What would you do if someone gave you an empty box to launch a club in?
It’s long been a popular question at fitness conferences, and until recently, ‘launch my own boutique’ was one of the most popular answers. The boutique segment saw a decade of dizzying growth from 2010-19, but it’s been perhaps the hardest hit of all fitness categories over the past two years.
With their reliance on office workers and prime city center locations, the pandemic proved particularly tough for boutique operators, with 27% subsequently closing and the shift towards home working continuing to sting.
But despite these setbacks, appetite for boutique experiences is higher than ever among consumers, sparking a surge of new partnerships and boutique-influenced club models.
‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ has been the mantra, with leading clubs around the world investing in their group fitness offering to create boutiques within their clubs. November 2021 saw boutique collective Xponential announce a deal to retrofit boutiques into LA Fitness and City Sports Clubs; West Wood Clontarf in Dublin has seen stunning results from its cycle boutique The Chain; while big-hitters like Pure Group and Virgin Active in Asia have reaped rewards by investing in THE TRIP.
By offering a world-class boutique experience alongside established benefits like pools, parking and unrivaled gym floors, mainstream clubs are making a compelling case for a greater share of their members’ wallets, while negating their need to look elsewhere for boutique workouts.
And the boutique breakout doesn’t stop there. As well as big boxes getting in on the boutique act, we’ve also seen the emergence of new operators – like Styles Studio Fitness in the US and Coach Gyms in the UK – fusing the best of big box and boutique in a bid to bring luxury group workouts to the masses.
Now may be the most competitive and turbulent period in club history, but the core principles still apply. Ours remains first and foremost a motivation business – people could exercise anywhere, yet they come to clubs for motivation. With this in mind, providing compelling fitness experiences that give great results is essential to keeping members coming back for more. And if the pre-pandemic rise of boutiques taught us anything, it’s that people still see value in exercise and are willing to pay up to US$30 per class for a truly great experience.
So what are the key points to consider when bringing a boutique offering into your club?
Legendary operator Jaci Griffin, Manager of Les Mills New Lynn in New Zealand and a fitness veteran of 35-years, has first-hand experience in this field. In early 2022 she transformed under-utilized space in her mid-market club into a boutique studio to kickstart a COVID recovery and compete with the string of F45s and other boutique offerings that had sprung up nearby. In her own words, Jaci shares 6 key learnings for leveraging boutique demand to build your club back better:
1. Pick the right program mix
Every operator will know the areas where their club is strong and where the competition has gained the edge (your timetable data doesn’t lie!) so it’s vital to ensure your boutique offering tips the scales in your favor. Our club is famous for its group workouts, but the smaller boutiques nearby were gaining ground by focusing on HIIT-style circuits, led by F45 and others. We leaned hard into this trend, creating a boutique studio space with LES MILLS CEREMONY as the hero workout, backed up by LES MILLS GRIT™ and BODYPUMP™ which we can also run in our new studio. We knew if we really nailed the HIIT category and offered the best experience in the neighborhood we’d seriously blunt our rivals’ biggest weapon. So we’ve mirrored their timetables (particularly the early morning classes) and made sure our star Instructors are leading these slots to really crank up the competition.
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2. Maximize the floor space
With so many trends and member categories to cater to, it can be really tough to decide how to allocate space in the club. One of our key performance indicators is that we aim to be servicing 2.1 active members per square meter in our workout spaces – we use this to inform our decisions on capacity management and investment. So we took a Kids Club area that wasn’t performing, stole a bit from our office as well and this gave us a nice big space in which to create the boutique. We can fit 48 members in a CEREMONY class and we’re currently running 37 of these classes per week, which are all 100 percent full, so it’s servicing 1,776 members per week. We made sure the boutique was a multi-purpose room so we could still hold the other classes I mentioned, and when you add these into the mix, the boutique is bringing a strong boost to our capacity metrics.
3. Fans favor the brave
It wasn’t cheap to carry out the boutique conversion, but the impact it’s had on our membership has been invaluable. It’s helped us to attract hundreds of new members and rebuild our base, while the impact on our current members has been seismic. Our latest NPS score was in the mid-60s and there’s an incredible buzz about the place. At a time when most of the clubs around here were battening down the hatches, investing in our facility reassured our members that things would be ok and we’d be here for them no matter what. During times of stress and instability, they really look to their club for community and routine, so sending that clear sign of confidence has made such a difference, both to our members and the wider fitness market. It’s certainly fueling our COVID recovery.
4. Ramping up retention
We know the sense of community in our club is integral to keeping our members with us, so we wanted to make sure the boutique offering would drive even more members into group fitness. During the quietest days after COVID, you could have thrown a bowling ball down the gym floor – it was that empty. But our boutique studio was almost always full and our classes were undoubtedly the key to our survival. People will quite happily leave your club’s treadmills, but they’re a lot less likely to leave their mates and the class where they get to have fun with them. Because CEREMONY combines functional training with strength work, we’ve been able to mop up the gym floor and bring new faces into our studio who wouldn’t have been seen dead there previously. The sense of competition and camaraderie seems to especially appeal to the blokes, and we’ve got participants in there ranging from 16 to 76-years-old, so we’re reaching right across our member base.
5. Kickstart your comeback
The studio launch kickstarted our campaign to rebuild membership back up to pre-COVID levels and beyond. The excitement and intrigue around the new offering helped to entice people through the doors, but we’ve deployed a range of marketing tactics to augment this. We used exit interview data on our CRM to target former members who we knew had left us for nearby boutiques – we emphasize the new offering and everything else they get for their membership with us (approximately US$75 per month) that they aren’t getting at their current facility. This has been highly effective and the feedback we’ve had from members we’ve won back has been that the all-round-package becomes very attractive compared to the one-dimensional offering of a boutique if the price is right and the classes are an equivalent or superior standard. We’ve also used our NPS data to identify the biggest advocates among our membership – those who we know will give us a good rep – and offered them a prelaunch VIP ticket to be first to try Ceremony, plus incentives such as a month’s free membership for every friend they refer. This is another fruitful tactic and I’d say 80 percent of our club’s sign-ups come from referrals – another benefit of nurturing a close-knit community.
6. Cranking up conversions
Of course, it’s no good spending marketing dollars generating leads if you’re unable to convert them. We tend to offer a week’s free access to our triallists, and we’ve found those we can steer towards a group workout are seven times more likely to convert than those who stay on the gym floor. It helps them gain an authentic fitness experience, get results, form friendships and enjoy themselves – all the things that make them stay for the long haul. So we strive to embed group workouts into all of our inductions – it also helps us to separate the serious prospects from the ‘tire kickers’, meaning we can prioritize our focus on the most promising prospects.