The boutique fitness studio movement is now seen as the most viable way of entering the fitness industry. If you’re thinking of taking the leap and starting your own business, first read this quick guide to what boutique fitness is, how to start a studio, and the keys to sustained growth in the long term.
What is boutique fitness?
Put simply, a boutique fitness studio is a small gym that offers group exercise focused on one or two types of fitness. High-intensity interval training (HIIT), functional fitness, spinning, or barre are typical staples of the boutique fitness studio. And while traditional health clubs, big-box gyms, and personal training focus on the individual, boutique puts a big emphasis on community and training together.
Boutique studios started to emerge in the late nineties and early 2000s in the form of Barry’s Bootcamp, Crossfit, and Orangetheory. The premise was that they could offer a different fitness experience to the one usually found in the big box titans—like Gold’s Gym and 24 Hour Fitness. Barry’s Bootcamp, for example, is an hour of military-style training set in a nightclub-like surrounding, a world away from the grunt and clank of the weight room floor.
Fast forward to today. Boutique fitness franchises are now some of the biggest names in the industry. F45, a fitness franchise born out of Australia, is one of the fastest-growing in the world, with over 1,500 studios and 6 million members worldwide.
Meanwhile, Soulcycle, the spinning obsession of every trendy New Yorker, filed for IPO in 2018 only to withdraw at the last minute. However, the fact they are even in a position to do such a thing shows the heights some of these studios have reached.
Why is boutique fitness booming?
There a couple of reasons why the boutique approach is winning out over traditional gyms. According to a survey by Les Milles and Nielsen, 63 percent of people attend boutique fitness studios for the community aspect, while 47 percent of people participate because of the atmosphere. These two factors definitely play a large part in its success.
For those hesitant to enter the gym by themselves, the high energy social atmosphere can push a person beyond what they would achieve alone. Add to that the up-tempo music, enthusiastic instructor, and sense of camaraderie, and boutique fitness classes offer a potent mix of fitness and fun.
Another significant factor in its success is the highly specialized and flexible nature of boutiques that appeal to a younger generation of customers. The big box gym model simply doesn’t provide this, with their restricted workout offerings and contract-locked memberships.
With a boutique, a person can hop from studio to studio, attacking a HIIT class one day, pumping through a spin class the next, and rounding the week off with a relaxing dose of yoga.
Concurrently, these studios exploit the younger generation’s cross-pollinated need for a healthy lifestyle and an instantly Instagrammable moments, making it the fitness experience of choice for millennials.
What makes a successful boutique fitness studio work?
So you have seen the way the wind is blowing, and you’ve decide to open your own boutique studio! The first steps you take in starting any business are important.
The advantage of setting up a group class-based boutique studio is that it doesn’t require a huge space with mountains of equipment. Some have even grown their business without a specific location, running classes down in the local beach or park with a set of weights. Humble beginnings or not, you will need to cover a couple of absolutely key areas to have a chance of building your boutique fitness business successfully.
Having a solid business plan
Benjamin Franklin said it well: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
When it comes to setting up a fitness business, this means creating a business plan. Think of the plan as a strategic roadmap that will guide you along the often bumpy road to fitness business success.
Not sure what to include? Bplans offers a library of free sample business plans for fitness centers that you can view and download to help get you started. You can also download a free business plan template to guide your first draft.
Not only does the plan set out a direction for your business, but it also forces you to think about your competition, your marketing strategy, and most importantly, who your ideal customer is going to be. If you’re looking for more resources to help you get up and running, check out this guide to starting a fitness center.
Generating pre-sales before you open your doors
A common mistake made by a lot of first-time fitness entrepreneurs is that they wait for the doors to open to begin their sales and marketing. This is a mistake and means you will be engulfed by an ocean of problems from day one.
To give you a chance of staying somewhat afloat, start signing up members while you are setting up the business. This ensures you have some recurring revenue coming to cover overheads in the beginning. Another advantage of doing this is that you can start a referral program early. Word of mouth can be so effective in building up your membership base early on.
