May 01, 2017

Boutique Gyms, Fitness Subscriptions Grow as Industry Flexes Muscle

Reporting Texas

Crush Fitness trainers Morgan Zamen, Sydney Torabi and Ryan Potter demonstrate a work-out in the Crush Fitness gym.

A scroll through @spinsyddy’s Instagram displays picture-perfect #cleaneats, at-home training videos and silly post-workout Boomerangs that chronicle Sydney Torabi’s engagement in the Austin fitness scene.

A studio manager at Cyc Fitness and an instructor at both Cyc and Crush Fitness, Torabi provides a glimpse into her world as a fitness blogger and studio instructor. With the rise of social media and blogging, there’s now a culture among fitness enthusiasts such as Torabi who engage with like-minded athletes, attend health and wellness events and even create a career from documenting their participation in the fitness community.

The value of the health and fitness club industry is expected to reach $29.3 billion by 2020, according to a report by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association and the market research firm Mintel.

This growth is producing an increasing number of ways to enter the industry. Companies such as ClassPass and StudioHop allow members access to a variety of fitness studios in their area for a flat monthly fee, as opposed to the traditional model of purchasing memberships at individual studios.

Launched in New York City in 2013, ClassPass positions itself as alternative gym membership. It operates in about 40 markets and partners with around 8,000 studios, both in the U.S. and internationally, according to its website.

Austin subscribers can buy packs of five or 10 classes for $50 or $90 a month, respectively. Users can book classes at about 150 local studios, without committing to a generally more expensive or binding membership at a single studio.

The only catch? Users cannot attend a studio more than three times a month.

Torabi initially used ClassPass because she wanted an affordable way to participate in boutique fitness. After retiring from a Division I swimming career at the University of Texas, Torabi used a Stairmaster for 30 minutes each day because she didn’t know how to work out without anyone telling her what to do.

But after her first class at Cyc Fitness, Torabi asked herself, “What the hell have I been doing for the past two years at Lifetime Fitness?”

Because nearly one in three adults reports interest in ClassPass or a similar subscription service, according to a Mintel survey, companies are responding to the consumer demand.

StudioHop, a Dallas-based company similar to ClassPass, has significantly fewer studio partners: 23 to ClassPass’s 150. But for $100 a month in Austin, it offers users unlimited classes and unlimited access to most of its studios, unlike ClassPass.

Kate Pounders, an assistant professor in the advertising school at the University of Texas, studies consumer psychology and health communication in social marketing contexts. She said people, especially millennials, buy subscriptions like ClassPass and StudioHop instead of gym memberships because they crave diverse experiences and specialization that traditional gyms generally don’t provide.

But people aren’t looking for just expertise or individual attention. Sixty-three percent of consumers attended boutique fitness studios because of the other people who were there, and 47 percent attended because of the atmosphere, a 2014 report conducted by Nielsen and Les Mills found.

That makes it difficult for conventional gyms to stay relevant in an increasingly digital and experiential world. With 41 percent of adults reporting feeling “unwelcome” at traditional fitness facilities, according to a Mintel survey, boutique studios attract clients looking for fitness and community, not just a solitary workout.

Successful boutique fitness studios capitalize on that desire by providing a welcoming environment in which clients not only burn calories; they connect with other studio regulars, instructors and staff members. The classes become part of their weekly routines, the people part of their social networks.

There are drawbacks, though.

Because ClassPass and StudioHop typically only pay about half of the standard drop-in rate, tension can arise between users of the services and the studios and their members.

“I’ve been to studios as a ClassPasser and I’ve instantly felt unwelcomed, totally,” Torabi said. “I get it. I get you have your own community, but then again, I’m paying for ClassPass and you’re getting money from me. So, if you want me to come back, in general, you should probably be a little nicer.”

And, it is harder to deliver a unique, individualized experience — and to build a personal relationship with a client — if he or she is limited to visiting a couple times a month, said Omni Fight Club head trainer Dakota Walker.

But the UT  biology senior and StudioHop ambassador said the services can be useful for individuals looking to find a permanent studio, as they allow people to test an assortment of studios without a long-term commitment.

For users who are not interested in using these services to find a more permanent facility, Walker said, studios can still foster an inclusive environment for all clients, and not just the regulars.

“It’s definitely not a roadblock for me, or for Fight Club in general,” she said. “If you’re there every single day or if you’re there once a month, it doesn’t matter –– I want to get to know you.”

Although the services cost less than standard membership rates, they still are expensive for many people. Robyn Lindley, a UT accounting junior, regularly works out at the Austin YMCA because she can use the family membership her parents paid for.

“I don’t see the point of working out elsewhere,” Lindley said. “I do love going to places like Cyc on occasion, but I can’t justify the cost on a more regular basis when I can go to the YMCA for free.”

For some, however, the services and studios are worth the cost. ClassPass empowered Torabi to participate in and launch a career in boutique fitness and the online fitness community.

Torabi, and many like her, may have entered the boutique fitness world for the workout, but stayed for the community.

“We’re one big community,” said Torabi. “We’re all just here to sweat it out and have a good time.”