Almost overnight, the $100 billion fitness industry went virtual
Reese Scott started boxing 17 years ago and dreamed of setting up her studio for almost as long. In 2018 she started Women's World of Boxing, the first female-owned boxing gym in New York and, according to ClassPass Inc., the most popular workout in Manhattan on its app.
Then, as social distancing measures took hold across the city -- and then the country -- she temporarily closed her 2,300-square-foot, exposed-brick studio and, for the first time, streamed her workout on Instagram. From her Harlem apartment she maneuvered lighting and camera frames to best display her full 5-foot-4-inch frame in a 2-by-3-foot space. Especially challenging, she says, is that clients need to be able to see her footwork.
"It is life-changing," she says. "Going from having brick-and-mortar, an established clientele, and an established flow of business to all of a sudden I have to be very creative and launch a virtual online business in less than a week."
Scott is one of more than 350,000 fitness instructors and trainers in the U.S. who've seen in-person studio classes and personal training sessions dramatically shift in the 10 days. To keep their businesses afloat, they've turned to streaming options, whether Zoom, Instagram Live, FaceTime, or YouTube. Many of these classes are being offered for free -- for now -- as a way for trainers to stay connected while they figure out how to get new and existing clients to pay for their services.
The results can be charmingly DIY, as when an instructor from Shadowbox demonstrated crunches by touching her toes with a container of Clorox in one hand. But depending on your tolerance for choppy video, poor lighting, and unflattering camera angles, they can be a maddening experience as well. The pivot to streaming has highlighted the difference between paying $30 for a class in a tightly controlled environment and one where pets can scramble your position on a downward dog and children need to be kept clear of kettlebells.
Boutique outfits have been the fitness industry's biggest driver of growth for much of the past decade. The latest study by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association found that premium clubs made up the fastest-growing brick-and-mortar exercise category and pushed the industry to an almost $100 billion estimation this year. From 2013 to 2017, membership at boutique studios grew over 120% despite thousands of free instructional videos on YouTube and an estimated 250,000 apps devoted to fitness.
"The central benefit of these boutique experiences is face-to-face interaction," says Rick Stollmeyer, chief executive officer of fitness-booking app Mindbody. On a typical day the platform will book more than 1 million classes out of 2.5 million available, but that number has essentially dropped to zero. "People are jumping into alternative ways to connect, but it's already abundantly clear that it's devastating," Stollmeyer says. "They're seeing revenues drop off 80, 90% and in some case 100%." (SolidCore, which has 72 studios, and Flywheel Sports, with 42 locations, both laid off 98% of their workforce last week.)
Barry's Bootcamp LLC CEO Joey Gonzalez spent 48 hours over the weekend converting his garage into the closest approximation of the club's famous "red room," in order to give the virtual classes a similar look and feel that a class at one of the chain's 70 locations worldwide would have. The company currently broadcasts two or three classes a day on its @barrys Instagram feed, available for free. "Obviously we were not prepared for this," Gonzalez says. "We're operating as a business with zero dollars of revenue coming in and just figuring out how to pay our employees."
But competition in virtual fitness, like in the physical world, is fierce. The pandemic-driven shutdown is prompting some big brands to either accelerate their online offerings or beef them up. Equinox, which has about 350 gyms and boutique studios, said on Monday that its Variis EQX app will now be available widely for download.
Nike Inc.'s Run Club app already offers guided workouts, but the company has made all premium content on its Training Club app free through June 9. Adidas AG is supplementing free training from its Runtastic app with daily virtual sessions on the brand's Adidas Runners Instagram account.
Meanwhile, on-demand fitness services such as Peloton and Aaptiv have seen their numbers surge. Beachbody CEO Carl Daikeler, who founded his workout-from-home concept in 1998, says new subscriber sign-ups are up more than 200% from the same time last year, and volume is up nearly 80%. (There are approximately 1.5 million subscribers.) "There's not a shortage of content available," he says. "The shortage is from programs that are engaging and will really work. Fitness is the easiest thing in the world to skip."
Nathan Forster started the streaming workout platform Neo U 18 months ago, says its average number of daily subscribers grew 600% last week. And its kids' programming has accounted for some of the most popular videos on the site. "Even before coronavirus, everyone knew that the at-home model was here to stay," he says. "It didn't need a pandemic to light it on fire, but that's what it has done."
