Why Virtual Must be Easy and Affordable for Local Studios


A quick shout out to Jeana Anderson Cohen from aSweatLife for the inspiration for this blog article.

At least in the US, the clouds are parting, H-E-B is taking walk-ins for covid vaccine shots, and people are starting to return to local fitness boutiques.  In recent surveys, IHRSA found that 94% of gym goers plan to go back, and Classpass in their member survey discovered that 92% plan to return to gyms and studios during 2021.  These numbers are much higher than the 53% and 41% stats from surveys in the first half of 2020.  So does that mean we’ll soon be back to life as normal?

Likely, Covid has permanently changed most people’s fitness routines - and virtual, online workouts will continue to play a much larger part in them:

  • In a survey of 2,024 adults, McKinsey found that 68% of those who started using an online fitness program during the pandemic said they planned to continue for the long term.
  • Classpass discovered that only 40% plan to return exclusively to in-studio workouts, so the majority of their members intend to continue with online workouts.
  • Mindbody in their member survey found that 75% said they’d continue taking virtual classes in addition to returning to their studios once the pandemic is over.

Why?  The ease of fitting in more workouts into their week without having to commute - that 20 minute abs workout in the morning or 30 minutes of HIIT before hitting the bed.  This trend had started pre-covid - Les Mills found in their surveys that 75% of virtual fitness users also attend live classes, and live class attendance increases by 12% when clubs run virtual and live together.

This appetite is well understood by the larger gym brands.  According to Matt Delaney, Equinox Innovation Manager: “The gyms of the future will include digital offerings that help you do the at-home stuff better. You’ll visit to connect with the community, to use big weights and other specialized equipment and receive more tailored, in-person coaching.”  The BBC also stated recently that most of the UK big chain gyms will continue offering online services indefinitely.

What about local gyms?  ClubIntel uncovered that studios and gyms offering online classes jumped from 25% in 2019 to 72% today - an astonishing swing driven by the pandemic.  But many of these solutions have been tactical and were seen as bandaids by studios while waiting for the pandemic to pass.  Frankly, a lot of studio owners are just fatigued and want normalcy.

Given that member expectations have changed, what happens now?  Here are some of the questions we've heard from local studios:

  • “Is partnering with an online content producer like Les Mills or Apple Fitness+ a good idea, when my members could just go direct to them and pay less?”
  • “If I stop online workouts and focus on in-studio, will my churn increase as my members use other online content providers?”
  • “Is Zoom ‘good enough’ to compete with Apple and Peloton post-covid?”
  • “With so much free content on YouTube, how can I compete with that?”
  • “Can I get away with streaming Spotify forever in my workouts?”
  • “Can I create online and in-person classes at the same time?”
  • “Can I create live classes and use them for on-demand, or do I need to do them separately?”
  • “Can I afford to hire camera operators and video editors to do my on-demand workouts?”

At Tribe, we believe that local content is king, and so do the national franchise chains.  Even Orange Theory Fitness and SoulCycle have moved from just having centralized content to trying to empower their local coaches to lead online workouts:

  • Orange Theory Fitness launched OT Live back in December, and is rolling it through their franchises: “OT Live offers participants real-time guidance and feedback from the local coaches they are used to seeing in their studio.”
  • SoulCycle announced in January: “Our vision for the future is to deliver classes from studios across the country with many more of your favorite instructors.”
Your members don’t want you to license content from coaches they’ve never heard of that doesn’t integrate with your programs in your gym.  They can get that kind of content themselves from all over the internet - they want your style, your program and your coaches.  They want digital options from you that tie to your in-studio motivation, and feel like doing your studio class, with their friends, at home.

But how can a local studio create interactive, compelling fitness content and experiences for its members to workout from home?  How can that be done in a sustainable way that doesn’t balloon the studio’s operating costs?  It needs to be as easy as turning on the lights, with little day to day additional work or cost required.

So what is the list of must haves and nice to haves for successful virtual in local fitness?

  1. The video quality needs to look good, not low resolution and fuzzy - I’ve experienced some online workouts where I’d be hard pressed to pick out the coach in a police lineup at the end, the video quality was so poor.
  2. You need a platform that combines live and on-demand classes, with automated workflow.  Creating separate Zoom classes and then Vimeo classes at least doubles the work and cost on a daily basis.  Using Zoom recordings for on-demand can look poor quality, and have the music out of sync.
  3. Ideally, you could at least have the option to combine in-studio classes with digital classes, so the coach has to tutor only once.  But to do this, the online experience needs to feel more like a Peloton live class, and less like an episode of Big Brother, where your members would feel like they’re watching CCTV security footage.  This impacts how the coach behaves and camera angles.
  4. Most studios can’t afford a TV production crew with camera operators and mixing desks for workouts.  Even for the ones that can, they would have to make the class sizes so large (to make money) that they would lose their intimacy and end up feeling like Peloton.  Automation is the key to fixing this - both for camera tracking and video mixing.  Once all the tech is set up, the coach experience for each workout has to be as easy as hitting the “Start” button in Zoom, but the output production quality needs to look like Apple Fitness or Peloton Digital (without any production crew there on site).
  5. Just like the video cameras and mixing, the audio (microphone and music) as well as the lighting need to be as simple as hitting an “on” switch - ideally all mounted or permanently set up in the studio space.
  6. Interactivity - this impacts both members and coaches.  For members - wearable and/or connected fitness metrics, leaderboards, participant video, chat, badges, challenges, etc.  For coaches, they need a way to see all of this during the workout so they can have more authentic interactions with members.
  7. The coach needs to be able to bring music, camera angles and timers altogether in the context of the workout.  Most coaches create a timeline for their workouts so they know what’s coming next and keep to time.  Most of the pure digital players like Peloton, Tempo, Fiit etc have extended this into an autocue for their coaches - a screen with the workout timeline and other info.  To raise the professionalism of your online workouts, you need something like this, but again as easy to use and correlated with coaches' existing workflow as possible.
  8. There are lots of great coaches in local fitness studios, but from experience, some adapt immediately to “lights, camera, action” while others look like a deer in the headlights.  Some training materials and onboarding can help with this, but the tech needs to let the coach focus on being the onscreen talent.
  9. What happens when the tech goes wrong?  At some point over the past year, every studio owner must have felt like the MacGyver of audio-visual gear - but what do you do when it stops working right before your star coach takes the stage?  Or when a member can’t get their flux capacitor to connect to the dilithium crystals in connected fitness?  Trying to handle tech support in house is a recipe for frustration, pain and anguish.
At Tribe, our mission is to enable all this for local studios, starting with your iPhone and $49 per month, up to spending $10K on tech hardware up front and $500+ per month depending on your member usage stats and music choices.  But it needs to become easy and routine with low day to day operational impact and cost - like turning on the light switch - otherwise it just isn’t sustainable.

Come try us out at Tribe.  See how your virtual classes can become more compelling, while also being easier and more affordable to integrate into the daily rhythm of your gym or studio.

Justin Marston

Thinker, writer, innovator, runner, Star Wars fan

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