Tag: Americas

Fuelled by community

What’s the Fuel Cycling back story?

MK: Margarett and I both used to instruct at another studio, but we felt something was missing. We made the decision to leave and create our own welcoming, community-focused space.

We started out as an online platform during COVID, with really loyal followers from our previous club who followed us online and got their friends involved too. And then, as we were coming out of the pandemic, a member of our community told us about a space that was available to rent. 

And that was that. We opened Fuel Cycling in Monterey, California, on 12 August 2021. At the time we had 20 bikes in our studio – what we affectionately call The Tank – with a warehouse-meets-speakeasy vibe where we have everything you need, without the frills you don’t.

Honestly, I had never planned to own a studio. I’m a full-time teacher and that was all I ever intended to be. But we had a community who wanted to ride with their favourite instructors and we just felt we had to make it happen. 

I knew I couldn’t do it on my own, but together with Margarett, our fantastic manager Lindsey and our girl gang of amazing instructors – five of us from our old club – we did it. Crucially, we’ve also done it with the help of our community.

Molly Kennedy and Margarett Gabrielson co-founders of Fuel
Molly Kennedy (left) and Margarett Gabrielson (right) are co-founders of Fuel

Can you elaborate?

MK: When we started, we didn’t have much. Neither did we have it all buttoned down from day one. We were warned that we’d never be able to compete against the big franchises and the corporate studios, but we had five amazing instructors, a great manager and a ready-made community who told us that whatever we did, they’d come. So, we trusted our instincts and we went for it. Our thinking was pretty much: “We have bikes, we have speakers, we have music and we have our community. We’ll be fine!” And where many corporate studios have closed over the past year, we’ve grown and grown.

For the first few weeks, the only décor we had was a sign that said ‘It feels good to be home’, but together with our community, we’ve slowly added things over time. We now have a plant wall to which our members have brought their own plants. One weekend, 10 of us got together to paint all the walls black. When we needed mirrors, we put out feelers to see who could help. We’ve tweaked little details as the months have gone by and we’ve done it together as a community.

We’re also next door to a CrossFit studio and we get great support from them. We operate independently, but we’re there to help each other.

One of my big learnings in creating Fuel Cycling has been knowing what my limits are and how to ask for help. Over the past year, we’ve made connections across our local community – far beyond our original group – as people have come forward to support and help us. 

“We didn’t start a cycle studio and then try to build a community. We’re a community that built a cycle studio”

How is your community so strong?

MG: As our manager Lindsey puts it, we didn’t start a cycle studio and then try to build a community. We’re a community that built a cycle studio.

We do nurture this, of course. We’re there at local events, competing in trivia competitions as Fuel, raising money and making donations to charity, doing beach clean-ups and so on. We also have our own social events, such as our popular Pumpkins & Pinot ride.

But the point is, we were a community before we were a studio and that shows. When new people come to Fuel, it isn’t only our team who welcome them as if into their own home. Our members do the same. They go over and talk to them as if they’ve known them for years and even help them set up. People spend time in our community and just want to be part of it.

Fuel Cycling is where friendships are born and it’s such an honour to be that space. Everyone is there for each other, to the point that members will schedule visits around celebrating milestone rides with their friends, for example, or to be there if someone is coming back for their first ride after an illness. They don’t work out just to work out. They work out to see their friends. If they can’t make the ride, they’ll come to the social afterwards. 

Our riders and our staff see Fuel Cycling as their studio, and rightly so. They were there when we started. They’ve grown with us and helped us when we needed help. They’ve come to class and they’ve introduced their friends. They drive our sense of community. 

Our rides are great, but it’s the people who really make us. 

Fuel Cycle Community
The sense of community is incredibly strong at Fuel Cycling, with newcomers instantly welcomed

What about community beyond the studio?

MK: We saw something really interesting coming out of the pandemic: lots of new local businesses being set up by people – and especially women – who had been inspired to finally do the thing they’d always dreamed of doing.

We spent a lot of time going out to meet them, walking the streets and visiting all the coffee houses, the farmers’ markets, the little artisan shops to see how we could help them. Now, every month, we showcase a local business on our social media and we have a Makers’ Market in our studio: a cabinet where local makers and merchants can showcase their products, from jewellery to home-made soap to CBD tinctures. 

It isn’t even about trying to get them to join our studio. It’s important to us that we’re part of our local community. 

“It’s challenging in The Tank, but also hugely encouraging. There aren’t many places I feel as strong as I do when I’m in that room”

Tell us about your programming.

MG: Fuel45 – our 45-minute cycling class – makes up most of our schedule. We used to do Fuel60 once a week, too, but our community wasn’t quite ready for 60 minutes back then; we may reintroduce it at some point if there’s demand for it.

Alongside this are regular special classes: everything from musical themes to our Cookie Exchange ride, where everyone bakes cookies and you all swap them so you go away with one of each. We do a bingo challenge too, where you tick a box each time you ride a different bike. It gets people out of their back row comfort zones and shows them they can do it.

All our classes are rhythm rides. The lights go down and it’s like dancing on a bike. We do make the rides challenging, but it’s all done in such a fun way that people get lost in the moment and don’t realise how hard they’re working. 

Our instructors get off the bike and dance around, they motivate you and remind you what you’re capable of; there’s no focus on what you can’t do. The riders cheer each other on, too. It’s challenging in The Tank, but also hugely encouraging. There aren’t many places I feel as strong as I do when I’m in that room.

MK: In terms of the programming itself, we’re fortunate to have five amazing instructors, all of whom were itching to get away from the whole corporate ‘this is the recipe’ approach. All our classes have to include a variety of rhythms, and must be adaptable to both newcomers and regulars, but other than that we leave it to our instructors to do what feels right for them.

That includes the playlist, which shouldn’t just be chosen for a good workout. It should also reflect the instructor and what’s going on with them that day. Say I feel like I need a mental boost. I’ll start with that and I’ll pick tunes and design my programme around it. 

For us, music isn’t just music. It’s a soundtrack that people should get something out of at an emotional level.

“We’ve had people tell us coming to Fuel is like going to church, because we say everything they need to hear!”

Fuel Cycle class
Most classes last 45 minutes, as this is what members currently want

How do you train your instructors?

MG: It’s a collaborative and ongoing process. We know it’s in all our interests – and those of the studio – for everyone’s classes to be full, so we aren’t competitive with each other. We do each others’ classes as part of this; it’s fine for us all to have a different flavour, but we can still learn from each other. Nobody knows everything. 

New instructors also co-teach with established instructors until everyone feels they’re ready, and we all bring something – different skills and strengths – to help them in their training. 

MK: The way we connect with our members is also very inclusive: our team knows it’s always ‘we’, never ‘you’ or ‘I’. Everything we do, we do it together with our community. 

We also ask our instructors to open their hearts and their lives, because inevitably there will be people in class for whom it resonates: their experiences and feelings, hopes and fears. In fact, we’ve had people tell us coming to Fuel is like going to church, because we say everything they need to hear!

MG: Crucially, though, being in the saddle doesn’t make it The Margarett Show, and the same goes for all our team. A lot of studios showcase their instructors, but that can be intimidating for riders. At Fuel, it isn’t about what the instructor can do. It’s about making every class accessible, challenging everyone in the room to exactly the right level and doing what we do together.

Fuel Cycle instructors
Fuel’s five instructors all worked together at another club before

Is being women-owned important?

MG: We didn’t intentionally set out to be a women-only team and we’re very open to employing male instructors. However, we are women-owned – and also minority-owned – and I think that matters for a lot of reasons. 

At the age of 45, I became a widow with five children. There was a real moment of doubt, of wondering how I would move forward. Could I do it? Was I strong enough? How would I provide for my children? Purely at a personal level, creating Fuel Cycling… it was so important for me to show my children that their mum was strong. That I could do it.

And then there’s Molly: a full-time teacher who was also studying for her special education credential at the exact same time we were launching Fuel. I think it’s so important for our community, and other women in particular, to see that.

Fuel is part of a wave of new, women-owned businesses that have come out of COVID and it’s been really humbling to be a part of that, working to see how we can lift each other up.

MK: The funny thing is, though, that we hadn’t really thought about all this when we set out to create Fuel Cycling. We did what we did because we felt we had to for our community, and my boyfriend really spurred me on to do it.

It was only afterwards, when people saw what we’d done and talked to us about it, that we realised what it meant to them, to the community, to women. So often, women are told ‘no’ – especially minority women. Fuel Cycling is proof that you don’t have to look a certain way to accomplish what you want. Certainly this year, International Women’s Day felt very different for me, when I was up there on the bike and using our studio to prove that dreams can become reality. 

