Are we really ? A three-part reality check on whether were living better
The storefront’s windows were fogged so thick you couldn’t see through them, but a group of people were mingling outside, chatting away on the sidewalk, flush in the face, gym bags slung over their shoulders.
Inside, a countdown clock showed it was six minutes until the next workout class. The studio floor was a mess of medicine balls, sandbags and dangling rubber bands as long as two men. In six minutes, two instructors would make sense of it all.
Downstairs in the warm-up room, people were stretching, but really they were reaching for a little dog darting around the room. Everybody seemed to be on the floor chasing it, wrestling it, all acting so familiar that it was tough to tell whose dog it actually was.
This is what a Tuesday night, or, really, any night, looks like at a neighbourhood fitness studio, one of thousands that have popped up in recent years pushing barre, yoga and spin classes and high-intensity interval training.
Taken together, all these studios and gyms are quickly upending the North American fitness industry as the explosion of boutique fitness franchises are luring people away from the traditional big-box chains and forcing a sector-wide shift toward a more hands-on approach, industry insiders say.
Boutiques typically offer just one or two things — say, a Pilates class or CrossFit workout — in a small space, with one or two employees on hand. They’re cheaper to open, cheaper to run and more expensive to join, with most classes costing between $20 and $35, or as much as $300, sometimes more, for an all-access monthly pass.
Naturally, such places are sprouting up everywhere: Orangetheory Fitness, F45 Training, Barry’s Bootcamp and SoulCycle are just some of the names you’ll find, sometimes clustered within minutes of each other.
But with so many boutiques, all charging much more than an average gym membership, it would seem impossible that all them are going to survive, let alone thrive. Are people really exercising that much more these days than they were 20 years ago when big-box gyms dominated the market?
For instance, F45, the Australia-headquartered chain of workout studios, had three franchises in Canada in 2017. Now it has roughly 90, with another 80 franchises sold. F45 runs 45-minute high-intensity interval training or circuit training for three-dozen people per class, led by two instructors.
Like most boutiques, F45 is targeting what it sees as a gap in the market between the cheaper, do-it-yourself workouts at big-box gyms and the pricey sessions with a personal trainer.
F45 franchises are usually about 2,500 square feet and cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to set up. Members typically pay $50 to $75 a week, though it varies depending on how many classes they want to take. The studios need to hit between 100 to 150 members to break even, said Jamie Britt, the F45 executive in charge of selling franchises in Canada.
“The first 100 members, at $200 a month, is $20,000 a month,” Britt said. “The break-even on our studios is typically significantly lower than big box gyms.”
One of the advantages boutiques have is that they can be more personable since they have fewer members. Employees at the front desk often greet members by name.
They know your dog’s name. The personalization is a big factor of what we’re selling
“They know your dog’s name,” Britt said. “The personalization is a big factor of what we’re selling.”
People in the fitness industry have a term for what these personal connections at the gym create: they call it a tribe. A group of strangers that goes to the same class, at the same time over and over, gets to know each other, thus apparently creating a tribe. The tribe expects you to show up for class. If you don’t, they ask where you were.
Boutiques facilitate all this, with little tweaks and touches, using built-in opportunities for social contact. For example, instructors at Orangetheory start their classes by administering a high five to each member.
In the studios, though, the concept doesn’t play out as cult-like as it sounds at the corporate level. Before a Tuesday night class at the F-45 studio on Ossington Ave. in Toronto, one of the instructors asked a member if he had a recent haircut.
“Looks good,” she said.
That particular class was called Tokyo Disco, a gruelling 12-step weight-training circuit without disco music, from Tokyo or anywhere else. There was a new member that day, taking his first-ever class. The instructors knew his name when he walked in through the fogged glass door.
As the instructors split everyone into pairs, they deliberately put the new guy with Adam, their best pupil. Adam introduced himself with a handshake. He smiled. It’ll get easier, he told the new man.
It didn’t get easier, not that time. As the newcomer bumbled through an exercise — back arched the wrong way, about to pass out — one of the instructors gently corrected him.
A SoulCycle class in Texas.Alli Harvey/Getty Images for Spotify files
She asked what he normally did for exercise. “Hockey,” he gasped. The instructor nodded over at Adam. He plays hockey, too, she said.
At each new station, Adam demonstrated how everything worked. The new member started to think Adam, someday, might be his friend.
At the end, the instructors invited everyone to exchange high fives. Then they all filed down the steps to the cubby room, past the framed before-and-after photos of members, one who had “lost 14.1 lbs,” another who had “lost 21.4 lbs.”
One of the instructors smiled as the newcomer left, flush in the face, and asked when he was coming back. She followed up two days later with a text: “Would love to have you back in the studio for a cardio class soon.”
This tribal experience is a key feature of the boutique phenomenon, according to a 2019 report by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). In another report, the association found that boutique memberships grew by 121 per cent between 2013 and 2017, compared to 15 per cent across the broader industry.
