When the pandemic hit last year, many businesses were left with loose ends, with no roadmap on how to react. Short-term goals included keeping their businesses viable, while protecting their customers and staff.

The boutique fitness world was no exception. One could even argue that the challenges they faced were far more formidable than their larger chain competitors due to tighter finances and fewer staff.

Central Penn Business Journal talked to three boutique fitness owners about how they pivoted from their standard business model to maintain and attract clients in a society left reeling from COVID.

“I became a techie”

Tina Stroh, owner of Just Plain Yoga, in the West Shore Plaza in Lemoyne, found out about a week ahead of time that classes would have to be transitioned to an online model. “It was a scramble,” she said. “I was lucky to have a friend who made a smooth transition with the Zoom classes.”

It wasn’t long, however, before she encountered issues. Meeting links, for example, need to be secure to prevent others from accessing them. This fact alone sent Stroh down a rabbit hole of research on how to make the change while making it simple for her clients.

“We have a population of people who aren’t computer savvy, so I had to make it not only secure, but easy as well,” she said.

Stroh was also forced to take a sabbatical from teaching to train other teachers. “In essence, I became a techie,” she said with a chuckle, detailing how she took on the role of setting up lights, ensuring the audio was working and other similar tasks. Stroh credits her background in television for enabling her to help her teachers look and sound the best they could during lessons. Still, she lost a few who lacked the ability to Zoom from their homes.

Stroh was also aware that Zoom isn’t for everyone. “There are people who don’t enjoy classes via Zoom and are more interested in that social aspect, or suffer from Zoom fatigue by the end of the day, so we opened back up in June.” In preparation for that they upgraded the heating and air conditioning system, enforced social distancing and followed state cleaning and disinfecting guidelines.

Another challenge was the availability of free online yoga classes. “I was worrying about them devaluing what we offered, so we did reduce our classes from $15-$17, to $10,” she said. As of April, Stroh has added 24-hour access to classes. “People who now have a certain comfort level in working from home and it saves them that travel time,” she said.

Despite all of this, Stroh lost what she describes as an “incredible” amount of business and is thankful that her landlords were so flexible and accommodating. “If it weren’t for them and our Community Cares grant, we might not be around,” she said.

The hybrid model she adopted is here to stay, she said, and her biggest challenge as she looks to the future is how to invest in her business. “I know wellness is viable for the long haul, so I’m an optimist, but I’m wondering if brick and mortars are going to continue to be viable for my industry, or will people slowly return? It’s unpredictable,” she said.

Equipment on Loan

Allison Zang opened Absolute Pilates in 2009 and has studios in Camp Hill, Harrisburg and Mechanicsburg. She shut down in March and reopened in June, at first attempting to hold classes outside. Clients worked out on equipment with spring-based resistance, but the heat of summer forced them back inside.

“We ended up leaving doors and windows open in the studios,” said Zang, who also transitioned to the hybrid model. “We were really lucky and a lot of people went virtual with us,” she said.

Where she lost business, however, was in the private training sector. “That’s 60% of our business and we lost half of those clients because they wanted the experience to which they were accustomed,” she said, adding that she’s also loaned equipment out to various clients.

Because the virtual clients didn’t have access to the Pilates equipment, which runs about $7,000, they switched to barre classes, high intensity interval training classes and mat Pilates, which Zang said is a good alternative to equipment-based Pilates. “We teach it with the same principles; that with control and precision you can strengthen the muscles around the spine, although it’s not as much fun,” she said.

It’s been a learning experience, she said. “Our bar for the year was to not have to put a cash infusion into this business, so we consider that a success.”

Another surprise was that people continued to want to get up early to exercise. “The early morning slots are popular; those clients returned to the studio,” she said, adding that lunchtime virtual classes are also successful now.

Like Stroh, she thinks the hybrid model is here to stay. “One thing I know is that there will never be a snow day again and we may retain clients who are snowbirds, who want to keep their classes going,” she said.

Expanding his reach

Before COVID, Jesse Swoyer’s specialty was working with individuals with disabilities. The Harrisburg-based, nationally recognized, certified inclusive fitness trainer found himself in the same situation as both Zang and Stroh—pivoting to online classes.

“I was able to continue with virtual classes through the Silver Sneaker program, which, in time, expanded to five days a week,” said Swoyer.

The downtime for him also had an upside. “He took the time to study and work on his website. He got certified in Tai Chi and Silver Sneakers Boom Muscle, and now offers a variety of classes, including chair boxing, tai chi and a functional flexibility class. He also decided to concentrate on working with older people.

“I now receive calls from family members, some of them even live out of state, and they want me to help their parents,” said Swoyer, adding that people learn of him through his website and by word of mouth.

Another niche Swoyer is targeting is the executive sector. “Those who seek my services know the importance of maintaining their mental clarity to successfully run a business and they need someone to adapt to and adjust to their travel; I’m able to do that,” he said.

His reach can be wide at times and he recently received a call from the United Arab Emirates to work with one of their employees who was dispatched to the states.

Swoyer sees the pandemic as something that enabled him to expand his services to help more people. “I don’t know what the future brings, but you can only go forward or backward, which direction you choose is up to you.”