Today is a funny day for a conversation about pricey fitness, Jamie, a 35-year-old lawyer, tells me. “I’d signed up for one SoulCycle class in the morning and one class at night and was going to cancel one depending on my schedule, but I forgot to do it,” she explains. “So I ended up going twice in one day because I didn’t want to lose out on 30-something dollars!”
Jamie worked for a major law firm for many years, but since she decided to go freelance, she’s been stressing out about how much she’s spending to sweat. She’s not alone. When people find out I write about fitness classes, their first question is often, “Why are they so expensive?!” Everywhere I go, New York women complain about the price of getting fit. “Even with my corporate discount it’s not worth it!” one 26-year-old working at a major media company told me. “Two classes at SoulCycle is the same price as my monthly Crunch membership, and I can spin and go to yoga there.”
In New York, 45- to 60-minute classes that cost more than $30 a pop are now the norm. A single class at SoulCycle or Barry’s Bootcamp costs $34. At Exhale, it’s $37. And it’s not just the crazy popular, pioneering brands that are charging premium prices in hot Manhattan neighborhoods anymore. (Barre studios opening in Cobble Hill are now charging $33.) It’s a fact: working out in a boutique studio will trim your body fat and your bank account.
Questions abound: Why is the cost so high compared to other cities? Are the prices justified by the luxury product offered? And will people be willing to keep shelling out more or will the bubble burst? Here’s what we found:
Blame it on the real estate
One thing that drives New Yorkers crazy is that class prices in other cities are often discounted by a third or more. A Flywheel class in Los Angeles is $25 compared to $32 in Manhattan. Studio owners, of course, blame the market. “New York is just a harder place to do anything. The pricing is astronomical,” says one national barre studio executive currently shopping around for space. “The rent can easily be three times what we pay in most markets.” (Although she’s quick to point out that the potential to make big bucks is also exponentially greater.)
“Over the past several months, boutique fitness tenants have leased spaces anywhere between 2,500–7,000 square feet,” says Amy Zhen, a representative from real estate firm Savanna, which has been involved in recent deals in Chelsea and the Flatiron. Zhen says rents are typically $75–$95 per square foot for spaces bigger than 5,000 square feet and $95–$125 for smaller spaces. So a 5,000-square-foot studio could pay about $475,000 a year, and small studios are disadvantaged with higher rents.
Many class-goers sympathize. “Living in Manhattan is expensive, so the prices of boutique fitness classes don’t give me sticker shock,” says Louisa, a Tribeca mom of two. “I get it. Space is at a premium. It’s expensive to pay rent and run these studios, so I don’t see it as a greedy grab by fitness owners.”
Small classes, quality service
Boutique studios based on classes also point to the fact that they don’t have the over-booking benefit big-box gyms (and airlines) rely on. New York Sports Club may have thousands of paying members who never show up, while Flywheel can only sell space for one bottom per bike. And many, like Refine Method, offer a level of service that requires them to pay instructors to not only teach the class, but to create playlists, take measurements, offer member feedback, and more. “The level of individual care that goes into our programming translates into costs that you don’t have at a gym, where a teacher shows up, teaches, and leaves,” says owner Brynn Jinnett.
“The classes where you have have personalized attention, that’s where I’m willing to pay,” says 31-year-old Vanessa Chu, who hops between classes at Barry’s Bootcamp, Flywheel, yoga studios, and more. “But I think there’s room for prices to come down in classes that are really packed.”
A New York state of mind
While most proprietors won’t deign to admit it, it also has to do with the fact that New Yorkers have dough to spend, even if it is just the one (or five) percenters. “There’s a certain mentality in New York where people will pay anything to get what they think is going to benefit them—whether that’s a $1,000 oxygen facial or a $45 barre class or a $2,000-per-week meal plan dropped off at your door,” the barre executive says. Even many on the lower rungs regularly spend a day’s income on dinner at the hottest new restaurant or a sample sale of Rebecca Minkoff bags.
More responsible spenders have started to swap said dinners for late-night sweat sessions. “To me, it is worth it, but I have to keep track of my weeks and think that if I’m going to a $35-workout today, I’ll go to a free workout tomorrow,” Chu says. “Or I’ll think ‘I don’t want to go to that show that’s $100 because that can get me five workout classes.’ I kind of think in workout currency.”
Are the prices worth it?
It’s the $375 per month question (and the price of an unlimited month at Physique 57). Happy spenders say: if a particular class motivates you to get healthy and makes you a happier, sane person, why not? “As a whole, the country has become a lot more conscious of health and fitness and keeping your body going for a lot longer and boutique fitness and finding a workout you love is part of that,” Louisa says. It’s cheaper than personal training. It’s way cheaper than therapy. A class is the same as what you’d spend on two cocktails, says SoulCycle co-founder Julie Rice.
Of course, “boutique” obviously wasn’t conceived to help the masses get healthy. Flywheel clip-in cycling shoes are Louboutins; old sneakers in a foot cage at New York Sports Club are last season’s Kenneth Cole pumps you got at DSW. Why would owners lower prices if people want the Louboutins? Says Jamie, “People say to me all the time, ‘Why are you paying all that money? Why don’t you run outside?’ But it’s just not the same.” —Lisa Elaine Held
What do you think? Are boutique classes worth the price tag or are prices skyrocketing out of control? Tell us in the Comments, below.