“We haven’t done it the easy way. We’ve done it in a really meaningful way – a way that matters to us and our community”

How are people responding to you?

MK: I think post-COVID, people are very aware of who they’re supporting and where they’re spending their money. People come into our studio and they love the ride, but even more than that, they want us to be successful. They see the love our studio has been built on, and that we continue to pour into the community, and they want to support us.

MG: I think it’s also true that people see themselves represented at Fuel Cycling. Ours is a very diverse crowd: gender, colour of skin, ages, backgrounds. We have military wives. We have grandmothers. And although 70–80 per cent of our members are women, we have men. Intimidated at first by all the women, they quickly get hooked into the community and bring their friends too, so the number of male members is growing. 

We very much represent the community. Everybody has a seat at Fuel Cycling.

Fuel Cycle team all woman
Fuel’s is a team of passionate women, but all genders are welcome

What are you most proud of?

MG: We’re a community that’s built a studio and the feedback is incredible. People say it’s like Cheers, because everyone knows your name! They say you walk in a stranger and leave a friend. Hearing things like that, it makes me really proud of what we’ve created.

We haven’t done it the easy way, either. We’ve done it in a really meaningful way – a way that matters to us and our community. I think that’s really important.

I’m also incredibly proud of the fact that, just 11 months after opening, we won Best Boutique Fitness Studio in the Best of Monterey 2022 awards. The names we were shortlisted alongside, I felt honoured even to be considered, but we won! It’s meant such a lot to our whole community.

MK: What I’m most proud of is seeing how lives have been changed by being part of our Fuel Cycling community. I always get really emotional when I see people celebrating a milestone, making friends, doing something they’ve never done before – standing up in the pedals during a ride, for example, or coming to class in new gym-wear and feeling great about themselves. I always wonder, would that have happened for them without Fuel Cycling? I’m just so proud of what we’ve all created together.

“A lot of studios showcase their instructors, but that can be intimidating for riders. At Fuel, it isn’t about what the instructor can do. It’s about what we can do together”

What are your plans moving forward?

MG: We may introduce a couple of new cycling concepts over the coming months. We’re fine-tuning what those might be, but ultimately it will be based on what our community is ready for.

MK: Beyond that, the sky’s the limit. We’ve already grown our membership to 70 and our studio to 35 bikes, but we’re just getting started.

We currently offer around 15 classes a week and could easily add more, as well as bringing in new instructors. That’s where we always look to spend our money – on top-quality staff – and we have plenty of space at our current site to grow.

Longer term, I have big dreams for Fuel Cycling. Five years from now, I’d love to be in larger premises where we have a second studio for complementary disciplines – yoga, stretching, barre and so on – as well as a juice bar. All our instructors are multi-disciplinary, so it’s just the extra studio space we’d need.

Would we ever open more locations? I don’t know – never say never. We could also go online again to make Fuel accessible to even more people. The most important thing, though, is that we built Fuel for this specific community. We will first build and grow here before we even consider going anywhere else.

Alejandro Ramos

What inspired you to create Síclo?
Our original inspiration came out of New York. My Síclo co-founder Pedro de Garay used to live in NYC, where he did classes at the SoulCycle studio in the basement of his apartment block. He fell in love with the concept: the music, the cool vibe, the space crowded with smiles.

At the time, I was working in venture capital and was very interested in the entrepreneurial space in Mexico. Pedro was by now considering a studio launch in Mexico, so he suggested I fly to New York to try out a class. I’d always been into outdoor rather than indoor sports, but I was sold and ready to sign on the dotted line by the second track of the class.

We approached SoulCycle to see if they’d be interested in launching in Mexico with us, but they had such strong growth plans for the US that Mexico wasn’t on their radar yet.

“We believe people should enjoy life, and we include fitness and wellness within that: it shouldn’t be a chore but something you enjoy.”

So, we set out to do something different. Something with its own strong identity and personality – its own way of connecting with the Spanish-speaking market – so if SoulCycle were ever to come to Mexico, that would be OK. Our brand would be sufficiently strong and differentiated that we would be able to co-exist.

We hired a really cool branding agency who helped us come up with the Síclo name and design concept. We went out on the road, doing maybe 90 classes until we found our perfect master instructor, Jeremy, and we worked hard on our methodology to ensure we’d be delivering best-in-class programming and instruction. We developed a brand language that people would instantly connect with, giving it a local touch by drawing in phrases from Mexican songs, for example. And we built a cool website that would allow people to quickly get to know Síclo and what it stood for.

And what does Síclo stand for?
We believe people should enjoy life, and we include fitness and wellness within that: it shouldn’t be a chore but something you enjoy. Yes, you’ll need to put in the effort if you want to be the best you can be – and we do challenge people to set a high bar for themselves – but you should absolutely enjoy the process.

Síclo
Síclo invests in high quality architecture to help give its brand a competitive edge

When and where did Síclo launch?
We went big on our first site, because we wanted to start really strongly. We didn’t just want to do a small pilot. We bet aggressively on an amazing location – a huge space in the Santa Fe neighbourhood of Mexico City, where there’s a great mix of residential, business and top universities. We created a visually spectacular space. And we launched on 29 June 2015 with an incredible new brand for the Mexican market.

It was such a huge location that we could easily have added studios for other disciplines, for example, or a café. However, we wanted to focus on one thing – rhythm cycling – and be the best at it. It was definitely the right strategy.

That first site won an architecture and design award in New York and remains our flagship, with its huge open space, 10m high ceilings and two cycling studios offering 110–120 classes a week.

Bala
Síclo remains the umbrella brand, with sub-brands including Bala for the boxing studios

“People laughed at us when we said we were going to charge US$15 a class, but the studios were full within a couple of weeks of opening”

What was the market like in 2015?
When we launched Síclo, there was no boutique market in Mexico; Mexico is always lagging behind the US. But of course, that meant there was an opportunity for us, because we already saw boutique as the future of fitness.

People laughed at us when we said we were going to charge 300 pesos – about US$15 – per class. But we quickly proved that people were absolutely willing to pay for the experience, the space, the instructors, the quality of the brand. The studios were full within a couple of weeks of opening.

Fast-forward to today and it’s now a highly competitive market: our first competitor launched about six months after we unveiled our first site, and many more have launched since.

Síclo live streams eight new classes a day, which are all then made available on-demand

So, what are your USPs?
We’re lucky enough to be leading the boutique space here, and we’ve done a lot of work to ensure we maintain that strong position. We’ve paid a lot of attention to every facet of our brand from the outset.

We have really good locations, with most of our studios designed by Pedro’s brother, who’s an incredible, award-winning architect.

We have a vibe that people really connect with, led by our instructors who are not only amazing performers but also community-builders: we’re very selective in who we recruit, with around 80 instructors carefully chosen from thousands of applicants.

And as I mentioned before, we have a fantastic master instructor in Jeremy, who’s one of the most passionate perfectionists I’ve ever met. He’ll get to the studio well before every one of his classes and quietly sit out of the way, headphones on, getting himself in the zone for the performance he’s about to deliver. He’s exceptional and inspirational to our other instructors, most of whom he’s trained. He also creates the programming framework into which our instructors can inject their own personalities, language, music, vibe and way of connecting.

Not-for-profit work is an important part of the Síclo DNA, including charity events such as Sícloton

Our studios typically each offer around 45 classes a week, on top of which we also run large events: collaborations with Apple Music, for example, where it brings cool DJs and artists and we put a couple of our instructors on-stage to lead huge classes that look and feel like concerts. We also hold charity Síclotons and special fundraising classes; not-for-profit work is an important part of the Síclo DNA.

Quite simply, we’ve taken a huge amount of care over every detail. As a result, our community mostly grows organically through word-of-mouth, and through the fact that the media approaches us rather than vice versa.

“As the years have passed, our ambition has grown. We now have a vision of becoming the largest wellness community in the Spanish-speaking market.”

How has your offering evolved?
Rhythm cycling still accounts for around 70 per cent of our 21 studios in Mexico, and all our studios in Spain and Peru; we have two studios in each of those markets, launched as joint ventures with local partners in 2018 and 2020 respectively. Obviously the latter was a complicated start, as we launched a studio and then had to close it two weeks later for the best part of a year. Happily, now re-open, the studio is packed and we’ve just opened a second location.

