No matter how clever your marketing strategy is, if a client comes to your studio and doesn’t connect on a personal level, chances are you won’t see that client again.

To attract and retain clients, you have to provide people with more than just a killer workout. They need to identify with your business, and the culture and community you create around your fitness brand is how they will connect.

The key to creating a studio culture or community is to understand the difference between the two. With a studio culture, your clients engage directly with you and your brand. They identify with and are attracted to the environment, vibe and principles that your business stand for.

Within a studio’s community, the clients engage with each other. They not only workout together, but also spend time together before and after class. Clients have a bond with each other, and your studio is a gathering place for them to connect with one another.

Which do you want to build?

Culture is more than just style; it’s your approach to fitness. Are you all about clients having fun while getting their sweat on, or are you more focused on helping clients achieve Zen?

Your culture should be based on the core beliefs of your brand and how you communicate or demonstrate those beliefs. It’s in the structure and themes of your classes and the design elements of your studio. It’s in how you treat your instructors and how your instructors treat the clients. Culture is developed through the music you play and the fashion you and your staff wear.

New York City’s Y7 yoga studios, for example, have created a distinct culture that has been fundamental to the business’ success. When a client walks into any of Y7’s three studios, they immediately get a sense of the culture.

Hung prominently on the wall in their SoHo location is the tagline, “A Tribe Called Sweat.” The line is more than just a nod to hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest, whose music has undoubtedly been played during class. A tribe also refers to a section of society with a common culture.

Music figures prominently in Y7’s culture. The beat-driven flow they’ve created has become a beacon for locals who love the benefits of yoga but can do without the chimes and spa music typically accompanying it. Instead, most of the instructors play pop, indie rock and, of course, lots of hip hop.

“Music is a motivator,” said co-founder Sarah Levey. “It brings people together. That’s especially true with things like our Hip Hop Wednesday classes. Every week we feature a different artist, and last week was Ja Rule. And that’s just fun. It’s for people who don’t take themselves too seriously.”

According to Michigan native Levey, she and her husband opened their first studio for themselves after moving to New York because they couldn’t find a place where they felt comfortable practicing yoga. “When we moved and were looking for a studio, we found they weren’t so welcoming,” she said. “There were dancers and models everywhere, and I would end up leaving class feeling worse about myself because I couldn’t get into a handstand like the former gymnast on the mat next to me.”

To help clients focus on how they feel instead of how they look, Y7 classes are held in dark, candlelit rooms with no mirrors. The emphasis is on how the body feels in practice, rather than how you look. The darkness gives clients the freedom to try new poses or take a child’s pose at will.

The true testament to the power of the culture Levey created was how the studio drew in scores of many like-minded fans. By creating an environment clients want to return to, client acquisition and retention grows organically.

So organic, in fact, that it wasn’t until a few months ago, after two years of running Y7, that the fitness business became a full-time job for Levey and her husband, Mason.

By building a strong community, you help your clients feel stronger bonds with your studio. And when clients feel passionately about a community they’ve joined, they want to draw their friends and family through word of mouth.  

To create a community at your studio, you have to clearly communicate your fitness philosophy and attract the types of people who share your values.

More importantly, you have to create as many opportunities for your clients to connect as possible. Invest in ways you can bring your clients together to create relationships with each other.

Nathan Friend, the manager of Community Fitness studio in Seattle, says his studio has realized success by becoming a “third place” for clients. “The first place is your home, where you spend time with family,” he says. “The second place is where you spend time with colleagues and people in your professional life. And then there is a third place, where you gather and share ideas and be in a community outside of your family and coworkers.” Friend gives examples of bars, coffee shops or recreational clubs as other types of third places.

So, how does Community Fitness create a third place for its members?

“A lot of it is holding that intention,” says Friend. “The name of our studio is Community Fitness, and the order of those two words isn’t an accident. Community is the most important part. We could really be doing anything, but we happen to find that teaching group fitness classes is the best way to create that sense of community.”

Training staff is also essential. Community Fitness encourages their staff to learn all the clients’ names and engage with them about their families, careers and interests outside of the studio.

“When we hire front desk staff, we bill the position as three distinct roles,” says Friend. “There is the facilities work and there is the point of sales aspect that deals with memberships and selling bottles of water and other products. But the third and most important role is they are there to engage with our members.”

Hosting events and retreats is key to becoming part of your clients’ social fabric. Get involved with a charity and host runs or rides, run food drives or organize volunteer projects.

For Community Fitness, creating a gathering space has been an effective growth strategy. They started out nine years ago teaching classes to 20 people, and now the classes average 90.

“There are people who come because they want to work out, but the majority of people come because they are looking for more,” says Friend. “If they just wanted to work out, they would go to a big box gym where they could throw on headphones and do their own thing. But the nature of choosing to go somewhere that is group exercise only means that they don’t have the option of working out individually. They come for a workout and they find friends, and those relationships keep them coming back.”

Culture and community can work hand in hand. When you create a specific vibe with décor, music and attitude toward your practice of fitness that is different from any other studio in town, you are creating your own culture that will attract specific communities to your studio.

“Culture and community are so important to get people to come back,” said Levey. “In general, the way that industry is trending now is that workouts aren’t something clients have to do anymore. They are something they really want to do and get excited for. Fitness has become a social thing. So the environment we create is really friendly and welcoming.”