How My Fitness Studio Has Survived—And Grown—During the Pandemic

There was a time when I wouldn’t even think of Free Mvmt Shop as boutique fitness. It felt out of our league. These boutique fitness studios had all the finishes and polish; they felt high society, expensive and a tad exclusive. They had a gimmick, branded equipment, and a distinct style. They felt trendy. I had read the articles about the boutique fitness bubble, and I too wondered if it would one day pop.

And then COVID-19.  Enter stage right.

How my studio changed—and didn’t change—during the pandemic

Let me start by saying I have always been adamant about us, Free Mvmt Shop, being a community—down to being pissed about having to select “gym or fitness” as our category on listings. “Boutique fitness” were not the words I wanted to use to describe us. I have since come around to boutique fitness. It feels less bourgeois. Especially now. 

At the beginning of 2020, Free Mvmt Shop had a new 2000 sq ft studio that we had physical bodies in for no more 2.5 months. It was lovely. Luckily, we signed a short term lease and as soon as it was up, we jetted. My instinct was, “we have to pivot.” For the safety of our team and our community, we would stay closed to the public and only live stream. 

Other studio owners were waiting, hoping this would go away. We took action immediately, and we’ve been fully live streaming since March 16th. Every damn day. Logging on, navigating crashes, fixing audio issues, finding the angles. I used to count the weeks we had been live streaming, but I stopped counting somewhere around Week 28.  

We also kept our membership pricing. Sure, we adjusted our single class option, but we expected clients to pay for this service.  It behooved (obsessed with that word) me to keep the value of our product up even as I saw people offering FREE IG live, FREE Facebook workouts, FREE, FREE, FREE.  I 110% support for those financially impacted by COVID-19, and to this day if anyone writes to say they can’t afford Free Mvmt Shop, I help them out. But at the end of the day, this is a business. Running a business and offering our services for FREE was never a sustainable option—but, I digress.

So, we kept our pricing. And hallelujah, people pay—and I can pay my team. In fact, the average unlimited member ends up paying around $4 per class when it’s all said and done. They are our biggest fans, our most loyal customers and we love them. In return, the value they get is insane.  

Why our business model has worked during the pandemic

In these times, people have been forced to rely less on the fluff and more on the meat of the workout. What is actually happening during that precious time on your mat? It’s not about the studio location, the “who’s who” of class attendees, and certainly not at all about the pre- and post-class amenities. (Selfie mirrors, what?!)  And this, this has given us a huge shot.

The playing field has leveled out in a lot of ways. People who wouldn’t have ordinarily given us a shot now see what we had to offer: Authenticity. Real movement that all people could access. A community that has always been open to everyone.  

These big box gyms are built on the idea that they get you to pay and you actually don’t use your membership.  ^^(&#(&^Ummmm *(*%^(!))….I hate that model. Why build a business to hope people don’t use it so you can make money? 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, digital fitness is most certainly a numbers game. Not quantity over quality numbers, but just flat-out, “get as many subscribers as possible” numbers. Lower your barrier to entry and just get more people. Unsurprisingly, I also hate that. I want engaged people. A true audience. Cough, cough… COMMUNITY.

Community in the fitness industry during COVID-19

So yes, we are boutique. But more than that, we are community. And a lot of consumers have actually leaned into their fitness communities like never before. They are showing up for their studios and have realized their dollar has power. Sure, you can do a FREE workout on an app with some person you don’t know. Or you can fangirl out about some fitfluencer who is hosting IG workouts that you would have never otherwise had access to. 

But you can also still take that Wednesday class with your fave instructor from your go-to local studio. And see, even online, your friends in class. Sure, you can’t see the sweat dripping down the woman’s face directly next to you, but she’s there online with you in that plank and it feels familiar, semi-normal. And that is community.

We are not competing with apps, Mirrors, or Pelotons.  To me, that’s a different person. A different need. Our live stream experience is designed for you to feel at home. Familiar.  

What I want fitness lovers to know about the studio fitness industry

When aSweatLife’s latest research came out on how the pandemic has impacted studio fitness, I had ~a lot~ of feelings. Moments of recognition, of indignation, of “you just told me I’m going to fail? Watch me kick ass.” There were a couple of parts of the report I want to address specifically:

  1. Small studios CAN survive.  

“Small studios cannot exist… think it’s the end of a lot of boutique fitness. Digital content will continue to get better and more personal using machine learning… most of my friends aren’t going to a gym right now and appreciate the convenience of home workouts.”