However, as the years have passed, our ambition has grown. We now have a vision of becoming the largest wellness community in the Spanish-speaking market.

With that in mind, we’ve expanded to offer more disciplines alongside cycling: barre, yoga, boxing bootcamp, meditation, strength, running, stretching and HIIT Kentro, which is a combination of strength, yoga and cardio.

Síclo’s first site in Mexico City remains its flagship

Síclo remains the umbrella brand, but beneath it we now have separate sub-brands: Rueda for our cycling studios, Bala for boxing, and so on. Each location remains single-discipline, although in some neighbourhoods we have multiple locations very close by, so people can take part in different styles of class with us. And actually, there’s one location in Mexico City where we offer Yoga, Barre and Kentro out of a single studio space.

In Spain, we also do regular Barre and Kentro pop-ups. And in Mexico – originally driven out of necessity during COVID, but now about to be launched as a concept we can roll out where appropriate – we also have an outdoor studio concept.

Alongside all of this, we’ve created a digital offering of live streamed and on-demand classes, which of course allows us to reach areas where we don’t have any studios. Of our nine disciplines, there are some that only exist separately on our digital platform: stretching, for example, and strength. In-person, these are incorporated as part of our classes: strength sections in cycling, weights as part of our boxing bootcamps, and stretching at the end of every workout.

How important is digital to your vision?
We have a strong digital offering now, with a combination of hardware – our biSí bike with its integrated, 180-degree rotating screen – and software, with Síclo content delivered via the biSí screen and via our Síclo+ app.

“As we grow, we’ll tweak as needed to make the product feel local, so people immediately connect with it.”

However, although digital came to the forefront in lockdown, we see omnichannel as the future of our business, with physical and digital equally important moving forward.

Digital absolutely won’t replace physical studios. Many of our community already do both at-home and in-person classes, and we’re going to be launching new packages soon offering biSí customers special privileges and discounts in our studios.

Síclo’s Bala studios offer bootcamps that combine boxing and weights

What digital is great at – aside from supplementing studio visits with at-home classes when that’s more convenient – is allowing us to reach into new markets with minimal effort to see what traction we get.

Most of our digital users are currently based in Mexico, Spain and Peru – where we have physical studios and good brand awareness – but we’ve actually gained users in 80 countries and over 2,000 cities, including important communities in Colombia, Chile, the US and Portugal.

That’s the power of omnichannel. You get great data from your digital platform that helps you decide where to open physical studios next. Those studios then act as showrooms, building awareness and letting people get to know you. You start to grow your community locally, then you launch bike deliveries to that market alongside your studios. That’s the Síclo cycle. That’s what we’re aiming for.

“We may explore Spanish-speaking markets in the US – possibly the world’s most competitive market, but we believe our uniquely Latin vibe gives us a great opportunity.”

Tell us more about biSí and Síclo+
Our biSí bike costs just under US$2,000 – or US$50 a month if you pay in instalments – with the option to add up to six profiles so each family member can access their workout history, personalised recommendations and so on. You then pay around US$36 a month for the Síclo+ content, which streams to the integrated screen on the bike or to your app if you’re exercising elsewhere.

Through our bike, you can interact with the instructor during live streams, as well as with other riders. It’s all about building a sense of community connection, which is an agenda we’re going to be pushing even harder moving forward. We want to create, and connect, the largest wellness community in the Spanish-speaking market.

If you don’t have our bike, you can still be a Síclo+ app customer, but in that case we actually charge you less: around US$14 a month. We don’t believe the experience is as good when you can’t connect, interact or access the metrics you get from biSí.

We do eight live streams a day, spanning all our disciplines, which then make their way into our content library for on-demand use.

What are your growth plans?
We’re already in three cities in Mexico – Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara – as well as Madrid in Spain and Lima in Peru. Our next targets are Barcelona in Spain, plus some South American markets – Colombia and Chile are top of the list – where we already have strong digital populations.

Alejandro Ramos and Pedro de Garay are the co-founders of Síclo

We may also explore Spanish-speaking markets in the US: Los Angeles, Miami, San Diego, even Chicago and New York. Of course, that would take us into possibly the world’s most competitive market. However, we believe our uniquely Latin vibe gives us a great opportunity to create important communities in these locations.

As we grow, we’ll just need to ensure – as we have in Mexico, with the references from popular songs woven into our language – that we tweak as needed to make the product feel local, so people immediately connect with it.

Jon Brady

Can you describe the Midtown offering?
Midtown is a sports resort where everything you could want to do in terms of activity and movement is available in a luxury, high-touch environment that’s all about community and personal attention.

We currently have eight huge, fully-owned clubs – anything from 200,000sq ft to 700,000sq ft of indoor space alone – with multiple pools, tennis courts, fitness spaces, spas, sports courts and in-club boutique studios. In Chicago, there’s also an on-site hotel and we plan to do more of these.

At the moment, we have four properties with what we currently consider to be our blueprint offering: Chicago, Bannockburn, Willowbrook and Rochester in New York State. The latter three were remodelled during lockdown, which at Bannockburn and Rochester meant a US$15m investment in each club. These clubs all now have the same studios, same concepts, same look and feel, same indoor and outdoor facilities.

“The way we see it: we’ve had a promotion over the last 15 months! Midtown has gone from being members’ third space to being their second space”

Three other clubs – Atlanta, Montreal and Palatine – are in preliminary planning for a similar remodel, with timing subject to how well we come out of COVID. Things are still changing daily on that front – only today, we’ve received notification that masks will have to be worn again in New York State – and we’re yet to see how much of an impact the Delta variant has.

It’s only our club in Weston, Florida, where we’re holding off on the remodel for a while, as we spent US$5m replacing all 26 outdoor tennis courts only three years ago.

All eight clubs do have some boutique elements, though, because we’ve been testing our concept for six or seven years. When we identified the boutiques as our biggest threat, we built studios in other clubs before fully deploying in our Chicago flagship. Our indoor cycling concept Ride, for example, was originally tested in Palatine and Montreal.

How are your clubs performing as we emerge from COVID?
Performance varies, as some clubs have been open longer than others; we’re tracking attendance on a daily basis and we’re finding that time re-open is the most important factor. Each club is showing a very similar trend line, and very similar timeline, in growth of member numbers from date of re-opening.

Montreal, for example, only re-opened six weeks ago [interview conducted 3 August 2021] and member numbers are just under 50 per cent of February 2020 figures. In Atlanta, which was the first club to re-open after only a few months of closure, we’re up to almost 83 per cent. In Chicago, it’s nearly 80 per cent. The rest are around 60–65 per cent.

How has group exercise recovered?
Group exercise has recovered surprisingly well: as a percentage of check-ins, we’ve actually had more people doing group exercise than pre-COVID.

This in spite of the fact that we weren’t able to offer any indoor classes until February 2021; in Montreal, we still can’t. However, we’ve done a lot of outdoor classes and, even with the cold winters in places like Chicago, they’ve been incredibly popular.

“Group exercise has recovered surprisingly well: as a percentage of check-ins, we’ve actually had more people doing group exercise than pre-COVID”

In Chicago, we adapted an outdoor space in the parking garage, installing wind-breakers and Typhoon heaters, and we took bikes and other equipment out there. We also partnered with clothing brand Arcteryx, offering workshops for our members to learn how to layer for outdoor exercise.

Midtown's Small Dark Box
Midtown is currently asking questions of Ride, such as whether the ‘small dark box’ design needs to evolve

However, although group exercise is doing well overall – and Samadhi and Arena in particular – Ride is lagging behind. Across all our clubs and all our Ride programmes, Ride is the slowest to come back. We’re seeing similar numbers of members taking part as before, but they’re doing it less often, taking part in other activities they may have discovered and enjoyed during lockdown. As a result, average Ride class sizes are around half those of other classes.

Why is Ride lagging behind?
At this stage, we just don’t know. What I would say is that we keep an eye on the boutique competition, and the cycling studios we’ve visited are sitting at around 20–30 per cent capacity at the moment. So, it seems the challenges aren’t unique to us.

Ride has always been a very popular studio since it first launched in 2017/2018 – a highly immersive, experiential space with a rock concert feel, including a giant screen and graphics that respond to the audio. And, of course, incredible instructors.

“Ride is lagging behind. We’re seeing similar numbers of members taking part as before, but they’re doing it less often.”

It also ticks all the boxes post-COVID: our bikes are now spaced 6ft apart – the rest are still outdoors – so members have their own clearly defined workout space. Plus, Ride is doing OK for virtual classes and THE TRIP: we’re getting similar attendance at these classes as before.