This opening day checklist will give you some insight into what you need to do before you open to the public, and how to have a great opening day too.
Doing the right kind of advertising and marketing
How you market your fitness business is crucial. Today, Facebook and Instagram ads are now the ad platforms of choice for small businesses of any type. There are more users on Facebook than any other platform, and Instagram’s reach is growing daily. Because Facebook owns Instagram, ad campaigns can run on both platforms through Facebooks Ads manager.
The big reason they work is, though, is the Facebook Pixel. This is a piece of code that goes on your website and tracks the actions visitors take on particular pages on your site. Facebook Ads Manager then groups these visitors into a list you can target with ads based on the action they took on your website. Better still, you can create lookalike audiences of people with similar behavior and interests to those who have visited your site.
How should fitness studios build their brand?
Stephen King (the marketing expert, not the horror author) has this to say about branding: “A product can be outdated, but a successful brand is timeless.”
And this is true for a boutique fitness studio. Fitness fads will come and go, but if you have built a strong brand that resonates with people, you will keep them coming back for more.
The reality is, though, that the priority is building up a membership base and keeping the lights on for the first year or two you’re open. However, to bring the business to the next level, you need to have a distinctive brand that people can identify with.
Take a look at some of the studios we have talked about: F45, Orangetheory, and Soulcycle.
Each has its own distinctive logo, coloring, slogan, and tone of voice which people can identify with. As we discussed the significant driving factor behind boutique is the sense of community. Another word to describe this is tribe. It is these distinctive brand features that people identify as features of their tribe.
So the next step after keeping the ship steady is to build your brand. To do that you need to cover these four important bases:
Determine your ideal customer
Creating a brand that attracts a particular customer means understanding the characteristics that define this type of potential customer and what resonates with them. Developing a buyer or user persona is a good way to think it through.
Define what makes you different
Lock in precisely what your mission is and what you do differently from any other studio in the local area. Then create a unique value proposition that really showcases it.
Find your voice
Communicating what you stand for the outside world is fundamental. Take a look at this example by The Studio Method Cardiff: “Tailored Training.” We know precisely what this studio is about. It won’t be crowded and generic, and will be tailored to give you the best chance of succeeding in your fitness goals.
Here’s a guide to establishing your brand’s voice and tone to help you get started.
Create your image
Your logo, font, photography style, and colors make up your brands image. It needs to be a visual representation of the previous points we have discussed.
Take Orangetheorys distinctive splat logo. The logo represents a fat cell exploding. In Orangetheory workouts, the goal is to hit the “Orange zone” for the workout to take maximum effect. This achieved through 12 “splats” per workout. This is a great example of the brand running through every aspect of the business.
Why referrals and retention are the keys to long term growth
For any fitness business, be it big box or boutique, the best way to succeed in the long term is through referrals and retention. The longer you can keep your customers (often through a subscription type business model), the less you have to spend to find new customers.
For many lifestyle-oriented companies, social media ads can be crucial to getting you off the ground initially, and should always be part of your acquisition strategy. However, good old fashioned word of mouth marketing will always be the most powerful acquisition strategy as you grow.
A friend’s recommendation can be so much more useful than a social media ad or flashy special offer. In fact, according to Hubspot, over 90 percent of people believe in product or service recommendations from friends.
Referrals are such a low-cost retention strategy—often the greatest cost you incur is whatever incentive you offer to members. Running a referral program can also help you to identify customer service issues. If a member is hesitant to refer your studio to a friend, find what the problem is and try to solve it for that member before they churn.
Retaining the majority of your members is the only way to stabilize and grow for a boutique business. The big-box model of getting in as many members as possible with any ongoing aftercare does not work here.
Having an effective retention strategy makes sense financially as well. Harvard Business Review has reported that it’s 5 to 25 times more expensive to acquire a new member than to retain an existing one. Providing the best member experience in which your members are having fun and hitting their fitness goals should be top of mind as you grow.