By Nicole Rogers
With so many conflicting reports, it’s hard to tell whether the United States is truly in a recession or if we are just dangerously close. But one thing is certain—it’s on everyone’s minds.
It is especially on the minds of the small business owners and freelancers in the Pilates community. Could Pilates be one of the first things to drop from our clients’ budgets? Articles with titles like “It’s Not So Easy Being Less Rich” and “Is The Economy Making Us Fat?” suggest this possibility. Both explain how even the wealthy have been choosing to cut back on perceived “luxuries” like fitness.
I was curious to see how some prominent, successful Pilates studio owners across the country were doing in this economy, and what advice they could give from their years of experience with economic ebs and flows. While the current economy seems to have taken a dive from coast to coast, it is clear that people handle their money differently depending on location.
Alycea Ungaro, owner of Real Pilates in New York, Lora Anderson, co-owner of Pilates Studio City in Los Angeles, and Stacy Sims, owner of Pendleton Pilates in Cincinnati, were kind enough to share their experiences and solutions in a tough economy. Thankfully, across the board, there seems to be as much good news as bad.
Anderson, who has owned her Pilates studio since 2004 and opened a second location earlier this year, has found that while private sessions may be less popular than group Reformer classes these days, Los Angeles’ body-conscious clients say things like, “There are things I might give up, but it’s not going to be Pilates.” And while Cincinnati may not be a particularly “fit” city by national standards, Sims says that her group of four studios has “certainly found the niche of clients that wish to invest in their health via Pilates.” Ungaro’s Real Pilates in New York has experienced a definite decrease in the number of privates booked, but she has adjusted the studio’s schedule successfully to accommodate what most studios nationwide seem to be seeing: a trend toward group-class popularity.
With a combined 25 years of experience behind them as Pilates studio owners (not to mention time before that spent teaching), our experts offered up several time-tested strategies to help studio owners and instructors survive recession:
1. Play to Your Strengths
Ungaro, who opened Real Pilates in 1996, stresses the importance of knowing what you’re already good at.
“Play to your strengths as a teacher, as a studio owner,” she says. “I’ve seen this mistake, and I’ve made this mistake for years. Which is, let me try to capture another audience, let me try to go after another group of people, instead of doing what you do best. If you work best with one type of client and you have no trouble getting them, go after more of them. Don’t look for a whole other group of people. And teachers do that too. They have a natural tendency to attract a certain type of client, whether or not that’s the type of client they prefer to work with, there’s a sort of natural strength at play there. If you’re naturally good at that, and it’s just coming to you, go for it, use it, amplify that.”
This can be applied to your business no matter what the economy is like. If new mothers are beating down your door, exploit that strength and get better at it. Read up on the post-partum body, take continuing education classes about Pilates and pregnancy, make space for strollers in your entryway and make those clients even more confident in you. They will spread the word, and word of mouth is free.
2. Look at Your Books
Sims, who opened her first Pilates studio in October, 2001, says, “The really good thing about economic downturns is that they make you analyze everything to streamline operations and expenses while maximizing revenues. We have really trimmed a lot of the ‘fat’ out of our budget and honestly, we wouldn’t have known it was an unnecessary expense until we were forced to take a hard look at it. I think it is a great time to look at the efficiency of your operations. It is also a good time to get very strategic about growth. No one is going to loan us money for expansion in this economy so our growth has to come out of profits, which makes one very aware of creating true profit as opposed to just having enough cash flow to get by.”
It’s difficult when you’re working so hard to sit down and really crunch numbers, but it’s essential. If you have an extra hour or two between sessions, take that time to look at your numbers and do some problem solving. The same goes for freelance instructors. If business is a little slow, take that extra time to find ways to “trim the fat” in your own budget, and maybe take on an extra shift each week for more revenue.
3. Offer and Promote Affordable Options
It seems most Pilates studios are experiencing a drop in private sessions, but clients still stick with Pilates if given more affordable options. “You can say, ‘Hey, instead of your privates this month let’s do semi-privates or a group Reformer class, or one of each so you can keep your twice-a-week workout but save half the money,’” says Anderson. “That will keep your client in the studio instead of loosing them entirely. By giving them the option, you really want to keep them coming back.”
4. Specials, Incentives, Discounts, Free Advertising and Rewards
Intro packages, first mat class for free, back-to-school specials…any discount that involves getting people to commit to a bigger package because you are giving them a better discount will keep your clients coming back—at least for the length of the package. And if you’re creative there are lots of ways to advertise and market yourself for free. Community service, free group classes in your community, coupons, the local business council or neighborhood mothers’ message boards are just a few ways to market yourself. Join groups in the community and be social. The ability to “work the room” is not only free—it’s invaluable.
Anderson also stresses the importance of rewarding your teachers if you’re a Pilates studio owner. Even if you can’t reward them with a raise, a handwritten note or a nice meal can help them to feel appreciated and excited about their job. A good staff is worth its weight in gold, and that’s not something you want to lose in a tough economy.
5. Stay Positive
Not only must you stay positive for yourself, but you also have to stay positive for your clients and employees. Anderson likes to focus on the fact that people need to be healthy to get the most out of their lives. If they feel better since starting Pilates, they are more efficient and productive in their lives, and that’s not something to give up when times are bad. By the same token, you as an instructor have always been a positive influence in your clients’ lives. Keep that up! Remember that they may need you and your positive influence now more than ever.
“We are located about 10 blocks north of ground zero, so 9/11 obviously had a substantial impact on us. We were closed for I think a total of 10 days. Having said that, the area we were in was without electricity, some blocks for longer than us. Our clients relocated, many permanently. And others just sort of fled the immediate area for a period of time. There were grants and some assistance that came about, but for the most part we were hit very hard. We did not recover immediately. We had to be creative with our pricing structure, with our staffing. We took on less administrative personnel during that period and tried to do more ourselves. We offered more incentives with respect to packages and series cards that were available to clients. And it may seem a little counterintuitive, but I actually put some money back into the physical space during that period because I felt like what I was offering in our space was this haven, a place where people could go to get away from it. There was a spirit of camaraderie. There was something comforting in going back to your same old Pilates studio, where you knew the people and they knew you. I felt like we shared the experience our clients did and that made us closer. I made the space a little more welcoming, a little warmer. And I think it really helped. It just gave that extra something special that people look forward to coming in for. It seemed a little odd to be spending the money that way, but I thought, you know, the people who are coming here, really want to feel good about that. It’s important that the experience be as good as the product.”If Real Pilates can survive September 11th, your business can survive a little economic downturn. Just stay inspired, and roll with the punches. As Stacy Sims told me, “The other thing to remember comes directly out of what we know as Pilates professionals: it is all about balance and oppositional forces. So while we may be experiencing a financial contraction, that means there is an opening somewhere for us; either now or in the future. It is our job to find it!” ______________________________________________________
Nicole Rogers is a Pilates instructor and writer. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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