Between lockdowns, quarantines and forced business closures, the fitness industry has had to switch gears this past year, to put it mildly. However, it’s not as if we haven’t been innovative during this time. There are many examples of fitness entrepreneurs leading the way with on-demand video, livestreaming and more. The pandemic has also forced us to rethink how we market our brands. Big-box facilities, for example, have many challenges to overcome; if you’re in a leadership position at a flagship location, you understand what I mean.

Maybe your company has earmarked dollars to promote cleanliness in your facility, along with measures and precautions you’re taking to keep everyone safe. You can argue that big-box gyms have a steeper challenge than smaller facilities, owing to the larger footprint and staff. Sure, there are difficulties ahead. However, this moment in time is also a great opportunity to reinvent your business model, and one good place to look for inspiration and ideas is the boutique fitness niche.

What Is Boutique Fitness?

Let’s take a step back, define “boutique fitness” and see what it looks like. One definition is a small studio that offers “workouts or services with a high experiential factor, smaller, more intimate class sizes, and strong brand association” (Cardona 2018). It’s all about experience. In 2017, boutique brands made up 42% of market share (the number of people who patronized clubs) (IHRSA 2018), even though boutique consumers tend to pay more than their big-box counterparts. A trend over the past few years indicates that boutique fitness is offering something more attractive than big-box gyms. (Also growing quickly is streamed home fitness.)

Before we dive deeper, it’s important to understand what great brands do, in general, better than everyone else. First, their employees absolutely believe in their product or service. In other words, they actually work out at the gym they work for. Some may laugh at that statement, but there are fitness staff members who go elsewhere to exercise. That’s like Apple employees using Samsung devices outside of work.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, great brands aren’t afraid to charge a premium price. That isn’t to say you should charge a ridiculous amount for membership—but don’t devalue your brand. Are you doing that now? For example, do you discount your personal training packages every month? What does that say about your trainers and the services they provide? Boutique studios usually skew toward a higher price point for membership, and this reflects the quality of the services. Don’t downplay your expertise and the hard-earned continuing education your employees invest in.

See also: Embrace the Future of the Fitness Industry

Winning Strategies

Now that we’ve reviewed potential positioning, let’s look at how the boutique studio approaches to operations and customer-facing services could translate to the big-box experience.

Scalability may be one reason why boutique fitness has been on the rise the past few years. Consider the overall footprint of a boutique studio, which is anywhere from 1,500 to 3,500 square feet, as opposed to a larger gym, which could range from 15,000 to 65,000 square feet. It’s much easier to scale a business with a smaller footprint and tailor changes to the membership base, since you are dealing with fewer members. It’s much easier to clean, communicate, incorporate a unique design and work on programming when you have that smaller footprint.

Many big-box gyms have been shifting gears to create boutiques within the spaces of the overall facility. One approach is to treat each room as its own studio, specifically designating rooms for indoor cycling, group fitness and small-group personal training. This is taken right out of the boutique playbook, plus they’re redesigning the overall feel, look and sound of each space. Some facilities create a new, custom logo for each room and use fresh paint colors and innovative lighting to create a “boutique” feel.

Technology is another reason why the boutique model has risen to the top over the past few years. Brands like F45 and Orangetheory®, among others, have integrated heart rate training and leader boards into classes to provide more-educated workouts and a clear path to results. Understanding how zone training works toward goal attainment is partly why boutiques can charge a premium price. In addition, while gyms were closed for most of 2020, boutiques did a great job of implementing livestream workouts using apps to keep members engaged. Big-box gyms are starting to incorporate this type of training to attract more members and motivate them to engage with personal trainers as an ancillary service.

See also: Crisis Leadership: Success Strategies for Today—and Tomorrow

Community Is at the Center

The rise in popularity of boutique studios seems to be in line with the popularity of group fitness, in general. It’s not difficult to find a boutique studio that fits one’s exact needs and interests. Boutique studios offer a more tailored exercise approach that, when paired with a great customer experience, creates a more intimate relationship between the programming and the member. It doesn’t mean this model is for everyone! Some people would still rather be alone and walk on a treadmill, and that’s fine. It does indicate, however, that the average gym member at a boutique studio understands the value and is willing to pay for it. Many big-box spaces are vying for the premium price of that community vibe and tailored approach.

At its core, boutique fitness is all about bringing people together. Community drives the member experience because of the partnership and motivation people get from one another. You can argue that group fitness programs in larger facilities do this well, and it remains a primary reason people retain their memberships. This depends, of course, on the quality of the programming and the overall experience.

Here are some ways you can build community and mirror the boutique experience, even in the age of COVID-19:

  • Create a private Facebook page for group class members and offer incentives to participate. For example, whoever posts the most workouts in a given week gets a branded water bottle.
  • Sponsor a Zoom happy hour with postworkout smoothies.
  • Encourage members to “buddy up” for accountability.
  • Use the app of your choice to create an optional leaderboard.
  • When the weather cooperates, sponsor an outdoor “fun day” class experience.

Bottom line, there is room for everyone—and there should be! There’s a reason why many people attend boutique classes while retaining their big-box membership. The key to successful branding and marketing is to ensure that your services help your customers hit their goals in a safe and motivating environment.