The Ongoing Dilemma: Specialize or Diversify?
Play to your strengths when determining which business model is right for you.
Owning a business is the ultimate dream for many fitness professionals. You get to be your own boss, set the direction for your facility, and create a community of like-minded trainers, instructors and patrons. From boutique studios that specialize in one format to warehouse gyms that offer it all, the options seem endless. How do you decide what’s right for your business? How do you determine which products and services will attract your ideal clientele? And what are the pros and cons of offering a variety of options versus homing in on a niche? Determine your optimal path by addressing five fundamental guidelines.
1. Start With Your Own Passion
It may seem obvious to launch a business that you’re passionate about, but many pros begin from a fantasy cash-flow paradigm, and if your passion doesn’t align with what you perceive is the best return on investment, you may start off with a logical mindset versus a passionate one. Unless you hire a team that’s as passionate about your vision as you are, your business savvy may not be enough. Most often, it’s wise to start with what you know and love.
If you’re an experienced yoga instructor, for example, a yoga studio would be a good fit. Even then, you must determine what type (or types) of yoga you’ll focus on, as there are so many varieties. Do you want your instructors to teach the same structure and style, or will you offer a broad selection of yoga classes to attract a wider clientele? Do you want to expand and add other mind-body formats, such as barre, Pilates or tai chi? Would you like to offer aerial yoga exclusively?
If you start from a place of passion, every other business aspect will fall into place. Vesna Cvetanovska of Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia, took a leap of faith when she opened her Pilates studio, Reformer Studio 8. She didn’t have a benchmark for how the market would react; she just knew that her own experience with Pilates excited her. “I was impressed by it—in particular, the range of exercises it offered and the possibilities for training personalization. Despite [my] having no serious marketing [plan in place], the first customers came, and it has been growing ever since.”
For Cvetanovska, what made sense was finding a niche that fit her fitness philosophies. “As a strong supporter of specialization, my attitude is that a certain client should be paired with a certain instructor,” she says. “I believe that personalized training, tailored for a specific need, should yield results faster and safer.” Cvetanovska’s business is growing, and she hopes to add another set of machines soon.
2. Assess Local Need
Taking a leap of faith is one approach, but doing a little homework first can make that leap less daunting. Pilates may be where your passion and expertise lie, but perhaps the market is already saturated with Pilates studios. If so, can you differentiate your business from the competition? Or is there enough local interest to allow your vision to thrive?
Some other questions to consider:
- Will you be competing with big-box gyms in the area?
- What does your community lack in terms of fitness?
- Does your passion meet the needs of the community?
- What is the local socioeconomic status?
It’s crucial to know your area well. Talk to realtors, other local businesses and community members to get accurate information about what’s lacking. Peruse local social media discussion groups to discover what people are looking for, and determine whether your concept can provide a solution. Some fitness formats require more expensive equipment, well-trained instructors or a more dressed-up space. Make sure interest exists and enough people can afford your services.
Sander Vanacker, owner of FitGuana in Ridgefield, Connecticut, relied on research to bolster his confidence before he opened his doors. “What we offer is different than anything in the area,” he says. “We are a locally owned boutique gym, but with big-box amenities as part of our 6,000-square-foot facility. People have responded to it in great fashion.” Blending your passion with what you see as a local need is a recipe for success.
Daring to be different is also what helped Celia Lopez’s studio in Toronto to succeed. “PlaceMade is Canada’s first co-working space focused on empowering health and fitness professionals. [We provide] business tools, workspace, and space to not only train clients but also have access to a robust network of industry professionals.” Lopez launched a completely new concept that helped her business stand out.
3. Determine Budget and Costs
As the popular phrase goes, it takes money to make money. Your business budget can be a deciding factor in whether or not you’re a jack-of-all-trades gym or a niche studio. Perhaps the affordable space will not fit an entire boot camp program or enough indoor cycling bikes. Maybe the gym you envision includes equipment that doesn’t fit your budget. A Pilates studio requires expensive equipment and may attract a smaller clientele than a gym that offers diverse programming. Even if you know your passion and see the need, do you have the finances for that initial investment? Setting appropriate fees can improve the return on investment, but discerning what is best for your services and area may be tricky. Again, it helps to compare and contrast existing fitness facilities, what they charge and how successful they are with their price points.
Vanacker knew that, to afford real estate in his area, he needed to establish pricing that might seem high in other areas but would be appropriate for his. Plus, he knew clients would recognize the value his facility offered. “It was important to specialize yet offer additional amenities [to inject] value in our pricing. We never wanted to offer everything and use sales manipulation to get people in. Instead, we use ethical business practices, and people know exactly what they’re getting. Most importantly, they know they’re not being lied to—what we do actually works and makes a difference.”
When clients see results and enjoy the setting and community you create, they will feel good about what they pay and will share their enthusiasm with others. Additionally, as your business thrives, you can determine how to improve your facility. Let’s say you start with a tight budget. If your services are needed and well-delivered, you can expand into the dream you envisioned.
4. Define Your Ideal Customer
Regardless of the path you choose, you must paint a clear picture of who you want to serve. What is your ideal client’s gender, age range, income level and fitness ability? The more diverse your clientele, the more diverse your offerings should be. If you want to serve a variety of ages, offer classes for kids and seniors. If you want to cater to athletes and hardcore fitness enthusiasts, specialize in a boot camp or HIIT-style program.
Vanacker took the time to get to know his intended clientele. “We determined that our area was filled with ambitious, strong and athletic individuals who wanted more than the old-style gyms or small boutiques that only do one thing,” he says. “Therefore, we came in as a hybrid athletic club. The business has evolved and expanded to three times the original size, compared to when we opened 16 months ago.”
Heather Horrell, owner of Grow Family Yoga & More in Jacksonville, Florida, knew she wanted to cater to families after having her own children and discovering how little there was to do with them related to yoga and meditation. “I had started practicing yoga when I was pregnant with my first, and by the time I took my training 7 years later, I still saw a need for new families,” she says. “Another 7 years later (and with 6 kids), I opened a studio, because I love seeing the transition of important life stages and being that support person for various families that need a safe place to be.”
When you know your target audience, you’ll be in a perfect position to pick between a niche studio and one that offers variety.
5. Find Your Team
Even if you’ve covered all these points, your venture might fail if you don’t have a team of people who share your passion and mission. You must have enough qualified and talented trainers and instructors to attract patrons and keep your business going strong. Lopez created a vetting process to ensure that all trainers at PlaceMade were high-caliber. “Our trainers must have more than 2 years of practical experience, be certified by an accredited professional board and hold other certifications that demonstrate further continuing education.”
If you decide you’d like to expand your offerings because customers are asking for, say, dance fitness classes, make sure you’ll have instructors who are qualified teach them. Also, pay attention to your team; check that they’re satisfied and not showing signs of burnout. As Vanacker’s business grew, he saw an opportunity to add nutritional coaching. “As clients started achieving more goals, and as we expanded our coaching team, we were able to add nutritional coaching, since our trainers had these specialties,” he says. This approach worked well for his team. On the other hand, some instructors and trainers might feel they’d be stretched too thin if they were forced to diversify. A boutique studio may be best for those professionals. Create a team that fits your vision and offerings.
Whether you decide to specialize or offer variety, the good news is there is room for both and everything in between. The most important aim is to inspire your clients and staff while fostering a thriving fitness business.
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