d only cover about a third of the expenses they incur per month—assuming a three-month closure. Currently, she’s writing a letter to her landlord to see if they can negotiate a deal for the months they’re not able to occupy the actual studio space.

Jules Bakshi, the founder of Good Move NYC, has also had to get creative. Her dance studio opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn just six months ago, complete with cork floors and earth tones to help new dancers feel comfortable moving in an open space. She and her instructors taught ballet, hiphop, modern, and all kinds of combinations of classes. After New York went on lockdown on March 15, she was forced to close her doors, too.

Within a week of shutting down their physical space, however, Bakshi and her 10 instructors got online. Like MPower, they also offer an unlimited streaming option for a monthly fee, as well as a modified daily class schedule for $20 each. But she also had to change what she offered. Instead of giving people cues to move through the room, instructors coach them to leap around their living room furniture, and encourage them not to look at the screen.

“How do we keep encouraging joy? How do we keep promoting this way of being in your body, even when you’re stuck at home? It is possible to feel strong and healthy and expansive,” says Bakshi. “You just have to have the right tools.” A sense of community is one of them.

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Unexpected advances forward

All of the studio owners I spoke to expressed gratitude for their clientele who have stayed on as members during the lockdown. Shade said that even before they were able to offer classes online, some of her clients expressed a desire to start a GoFundMe campaign to help keep them afloat. But they’re aware the uncertainty of the pandemic’s trajectory means they might not always be able to count on this support.

That said, being online has also allowed these studios to reach customers who would normally be too far away to join; family members in other states have called in, or friends that had moved away years ago but knew of instructors through social media. It’s sparked the idea that it’d be possible to continue these kinds of far-reaching classes after the pandemic, too.

Online offerings had been part of Bakshi’s plan when she opened Good Move; the pandemic “lit a fire under my ass,” she says. Instead of putting the project off while her studio found its footing, she was able to set up the operation in less than a week. “It isn’t the best feeling for me as an entrepreneur to put out an imperfect product to do this in five days, when it should have taken five months,” she says. But now that it’s there, it can only get better.

The most tangible change though, is that through the messy, inconsistent space on the internet, many clients have felt more connected and loyal to their studios. “It’s been kind of magical in that way—people have this deeper desire for connection,” Suttles says.

Suddenly, people have been reaching out over Instagram direct messages or through emails and texts just to say they enjoyed the class. They may give a virtual greeting to others they used to see regularly, but didn’t have a chance to talk to in the moments after real-life classes ended. It’s as if the internet is breaking down some of the social barriers that persist in real life.

Shade thinks that this extra connection is a result of the increased vulnerability of this time in general. “When I set the studio up, that was separate from where I live, and where I seek refuge,” she says. “Now you’re in my sacred space. Now it’s like fireside communications.”

There is something personal about seeing an instructor’s living room on screen, and knowing they can see yours, too. You can catch little glimpses of their lives; a pet sleeping in the corner. A toddler or partner wandering (or dancing naked!) through the background. It’s a reminder that studio owners aren’t just the professional versions of themselves we see in their workplace. They are parents, partners, and roommates. They are artists, bakers, and office workers—now with a home set-up. They’re people who have been impacted by this virus just as much as we have.

“I’ll never forget the first class I taught online,” Shade says. “People were just letting reality hit them, and turning to the practice as a way to connect.” At first, she said she was just looking at herself in the screen, trying to figure out what everyone else was seeing. But then, she switched to gallery view to see everyone in the class.

“There were just people crying,” she said, her voice catching as she spoke to me over the phone. “It isn’t just a fitness thing, it has never been. This is how we are with these harder emotions.”

For many people, a fitness studio is where they go for emotional refuge. At home, people come even more as they are. It requires a bit more vulnerability, and potential embarrassment, which ultimately fosters a deeper connection. It also opens the door, so to speak, for folks who have been intimidated by fitness studios to participate from the comforts of their own home. These different kinds of connections, she suspects, are part of what keeps them coming back, even in these new circumstances.

It’s hard to say what the future holds for these local studios. It’s clear that, during the pandemic, they’re providing more than just exercise classes. But whether this is enough to sustain them financially in the long-run is uncertain. For now, though, they just have to hope that people continue to sign on.