In 2014, the Ding siblings – Bebe, Calvin and Valerie – set out to bring a US-style boutique cycling vibe to Singapore. Their CRU brand has since gone from strength to strength, spanning multiple disciplines and locations, a digital platform, a US presence and plans to expand across south-east Asia. CRU’s master trainer and co-founder speaks to Kate Cracknell.
What was the inspiration for CRU?
Ten years ago, when we first came up with the idea for CRU, there was nothing else like it in Singapore. In fact, there was no fitness sector to speak of: the only things to do in Singapore were shopping, the cinema or the one nightclub that everyone went to every single weekend!
However, my siblings – Valerie and Calvin – and I had grown up between Singapore and California. In fact, we were students in Los Angeles when, inspired by the likes of SoulCycle, Calvin and I separately came up with the idea of launching our own studio.
“Being siblings determines how we run the company. The sense of community runs deep. Our family values are why our brand is so strong.”
We had become addicted to the ‘party on a bike’ vibe and we qualified as indoor cycling instructors, initially just so we could keep doing that style of training in our own workouts. However, we knew we wanted to bring something fun to Singapore, Valerie came on-board too and CRU was born.
How would you describe CRU?
CRU is more than just boutique fitness, more than just physical locations. It’s a lifestyle brand: a culmination of music, fitness and lifestyle. Crucially, it’s also about family and community – what we call our wolfpack.
We launched with rhythm cycling in 2014, opening our first CruCycle studio at 68 Duxton Road, Singapore. Our intention was always to expand into more concepts across multiple studios, though, with a growth mindset that’s encapsulated in our name: CRU. ‘Cru’ draws from the French language, where in the world of wines it relates to top quality production growth; for us, it represents our ethos of organic spiritual, mental and physical growth.
Our second studio opened in Los Angeles in 2017: a boxing concept launched under the CruBox brand. As with CruCycle, and indeed all our programmes since, the workout was set to the beat of the music and quickly became a success story, leading us to open CruBox in Singapore – in the same building as our first CruCycle – in 2019.
In 2021, we opened a new flagship on Orchard Road, in the heart of Singapore, bringing us to three locations in the city. This time we had two studios in one location: a CruCycle studio and a multi-purpose studio offering CruYoga and CruHIIT.
Alongside our physical studios sits our CRU TV digital platform and CRU TV Bike, while over the years we’ve also launched things like merchandise and a lifestyle blog.
Tell us about the wolfpack.
The wolfpack is our community, as I say, and that’s what we’re all about at CRU: a sense of family, of familiar faces. We believe that through togetherness, we’re able to achieve so much more than we would be able to achieve alone. In our workouts, you follow the Pack Leader – the instructor – to grow as a pack and become stronger together.
“CRU is synonymous with indoor cycling in Singapore and it’s still at the heart of what we do, even as we expand into more concepts”
We have a wide demographic age-wise, although our core audience is around 25–40 years old, but we do sit at the premium end of the market. We charge S$45 for a single class and S$400 for a 10-pack across all disciplines, so we have a fairly affluent customer base – generally CEOs and those in other senior positions who are looking for an hour’s respite from long days at their desks.
We do cater for all levels, but at the same time ours are known to be the toughest workouts in town. It’s back to CRU’s wolfpack mentality: people come to push themselves.
And our instructors reflect our customer profile: aged 24–46 years, a good number of them originally came to us as customers.
Incidentally, the notion of the wolfpack was also inspired by our love of dogs. All three of us each have a pet husky – the silhouette in the CRU logo – and the communal areas of our studios are dog-friendly. In 2019, we even launched a PUPS at CRU sub-brand selling all-natural dog treats and toys!
What are your USPs?
Singapore is fairly conservative, but the way we do things at CRU is more relaxed, friendly, open-minded, comfortable: people call it the ‘CRU Swag’. It’s just that bit more outspoken and daring than you get elsewhere in Singapore, influenced by our US upbringing.
We train all our instructors to think out of the box, pushing themselves out of their own comfort zones to interact with our customers in new ways – cheering, clapping and so on. And people respond very positively: CRU becomes the one place they let go and experience a real sense of release.
“Singapore is fairly conservative, but the way we do things at CRU is more relaxed. People refer to our vibe as the ‘CRU Swag’.”
Quality of instruction is another USP. It tends to be that instructors work their way up to becoming a CRU instructor. Ours is their ultimate, aspirational destination – once they reach us, they stay with us – but even then, every CRU instructor goes through at least eight weeks of training, 15 hours a week, before they take a class. We also design all our own programming. Quality is a CRU hallmark across the board.
Underpinning all of this, we’ve simply been doing this a long time now. We know who we are and what we’re doing. Our riders have grown with us, we’ve pushed our programming to challenge them and we’ve played the long game. CRU is now synonymous with indoor cycling in Singapore. It’s also still at the heart of what we do, even as we expand into more concepts. In fact, we’re often referred to as the O.G. – Original Gangsta – brand!