The businesses that had already begun to create online options are now at a distinct advantage. "Having our own app was huge," says Helaine Knapp, founder and CEO of City Row, which has nine locations across the U.S. When they saw that gym closings would become inevitable, the crew spent two days shooting workouts on their phones so they'd have a bank of content. "We have a production coordinator who was able to get the right instructor, put together a setup in the studio, and have a subset of trainers that have already been trained for the camera," Knapp says.
Those without their own proprietary outlets have had to get more creative. Nathaniel Jewell, founder of the San Francisco-based mobile rowing studio Dryft, says he decided to use Zoom over Instagram TV or Facebook because the classes can be more interactive. But not being able to control the experience has its own challenges. For each class, Dryft has a team available to troubleshoot customer's IT questions or help fix a mic or camera that's not working. "It's like a mini live TV show production behind the scenes," Jewell says.
Boxing instructor Scott found herself tapping into a network of other studio owners (as well as her own clients) to create a virtual business model on the fly that also could stick around in the long term. For her first online class, 200 people tuned in. "It was amazing," she says. "They remind me that I am not alone. It keeps me focused. I have no choice but to level up my game."
Mindbody's Stollmeyer finds a measure of hope thanks to this sort of resilience -- at least, so far. "These are people's passions," he says. "What are they going to do, throw in the towel? And then what, now go look for a job?"
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ONLINE WORKOUTS WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN SWEAT
-- Barry's: The famously intense strength and cardio interval workout is now typically hosting three classes per day on Instagram. Most are bodyweight focused, but it's begun to stream band exercises this week using its own "band together fit kits." Classes on its @barrys Instagram account are free; the company's band kits are available for $32.
-- Beachbody: This 20-year-old workout-from-home concept is still going strong. The top program among its nearly 1,400 workouts is Morning Meltdown 100, which provides some much-needed structure for those now working from home. The goal is to simply finish to finish the 100 workouts -- whether it's 100 days or 300 days. The half-hour morning burn is designed to melt off layers of fat thanks to its high-energy, motivational style of training. Check out the nutrition plans, too. Currently offering a 14-day free trial; a 12-month plan is $99.
-- City Row: Originally focused on rowing as a low-impact, calorie-torching workout, it now broadcasts similarly effective classes that are focused on bodyweight exercises. Its City Row Go app, however, is the best move if you happen to own a rower at home. Classes on its @cityrow Instagram account are free; they air every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7:30 a.m. but are also saved for later viewing.
-- Dryft: Begun as the world's first "mobile fitness" studio in San Francisco last August, the 1,200-square-foot, solar-powered truck would show up for lunch workouts in office parks around the Bay Area. Now on Zoom, they remained focused on corporate and group workouts that offer an unlimited number of guests, your choice of songs, and even a personalized company "hype" video ahead of class. $5 for individual drop-ins; from $125 for group and corporate bookings.
-- Equinox: On its new Variis app, workout brands under the Equinox banner -- including PureYoga, SoulCycle, and Precision Run -- are all available for streaming for members. Options include the popular Firestarter, a 30-minute cardio class that leads you through jumping jacks, squats, and a range of high-energy moves. Every Sunday night, the @Variis Instagram account releases its weekly class schedule and new classes are posted every day at 8 a.m. EST on Variis IGTV.
-- Neo U: Boot camp and dance options are perennially popular but this streaming service has a robust collection of programming for kids, too. Classes include bodyweight basics, cardio, and yoga -- there's one called "Downward Puppies" -- and are broken into three categories: the "Minis" (4-6 years), "Smalls" (7-9 years), and "Bigs" (10-12 years). Subscriptions are $15 per month; yearly subscriptions are currently half off at $50 per year.
-- Mile High Run Club: Instead of its three treadmill studios, the running club is now offering several Instagram live sessions a day with an overview of workouts to make it easier to follow. For those without treadmills, Dash Strength is meant to keep runners in top form with squats, lunges, pushups, and other exercises to help with speed and endurance. Check the @milehighrunclub Instagram account for updates.
-- Nike: The most famous brand in sports formed a team of master trainers to create content on the company's Training Club app and will start livestreaming this weekend. The first one is by trainer Kirsty Godso, so expect the burpees from her Project Equinox classes in Soho. She will be lead the first session via YouTube Live on Saturday, March 28, at 11 a.m. EST. The Training Club app is $15 per month or $120 per year.
-- Tone House: One of Manhattan's hardest workouts has introduced a virtual alternative called Housework three times a week at noon. These hourlong sessions are staggered with a lower body workout on Mondays, core on Wednesday, and conditioning on Friday. They're held on Zoom so the trainers can still shout out at you. And yes, it'll still hurt. Each session costs $20, or $15 with a 10-class pass.