Boutique fitness studios are everywhere. From barre studios to Crossfit boxes to small group training spaces, you rarely pass a street corner without seeing one. But how many will still be standing one year from now?
Of course, many factors will determine the success or failure of a studio. But one big consideration is the personalities and programs on which you choose to build your business. Successful group fitness instructors and personal trainers are leaving corporately owned gym chains to open their own spaces or may come knocking on yours suggesting they can lead you to the promised land. But does individual talent or success automatically translate to a profitable studio?
Studio owners have two choices on which to base their programming: personality or programs. Let’s take a look at both to be sure you understand the pluses, minuses and everything in between.
Personality-dependent studios hire individuals to create and deliver their own proprietary programming. In some cases, studios might have a shell for programming (e.g. program titles, goals and outcomes) but allow the pro to fill in the blanks. Either way, from pro to pro, the programming will look and feel different as there are fewer guardrails around what’s being delivered. This would be like going to a restaurant that had the same name and same menu, but from location to location the hamburger looked, tasted and cost something different.
The upside to this strategy is that it requires less oversight and management on the programs, which changes where you can spend your time and how you need to structure and compensate your team. You won’t necessarily need someone on payroll (or you) spending hours creating class plans and workouts, teaching and monitoring other trainers, or trying to angle to find your programming differentiation. Instead, you can simply capitalize on the individual talents and personalities.
With this option, the success of the studio depends less on potential clients being drawn to your programming menu (classes or training programs you offer) and more on clients falling in love with the people. But this can be a blessing and a curse. First, you’ll need to search, secure and sustain your talent to keep your studio thriving. This may mean luring pros away from other locations, ensuring better compensation that may dip into your profits and, in some ways, being forever beholden to what the pro needs to stay put. When the secret sauce is the people, you’re number one focus will need to be keeping the pros happy enough to stay.
Something else to consider: just because a pro draws a crowd in one facility does not ensure she/he will do the same in yours. You have to consider whether their draw was the time slot, the club, the sales and marketing at the facility, or the rock star going out and securing her own audience. Will she do the same for you? Or if she is content with the number of clients, classes or crowd size, will she simply show up and teach or train rather than help you grow?
When members fall in love with a person rather than a program, the member will attend based on the pro’s schedule. If she has a sub, leaves the club or the member’s schedule doesn’t match with the individual’s updated schedule, you may lose visits, which translates to revenue. It’s much more challenging to build a loyal membership base if it’s tough to move from class to class or trainer to trainer. You want recurring revenue, and your goal is to increase the lifetime membership value with each member. This only happens when the member can see herself visiting regularly, long term and continuing to be more than satisfied with the outcome. When those three things are tied to one person, that becomes a bit more risky.
Consider the alternative.
Program-dependent studios build a business based on a program, whether branded or unique to the facility. Then, the studio hires individuals that match the culture or personality of the studio, and either train them to teach the program or ensure they already have the credentials to teach the program. The goal is to provide programming that is the same (or similar) from time slot to time slot.
Studios may have multiple programs in a facility or one program that the studio is built around. Either way, the member is sold on the concept, and the personalities are interchangeable. Of course, there will be some instructors or trainers that members gravitate towards, but the goal of program-dependent facilities is to provide a product that exists beyond the person leading the group.
Orangetheory is a perfect example of a program-dependent model. Coaches are hired based on personality, passion and the ability to lead and motivate a group. The program is driven from the corporate team. Each coach has been trained internally about how to deliver these programs, but each never makes up his or her own workout. The team members follow the plan and sprinkle in their personalities. The benefit for the member, whether they come Monday at 5 a.m. or Friday at 2 p.m., it that the experience will be somewhat the same. It’s predictable and portable. Therefore, the member can commit to attending multiple times per week as it’s easier to find a class that fits since they are all the same.
It’s easy to see the upside: easier to find talent as they only need to deliver. And if something happens to a trainer or instructor, it will be easier to replace and keep the product going. Members will fall in love with the facility rather than the individuals. It’s also easier to promote the benefits and outcomes of your studio, which makes marketing less of a challenge.
The downside, if you’re independent, is creating and sustaining the programming. You will either need to do this yourself (and dedicate hours each week to making up the plans, teaching your team and ensuring they work) or hire someone to do it. You could also consider a branded, licensed or franchised studio concept. In this instance, most of that work will be done for you. You will also need a way to train your team and make sure they are delivering on the plan that you are promoting to the public.
Of course, plenty of case studies demonstrate the viability of both options. It comes down to your expertise as the owner and where you want to spend your time. Each option carries pluses and minuses, and each will net a different result. Consider the options, and make the smartest choice for your bandwidth and your bottom line.
Shannon Fable, 2013 IDEA and 2006 ACE Instructor of the Year, is a fitness business and programming consultant who has helped brands such as Anytime Fitness, Schwinn, Power Systems, ACE and BOSU during the last 20 years. Fable also serves on the Association of Fitness Studios advisory council. As an experienced educator and certified Book Yourself Solid Business Coach, she helps fitness entrepreneurs navigate the industry and make more money. Fable, a member of the ACE board of directors, is the owner of GroupEx PRO, a cloud-based group fitness management tool, and Balletone.