From middle America to metropolitan hubs, the frenzy for boutique fitness continues to grow as brands are capitalizing on new attitudes towards wellness, studio tribes, and spending. Recent research demonstrates that this breed of specialized workout venues is the only segment growing in the growth-stagnant gym category in the U.S. But some brands were here before the flood. When a niche brand, rooted in heritage, suddenly faces an influx of competition, how can it stay relevant and not chase the masses?
At SXSW 2018, we had a chance to speak with panelist Jay DeCoons, CEO of The Bar Method, a 16-year-old North American enterprise. Founded by Burr Leonard and based on the principles of the Lotte Berk Method, The Bar Method focuses on two foundational principles: efficacy and safety. Devotees love the results, and, while not always the sexiest headline, safety is an essential component for specialized workouts like this one. We spoke with at SXSW to find out how the brand is grappling with competition, growth opportunities and maintaining its core.
People in metropolitan areas, including New York City, can feel overwhelmed with fitness options. What is your strategy for dealing with competitors, both those that offer bar-based workouts and other boutique fitness classes?
Our two foundational principles, results and safety, are our filters for everything that we do. When we consider innovation, we always involve our physical therapists. This speaks to the intelligent design of our product and the balance between our two principles. Many of our competitors in the studio fitness space are trying to amp up the cardio experience or the extreme nature of their workouts because it’s what’s popular amongst consumers. But I think this can have a real cost, and we’re not willing to compromise our foundation for trends.
Some studios also have aggressive growth goals and need to open up new locations at a rapid pace. It can be hard to maintain quality instruction under that pressure. In 16 years, we haven’t changed our standards in terms of how we train instructors. We, by far, have the most intense initial training phase, so we double down on quality where others, because they have to grow so quickly, have had to constantly cut out the training time.
One of our biggest challenges is that The Bar Method can get confused with the bar category. We need to rise above that noise. Part of how we’re doing that is a more concerted national brand-building effort. Our marketing goal is to distinguish ourselves as The Bar Method, as opposed to the category as a whole, because there are definitely a lot of competitors branching far outside of the core principles of what made bar effective in the first place.
Those principles are what makes this technique so special and differentiated. We’re grounded in isometric movements which strengthen certain muscles; then, you immediately lengthen the muscles. Most people think you need big movements to get results. We have to do our job to educate people and have them experience the technique properly.
I always think what makes our classes so special is the semi-private training feel. Our instructors are expertly trained and recognize when you’re doing a great job while finding opportunities to verbally correct you and provide hands-on adjustments. If you don’t have a quality training program, you’re not going to learn to build mastery of how to do both. When you have an expert that is giving you both verbal and physical adjustments, you’re going to get so much more out of it. And then you will quickly see and experience why that inch up or down makes a difference.
What do you think are some key upcoming health & wellness trends that we’re going to see have a big impact on fitness in the coming years?
I think the focus around integrated health will continue to grow. For fitness in particular, we’ll see more around deep stretching and restorative practices. We’re so busy, and people are hunched over computers and phones more and more. We need to find opportunities to open up and breathe and allow our bodies to heal. As part of this, we’ll see more mindfulness and meditation.
I personally have an active meditation practice, and I think there are ways to bring that into our classes and grow our offering. We do think of ourselves as a community, and if you’re supporting each other and your health goals, fueling is the next piece of the puzzle. How can we offer education around healthy food and nutrition that supports this active view of a healthy lifestyle?
Tech also plays an important role. Think about how it relates to, let’s say, meditation. If you can’t be in a studio, connecting through an app like Headspace can really make a difference in recharging during your day. Or reminders to move or stretch from wearables like Fitbit. In some ways inactivity will be the new activity as we become really intentional about taking breaks.
But let’s get real—most people don’t work in places where they can take time out to meditate and breathe. How can wellness start to play a bigger role in our working lives?
It starts with company leadership. And I do think that is changing because more and more people who think like I do, are moving into leadership roles. I have the opportunity to shape the culture and set those norms in my organization. And we live and work very differently because of this. My team is nearly virtual, and results and accountability are what really matters. I’m mindful of not having meetings just for the sake of meetings so people can take the time to work out or meditate during the day. It starts at the top and with the right leaders—an employee isn’t going to feel comfortable making these wellness decision if it’s not the norm or celebrated in the company culture.
But I do think there are organizations that are evolving, even if it may be harder for hubs like New York City to change. Part of what’s driving the change is business leaders seeing the positive results of wellness who also understand the cost of turnover. People do get burnt out. And you’re either going to lose them, or they’re going to become a whole lot less productive.
What’s your biggest challenge when you consider growth for the brand?
We have a great luxury of not needing to open, say, 100 new locations a year. For our system, adding an additional 15-25 franchise locations is strong, sustainable growth for us. New audiences are a opportunity for us in a few different ways. One is that many people are looking for a high level of flexibility and new technology allows us to reach new audiences. We still need to deliver great content and focus on our principles of efficacy and safety, but the right provider could open a bigger market opportunity for us and harness new technologies to bring our expertise to more people.
Two, our consumer base right now is 95+% women. And there are amazing benefits from this technique for men who want to work on flexibility—but may find the use of the bar intimidating. We need to start looking at programming around stretching or restorative work that could help bring men into our community.
Lastly, millennials. I personally feel marketers overgeneralize this demographic, but we do need to take their attitudes and behaviors into consideration. Millennials are incredible at sniffing out inauthenticity. If we do our job of staying true to our core and what we stand for, and they see that and how thoughtful we are in our classes, on our website, and in our blogs, then I think we have a great opportunity to cater to millennials. They purchase a little differently and typically buy more a la carte and on demand when it works for their lifestyle, so we have to be mindful of that.
But I’m not concerned about positioning our brand differently or speaking differently to any of these audiences. These are really intelligent, discerning customers, and that’s what our brand is about. We want to appeal to those people.
What are some of the challenges of having on online offering? How do you keep people social and engaged in your digital community?
Right now, it’s recognizing how to deliver The Bar Method in a way that’s really complementary to our studio offering while also making adjustments for online access. If someone is connecting with us online, we have to curate and design content for her needs. It could be to develop more confidence and competence in the exercises so she’s more comfortable going into a studio location. This means shorter, slower, more instructive content. Or, it could be enthusiast clients that want to have a great workout when they’re traveling or when a child is napping. We need to deliver for them as well.
In terms of fostering the community, it’s still a big opportunity for us. Currently, we focus more on the relationship a student has with a teacher, rather than student to student interactions. It’s exciting to think about the different technologies that could help us to develop this. VR has some interesting applications. I think we are just scratching the surface as to what the larger online community opportunity could be.