To call these last several months unprecedented would be the understatement of the year. I never in my wildest dreams thought that phrases such as quarantine, social distancing, or flattening the curve would become part of our everyday vernacular. Nor did I imagine that I would be forced to close my business for an entire quarter with only a moment's notice.
So many have been affected by this pandemic. Parents have had to learn to homeschool, teens have forfeited their senior year athletics and graduations, millions have lost their jobs, thousands have lost their lives and there is still no real end in sight.
As the owner of Pilates in the Grove, a multi-location service-based business, I completely believe it is all of our responsibility to do our part to flatten the curve and do what we can to slow the spread of this virus. I along with countless others made the difficult decision to close both of my studios on March 17th and pivoted quickly to online classes and telemedicine in less than a week. To be honest...I believed this would last no more than two weeks at the time. Boy was I wrong!
We would all be in for a rude awakening.
We went from competing with only a handful of other high-quality boutique fitness establishments in our area to competing with millions of people offering free workouts online in a matter of a few short days. And I get it ... people didn’t know what to do or where to turn. It was like the hunger games out there ... we were all just trying to survive.
But channeling my inner Katniss, I felt that I didn’t have the luxury to merely survive. I run a business that not only has goals but commitments. I have responsibilities to myself and my family. I have team members who rely on me for their livelihood. And that requires financial solvency.
In a 2016 study on Pilates in America, 60% of studio owners said they earned less than $50,000 net annually. Studies also show that less than 50% of all boutique fitness studios are even profitable. It has become my mission to help other business owners (specifically women) learn how to operate a more profitable business.
Much like the restaurant industry, the fitness industry is highly competitive and operates on very very low margins. Customers are always looking for discounts and sales. Enter ClassPass, Groupon, and GymPass. These third-party aggregators trim margins to almost negligible for business owners.
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Meanwhile, many fail to realize that in order to provide all of the things that come with a high-quality experience including ample free parking, clean and updated retail locations, state of the art equipment, and the high-quality staff, there is usually a high cost. The costs of commercial space (especially in large cities like Miami), property taxes, software, equipment, and quality labor are not cheap.
So if even on a good year most fitness businesses are barely scraping by imagine what happens after a mandated shut down from a global pandemic.
Businesses were forced to shut down overnight ... however, someone failed to relay this information to our landlords or vendors. Rent payments continued to be required as did software costs, utilities, and most other things that go hand in hand with running a business. All while our revenue grinded to a halt in a matter of hours.
Then came the requests for refunds, freezes, stop payments and more.
As business owners we were faced with the difficult choice to either terminate their entire team or innovate our offerings, I chose to keep as much of my team intact as possible. I pleaded my case to clients asking for continued support if they found it was possible. And so many of our clients stepped up big. Our community supported us. And my team came together big time to work through these unforeseen times.
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Fast forward four months. Four long arduous months. Months of applying for loans, negotiating with landlords, restructuring contracts, whittling down expenses, oh ... and homeschooling two teens.
We are finally given the green light to re-open. By now we have sunk additional money into all of the new measures required to re-open. Updated HVAC units, additional cleaning supplies and services, PPE for staff and clients, new tech to support our virtual platforms, and the list goes on and on. Oh yeah, and did I forget to mention we can only open at 50% or less capacity?
So while costs are up and capacity is down and you have already exhausted all of your government assistance you buckle down and strategize how to be able to ride this out as long as possible. How do you keep your community engaged and your team paid?
I fight hard to stay the course ... to keep pushing and pivoting and getting creative. Trying to make clients and staff feel as comfortable as possible. Trying as hard as possible not to increase prices or make too many internal changes. But at the end of the day, my rent and payroll do not get paid with well wishes and good intentions (believe me I have tried)
I speak with dozens of studio owners every day who are closing their doors. And I wonder for those of us that do make it out of this what will the next 12 -24 months will look like.
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Thankfully pre-COVID business was good. I was in the top 30% of businesses that ran a profitable ship, understood projections and planning, and jumped on government assistance right out of the gate. I let our clients know right from the beginning that we needed support in order to have our doors open when this was over. I was open and honest with my team that we needed to do everything possible to remain financially solvent so we all had jobs to come back to.
With each and every month that passes, we see less and less attendance in our virtual classes. We get more and more requests for membership freezes and cancellations while at the same time receiving countless “best wishes”, “we are pulling for you” and “can’t wait to be back when this is over”. People are getting tired and bored.
So here comes the tough love part. In order for businesses like mine to still be here when COVID is all over we need more than well wishes. We need support.
And now is not the time for business owners to be shy about asking for it.
If you want to know how to ensure that your favorite locally-owned small boutique fitness business remains open here are some things you can do to help.
Get your butt to class! Most studios are extremely safe places to be right now. We have taken cleaning protocols and physical distancing very seriously. Studios are required to operate at a limited capacity and will keep you safe from the time you arrive to the time you leave.
Sharing is Caring! Feeling great after a class? Loved your private session? Share it on social, and tag us! Tell all of your friends about our online and virtual services ... Post a pic or tell your friends how great it is in the studio. We are not too proud to beg!!!
Pay full price. Now is not the time to bargain shop. Most fitness studios are hanging on by a thread and barely breaking even if at all. Asking for a discount or promotional offer is only adding fuel to the fire. Also, remember you are now getting an even better value with fewer people in each class. In most cases, you are actually being offered a more premium personalized service than before (at the business's expense).
Exercise is BEST right now. It has been shown that being healthy and physically fit is one of the best defenses against this virus. Moving your body and improving your cardiovascular health is critical now more than ever.
Be Understanding. If you don’t like a schedule change or that you can no longer shower, or that you have to wear a mask, understand that there was likely a reason for it. Ask questions, or better yet ask how you can help. Remember that this is a difficult time for everyone - including the front desk staff and studio owners who are on the receiving end of dozens of complaints, requests, and emails.
In the end, most small businesses are doing our absolute best just to keep our heads above water. While most of us are not looking for charity or hand outs we want you to know that we love what we do. We are passionate about our community and want more than anything to be here when we are on the other side of this.
We are in this together, whether we like it or not so let’s make the most of it and do our best to come out of this pandemic stronger than ever!