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Recession Survival Guide: Tips from Top Pilates Studios

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Pendleton Pilates Studio in CincinnatiPendleton Pilates in Cincinnati

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

Pilates Studio CityIt 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.”

If your Pilates studio is not already set up for Reformer classes or trios, improvise. Offer to find duet partners for your cash-strapped clients, and rev up your mat schedule. For some Pilates studios an “open gym” class is a great way to teach multiple people even if you don’t have a bunch of Reformers. Anderson says in past economic downturns, she added classes like Thai yoga, hip-hop, Gyrokinesis and belly dancing that were completely out of the box, just to keep people interested in their bodies.  When it comes down to it, you intuitively know the needs of your clientele. If they need more affordable options, you know the best way to provide that.

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

Real Pilates in New YorkNot 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.

As scary as the reports regarding the economy can sound, take heart. If you have the guts to be your own boss, you have the ingenuity to improvise during hard times. Ungaro shared a story about her Pilates studio surviving the ultimate catastrophe, 9/11.
“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!”
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Nicole Rogers is a Pilates instructor and writer. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Posted on Monday, August 25, 2008 at 09:24AM by Registered CommenterNicole Rogers in , | Comments9 Comments | References2 References

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Reader Comments (9)

great article, and perfect timing!

I enjoyed reading your article and great timing. Out here in Southern California the economy is pretty dismal and I have lost a few clients as a result. However, it has given me some free time to re-evaluate things and to increase the amount of marketing I do. Since I have a small studio and I don't offer group classes (just duets) I have been willing to cut my prices for those clients who really cannot afford to pay full price. When times are better we can re-evaluate that.

August 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDevra Swiger

I enjoyed this article as well and it is good timing for all of us. We have started marketing in different and creative ways this year and offering more group classes as well.

August 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKelley Ranaudo

I agree with Alycea, my studio is in Winter Park, Florida. We made it through 9/11, we made it through four hurricanes, we can make it through this.
Deborah McKeever-Watson

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah McKeever Watson

I have also structured my studio towards the group classes. Not only is the group hour more economical for the client, but it is more profitable for the studio than the private hour. I structured my privates as a stepping stone to the equipment/mat classes so the financial obligation for the private is short lived.

With my available private hours, I chose a few clients for a case study. I focused on my clients with unique issues especially my older clients (70's & 80's). They get free sessions and I get to use their info in my book.

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Dreisbach

AsI travel around the country to small studios I have suggested several ways to cut expenses and increase revenue.
1. Water: if you are providing free bottled water in small bottles or big 5 gallon bottles,
consider selling the bottled water, or putting in a filter, or suggesting they bring their own.
2. Towels: If you provide towels for the workout or use fresh towels to clean every machine after class, and do your own laundry
or have a service, suggest they bring their own towels and just use one towel a day to clean or buy large quantities of disposal paper towels.
3. Encourage open practice for your clients at $15-$20 so they can do their own workout,
tell them they can do what they like and need to work on!
4. Cut down on the air conditioner, let them
sweat, they'll lose more weight!
5. Make sure your staff is not overusing your phone and fax, using your stamps, etc.
6. Do a work-study trade and have someone clean your studio rather than a service or maid.
7. If you have extra equipment, consider
leasing it out to clients or apprentices.
8. Sell on craigslist equipment you dont need
9. Take private lessons or advanced courses to stay inspired with someone really good(come to Big BEar in August 21,22,23 2009)
10. Emphasize not only the physical health but the mental health of Pilates, remember
Joe taught in the Great Depression and two
World Wars!

Siri Dharma Galliano

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSiri Dharma Galliano

Great article -- well done Nicole. Siri -- you are brilliant, enjoyed your comments.



August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

A few ways to increase your business during an "Economical Slow Down":

Ask your clients for referrals. I love taking my clients to coffee and letting them know I want to grow my business. Most of the time I get 2-3 referrals from each client!

Make an alliance with a local spa or salon. Offer specials to each other's clients. You don't have to spend money on advertising to get fresh faces in the door.

Last but not least, work on getting some PR. You local media is always searching for health and fitness stories. Create an edge, write a simple press release and send it out. I always raffle off a pakage of 10 privates to raise money for my favorite charity. The local paper comes evcery year to do a story.

Live in success, not scarcity and abudance will come!

November 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKymberly Byrnes


I am a new studio owner in Babylon, NY, thats located in a beautiful village on Long Island, I am working on filling up my schedule and being that I opened up just this past October Im not as busy as i would like to be. I was recently approached by a local gym, the owner of the personal training dept. recently purchased two studio reformers and is looking to possibly work with me in a business venture for privates/semi privates.
However my studio (located about 1 mile away) is set up for privates and semi privates and I feel like this is a conflict of interest and would potentailly take clients from my studio..... but.... i know the clientele is there at the gym and I could draw in more fitness minded people. i had suggested to the owner that reformer classes would be a better choice in her setting, I don't know if she was thrilled to hear that? does anyone have suggestions that could work for both of us, especailly in this uncertain economic time...

November 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFAB Pilates

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