The pandemic has been extremely tough for the fitness industry and small businesses everywhere. As businesses around the world closed their physical locations and quickly pivoted to online classes, we also saw the industry band together in an unprecedented way. We spoke with fitness professionals and leaders to gather their thoughts on where we’ve been, where we are now and how things will shake out in 2021 and beyond.

The studio owners and workers were frank – the pandemic has been really hard, but they all continued to bring up positives that came out of the pivots they were forced to make. 

Companies pivoted back to focusing on their roots, increasing the sense of community in their active locations

The pandemic paused most expansion ventures, allowing businesses to focus on their existing locations and explore opportunities within their existing clientele.

Before COVID Dominik Desbois, owner of Spin Society, believed that the industry was going to have an increased allure to stay small. “It felt like the big guys were really going to start to hurt. They were getting too big, too fast with business models that don’t really work everywhere.”

Desbois believes that boutique fitness is all about community at its heart. There’s a certain value that high quality studios can bring to their local clientele. These places are run by neighbors, for their neighborhood. Not all national chains will fit into every neighborhood or borough.

Digital classes created connection in a remote world

Cristin Van Horn the creative marketing director from Jane DO echoed the community aspect of studio fitness. She feels like the pandemic brought together a fitness community in a way that wasn’t possible before.

“Before the pandemic we didn’t do many virtual classes, but we opened up virtual options almost immediately,” says Van Horn. “The best part about the virtual classes is the chat feature built into the livestream. We have people who hop on and chat saying ‘this is my first class’ and everyone will respond saying they’re so excited that they’re there!”

This aspect made the remote world feel a little bit more connected, and allowed Jane DO to reach a wider audience than they did previously. Jane DO is a popular fitness chain focused primarily around New York City, but the digital option allowed them to expand their audience worldwide.

TRILLFIT, a Boston based boutique fitness studio with classes ranging from Cardio Dance to Sculpt, also used the pandemic to expand beyond their local markets.

“We were the first studio to close in Boston. We had been talking about equity and public health, and we were watching what was going to happen. We had filled almost all of our classes, but we had a hunch that things were going to turn really soon,” says TRILLFIT owner Heather White.

They chose to close up shop and pivoted immediately to digital, while a lot of the studios remained open. This allowed TRILLFIT to capitalize on the wave of digital fitness coverage, earning them a spot in local news features and international coverage. 

“We were able to quadruple our audience overnight and became global,” says White.

This global, remote audience was obviously very different from their typical in-person classes, but it helped them connect people from all over the world. Parents with children quarantined at home were able to bring their kids to the remote classes and dance it out. 

“When I see people connect with each other and our members become friends, then experience transformation together – that’s the best part of the job. I still can’t even believe that I get to create something that fosters and holds such space for people,” says White.

Small classes and reduced inventory allows for a closer instructor-class relationship

BRICK fitness enjoyed a heightened level of class-instructor communication when in-person classes were allowed to begin. BRICK went fully remote during the early days of the pandemic, but pivoted to a “pick a spot” method when their local ordinances allowed them to reopen.

Their class size was reduced from twenty-four to just eight or less attendees per class. They also added extra time between classes to allow for additional sanitation. This did reduce the number of spots available per day, but BRICK New York coach Nicolas Casaula said there was an upside to the intimacy

“Because our classes are smaller we’re able to tailor the workouts more toward you, so that now the athlete can have a say in what we’re doing,” says Casaula. “Three to six people in classes allows you to customize in a way you just can’t with 24 people.”

The smaller classes also allow him to get to know every single person on a personal level. He and the staff at BRICK pride themselves on the community they’ve built and their level of attention to every client, but the smaller class sizes let them build on those relationships even more. From learning about new injuries to weights to calories on the rower, the smaller sizes let them make things more specific to the athletes.