And yet, other than in Florida where it’s too hot to cycle outside, members seem hesitant to move indoors for their live cycling classes. In fact, in Chicago, all these classes remain outdoors, with just virtual in the studio.

We are looking to transition back inside in September. However, we need to understand why the lag has been happening and we’re starting to ask ourselves some challenging questions about the live experience. Is the atmosphere and the technicolour journey – the very thing that proved so successful before – what members want now? Will and should indoor cycling come back in the same format, or have mindsets shifted during COVID?

The Theater
The Theater is Midtown’s main group fitness space, with dramatic lighting and AV

What might Ride look like in the future?
We’re taking a breath and taking stock, as it’s very early days: attendance may simply come back as time goes on. It’s also important to really look at the data rather than making kneejerk decisions. For example, we previously found that cycling drove lower overall attendance than yoga in our Rochester club, but also brought in more unique users than yoga. It’s an important part of the mix.

Nevertheless, we are trying to work out if the environment needs to change. Have people enjoyed outdoor cycling classes so much that we need to replicate this feeling in our studios? Do we need to move away from the ‘small dark box’ design and make it feel more like you’re outside in nature?

Some of the new AV components we developed for our relaunch include a ride through the Californian redwood forest, as opposed to the sci-fi worlds of THE TRIP, so we can test all this out and see what triggers more usage.

Another question: do we – and other cycling boutiques, for that matter – need to revisit our model? At 800–1,000sq ft, Ride is our smallest studio and it’s historically been a tightly packed community experience. That’s true whether it’s a VIBE or PWR class, our rhythm and power-based signature concepts. But what if people are now seeking more of a solo ride experience, rather than an all-in-it-together buzz?

“We aren’t just a place to work out any more. It isn’t just about fitness. Our sector needs to focus on how we make people feel – how we make them feel good.”

Then there are questions like: what does Peloton buying Precor mean, other than for the manufacturing capacity? Will there be an impact on what can be offered for clubs? And is the high use of the Peloton bikes on our fitness floors already impacting attendance in our Ride studios?

We’re working on a few ideas at the moment which we’ll try out with members – current riders and those new to it – and ask if it’s what they’re looking for. Instead of differentiating via training styles – rhythm vs power, for example – it may be that we need to differentiate by indoor versus outdoor, dark rooms and fantasy worlds versus individual escapism into the countryside. We’ll see.

The Rochester club
The Rochester club was remodelled during lockdown to incorporate the boutique concepts

Certainly we’ve invested a lot of time, money and effort in the Ride concept and we’re not going to shrug our shoulders and accept that people are now doing something else instead. Something else as well, yes – we’re all about variety – but not instead. We’ll apply our ‘better than yesterday’ core value and identify what needs to be done to meet members’ needs today and tomorrow.

What do you see as the role for the sector coming out of COVID?
Interestingly, since clubs re-opened, we’ve seen usage of the on-demand classes in our app fall off a cliff to such a degree that we’ve stopped doing them. People are craving human connection.

And in clubs like ours, with all the space we have available, that isn’t just about coming to us to exercise. Instead of working from their home desks, members are coming to the club to work. To be around people. The way we see it: we’ve had a promotion over the last 15 months! Midtown has gone from being members’ third space to being their second space.

And this is so important for the whole sector to understand. We aren’t just a place to work out any more. It isn’t just about fitness. We’ve become more important within people’s lifestyles. We need to responsibly move with this shift, no longer focusing on weight loss or how much exercise people ‘have to do’, but on how we make people feel – how we make them feel good.

Joey Gonzalez

Rebranding, RIDE and a transformation inspired by COVID. The CEO of global boutique megabrand Barry’s speaks to Kate Cracknell about 2020’s rollercoaster ride

You recently rebranded to Barry’s, dropping Bootcamp…

Yes. Given the launch of Barry’s RIDE – our new cycling concept – and classes like Release and Lift before that, we realised ‘Bootcamp’ didn’t accurately reflect the different modalities Barry’s now offered.

Barry’s RIDE is the same Barry’s you know and love, just replacing the treadmill with a bike

The new brand – Barry’s – represents, simply and succinctly, everything our clients know and love about the brand.

Barry’s RIDE opened in February with studios in LA and NYC

Tell us more about Barry’s RIDE.

We knew we were missing a segment of the fitness population who preferred not to run. We wanted to cater to them, too, and developed the Barry’s RIDE concept as a lower impact cardio option.

Barry’s RIDE is a 50- to 60-minute class that pairs HIIT-style indoor cycling with traditional Barry’s floor work. It’s the same Barry’s you know and love, just with the treadmill of our Bootcamp classes replaced with a bike. Indoor cycling is great for burning calories and shedding body fat, boosting muscular endurance and increasing lean muscle definition – all benefits of the original Barry’s workout, but through a lower-impact modality.

Barry’s RIDE opened in February with studios in New York City – in the lower level of Barry’s existing Chelsea studio (135 W 20th St) – and in Los Angeles, at 1440 Lincoln Blvd, next to the existing Barry’s Venice studio.

Each new RIDE studio has 25 bikes and corresponding floor set-ups. Instructors lead class-goers through bike work and floor work together, rather than in alternating shifts like the original Barry’s workout.

RIDE classes were bookable with any Barry’s class package in NY or LA, with packages also available.

Can you compare RIDE to anything else on the market?

It isn’t like any other cycling class. For one, there’s the Barry’s difference: we are the original cardio and strength training interval workout and our clients know and love us for this. This style of training has been at the core of our business since we first started and it’s mirrored in Barry’s RIDE: no other cycling studio puts as large an emphasis on balancing cardio with strength training as RIDE does.

We know how important it is to find that balance to increase lean body mass, raise metabolic rate (up to 15 per cent) and ultimately, be as fit and healthy as possible.

Our Instagram Lives were so well-attended, it made us confident we could fill paid at-home classes

Any plans to roll out Barry’s RIDE to more sites?

The two initial RIDE sites were extremely successful. They currently remain closed post-COVID, but we’re excited to re-open them and to explore new opportunities in which we can launch.

Barry’s RIDE pairs HIIT cycling with traditional Barry’s floor work – but high fives are not currently allowed

Let’s talk about COVID. How did your business respond to the challenge?

After we proactively shut our Red Rooms, we knew we had to keep people moving. Within days, we started complimentary twice – sometimes three-times daily – Instagram Lives featuring trainers from around the world who led our community in 20-minute workouts. IG Live is a platform that allows viewers to interact with us in real time, and as a brand that places our community at our core, that was important to us.

Our Instagram Lives were so well-attended, it made us confident we could fill paid at-home classes. Barry’s At-Home was born, which allows clients to book and take part in 45-minute classes online or through the Barry’s app.

These classes are held over Zoom and, while not quite the same as being in the Red Room, we’ve done our best to produce a product that truly mimics the connection and high-touch experience that people get from a traditional Barry’s studio. A Barry’s moderator checks clients in, just like the front desk, and instructors correct form and connect with clients in real time, similar to the in-studio experience.

The response from clients has been overwhelming, with sign-ups way exceeding our expectations. We’ve also seen a number of first timers – many living in cities where we don’t have a Red Room – meaning Barry’s At-Home is their first introduction to the brand.

At-Home classes cost US$20 each. As a comparison, an in-studio RIDE class costs US$30

Are you going to continue offering At-Home classes?

Barry’s At-Home will be a permanent addition to our programming. We had actually been working on a digital product for quite some time: the onset of COVID just expedited it. Now, with the world irrevocably changed, we’re entering a new era of fitness. We plan to build out a permanent, robust digital product that’s fully integrated into our app and website.

Already, our At-Home classes are so popular that we offer roughly 100 every single day, taught by instructors from across the US – people who can motivate clients no matter where they are in the world, even through a computer screen.

There are seven types of Barry’s At-Home programme, all of which include blasts of cardio. There’s our bodyweight-only class, because not everyone has gym kit at home; a Band Together class, which uses our resistance, mini and booty band Fit Kit; a weights-only class with dumbbells; Barry’s RIDE, for anyone who has access to their own bike; RUN, our guided runs for the treadmill or outdoors; a weights + band class; and even a traditional Barry’s class with treadmill and weights.

At-Home classes cost US$20 each, or alternatively a membership of US$225 gives you access to up to 30 classes in 30 days. We also have a great range of branded equipment – from bands to benches, free weights to mats – available for purchase at shop.barrys.com.

