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Gyms are reopening but virtual fitness classes aren’t going anywhere

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After a year of exercising by streaming spin and rowing classes in their living rooms and lifting weights in their basements, fitness enthusiasts are heading back to their gyms and boutique studios to sweat it out again as vaccines ramp up and Covid-19 restrictions ease.

But boutique gyms that pivoted to the web during the pandemic say they aren’t ditching virtual training entirely. They expect the future of exercising to involve a mix of in-person classes and at-home workouts.

“Our clients want to be back in the studio,” said Stephanie Schon, president of The Bar Method, a barre exercise chain with more than 90 studios that also offers on-demand classes online. But she noted that the studio’s typical customer is busy. “She juggles a lot and has really learned to appreciate the convenience that our digital offerings have allowed her at home.”

Schon said that nearly all the members it has surveyed say they plan to return to studios. But a majority of them want to “maintain a hybrid experience as a part of the ‘new normal,'” she said.

There are downsides to a shift to virtual classes for boutique studios, however. Virtual offerings are usually cheaper than in-person classes (At Bar Method, for instance, a single class at a New York City location is $38 compared to the $19.95 a month you can pay to stream classes on demand.)

So sales may take a hit if people are visiting studios in person less frequently because they can do an online class instead.

This is a particular concern for studios where rent is expensive, said Ed Yruma, an analyst who covers the fitness industry at Keybanc Capital Markets.

“These are tough economic models to make work if you’re not filling the class every session.”

Studios seek to offer options

Bar Method was hit hard during the pandemic, along with the boutique fitness industry. In 2020, 19% of boutique fitness studios— more than 6,000 locations — permanently closed, according to an estimate from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. Brands such as Flywheel, Yoga Works, and Cyc Fitness filed for bankruptcy due to the pandemic’s toll.

Thirty Bar Method studios permanently closed. Schon declined to say what percentage of members have returned, but said that new member trials have been increasing in recent months. Class sizes are still limited, and instructors are refraining from any direct, hands-on instruction for now.

Offering virtual classes helped Bar Method stay afloat during the pandemic, and Schon said barre at home is here to say.

She believes that offering virtual options will help grow Bar Method’s client base because they won’t run into wait-lists for classes. “You can now increase the number of clients who can go to each of those classes because they take the class virtually as well,” she said.

Dave Long, CEO of Orangetheory Fitness, which has around 1,250 studios in the United States, voiced a similar rationale for keeping virtual classes.

“Pre-pandemic, our biggest challenge as a company was capacity. We were always sold out,” he said. Today, if people “can’t get into the studio or they want to do a slightly different workout and still be coached by one of our coaches, now they’ve got that channel to do it”

In Orangetheory Live 20-person interactive classes, coaches guide clients through the class, advising them on proper form in real-time. People don’t need dumbbells or other equipment to do the workout.

Nearly all of Orangetheory’s studios have reopened, but there are capacity restrictions on classes, Long said. He said as studios reopen, they “immediately fill in with members that are very eager to get back in.”

Still, he believes Orangetheory’s live offering will continue to supplement in-person classes. “People like the optionality of being able to do a workout at home and have more digital content,” he said.

Club Pilates, with 650 locations in the US, also sees taking classes at home as a “hyrbid” to working out in studios in the future. The company offers on-demand streaming for $19.99 a month and plans to make it permanent.

CEO Shaun Grove said he’s not concerned that virtual classes could cannibalize on the studio’s in-person offering.

“There is a stark contrast between the in-studio Club Pilates experience and the virtual class experience,” said Grove. “We will always be first and foremost an in-studio fitness concept.”

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