State of Fitness, Fall 2020

Small studios CAN survive. But hey: Stop giving away your service for free. Slim down your expenses if you can, wherever you can. Save money, but don’t give away your work or your product. People who want to support your business will choose to, but you have to be there. And you have to do an insane amount of work to keep up with where things are headed. We haven’t laid anyone off, we’ve actually grown our team and expanded our offerings in a lot of ways. But bottom line, we’ve slimmed down our expenses, even among a move to an entirely new neighborhood. 

In this new Wicker Park studio, we’re focusing mostly on digital. A smaller studio, a smaller rent, a bigger picture—unlike a lot of studios and small businesses that live outside of their means. A lot of studios are in debt for some of that consumer-demanded opulence. 

Here’s what I mean: at FMS, we have a running joke and story about “watery soap.” Someone reviewed us once and didn’t like our hand soap. It wasn’t quality to them. It was watery. 

At first I was hurt, actually a little embarrassed. I knew damn well the soap was shitty, but it was what I could afford. And at the end of the day, I wasn’t in the business of luxurious soap. I was selling movement. 

So to all the places out there that have been trying to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak, now is a huge struggle. I think the lesson is “do more with less.”  I’ve been forced to adopt this model because I’ve always had less. I started this business with a $5,000 loan (which was originally intended for new kitchen counters), and that was it. And that was gone fast.  (I’m actually proud to say, that was just paid off the day I wrote this, ironically.)

Small business has to be honest. It has to be real. You can’t live in debt. You should move within your means. Literally. And if that isn’t enough, then your product isn’t enough.  

I read some business article once about your MVP:  minimal viable product. What is that thing, the most bare bones version of your brand that you can put in the market? Without bells, without whistles, fancy packaging. Establish your MVP. Refine your MVP. 

For us, it’s movement. I can teach you how to move outside in a park, in your garage, in your parent’s basement, in your living room. Nothing is required except you and your body. That is our MVP. We don’t need eucalyptus, we don’t need $30 hand soap—we just need a consumer who wants to move.  

2. We will not sell.  

“Boutique fitness bubble has popped! Everyone will be selling their studios (if they haven’t already).”

State of Fitness, Fall 2020

Encouraging people to sell is so short-sighted. In-person will one day return. I am optimistic that will happen safely in 2021, after a vaccine. Hold on, studio owners. Digital will NEVER replace an in-person high five.  

Sure, a hybrid model will 1000000% be required. There are aspects to the at-home workout that are here to stay, absolutely. But for now, hunker down. Get creative and hold on. If you have a huge rent, a huge staff, a huge amount of debt, well, I don’t know all the answers for you. But if you can shrink a little for the next year, do it. Just don’t sell.  

What we see in the future for Free Mvmt Shop

Technically, we downsized.  But actually, it feels more like an upgrade. We are matching where we are and where we want to be. I fully intend to open back up to the public, bigger (more than 2000 sq ft) and better than ever. One day. But for now, we are here and still in business—growing and happy.

Boutique fitness will survive. I am proud to be amongst those that will. I am proud that I finally feel worthy of that “boutique fitness” title. And for you, fitness lovers and studio owners alike: have more hope. Have more faith. And move locally.

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About Ashley Rockwood

Ashley Rockwood is a Chicago-based professional dancer, entrepreneur, educator, and mother of two. She has performed with Beyonce, opera houses across the US and toured internationally with Giordano Dance Chicago. In 2017 she founded Free Mvmt Shop, an all-abilities, community centered pop-up studio that reaches over 1,500 visits per month. Free Mvmt Shop has partnered with local and national organizations including aSweatLife, Boxed Water, Clif Bar, Outdoor Voices, Free People, and Lululemon. She recently created the Yoga for Breonna Memorial Scholarship. A dedication to the life of Breonna Taylor that provides financial assistance to women of color pursuing their yoga certification in the hopes of cultivating a more inclusive community of yoga professionals. Ashley is one of the initial recipients of the Caress x IFund Women of Color grant for diverse, early-stage entrepreneurs.

2 thoughts on “How My Fitness Studio Has Survived—And Grown—During the Pandemic

  1. I really appreciate Ashley’s perspective and sharing her story of resilience through 2020. I found a lot of hope and encouragement in this post. As a small business owner myself, I often feel like I should lower my prices or offer things for pennies to help the community first but this was a great reminder that my small business is still that, a business.

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