The coronavirus pandemic has impacted all types of businesses and the way we visit them, including gyms. From closing up shop and offering virtual-only classes, to getting back into the studio with clients, we wanted to know what the journey has been like for Northern Virginia fitness brands.
Here, we spoke with Old Town Alexandria’s Sculp’d owner Betsy Weissman about the gym’s transition, how she’s stayed positive during the pandemic, what clients can expect when they walk through the doors now and more. Highlights from our conversation are below.
When the pandemic first began, how did Sculp’d evolve and what have been the most successful methods so far?
Without a doubt, this has been the most difficult moment many small businesses have faced, but definitely for all fitness studios and Sculp’d. Sales are down more than 60% pre-virus. The severity of this crisis has put our business and our community in completely uncharted territory. And there is no podcast or handbook on what to do during a global pandemic, right?
I, like many people, had no idea how long this was going to last so decided right away to simply plan for the next two weeks and then go from there. We immediately launched a YouTube channel with free content that has gotten over 10,000 streams so far, so that is a new channel we are definitely exploring. In those two weeks, we also got our online streaming service up and running and now have more than 23 live virtual classes per week. Everyone, clients and instructors, love the virtual options, so we will be keeping those for the long term. The pandemic pivot worked well for us and I welcome these new paths to bringing value to our clients.
As you reopen for in-person classes and keep classes virtual too, what are the challenges of doing both? Why do you think it’s important to have both of these offerings available to your clients?
What I have found is that as soon as we clear one obstacle, another comes in our path. The last 100-plus days have taught me to just “decide and do.” Gone are the days of deliberating and taking a long time to decide the best path forward. Now, I make a decision and just move it forward. It is absolutely necessary right now.
We were told with only a three-day heads up that we were allowed to open with limited capacity on June 12. Great news, but guess what? My instructors were not ready for that. The pandemic altered everyone’s lives in different ways. Kids are home from school, spouses have lost their jobs, loved ones are sick. While I was allowed to open, I didn’t immediately have the staff to do so. We had to carefully determine how to open the studio in a thoughtful way but also keep our online members happy with minimal change. We landed on our current schedule (for now!) with two virtual and two in-studio classes most days.
It’s vital to keep both virtual and in-studio for a couple of reasons. First, not everyone is ready to come back to in-person gatherings and we need to respect the different needs right now. Secondly, virtual classes are a powerful way to serve our clients and provide value where and when they need it with hard-core Pilates classes that are simply not available anywhere else online. One silver lining here is that we now have more than 100 on-demand videos and offer more than 20 live online classes per week. In the pre-pandemic world, that would have taken six months, at least.
How are you keeping the studio safe for in-person workouts?
Small and controlled is how we roll. It’s like our boutique studio was created for just this situation: small groups, stay in your own lane, open spaces with lots of light and air. Our model was never to pack as many bodies into a room as possible and provide little attention to form or personalization. We never had more than 12 people in a room even before COVID, so with some little good ol’ fashion creativity and ingenuity, we spaced our machines out to the required 10 feet distance, opened the doors to make the room more expansive and have 10 machines up and running.
Clients wait outside until we open the doors. One at a time, they head to our hand-washing station, and then straight to their machines that are already set up with their props. We have cleaned and sanitized before the class, but then the clients wipe the machines down before and after class as well. We also highly recommend that clients buy and bring a Pilates reformer mat for extra protection.
What has been your most popular class offered online so far?
I found that the other online Pilates classes were not super challenging like our clients are used to and don’t provide that leg-shaking muscle fatigue we strive for. So we created a “reformer-less” Pilates class to mimic our reformer machines as much as we could. We offer this in the traditional 50-minute format, express for 40 minutes and also super-condensed in 30 minutes. And, guess what? The 30-minute, total-body, online classes are a huge hit! I get it: You are home, want to workout but always risk getting interrupted, so 30 minutes is a great option to get in and get out, all while sweating and getting your butt kicked.
What did you miss most about in-person classes? How does it feel to have the studio opened again?
It feels surreal to open after 100 days being quarantined at home. It is still hard to believe this is our new reality: masks, gloves, limited capacity. But my team is outstanding and we all adapted right away to teaching in masks and face shields (not an easy task!) and keeping our distance.
I miss the human connection with people in-person. We all used to hang out before and after class to catch up, and know so much about each other’s lives. That is somewhat replicated with our Zoom classes but it’s not the same. To some, this was their one way to see and connect with other people while working from home and/or being away from family and friends. I don’t take this responsibility lightly, and I have been making a conscious and consistent effort to reach out to those clients who are isolated alone at home through the pandemic.
Looking back now, what would you have told yourself in January of this year to prepare you for everything that’s happened through the pandemic?
I would prepare myself to get ready to embrace discomfort! Given my full plate (I’m a full-time attorney, have three teenagers and run Sculp’d) I tend to be super organized, know what is coming and plan ahead as much as possible. Well, that went out the window as of March! If I am being honest, I was a wreck for the first few weeks with all of the unknowns, the madness and panic around the Paycheck Protection Program, trying to pivot on a daily basis and being productive with five people in the house at all times. Now, my team and I can do the pandemic pivot on a dime. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a dedicated and passionate team. My studio manager, lead instructor and the other instructors who stepped up amaze me on a daily basis. We would not be standing today if not for them and their resilience.
What is the power of wellness during a pandemic?
It’s everything, isn’t it? It would be so easy right now to sit around, read the depressing news and state of the world every day, eat what you want, allow yourself to fall into poor habits and just be depressed. Things are really hard right now. But it takes a healthy mind and body to rise above this to take care of yourself and your loved ones. I need to set an example to my family and to my Sculp’d family. I do this by sticking to my daily wellness regime by moving every single day; eating mindfully and sticking to healthy, whole foods; drinking 75 to 100 ounces of water every day and taking daily supplements. If I do that, at a minimum, I feel good about myself and good vibes only create more good vibes. If I skip a day and fall off the wagon, I don’t beat myself up. I just jump right back into it the next day.
Is there anything else about Sculp’d that you’d like to add?
There have been some wonderful surprises through all of this. I have been heartened and lifted by the amazing support of our clients, our community and the small business community through the Old Town Business District. Fellow fitness studio owners and I talk and support each other on a weekly basis, even daily during the hard times. Clients have gone out of their way to keep their memberships, gift memberships and buy big packages just to help us out right now. I will never forget that it was our clients and community who showed up to help us survive this crisis. I am deeply grateful to each and every one of them for supporting us. Can you imagine the power of that? At some of my lowest moments, Sculp’d clients and the Old Town business community have been the ones to pick me up and encourage me to keep fighting. It’s just remarkable! // 1103 Queen St., Second Floor, Alexandria
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