As a comparison, an in-studio RIDE class costs US$30.

COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to re-imagine our business model

How is your in-studio business performing now?

People are still yearning for connection and are eager for a sense of normality: we’re seeing a demand for classes in the locations that have re-opened.

However, not every studio has re-opened: the majority of US studios are still closed as per CDC and local government guidelines [information correct at the time of writing, 14 August 2020].

We also realise that some clients may still be most comfortable at home. We want to make sure we’re serving them no matter how they feel.

How are you keeping your community safe?

Our main objective and responsibility is to ensure the health and safety of our employees and our community, and to set Barry’s up for a successful re-opening once everything normalises.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working diligently on a relaunch strategy and have committed to a three-pronged approach.

  1. We will be in compliance with all national and local mandates.
  2. We’ve put together an advisory council of healthcare experts who are helping to guide us on when and how to re-open, based on specifics of the Barry’s workout.
  3. We’ve conducted focus groups with clients and staff from each city in which we operate, to better understand how our local community on the ground feels and to ensure clients feel comfortable on return.

In addition to reduced class capacity, socially distanced studio layouts and intensive cleaning with hospital grade disinfectant between each class, there will be no sharing of equipment, and of course no high fives or fist bumps. We’ve even installed foot-operated door openers.

In our Bootcamp classes, the class format has also been changed so there’s just one round on the treadmill and one round on the floor, to limit crossover or transitions.

We’ve upgraded our HVAC systems – including hospital-grade MERV-13 filters and bipolar ionization/UV units – and temporarily closed down our showers, lockers, Fuel Bars and water refill stations.

We’re using a geo check-in feature on the app, meaning clients can check-in once they’re within 100 metres of the studio. They are then temperature-checked and asked to confirm they are symptom-free. Sadly, we are also currently asking clients to leave the studio as soon as class is over.

Post-COVID, Barry’s has minimised transitions in its classes

How do you see Barry’s faring in a post-COVID world?

I believe the ultimate effects on the industry will depend on the type of fitness offered. Workouts like Barry’s are very challenging to replicate at home: they require a lot of space for various – and, in some cases, large and expensive – forms of equipment. However, simpler cardio-based workouts may be at risk post-COVID, if customers have adapted to an online experience that they find comparable in quality and value.

Sadly, there may be a meaningful number of studios that don’t survive, and the overall impact on boutique fitness will be challenging.

Once the pandemic is behind us, people will flock back to in-person, yearning for companionship

However, I do believe that once the pandemic is behind us, people will flock back to the in-person experience. Throughout this crisis, people have been cooped up in their homes, in some cases in complete isolation, for a painfully long period of time. I think most will be yearning for companionship and, once the world feels safe again, will replace their tech/virtual routines with ones that re-introduce relationships and human interaction.

Gonzalez leads by example and still instructs classes

If you look forward five years, where do you see Barry’s?

COVID-19 has been one of the most disruptive experiences we’ve ever experienced, but also one of the most transformative. It has inspired the continued pursuit of creativity and innovation, which has led to us pushing the boundaries of what we can deliver, both in-studio and online. It has given us the opportunity to re-imagine our business model.

In five years, I see Barry’s continuing its global and domestic expansion and continuing to serve our family wherever they are, whether that’s at home or in-person.

Styles Studios Fitness

What was the opportunity you identified for Styles Studios Fitness?

We saw an opportunity to cut a lane between the boutiques and the big boxes.

Styles Studios Fitness is located in Peoria Illinois, in the United States’ Midwest, and boutique studios are incredibly expensive for small and mid-sized cities like this. People might try them for a while, for the novelty factor, but they just aren’t willing to pay US$20 per class on an ongoing basis.

We wanted to bring a niche, boutique experience to people at a more affordable price.

How would you describe the Styles concept?

We’re still looking for the perfect way to describe our 14,200sq ft club, but so far the descriptors we use are “a health club of boutiques” and “Four and a Floor” – the latter because we have four distinct boutique studios and a gym floor, all under one roof.

Every studio has its own entrance and its own signage. They really are four unique boutiques side-by-side, and between them they offer over 350 live and virtual classes every week; that’s still the case post-lockdown, albeit the proportion of virtual classes is currently slightly higher than it was.

Classes run all day, every day and you can book them through our app. In fact, since re-opening, you have to book so we can manage capacity; we have a strong set of procedures and a #StylesSafe campaign, which is all about operating safely and building member confidence in the aftermath of COVID lockdown.

Tell us about your boutiques…

CHAIN is a 1,350sq ft, 35-bike immersive cycle studio – currently running at around 50 per cent capacity – where a 12 x 42ft curved wall screen provides participants with a cinematic experience.

FREESOL is a 1,000sq ft hot yoga studio with pre-COVID capacity for 25 participants; it’s also sitting at about 50 per cent capacity at the moment. It’s designed to create a sense of escape, with the only lights in the studio dimmable to the point that the walls just gently glow.

HUSTLE is our small group training studio – a 1,500sq ft space that holds just 16 people for very personalised coaching. The studio has a real wow factor, with eight massive strength training rigs and eight Woodway treadmills. It’s strength and conditioning made cool, all set to music and with regular CV hits on the treadmill to boost endorphin levels. These classes are still able to operate at their normal 16-person capacity and are 100 per cent booked all the time; we’ll be adding more in the Fall. In the meantime, as we have a huge outdoor space, we’ve also launched HUSTLE Outside and get 60–80 people per class at the weekend – all in line with state guidelines.

URBAN RITUAL is where we host our traditional group exercise classes, but these are taken to the next level thanks to the environment. There’s an incredible light show, a huge video wall at the front – big enough that, in virtual classes, instructors are life-sized – and the whole place feels like a nightclub. The theme that pulls it all together: “The music made me do it.” At 1,000sq ft, this studio usually holds 25 people; it’s currently around half that.

Meanwhile, the FLOOR is around 5,500–6,000sq ft and is equipped by Precor. There are 24 pieces of cardio equipment; pin-loaded strength and free weights; and a functional area, with a Queenax rig, taking up around a third of the gym floor. We’d make the functional space even bigger next time.

We also have a smoothie and coffee bar, nutrition and wellbeing coaching, and the region’s first Dexa Wellness office offering medical-grade body composition scanning and other fitness testing.

Virtual is like going to the fitness movies: our immersive environments drive engagement

With its nightclub vibe, URBAN RITUAL hosts Styles’ traditional GX classes

How do you develop your programmes?

Both of us have a strong Les Mills background – Carrie in club management, Amy as the brand’s national training manager – so it won’t be a surprise to know that many of our programmes are Les Mills.

It’s currently all Les Mills programming in URBAN RITUAL, and in CHAIN with TRIP, SPRINT and RPM. But while FREESOL has Les Mills BodyFlow and Barre, we also offer meditation, pilates, tai chi and yoga. And HUSTLE programmes are all created by us, with a new workout made fresh every day. Amy is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and an incredible programmer – we’ll no doubt do more bespoke classes in the future.

What about your virtual classes?

At Styles, virtual is like going to the fitness movies: we create immersive environments that drive member engagement. We often have eight to 10 people in our virtual CHAIN classes, just as an example.

That’s great, because it helps spread the load away from peak times, keeps satisfaction levels high whenever people want to work out, and helps people build group exercise confidence.

Interestingly, the shift away from traditional peak times has become even more pronounced since we re-opened from lockdown. Virtual has been a godsend in this respect: it’s allowed us to cater cost-effectively for our members throughout the day. Members go into the app, see what’s coming next, rock up and they’re guaranteed a world-class experience.

HUSTLE is the one studio where we don’t offer virtual classes, because the space also acts as an extension of the gym floor: people can train in there on their own when there are no classes.

Members are “going crazy” for CHAIN

Tell us more about CHAIN.

CHAIN is a fantastic environment and people are going crazy for the immersive experience – there really is nothing else like it in town. Even those who have never cycled before are now regulars.

Many operators worry about the cost of a big screen like we have in CHAIN, but there’s so much you can do with it – you aren’t just putting it in for one class. Our TRIP virtual classes are incredibly popular, but in our live RPM classes, for example, we’ll still use the screen to project high-energy content. You have to create an experiential space.

And it’s worth the investment, because cycling is a modality that’s never going to die. As a non-impact form of exercise, it’s good for all ages. When you also make it an immersive experience, which reduces the perceived exertion while still giving you a great workout… Well, people love it.

We focus on fitness cycling classes at Styles; we don’t have any ‘party on a bike’ classes. We are, however, looking to introduce Stages Flight soon, which will add a more competitive, performance-focused option to the timetable.