And, according to IHRSA’s latest report on fitness consumers, boutique studios now account for 42 per cent of all gym memberships in an industry that, in 2018, had revenues of roughly US$2.9 billion in Canada, and US$94 billion globally.
An Orangetheory fitness class in Toronto.Peter J. Thompson/National Post
“That’s the fastest-growing segment in the fitness industry right now,” said Scott Wildeman, president of the Fitness Industry Council of Canada. “It’s convenient, right? They’re on the local street corner. You can see a lot of people just walk there and get their workout in and walk home.”
Wildeman is also a partner at the Calgary-based big-box gym chain GYMVMT. He said the boutiques’ success has pushed companies such as his to introduce studio-style experiences.
Traditional health clubs and municipal gyms have historically offered spin classes and yoga, but the new studios have enhanced them. For example, the spin class at a big-box gym didn’t used to have “immersive lights, the sound,” Wildeman said. Now, it has to.
“People are willing to pay for that enhanced experience,” he said.
But the Fitness Industry Council has also raised concerns about boutiques — particularly the independently run ones — after finding that some trainers didn’t have proper certification. The council also disagrees with the concept of having “karma staff,” a practice common among independent boutiques, where people work the front desk in exchange for a free membership.
Blake MacDonald, president of Orangetheory Fitness Canada, started in big-box gyms and once owned five Club Fit locations in Edmonton, starting in the late 1990s. That model needed square footage in the tens of thousands and relied on the “sleeping giant” of members who paid but never showed up. Those inactive members could range from 30 to 50 per cent of the total membership, he said.
An Orangetheory fitness class in Calgary.Chrystal Schick/Calgary Herald files
“It’s not sustainable. It really isn’t,” he said. “A lot of the low-cost players still operate on that basis. You know, guys that are charging $9.99 a month only make money when they have 8,000 members. If 8,000 members showed up on one day, you’d never have enough room for everyone.”
In the past nine years, MacDonald has expanded Orangetheory, a Florida-based chain of boutiques, to 100 locations across Canada. Orangetheory studios are lit with orange light and members are given digital heart rate monitors that feed into a screen displayed at the front of the room.
The difference with the boutique model, he said, is that the business depends on members coming all the time. Instead of annual members, most boutiques sell a package of classes. You can buy an unlimited monthly pass, but the underlying economics are that you’re paying for a certain amount of classes, whether you go or not.
“There’s more accountability to the business itself to ensure people are getting results, that they’re showing up every day,” MacDonald said. “If they’re not, they’re going to leave that very next month.”
An executive at Planet Fitness Inc., one of the biggest budget chains, doesn’t agree. He said the “sleeping giant” criticism is based on an assumption that you have to work out five times a week to reap the benefits of your membership.
A Planet Fitness gym in Toronto.Peter J. Thompson/National Post files
“I really think that that is incorrect,” said Ray Miolla, Planet Fitness’s chief development officer. “If you get off the couch and you come in and you work out a couple of times a week or even a couple of times a month, then you’re healthier than you were before.”
And at Planet Fitness, you’re only paying $15 a month.
Miolla said the main flaw with boutiques is that they assume people will want the same training in the future.
“Trends come and go and then you’re sitting on a lease and a bunch of equipment,” he said. “And, potentially, people have gone down the street to the latest fad in the fitness industry.”
If the U.S. is anything to go by, overall activity rates have climbed steadily in recent years, according to the Physical Activity Council’s report last year. The annual study, which surveyed more than 20,000 Americans in 2018, found that people are doing more and more boutique-style activities. The class-based category — everything from barre to yoga — increased by 3.5 per cent between 2013 and 2018.
But the boutique boom is not just a simple story about more gyms and more people working out. It’s really about a shift in the industry with a new business model that increases the options for the exercising public.
At an Orangetheory franchise near the waterfront in downtown Toronto, the 30-year-old owner, Ian Smith, is standing at the back of the studio in between classes. Across the studio, behind the glass doors, members are milling around in the lobby waiting for a Friday afternoon class.
“They’re going to start chatting,” Smith said. “They’re going to build relationships.”
Orangetheory fitness coach Nicole Adjeleian takes participant Jake Rehorst through a workout in Toronto.Peter J. Thompson/National Post
The studio is at the base of a condo in a constellation of condos. Most of the members live in these condos. Smith does, too. He moved in after investing roughly $900,000 to start the franchise. Six months after opening, he said he’s considering buying another franchise.
Smith said he is meticulous about choreographing the studio experience, to add human connections to the often impersonal cycle of desk work and condo living.
“The coach knows your name, the people at the front desk know your name,” he said.
Coach Nicole emerges in the doorway of the studio for her 4:30 p.m. class. She starts by introducing Alex, a newcomer, and bringing her to the front of the line.
A woman passes by, followed by a man.
“What’s going on, Julie?” Nicole said. “Paul! What’s up?”
She hollers into her microphone headset: “We’re going to crush this next hour!”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: jakeedmiston
Are we really ? A three-part reality check on whether were living better