Just ask Pilates trainer and business consultant Michael King, of London, how far the Pilates boom has spread. “There’s no place where there isn’t Pilates these days,” he says. “I just helped open studios in Turkey. We have teachers in Mongolia, in India—I haven’t come across a country yet that hasn’t had some form of Pilates. It has been in the UK for 30 years. France is going crazy for Pilates. But it’s a little different everywhere you go, depending on how the press promote it. Sometimes it’s more of a fitness program; sometimes it’s about rehab or has a more glamorous image.”
King is a founder and director of Pilates Institute UK, and he travels around the globe assisting Pilates businesses with training and operations. Just as every country approaches Pilates differently, no two studios are alike, he says.
“The main thing is that it’s a business,” says King. “Just because it’s been in Vogue doesn’t mean it’s not a business. Without a doubt, everyone loves the technique. It’s never really about that—it’s about how to make it work. And now there’s more competition than ever before, so the challenges are different than they were when you could be the only one.”
For Pilates businesses today, the biggest hurdles tend to fall into four crucial areas: business planning, facility selection, staffing and customer service. In this first part, we will look at business planning and facility selection.
Core Challenge #1: Business Planning
King says the biggest mistake he made, and the one he sees most often, is thinking success will happen quickly, rather than being prepared for a more realistic picture. “I thought all you have to do is have a studio with pretty paint and equipment, and people will come. Now I know you need very serious planning. Most studios take about 2 years to build a good client base.”
Catherine Logan, MSPT, of Hanover, New Hampshire, is presenting a session on launching a Pilates business at the upcoming Inner IDEA Conference® and is also writing a book on the topic. “There’s a big demand to get Pilates out there quick, but people don’t realize it’s all about preparation,” she says. “You need to start at least a year in advance.”
Research your target market carefully, Logan advises. “My first business was in a college town, and I had to cater to a college schedule and young people working later hours. My fees had to fit into their budget. You can’t build your business around what you want; [it has to be] around what your target clients want.”
Formal market research can be expensive, but Logan says you can get around that. “I use an online company called Surveymonkey.com, which offers free market surveys. You can send out a link to friends and have them pass it on to their friends. I’m also a big believer in incentives. I do raffles and offer prizes like free classes and T-shirts.”
Core Challenge #2: Facility Selection
For most Pilates businesses, finances depend primarily on one factor: facility cost. “The facility is usually the biggest expense,” says King. “I always recommend that people start small. There’s a huge amount of pressure when people open a big rented studio. You have to remember your business isn’t about the building; it’s about what you’re doing there. You can’t enjoy what you’re doing if you’re too stressed by that monthly rent.”
He tells the story of a teacher in Scotland who turned her living room into a Pilates studio. “The family had to watch TV in the bedroom for a while, but she made enough money in 1 year to build an extension onto her house. It’s a fantastic scenario. That’s why home-based studios are becoming more popular. The smallest place for a working studio that I know of is 10 feet by 6 feet with one piece of equipment.”
Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate, emphasizes King. “Try to get part of the lease free, or get the facility to take a percentage split. It will give you more breathing room.” Logan solved the problem by sharing space. “I rented a space within a community center. I rented it by the hour, so I didn’t even pay utilities. Later I added another site at an all-purpose room on a college campus. I could start making money right away, which is a good way to go if you don’t want to look for investors.”
Portia Page is co-owner—with Bruno Bosardi and Gaynor Dalbratt—of BPG Bodies, a Pilates studio in the trendy Hillcrest area of San Diego. She kept it small: 400 square feet, and she teaches 12 Pilates group classes a week, with 75 people coming in regularly. “It’s basically a wooden floor with mirrors on one wall. My rent is still my biggest expense, since this is a popular area. But it’s worth it because we get a lot of foot traffic by the studio.”
Leslee Bender of Reno, Nevada—founder of the Bender Method, Bender Ball™ training, and The Pilates Coach—started her studio in a gym. “It gave us a lot of exposure because it was in a good spot and members could see what was going on—rather than having it tucked away in some dark corner.”
Bender went on to open the first full-service Pilates studio in Reno: a 2,500-square-foot stand-alone facility, where she has six towers, a Cadillac chair and seven reformers. “We’re well-established now, but Pilates studios are opening up like fast-food chains, with trainers who’ve studied for a weekend. It’s frightening,” she says. “It makes it more important than ever for us to offer high-quality service.”
While competition can create a tight market for start-ups, the good news is that financial institutions may be more willing to lend a hand. “Five years ago it was hard to get a loan, but now most banks have heard about Pilates. It’s proved its worth,” says King.
Another advantage of Pilates’ popularity: you may be able to save money by finding good secondhand equipment. “I think used equipment can be a great idea,” King says. “Check eBay. I do it all the time.”
In Core Challenges of Running a Pilates Business, Part 2 we will explore staffing and customer service core challenges.