What proportion of your members take part in group exercise?

A full 90 per cent of our members have done a class with us at some point, but then our whole model has been built around this.

We’ve flipped the usual model, so our studios are the centrepiece and the gym space secondary

We still wanted to have a gym floor – it’s what people know and somehow it makes the model work, even though it isn’t used as much as the classes. But we’ve certainly flipped the usual model, so our studios are the centrepiece and the gym space secondary.

You say you’ve made membership affordable?

We have an “all under one roof for one price” membership which starts at US$75 a month for a 12-month membership, US$85 a month for six months and US$95 for monthly. That’s premium for our area.

We put prices up slightly after COVID, but we’re still focused on offering great value. We need to be profitable, of course, but profitable with acceptable pricing and good capacity management. We did some interesting research in New Zealand, exploring the ratio between floor space and member capacity, and we’re confident we can get to 2,800–3,000 members and still have everyone feeling good about being here.

Membership includes use of the gym floor and all classes. Nutritional programmes, wellbeing coaching and Dexa cost extra – and are available to non-members too – but we see all of this as invaluable to empowering people on their journey. There’s so much misinformation out there; we want to give people some simple principles they can apply.

Personal training is also available, but we’ve deliberately started small. That said, it’s really taking off since we re-opened.

FREESOL’s lights can be dimmed so the walls gently glow

What is your training philosophy?

Our approach is holistic, embracing stress management, nutrition programmes, Dexa scans. Our in-house experts don’t just look at weight loss either, but at things like inflammation, acidity, gut health, adrenal fatigue, detox – underlying factors that, if properly addressed, will bring results.

It’s also why we’ve created a multi-modality model. Because you can’t HUSTLE every day. You need recovery in your routine too.

What is the culture at Styles Studios Fitness?

We aim to be open and empowering, with one of our key straplines being #AllStylesWelcome. It’s about breaking down shame, barriers, doubts. Everyone is welcome.

We’ve done away with bright lights and mirrors. In their place, we have immersive experiences that everyone can get lost in – and we’ve found that men in particular have responded very positively to this. Our membership base is 55/45 female/male and across all our studios, 25–30 per cent of class attendees are male; it’s higher still in CHAIN and HUSTLE classes. Many have never done group exercise before, but they tell us they’re now addicted.

And there’s so much to choose from. It’s summed up in another of our main straplines: #NeverBeBoredAgain.

How are you building a sense of community around Styles Studios Fitness?

Our open approach is a big part of this. We’ve had a lot of people tell us they recognised fellow members from other gyms, but that Styles is the first time they’ve actually spoken to them.

We also let kids over the age of 12 (and up to 21) come and train with their parents, switching their contracts on and off to suit. All generations are loving it and it’s boomed since re-opening, with parents wanting to get their kids moving again.

We have what we like to call a “secret sauce” for our staff culture too. We recruited specifically for the Peoria community we’re here to serve, and we created an internal bible: The Little Book of Styles. It tells our story, our values, who we are, why we’re here and how to live that daily. And we celebrate successes as opposed to dwelling on mistakes: it’s about releasing serotonin and dopamine in our staff, not cortisol.

If you can do well in a B-rated, hard market like this, you stand a chance of scaling your model

And then, of course, is the fact that Styles is our family name – or it will be once Carrie gets round to changing her surname! There’s a very personal, close-knit, family feel to the place.

It all comes together to create a fun, safe environment where people don’t think “I have to go” but rather “Great, I get to go to Styles today!”

One other nice thing: everyone has a Styles wristband, which uses the same technology as Disney’s FastPass. It gives access to the club, operates the lockers, allows you to make cashless purchases – and then outside the club, there’s a community of local businesses who will offer a discount to anyone who shows them their Styles wristband.

LA and NYC dominate the boutique scene. So why Peoria?

This decision was about family. We have a son and we wanted him to grow up close to his grandparents – Carrie’s parents. It has also meant we’ve been able to lean on the support of family as we get this project off the ground.

But interestingly, there’s a saying around here: “If it plays in Peoria, it will play anywhere.” If you can do well in a B-rated, hard market like this, you stand a chance of having a model that’s scalable.

And it has worked well: we opened in January and had got to 500 members after eight weeks. Then COVID lockdown hit and we were closed for eight weeks – a period during which we could probably have grown by another 400–500 members, hitting operational break-even. So, COVID certainly cut the pace of our growth. However, we worked hard to keep the members we had and have since grown to 600 members, with weekly attendance at 90 per cent of pre-COVID [data correct as at 4 August 2020].

Given low levels of local competition and the size of the potential market, we’re confident that – even though fear of COVID is probably cutting our receptive audience in half at the moment – we will still be able to achieve the 2,800–3,000 members we were always aiming for.

Will you open more Styles locations?

We only opened this first site at the beginning of the year, so we’re still finessing the offering. Developing our model was a three-year project and we’re still very much on the learning curve.

Equally, we didn’t set out just to grow a chain. We wanted to get people healthier and fitter, happier and more confident.

However, we are getting some investor interest, so if we turn out to be the next cool thing, we’re fully open to the conversation, whether that’s opening more sites ourselves or franchising the concept.

If we build more Styles sites, we’ll probably look for 16,000–18,000sq ft in total so all the studios can be bigger. Proportionally the other studios will still be bigger than URBAN RITUAL though; it’s in HUSTLE, CHAIN and FREESOL where we run our trademark, signature programmes and where we place our main focus.

Equally, it would be easy to see our HUSTLE brand working well as a standalone boutique.

Whatever we do, though, it will be the smaller cities we focus on – the places that haven’t seen anything like the spaces we create, and where we can therefore make the biggest impact. And we will always actively look for dense pockets of Les Mills instructors. They’ve had the best instructor training in the world, so we know all we need to do is give them the right tools to create a world-class experience.

Styles recently launched a made-to-order clothing line

Tackling COVID head-on

“We came out of the blocks quickly in our COVID response,” says Styles Studios Fitness co-founder Carrie Kepple. “Amy and I had been through a crisis before – at the Les Mills Christchurch club that was hit by an earthquake in 2011 – and I think it was this that made us accept what was happening quickly rather than spending weeks fretting over it. We just said: ‘Well, this is happening. Let’s react now. Let’s control what we can control.’

“We closed with 500 members and spent lockdown focused on looking after this core group. We prioritised people over payment and focused on community – on being a club and supporting our members’ wellbeing. The support and engagement that flowed as a result has been incredible: we retained 98 per cent of our members, with many of them continuing to pay through lockdown even though we told them we didn’t expect it, and we’ve come through this with higher levels of loyalty than ever.”

Kepple continues: “We launched free online fitness for all our members, including those on frozen memberships, initially through a closed Facebook group and then through our member-only app. We live streamed a couple of classes a day – including meditation, self-care, mental fitness – and members were tuning in religiously.

“We’re continuing to offer online now, including it in all our memberships; our studios are set up with cameras, so it doesn’t cost us any more to live stream a class that’s running anyway. It’s great for the times when members can’t make it to the club, adds real perceived value and makes it far more likely that people will stay with us for a long time.

“We’re also selling online-only memberships, currently for US$25 a month – we’ll work out if that’s the right price over the coming months. But really, for non-members, our big focus is now our HUSTLE@home app – www.stylesstudiosfitness.com/hustleathomeapp – which again we launched during lockdown. Anyone in the world can buy this app and it gives you access to all sorts of features on top of our live and on-demand classes. It costs just US$14.99 a month, or US$59 for a whole year.

“Other new areas of business launched in the last couple of months are our physician- and FDA-approved high-end supplement line, Designs for Health, and a made-to-order clothing line.

“We’re also the first US facility to partner with FitTrace, creating FitTrace for Athletes; when student athletes have a Dexa scan with us, their body composition is mapped against that of a pro athlete playing in the same position in their game, and they get a personalised consultation to identify what they can improve. We’re partnering with Bradley University to put all their athletes through this programme.”

On the fly

In the space of one week in January, my email inbox pinged with two separate cycling-related M&A news alerts: in the US, Flywheel being acquired by Town Sports International (TSI); and in the UK, Digme Fitness acquiring Another_Space – just two sites, but with the deal signalling the end of premium health club operator Third Space’s boutique venture, nevertheless a significant decision and a press release I took the time to read in full.

Perhaps it was just the proximity of the two emails in my inbox, but I started to wonder whether this marked the beginnings of a real consolidation of the boutique sector, and boutique cycling specifically.

