As large gyms face membership declines, small studios with online fitness content see opportunity
The first time Ellen de Werd went to an exercise class, she never wanted to attend another one.
“I couldn’t keep up and I felt really self-conscious,” says de Werd, the founder of Warrior Gym in Eugene. “The instructor actually got on the microphone and embarrassed me in front of the whole class. I left saying, ‘I will never, ever do that again.’”
But she loved to exercise, and after having a baby, she wanted a way to make sure she had a way to do what she loved on a regular basis. She found a different instructor and fitness community that made her feel welcome.
“The instructor made me feel like I could fit in and belong, even though I was bad. I’m pretty sure I was going through some postpartum depression and her classes were the only time I found myself smiling,” de Werd says.
Ellen de Werd prepares for Warrior Rythm fitness class. Credit: Warrior Gym
The experience set her on a path that would eventually lead her to found her own fitness studio.
With three children, two still at home, being a fitness instructor with classes online was — and still is — the best fit for her schedule.
Like most fitness professionals, de Werd’s business suffered as a result of COVID-19. But like other businesses with an online component, customers’ newfound desire to fill their needs on the web meant Warrior Gym’s revenue did not take as big of a hit as many of the larger fitness centers.
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Online classes and more personalized fitness instruction have helped small studios compete more effectively for a bigger pool of customers. This means fostering a sense of community — and giving customers a reason to stay — has never been more critical.
In addition to her fitness business, de Werd conducted online fitness instructor certification tests as a side job. The experience made transitioning her business to fully online a smoother process. It also meant maintaining a stronger social media presence, familiarizing herself with graphic marketing and videography.
“When I started I was doing everything myself, recording videos on my cell phone and at the gym, but as we grew little by little I was able to hire a web designer and make it look professional,” she says.
According to a report by Axios Media, gym cancellation rates are higher now than at the start of the pandemic, likely due to Americans’ changing workout habits, which includes a lot more online engagement. In May, employment within the industry had recovered 60% of its initial job losses, but remained 27% below pre-pandemic levels.
According to a report from online athletic equipment reviewing website RunRepeat, the number of people who said at-home fitness was their preferred method of exercise increased 218.3% in the United States in 2021. By contrast, gym revenue was down 58% in 2020, according to a report by the Global Health and Fitness Association.
According to Oregon state economist Josh Lehner, the pandemic’s impact on the fitness industry has not fully played out. While consumer spending on gym and sports club memberships has returned to pre-pandemic levels, employment in the industry is still 27% lower than it was at the start of 2020.
A hybrid in-person/online yoga class at Hard Core Yoga. Credit: Hard Core Yoga
“Oregon’s population is growing, demand for fitness activities will continue to increase. Even if gyms lose members permanently, there are new ones waiting in the wings to some degree,” says Lehner. Lehner also cited increased sales of home fitness equipment and the pandemic’s long-term impact on commercial real estate prices as suggestions that the industry is still adapting.
Jim Zupancic, president of the Oregon Health and Fitness Alliance, says membership numbers do not tell the entire story of fitness center’s struggles. Despite receiving Paycheck Protection Program loans, gyms did not receive the same kind of industry-specific support afforded to other industries deemed essential.
His organization is calling on Oregon legislators to support the GYMS Act, which would provide federal relief to fitness organizations.
Zupancic also says while the past year and a half has been difficult for gyms, he expects the fitness industry to recover by the end of the summer.
Customers have become comfortable with the flexibility and convenience offered by remote exercise, he says. Going forward, gyms will have to maintain a robust online presence to stay competitive.
But he also doesn’t expect online fitness to go away.
Chelsea Duke leads a fully in-person yoga session at Hard Core Yoga. Credit: Hard Core Yoga
“You can’t replace that comradery on the computer. People are more motivated to exercise in-person,” Zupancic says. “But with the new mobility of our society and people’s ability to work from home, there’s an adaptation our industry has had to go through. I think we are going to continue to see quite the demand for online offerings.”
Cultivating community online has meant having a strong mission statement. Part of maintaining the community feel is showing people of all shapes and sizes in videos and marketing materials. De Werd says making customers feel welcome means they are more likely to engage with one another in class and on social media.
Chelsea Duke owner, of Hard Core Yoga, was preparing to expand her company’s limited online offerings before the pandemic began, but COVID-19 kicked things into gear.
“It really was on the bottom of my to-do list. But the pandemic lit a fire under my ass. We shut down Friday and reopened Wednesday with a new schedule. We were really quick to adapt and we didn’t see as big of a revenue drop as some of the other places,” says Duke.
Duke’s business had to become flexible to accommodate members’ needs. Most of Duke’s core members now follow a hybrid schedule, taking some classes live and others when they are streaming and up to 24 hours afterwards. Not only does this allow loyal customers to never miss class, it makes fitness instruction more accessible to people who would not otherwise have the time for them.
Duke says in-person classes will always be part of her business. The ability for an instructor to see and correct a customer’s form, for example, is an experience that cannot be recreated online. With so much competition from across the country and even abroad, maintaining a welcoming atmosphere and personal relationships with a core group of customers is still the key component to any small fitness studio’s success.
“It feels really cool when everyone is in the studio, but the online model is a great system that works for a lot of people,” says Duke. “I foresee some of those online numbers will drop as more places return to in-person but this has definitely reshaped our industry.”
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