Video Killed the Radio Star, but Digital Won’t End the Reign of Boutique Fitness

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Cheers had the bar, Friends, the coffee shop, and Seinfeld put diners squarely on the map. None of these '90s shows have been rebooted, but if they had been at some point in the last decade, it’s likely their crews would’ve been popping in and out of a spin shop or yoga studio (or at least hitting the smoothie bar) instead of their OG signature haunts. In the last 10 years, boutique fitness studios have become the place to work out and hangout, and as early-morning wake-up calls to sweat have become integral to spiritual, mental, and physical health, there has been a boutique fitness boom.

Because of this, fitness enthusiasts have shifted away from big box gyms to boutique studios like Orangetheory, SLT, and Y7, where they can do hyper-targeted workouts as part of a community that believes in the same core pillar of sweat. When Well+Good launched in 2010, SoulCycle and Barry’s Bootcamp (which were founded in 2006 and 1998, respectively) were the only mainstream options to speak of, but as wellness became the gospel of the decade, the number of studios quickly started to grow. In fact, in the five-year span from 2012 to 2017, boutique fitness membership increased by 70 percent, according to the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association. The rise of wellness certainly propelled the adoption of boutique fitness forward, but community and convenience were core to studios' staying power.

Boutique fitness studios became the place everyone knows your name

A 2014 Nielsen and Les Mills survey on global fitness trends identified that 63 percent of people attended boutique studios because of the community formed with other attendees. "The gym was just too big of a space with too many people coming and going, but with boutique fitness, generally the classes are smaller and you're able to make that connection and find friends," says Lauren Kleban, founder of boutique fitness company LEKfit.

The meteoric rise of CrossFit, for example, is in no small part due to the method's emphasis on community. CrossFitters continually support each other to PR, they train for competitions together, and they have a baked-in social circle. SoulCycle, meanwhile, is betting so much on the power of this core component of boutique fitness that it's expanding its offerings to retreats in 2020, which'll allow clients to follow their spin fam abroad. And speaking of, brands like Y7 are channeling studio pride to create apparel and other merchandise that have become another revenue stream for the business. "[At boutique studios], everybody knows your name, and you feel a part of a family—that's something that ultimately doesn't happen in the corporate world of big box facilities," says Josh Leve, founder and CEO of the Association of Fitness Studios. Though, it's worth noting that even big gyms are taking a nod from boutique fitness, launching concept classes such Equinox's Precision Running, which may have started in the sweatbox, but has since become a standalone studio.

Even while people were finding fitness inspiration in the communities that were cropping up around their studios of choice, they realized there was value in adding variety to their workouts. When ClassPass came onto the scene in 2013 offering a way to navigate New York City’s boutique fitness scene (today it's available in 2,500 cities and 25 countries), it changed the game, making the discovery of new classes and studios seamless and causing the first ripple of digital disruption in fitness. "ClassPass aggregates all boutique fitness and wellness options in one place, making it really seamless to learn about each one of them—what do you need to bring, how do you get there, what type of level is the class—and then book with one click right on our app," says Shari Castelli, ClassPass director of partner expansion. Plus, ClassPass makes many studios available at a lower price point, which allows more people to experience the classes, leading to furthered growth and less reliance on gyms.

Digital fitness has become a branch of boutique sweat

Seven years after ClassPass launched, apps and digital fitness have become integral to how we approach working out and how we blend it into our regimens. While we once might have seen boutique fitness and digital fitness at odds, over the course of the past decade they've integrated to support, inform and amplify one another. With Mirror, for example, founder Brynn Putnam drew on her years of experience owning Refine Method, a HIIT studio in NYC, to create studio-level classes you can access from your living room. Peloton, meanwhile, still has bookable classes from its NYC mega-studio, where it records and produces all of its digital content.

“MINDBODY has seen in our research that digital fitness is truly more complimentary to boutique fitness versus a threat,” says Weddle. “We believe businesses can leverage digital technology to extend their brand beyond their brick-and-mortar location—and video is a fundamental way that they can do that.”

In fact, AKT, Dancebody, Physique57, PureBarre, Ballet Beautiful, Barre3, Body by Simone, Tracey Anderson Method, and LEKfit are all examples of studios that already offer streaming classes to complement their brick-and-mortar business. This growth isn't stopping anytime soon, either. According to Leve, investment dollars are now flooding into the digital-studio world from technology companies, who see the opportunity to expand small tribes into global networks. Expect more expansion ahead.

Propped up by this booming digital business, beloved brick-and-mortar studios will persist. LEKfit, in fact, is making its digital-first workouts available offline in 2020 with a massive flagship in LA (albeit one optimized for filming), and they're unlikely to be the last online brand to do so. "Technology will continue to play a part in people’s fitness routines, but I firmly believe that it will not replace a quality experience that boutique studios offer. If studios are doing it right, they shouldn't be able to replace an actual class with an online one. It's the energy, the community, and the connection of a studio that will continue to keep consumers coming back," says Y7 founder Sarah Levey.

At the first half of the decade, boutique fitness mostly catered to a city-centric crowd able to spend $30 on a class; however, from this side of the '10s, it becomes easier to recognize that these niche classes provided a new vision for working out, just like fitness luminaries such as Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons did a generation before with their cassette tapes. The way we sweat has shifted because of these classes, and that will continue to deepen throughout the coming years as fitness tech expands beyond video and into AI-driven workouts and wearables that inform when we work out and when we rest. As studios continue to find ways to reach the masses through their content, everyone, everywhere will benefit from the new, well-edited genre of sweat.

Speaking of a throwback, here's how SPF has advanced over the course of the decade and if we've learned one thing from wellness, it's that you can milk *anything*. 

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