Ottawa fitness studios going virtual in bid to bulk up revenues during COVID-19 pandemic

Ashley Lawrie
Free Form Fitness CEO Ashley Lawrie says fitness businesses like hers are being forced to adapt to a new reality. Photo provided

After making it through a year of construction headaches on Elgin Street, Marie Boivin’s fitness business was finally getting its legs underneath it when the COVID-19 pandemic knocked it off its feet.

“We were just gaining momentum,” says Boivin, the owner of Barres and Wheels, which has three locations in the region devoted to spinning and barre fitness, a combination of ballet, pilates and yoga. “But we’re confident that people will come back.” 

Like many other industries that have been forced to dramatically rethink their business models as a result of measures designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, the fitness industry has been turned on its head. 

With government-imposed restrictions forcing the closure of gyms, yoga studios and other facilities where exercise aficionados typically gather to work up a sweat, fitness entrepreneurs have been forced to find other ways to keep their businesses alive.

Many local fitness enterprises have begun offering virtual classes in an effort to retain at least some of their clients. Boivin, who founded Barres and Wheels in 2016, says she was already planning to branch out into online and virtual sessions, and the COVID-19 crisis simply accelerated the process.

“We were lucky that way that we had a headway with the technology and the instructors willing and capable of doing that remotely,” she says. “We flipped the switch, so to speak, quite quickly on that end.”

‘Devastating’ hit to cash flow

Still, many owners of fitness businesses say that while pivoting to virtual instruction is keeping some income flowing, their bottom lines are nowhere near as healthy as they were a month ago.

Barres and Wheels, for example, now offers about 35 live-streamed classes a week, a third as many sessions as it offered in its studios. Boivin has had to lay off her entire administrative staff, while only about a dozen of the 35 instructors who usually serve her hundreds of clients are teaching sessions via Zoom.

“From a cash-flow perspective, it’s absolutely devastating,” she says, estimating her revenues have plummeted more than 80 per cent since she closed her studios a month ago.

Meanwhile, she’s still paying for rent and utilities at her Elgin Street studio and her two other locations in Wellington West and Stittsville, despite not being allowed to do business in them.

“The cost of keeping the lights on, so to speak, is still there,” she says bluntly.

Making matters worse is the hyper-competitive nature of the online fitness industry. Even before COVID-19 hit, countless exercise gurus were providing tips and demonstrations for free on platforms such as YouTube. Now, brick-and-mortar studios are jumping on the bandwagon as well.

“The competition is so much more elevated,” says Denis-Claude Fleury, who owns Elevate Yoga on Elgin Street with his wife Lizl. “You’re competing with all these yoga offerings on a world scale.”

The shift from in-person to virtual instruction has presented a steep learning curve for the Fleurys, who spent the first three weeks of the lockdown posting free videos on YouTube and figuring out how to keep the business afloat.

Last week, Elevate started hosting one class a night on Zoom, and so far the response has been encouraging, they say. But it’s still enough work for only six instructors, a far cry from its normal contingent of more than three dozen.

“It’s been really heartbreaking,” says Lizl. “For the majority (of instructors), it is their livelihood.”

While the daily sessions are drawing about 25 to 30 customers, the $20 per person they’re generating comes nowhere close to covering the fixed costs of operating the business. Their landlord allowed them to defer their $7,000 April rent payment until May, but has made no promises beyond that. 

“The reality is, they’re also a business,” says Denis-Claude. “They’re also going through this. We’re happy to receive anything.”

The Fleurys have applied for a $40,000 interest-free small business loan through the federal government’s new assistance package and are also looking at taking part in the wage subsidy plan. But with revenues down to a trickle, any federal cash is still effectively a Band-Aid solution.

“It’s tough to find that money right now,” Denis-Claude says, adding the business has enough rainy-day funds to pay its bills for about six months without any revenues. “The biggest part of this whole experience is managing cash flow and making sure we can weather the storm.”

‘We’re definitely getting creative’

At Free Form Fitness, which has six locations in the Ottawa area, CEO Ashley Lawrie estimates revenues have dropped 70 per cent since its studios closed in mid-March. 

Most of the chain’s 30 or so trainers are now offering one-on-one sessions via Zoom, but Lawrie says some customers don’t feel comfortable using the technology or lack the proper equipment at home. 

The lockdown has led to a run on weights, treadmills and other at-home fitness gear, which is now a scarce commodity. Free Form is encouraging clients to use whatever they have at hand, from soup cans to water jugs, as a substitute for weights, and the company is talking to its suppliers to see if it can scrounge up enough dumbbells, resistance bands and other equipment to lend to clients.

“We’re definitely getting creative,” Lawrie says with a chuckle.

Despite the gut punch from COVID-19, fitness entrepreneurs say they’re confident customers will turn to local options as they seek ways to stay active while cooped up inside.

“I think people want to connect with the instructors that they know,” Boivin says. “You can find a lot of free stuff on the internet, but you have to be (discriminating) in terms of what it is that you do to your body. I think people want to keep encouraging local business and the community that we’ve built.”

They also say the crisis is pushing an industry that has often resisted technology to embrace the world of virtual fitness.

“The last few weeks have really taught us to learn how to adapt and be resilient when something like this happens,” Lizl Fleury says. “It’s really opened up our eyes. I feel like this is just going to make us stronger as a business.”

Lawrie echoes those sentiments.

“It’s either adapt or die,” she says. “I’m hoping a lot of (businesses) can learn a lot from this.”