Peloton has unquestionably taken people out of cycling studios – Jon Canarick

Stick to your strengths
After all, it’s no secret that even the big brands have a battle on their hands in the shape of Peloton and the growing cohort of ‘me too’ products. In fact, particularly in the US market, the Peloton Effect means there is arguably now an oversupply of cycling studios.

“We’re seeing a decline in studio-based participation in favour of at-home cycling,” observes Jon Canarick, managing director at investment firm North Castle Partners. “My view: Peloton has unquestionably taken people out of cycling studios.”

Meanwhile, with Club Industry (2019) reporting that only 40 per cent of boutique studios are making money, it feels like the winners in boutique fitness are beginning to more clearly distinguish themselves from the rest of the field. And hence my mulled question: could we start to see further acquisitions as more boutique brands threw in the towel?

And yet as I dug into the details, it quickly became clear that these were two very different stories. My interpretation of the Another_Space deal is this: the admittedly beautiful studios were probably a distraction for Third Space, which has just opened its sixth stunning, large format club in London. Big box is Third Space’s heartland. It’s what it does brilliantly well. And those big boxes already include top-quality classes and cutting-edge group fitness spaces.

It’s a trend we’re witnessing around the world, in fact: as leading big box operators continue to up their game in terms of the quality of their group exercise offering – we’re talking the likes of Midtown Chicago, with its five separate, jaw-dropping boutique-style spaces all under one roof and all available as part of membership – competing with the boutiques happens in-house rather than as standalone ventures.

Third Space recently sold its boutique business to focus on its large format clubs

Together we’re stronger
So, the sale of Another_Space – it makes sense. Stick to what you’re really, really good at. Offload the studios to someone, in this case Digme, who is making a success of boutique fitness. And put that boutique level of effort into your big box clubs. The Flywheel deal. That feels different. That feels more like a partnership, a coming together of two brands in a ‘united we’re stronger’ kind of approach.

Why so? Take a look at the New York Sports Club website and you’ll see combined NYSC-Flywheel “Best. Membership. Ever” packages: US$240 a month will get you gym membership plus eight Flywheel classes, for example. When you consider that just a few months ago, one-off Flywheel classes were priced at US$30 a pop… well, the maths is easy. That’s gym membership essentially for free.

Cycling is a form of group exercise that easily translates into the home via a screen

(By the way, word is that Flywheel classes didn’t always sell for that much – not recently anyway, with a heavy reliance on ClassPass and half-price discounts. More on the well-documented troubles of Flywheel in a minute. The point is, this NYSC-Flywheel deal gives you far more for your money – that much is beyond dispute.)

New York Sports Clubs and Flywheel are offering “Best. Membership. Ever” packages of gym + cycling

Studio-based innovation
I spoke to Canarick about the Flywheel deal; as the investor in Echelon Fitness, its connected home bike fronting up to challenge Peloton, North Castle is well versed in indoor cycling these days. His view: “I think it’s a smart strategy that’s all about value, and value matters.

“Bringing Flywheel into the equation gives cycling enthusiasts a great reason to join New York Sports Club as opposed to one of its competitors – and that means more members for NYSC – while for Flywheel it means more spots filled at a good yield.

“And it comes at a good time, because there’s reduced opportunity to charge big bucks for group cycling these days. With other boutique offerings, like Barry’s for example, you have to be there in the club. That means they can still charge a premium. But cycling is a form of group exercise that easily translates into the at-home environment via a screen. And that’s why, as I say, Peloton has taken people out of cycle studios, and why people are less willing to pay high prices at studios.”

He continues: “That said, I believe there is an opportunity to inject some innovation into the cycling studio space. For example, I can tell you that Barry’s is running 30-day pop-ups for a new concept, Barry’s Ride, in LA and NYC. These limited edition rides take all that is great about the bootcamp class, just with bikes subbed in for treadmills – so you get 25 minutes of HIIT cycling alongside a tried and tested 25-minute weightlifting programme.
“So, cycling certainly isn’t dead. It’s increasingly happening at home rather than in-studio, but innovate and it could bring a new appeal to
studio classes.”

Flywheel’s lawsuit with Peloton settled last month, at least outwardly in Peloton’s favour

Of course, this is Barry’s, with its uber-strong brand and enviably loyal community. Many other studios already offer cycling fusion classes; it certainly isn’t a never-been-thought-of-before innovation. It’s also hard to wildly innovate within a class on a bike. So even if Barry’s succeeds here, it doesn’t necessarily signal an exciting new dawn for studio-based cycling as a whole. Yet it remains interesting that Barry’s is keen to dip a toe into the cycling market.

Barry’s, famous for its bootcamp format, last month launched Barry’s Ride pop-ups in LA and NYC

A rocky ride
But we digress. Back to the matter of Flywheel.

Do a Google search and it’s clear the story over the past few years has not been a particularly happy one. A “streamlining” of the executive team in mid-2018 was followed at the end of that year by the departure of co-founder Ruth Zukerman. CEO Sarah Robb O’Hagan also left the company. Control was then seized by Flywheel’s lender, Kennedy Lewis Investment Management, in April 2019, with a buyer actively sought for the company.

In mid-2019, a statement announced the closure of 11 of Flywheel’s 42 locations; the focus would, it seemed, be on the remaining profitable sites, along with selling Flywheel bikes for at-home use.

And finally a blow on that front too, with Flywheel’s well-documented lawsuit with Peloton settled last month, at least outwardly in Peloton’s favour; we do not know the full details of the settlement. However, Flywheel certainly publicly acknowledged that its home bike had infringed on Peloton’s patent and agreed it would no longer use its leaderboards. But that wasn’t the end of the matter: late last month, Flywheel announced it would stop offering At Home classes altogether on 27 March 2020; existing customers were emailed a trade-in offer for Peloton bikes.

After many months spent fighting Peloton, this capitulation may seem surprising, particularly given speculation that Flywheel was close to having Peloton’s patents invalidated. Certainly, the patents in question had been accepted by the review board for IPR proceedings, a stage of the patent review process where the odds are statistically against patent owners.

But when you look back at everything else that’s happened at Flywheel over the past 18 months – and given its renewed focus on bricks and mortar via combined NYSC-Flywheel memberships – perhaps the costly fight for a foothold in the competitive at-home market was simply not worth fighting any more.

“It’s a shame,” says Canarick, “because if the Flywheel Home Bike had come out sooner –perhaps with a slightly more differentiated pricing, content and distribution strategy to set it apart from Peloton – the two could have been the Coca-Cola and Pepsi of the home cycling market.”

It was, however, not to be.

Flywheel studio classes fuse HIIT with performance tracking

Sign of the times?
As a final thought, let’s return to my very first question: is the TSI/Flywheel deal a sign of things to come? Canarick thinks not: “It’s a question of scale really. New York Sports Club is perhaps uniquely regional, with clubs predominantly in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC. And that matched well with Flywheel.

In the shifting dynamics of this marketplace, it’s a smart strategy to offer value

“The other major big box brands are mostly national. It would be hard for them to find a partner to do something similar, because the franchises aren’t really an option – that would involve overly complex negotiations with individual franchisees.

“Equally, I can’t think of any bigger boutique brands who would want to do something like this. Not Barry’s. Not SoulCycle – it’s part of the Equinox family anyway, but I can’t see it going for a cross-selling value proposition. Not Solidcore, which has become one of the bigger corporate store US players following recent strong growth.

“I see this as a one-off tactical decision, and it remains to be seen if it will work for the two brands. But in the shifting dynamics of this marketplace – towards at-home and away from highly-priced studio-based classes – I think it’s a smart strategy to offer value.”

UPDATE: This article was correct at the time of publishing on 24 March 2020. However, on 6 April 2020, reports confirmed that Town Sports International Holdings Inc. had terminated its agreement to purchase Flywheel Sports Inc.

Ryan Junk

When did Xponential Fitness acquire CycleBar, and why?

Xponential acquired CycleBar on 30 September 2017 and took over the business on 1 October 2017.

Cycling is such an intuitive discipline and so important to health and fitness – you don’t have to educate the consumer. It’s also one of the main modalities in boutique fitness. But while SoulCycle had already done a phenomenal job of putting boutique fitness on the map – it let the world know how different boutique fitness is from the big boxes – nobody other than CycleBar was offering a franchise package for boutique cycling. That made it a clear acquisition prospect for Xponential Fitness.

When and why did you join CycleBar?

