Boutique Fitness Studios: Is the Cost Worth the Class?

The Economics of Boutique Fitness

Boutique fitness costs and benefits
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The boutique fitness world is booming. You can find these specialty gyms on practically every corner - SoulCycle, Pure Barre, Orangetheory Fitness, Bikram Yoga, and local studios catering to any number of niche fitness markets.

The truth is, boutique fitness studios aren't cheap to run or attend. They require an engaged and excited staff at a much higher ratio of trainers-to-clients than a traditional gym.

They don't have open access availability where members can simply use the facility and equipment on their own time. This can limit profitability because facilities only make money when classes are held, and class size is limited due to space and equipment availability.

The business model can veer in two directions. For the new studio owner, it can be tough to fill classes, pay rent or maintain trainers... and empty studios quickly become closed studios.

However, for the boutiques that find success, not only do classes fill, but they can become cult favorites, where clients never want to leave and every class has a wait list.

Basic economics helps make such popular studios profitable:

When demand exceeds supply (i.e., classes have long wait lists), prices increase.

Popular studios can charge upwards of $20 to $30 per class, per student without blinking an eye. In other words, a single studio that has space for 30 clients can easily make anywhere from $600 to $900 per class.

For studios that hold four to five classes a day, that easily crests $20,000 per week.

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Of course there are costs involved - staffing, equipment, rent, utilities and so forth, but when per-class price is at a premium, studios can make a handy profit without the overwhelming upkeep of a full-sized gym.

Are Boutique Studios Worth It?

Herein lies the problem - is it really worth it to spend $200 to $300 per month for the equivalent of a few specialty classes per week? Of course there's no easy answer, and of course everyone has to make their own decision about priorities and benefits, but personally, I struggle to justify the cost, while still thoroughly enjoying the classes. 

Benefits of Boutique Studios

  • Highly Trained Instructors. Most boutique studios go out of their way to find the best instructors in their niche, while also providing additional training specific to their studio. This means you'll usually have a positive and beneficial experience when training at a boutique studio.
  • Camaraderie and Community. Most boutique studios also place a high premium on developing camaraderie between class members while also giving back to the community. It's not unusual for studios to host charity events or to donate a portion of each class' profits to non-profits organizations.
  • Focus on One Form of Training. If you're in love with one form of training, whether it's dance, cycling, or yoga, you'll be more likely to "find your peeps" and further deepen your love of the practice by committing to a specialty studio.

    Drawbacks of Boutique Studios

    • Limited Class Type. Yes, you know when you sign up for a cycling studio, you're going to have access to cycling classes. And yes, sometimes there are a variety of different cycling classes available. The problem is, what if you get tired of cycling after a few weeks or months, but you've already invested a lot of money in a membership?
    • Scheduling Limitations. Boutique studios have two types of scheduling limitations. First, you're limited by the schedule the studio sets. If they don't offer weekend classes, or if your child's soccer practices are suddenly scheduled for the same time as your preferred Pilates class, you may not be able to find another suitable workout time. Second, popular studios fill classes quickly. Even if you have a membership, you may not be guaranteed a space in your preferred class.
    • Cost. Specialty studios are expensive. If you pay $30 for a single cycling class, but you can go to your local gym and pay $30 per month for a membership that includes cycling classes and a wealth of other amenities, do the benefits of the boutique studio really add up?

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    The Changing Face of Fitness

    I've been actively involved in the fitness industry for 15 years. About every seven years, the industry sees a major shift. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, big box gyms, such as 24 Hour Fitness and Life Time Fitness, were booming. These gyms offered lots of (often unnecessary) amenities and could charge a just about anything they wanted - often more than $50 or $100 per month.

    During the economic downturn, small chains, such as Snap Fitness and Anytime Fitness saw a boom in memberships. Members could pay less per month than at a big box gym, but still enjoy access to gym equipment and the facility at any time.

    What was lacking, however, were classes and a community atmosphere.

    As the economy started turning around, trainer-led classes in smaller facilities (such as CrossFit), started gaining steam. The costs of these facilities far outweighed the costs of small gyms, and in some cases, big gyms, but the expense was justified due to the trainer engagement provided during personally-led classes. The phrase, "a month membership costs much less than personal training, but you're still led by a personal trainer," started getting thrown around.

    We're now in the boom of the boutique fitness industry. It's everywhere. Boutique classes are high-quality, they're engaging and they get results. There's a community atmosphere and personal motivation and accountability. But classes are expensive.

    I question how long the boutique industry will last. If I were a betting woman, I'd bet that while certain boutique chains will be around for the long-haul (much like Jazzercise of the '80s and Curves of the '90s), there will be a swing back toward big box fitness facilities and home workouts.

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    The fact is, big box gyms offer many of the same classes seen in boutique facilities, plus access to a wide range of cardio and strength training equipment, and in some cases, pools, tennis facilities, racquetball and basketball. My guess is that boutique studio fanatics will start looking at the price they pay for their memberships and ask themselves why they aren't paying half the price for double the amenities.

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