Last but not least, our sibling relationship is key. We were kids when we started out, in our early 20s, and we stepped on each others’ toes. But blood is thicker than water and our close relationship now underpins CRU’s sense of community. Being siblings determines how we run the company, which influences how our instructors feel about working for us, which influences customer perceptions. The sense of community runs deep. Our family values are why our brand is so strong.
How did COVID impact CRU?
In 2020, in response to COVID, we started creating our own content so customers could train at home. It started off fairly simply: only business owners were allowed to go into a business premises, so it was just me, Calvin and a single bike in our Duxton Road CruBox studio. There I was, on-stage, surrounded by boxing bags, teaching to Calvin behind the camera!
Eventually the government allowed us to bring in five instructors, on a rota, so we could offer a bit more variety in our content. We made the decision not to build our library by having our instructors filming from home, though. We wanted to ensure the brand experience was as good as it could be, even in those early days.
Our customers paid for this online content from the outset and we also rented out our bikes; within two hours of the Singaporean government announcing lockdown, we had already rented all 200 bikes. So, we had a revenue stream throughout COVID.
We’re also fortunate that our membership didn’t really worry about COVID. They were always desperate to train. We’ve had two major lockdowns in Singapore, but in between, every class has been waitlisted.
In our cycling studio, capacity was reduced from almost 50 bikes to just 12, so we put on classes every hour from 7.00am to 10.00pm to keep up with demand. Only now are we finally able to start scaling that back, with 25 bikes per class meaning we’ve been able to drop two classes a day from the timetable.
In a strange way, though, COVID was good for us. It gave us a chance to build our digital product and experiment with a few things. We tested our yoga concept in an outdoor space we had, for example, rather than having to build a new location straight away. Meanwhile, our HIIT concept came from seeing what people were enjoying online during lockdown.
We also continued our charitable work during lockdown, including a big campaign over six weekends where we ran Zoom classes and asked people to donate to take part. We raised around S$20,000, which we shared across a number of different charities.
Tell us more about CRU TV.
Since early 2021, we have our own film production studio and our own CRU TV digital platform, and we’ve continued to evolve our content and its quality. Calvin now takes the lead on digital production, while Valerie is our marketing and PR expert and I’m CRU master trainer, in charge of instructors and programming.
We also have our own CRU TV Bike with a 21.5” screen, and since COVID started – combining bike rentals plus sales of our CRU TV Bike – we’ve had over 1,000 bike transactions.
“In a strange way, COVID was good for us. It gave us a chance to build our digital product and experiment with a few things.”
If you purchase our bike – at a cost of S$3,800 including mat, weights and cleats – it comes with a year’s free subscription to all our content. Alternatively, if you just want our content, a subscription costs S$49 a month. And our content is really strong, filmed from multiple angles and now diversified to encompass all our programmes: cycling, boxing, HIIT and yoga.
We’ve also recently launched meditation classes online; the flexibility of digital means we can listen to customer feedback and experiment with new concepts. As another example, we’re currently developing a road cycling-type concept to sit alongside rhythm cycling in our CRU TV library. This will just be online for now, but you never know – we’ve got used to plans evolving quickly and dynamically over the last couple of years!
And your physical growth plans?
We’re in a good place in Singapore. I think there’s space for perhaps one more location before we start to cannibalise our own clubs. Ours is a higher price point, as I say, and there are only a small number of neighbourhoods that can support that. Our main objective in Singapore is to continue filling every class to capacity.
And then in Los Angeles, obviously we only have CruBox at the moment; when we launched, although we knew we could do cycling really well, the boutique cycling market was just so saturated. That’s changed over the last two years, though, with lots of studios closing down and a lot of good instructors moving on from their former brands. South-east Asia is our focus for now, but we’ll never say never when it comes to the US.
In terms of south-east Asia, before COVID we already had our eye on a number of potential markets to grow into, and the data we’re getting from CRU TV alongside enquiries for our CRU TV Bike – including from Malaysia, the Philippines, Tokyo, Indonesia, Hanoi and others – have validated our thinking. There haven’t really been any surprises for us in the data.
For now, while immigration rules keep changing, we’ll start with pop-ups – we have a number of these planned – but even after that, we’ll be careful in how we proceed. A lot of these countries are still developing and the law can make things tricky. In Thailand, just as an example, you need a local partner to launch any business. Yet of course, what makes us special – our brand, our soul and our story that’s all based on family – is very hard to hand over to someone else.
“I think we’ll expand into new markets in south-east Asia by next year, leading with cycling but most likely opening multi-purpose studios”
Nevertheless, I do think we’ll expand into new markets in south-east Asia by next year, leading with cycling but most likely opening multi-purpose studios to allow us to offer more than one concept in each location.
Any other plans you can tell us about?
We have a number of new lifestyle concepts in the pipeline: a coffee bar, for example, and food and nutrition including meal plans; I’m a qualified nutritionist as well as a master trainer. And as I say, we’re also continuing to experiment with our digital programming.
Ours is a story of constant evolution. Everything is always in progress. We’ve seen our audiences grow every year across all our concepts, but I still believe this is just the beginning for CRU.
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