The moment I saw the CycleBar branding and programming, I was impressed. It was also a turnaround project rather than a start-up, which was a challenge that appealed to me. However, my number one reason for joining Xponential Fitness was Anthony [Geisler, CEO of Xponential] himself – his exciting vision for the overall business.

I started in my role as president of CycleBar on 1 November 2017, when we brought in the new corporate team.

What’s your background, and how has this shaped your approach to CycleBar?

I’ve always been passionate about fitness and I love helping people get healthy and in shape.
I have a background in franchising, helping franchisees of brands such as Crunch and UFC Gym, so my primary customer has always been the franchisee. I’ve been there to support the people who service the members, helping them grow their careers in the fitness space and make money through franchising.

This experience as a third-party advisor has allowed me to see things from both sides – franchisor and franchisee – and has given me valuable insight into how to speak to franchisees, bridging the gap between them and the franchisor to build a relationship of trust. This has very much shaped the way I approach things at CycleBar.

In what shape was the CycleBar business when you bought it?

The branding and programming were good, as was the overall vision: to create an experience, in a motivational and inspirational environment, that let people escape their everyday.

But operationally the business needed attention. There had never been a national digital campaign, so what we effectively had were hundreds of separate mom and pop studios being marketed across the country. Those studios hadn’t been allowed to sell memberships – just packages – and weren’t even allowed a phone to take enquiries. They had also been instructed to only open for classes, and to close the rest of the time.

75 per cent of the studios weren’t making money when we bought the business

Build-outs had also become too expensive – US$750,000 on average, which we felt was about US$250,000 too expensive. It wasn’t a problem of location. The sites were simply too big.

The outcome was that 75 per cent of the studios weren’t making money when we bought the business, so we had a lot of very worried franchisees.

However, everything that was wrong with the business was what Xponential is good at.

What changes have you brought into the business?

There were two main prongs to our approach: build-out and operation.

In November 2017, we stopped selling franchises for three months – we didn’t want to sell something we knew wasn’t working. We stopped signing leases too, as the sites were too big, and anyone who had already signed a lease was supported in bringing down build and start-up costs.

Then we looked at the studio model in detail. We wanted to keep the same number of bikes – 50 – so we looked at what else we could strip out to make studios smaller and less expensive. The first thing was the large DJ booth. DJs generally only came in once or twice a month, and when they did, they tended to set up next to the instructor, so we took the booth straight out. We changed the flooring – it actually looks and performs better now, as well as being more affordable – and took out the risers and the curved wall at the back of the studio that was designed to make it feel like a theatre. Members weren’t worried about it and it immediately freed up lots of space.

Additionally, showers are now only offered if the market demands them, and we removed the wall that funnelled people through reception. Not only did this free up space, but it also means people going past the studio can now see in – not into the studio itself, but to where people put on their cleats before class. That’s very important, because we know the average person goes past three times before they come into the studio. One of the things they’re looking for are people who look like them. They also want to see somewhere that looks busy.

classes need to be 40 per cent full to break even. That said, we aim for a minimum of 60 per cent

Nowadays, CycleBars are built for under US$500,000, on average – but importantly, we’ve kept the premium feel. We’ve just shrunk the size to 2,000–2,500sq ft.

We’ve also kept customer service levels high, through touchpoints that don’t feel forced. A premium offering, and premium service, have to be in place to earn you the right to ask for a sale.

Studios are also now open all the time, with phones to take enquiries, and franchisees can sell memberships as well as packages so they have recurring income. They also pre-sell memberships. There was some resistance to this, but we’ve gone from pre-selling 77 memberships per location at first, to now averaging 320. That’s already enough to break even – classes need to be 40 per cent full to break even. That said, we aim for a minimum of 60 per cent, and many of our new studios are exceeding that.

In what shape is the business now?

Before we took over, revenue averaged US$300,000 per studio, with high levels of debt. Now our legacy sites – the studios that were open before we took over – are averaging US$433,000 annual revenue. These studios have seen consecutive growth for the last 17 months, with a 19 per cent average growth in revenue.

Meanwhile, our new studios average US$620,000 revenue a year.

We’re still not there yet – we still have 70 sites on the old operating system – so although there’s already been a huge uplift, there’s more to come once all stores are converted and settled into the new systems. We’ll finish that work this year.

Crucially, it’s revenue per store that our team at HQ are compensated on, not how many stores or franchises they sell. We want our franchisees to be successful, and our corporate support team to share in that success.

What do you see as the brand’s USPs?

There are a number of USPs, starting with our choice of programmes. We offer three different styles of class: Connect Ride, which is lower intensity, more spiritual, with a connection between instructor and participant; Classic Ride, which is more about stats and data; and Performance Ride, which centres on racing and competition.

Our director of education, Tevia Celli, designed Performance Ride, but she felt we should do the other two styles of class too. It allows sites to choose what’s right for their community; if they offer all three classes, members can choose the class that feels right for them, so it broadens the appeal.

The way we monetise is another USP, selling memberships as well as packages.

And then there’s our instructor training: we start educating them, at our expense, before they even start working for a franchisee. We help them understand how we instruct, so even if they’ve never taught at a boutique before, they have a chance of passing our audition. If they do, there’s ongoing CPD and even a chance to become a master trainer if their classes are consistently at 70+ per cent capacity. So, there’s career progression, not to mention a chance to become an influencer – our master trainers have a big social media following.

But the real X factor of CycleBar is that the studios have a ‘mom and pop’ feel, and that’s precisely because they’re franchised rather than corporately owned. It takes hospitality to a whole new level when it’s someone local running it – someone who really knows the market and the local community. But then all of this is supported with systems and training from HQ to ensure everything runs smoothly and efficiently. It’s the best of both worlds.

cyclebar entranceWhat are your growth plans?

We’re currently in 38 states in the US, with 42 sold: we have 161 sites open and operational, with another 50 signed and pre-selling memberships [figures correct as at 1 May 2019].

We’re in three other countries already – Dubai, the UK and Canada – with other markets such as Japan, Saudi Arabia and South America in the pipeline. Roll-out hasn’t yet started in the UK, because we’ve brought in new equity partners who want to take on some of the other Xponential brands too – they will be the master franchisee for Xponential in the UK and we’re just finalising that deal. But they have aggressive plans, including 20–30 CycleBar studios.

Across all markets, I expect to open a further 70 CycleBar locations this year, taking us past the 250-site mark. The goal will be for an average US$600,000 revenue per site across those 250+ locations by the end of the year.

2020 will then see a big push around technology to drive engagement: an app to reach beyond the studio, ‘frequent rider’ points, heart rate training and tracking technology.

In five years’ time, I want to be at 600 locations – of which 100 international

In five years’ time, I want to be at 600 locations – of which 100 international – and US$750,000 revenue per studio.

Ultimately, I think international is where our growth will be. I expect us to cap out at around 600 locations in the US, but interestingly, I think cycling is bigger outside of the US.

What do you see as the future of indoor cycling?

Indoor cycling will continue to grow. Smaller locations that are trying to offer more than one modality will drop out and be replaced by the big boxes, but specialist boutiques will continue to be the go-to for those who seek specialised indoor cycling. The big boxes will get people into cycling, who will then feed in to the boutiques for the experience we offer.

In this boutique cycling space, I don’t see SoulCycle or Flywheel franchising. While other brands may pop up, CycleBar will continue to grow and dominate this franchise sector.


CycleBar joins the Xponential family

  • Indoor cycling brand CycleBar was the second of eight acquisitions by Xponential Fitness, a company described by Forbes as a “curator of boutique fitness”.
  • Led by CEO Anthony Geisler, Xponential Fitness specialises in franchising, with eight modalities now on offer to prospective franchisees.
  • Club Pilates was the first brand in the portfolio, with CycleBar acquired in September 2017. A further six brands were added by the end of 2018: Row House; StretchLab; AKT, the dance-based cardio studios; Yoga Six; Pure Barre; and Stride, a boutique running concept offering premium treadmill-based cardio and strength training.
  • All brands were selected around two key criteria, says Geisler. Firstly, the modalities inspire him personally. But perhaps even more importantly, Geisler wants Xponential to own “the best and biggest franchised brand in each of our modalities. I don’t want to go into a market and be number two.”
  • Now, having reached eight modalities, Geisler is drawing a line: “We aren’t looking at any more acquisitions – Xponential was never intended to cover all modalities. My focus moving forward is on the brands we already own, growing from the approximately 2,500 locations currently sold across the US and expanding all eight modalities internationally.”

 

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