It’s something every small business (and big business) now knows for sure: When the unexpected hits, you have to shift. For Alexandria-based fitness studio Ascend Cycle, that meant launching a new game plan for clients to keep everyone safe while they attend classes, as well as motivating the community to keep going with uplifting messages amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Here, Ascend Cycle owner Kat Zajac shares insight into how the studio has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, details on the Ascend Garage, Lift Lab and more. Highlights from our conversation are below.
When the pandemic hit the region, what was Ascend Cycle’s game plan?
We tried to figure out as fast and as best as we could how to pivot to a business model that would allow us to continue providing fitness content to our community without holding in-person classes. We also wanted to stay connected to our community, as they truly make our studio what it is. We quickly realized how badly our team and our clients missed that basic interaction and that virtual live rides would give us the next-best thing to being in the studio together. We also offer small-group weight training and HIIT classes, and began offering those in a live, virtual format as well.
We recognized that many of our riders wanted to continue to ride, but didn’t have a stationary bike at home. So, we rented out our bikes, as well as our dumbbells and kettlebells. A few weeks into the pandemic, we realized we would not be able to go back to “normal” anytime soon—our studio space would not allow us to provide the level of health and safety that we wanted, even beyond the state’s requirements. We started working with our landlord to identify pop-up space with outdoor access in an unused former auto garage, which we opened to in-person, outdoor classes in July as The Ascend Garage, and it has been really well received!
What has been the biggest lesson learned through this experience?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is to accept the reality of the crisis that we are in, embrace ambiguity and be ready to evolve. No one was ready for this pandemic, and it’s been a roller coaster of life lessons, emotions and more. But the power of our community is immeasurable. So many people offered to support us in so many ways—the people that have supported us as a small business are truly heroes in my eyes.
What is the positive that has come out of this experience for Ascend Cycle?
The biggest positive emerging from the crisis is the realization that we, as a community, are capable of real collective action. The support from our clients and the creativity of my team in adjusting to a new business model really shined through. We saw the people in our community wanting to help with a deepening appreciation for small businesses. We had clients buying extra classes, apparel, gift cards, renting our equipment, and my team jumped feet-first into the transition to virtual then the move to outdoor classes at The Ascend Garage.
When we identified an available outdoor pop-up space, we decided to reinvest not just in setting bikes up outside, but in re-energizing our entire business. We wanted to re-open live classes in a space that felt like ours and with brand-new bikes to welcome our community back. So in a way, a positive from this pandemic has been this reinvestment in our community that will not just allow us to navigate the pandemic, but will be long lasting.
Will virtual classes continue being held for the foreseeable future?
We offered both live and on-demand virtual classes [during the height of the pandemic]. Once we opened for outdoor rides at The Garage in July, most of our bike rentals were returned, so we discontinued the live virtual rides, but we continue to offer on-demand options for those who are renting or have bought a used bike from us. Our virtual strength and interval training classes have remained popular, so we still offer those six days a week, including a free HIIT class on Wednesday nights. You can access them through our website. Not everyone in our community is ready for an in-person experience, so we plan to continue to offer both options as long as we can.
What was the biggest challenge during this time for Ascend? How did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge has been the uncertainty trying to plan into the future. With the information about the pandemic constantly evolving, I’ve had to remain ready to adapt at a moment’s notice. We’ve spent a lot of time and resources testing out virtual class options and redeveloping our in-person experiences. There were some failures, though I prefer to call them “lessons learned,” along the way. I’m proud of everything that we built, whether or not it was a success, as it shows how hard we’ve tried to stay afloat in this crazy time.
In full transparency, I’ve learned that Ascend cannot solely exist in a virtual world in the long term. There are already major fitness brands out there who offer virtual experiences that far exceed what we can deliver as a small business. The Ascend Garage has been a saving grace for us for this reason. We also repurposed our old spin studio space to offer small-group strength training classes, which is what we now call the Lift Lab. The Garage and Lift Lab allow us to deliver in-person classes to our community, which is what the business was built on and what we continue to rely on to keep our doors open.
I am still learning every day. I try to set goals based on each month ahead in terms of what we are offering for classes, what equipment we can rent out and what else we can do for additional revenue, such as new lines of apparel.
Last but certainly not least, these challenges wouldn’t have been overcome without the support of my amazing team members who stepped up to the challenge by developing new skills on the fly to teach Zoom classes, teaching spin in 90-plus degree heat and getting their hands dirty to prepare The Garage for opening. Their support is the glue that holds this community together.
Can you explain in further detail what the Ascend Life Lab and the Ascend Garage currently offer?
At the Ascend Lift Lab, we offer a strength\-training program using equipment such as barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and a bike. The Lift Lab is small-group, personal training for a group-fitness price. There are only four people allowed in each class. This allows each person to have their own station, with their own equipment, spaced 10 feet apart.
The Ascend Garage is where we offer our outdoor cycle classes, boot camp classes and combination cycle/HIIT classes. The Ascend Garage is located just up the avenue from us. When the pandemic hit, I expressed my concerns to our landlord about holding classes inside our studio, for safety precautions, as well as the ability for us to remain financially viable. Subsequently, our landlord offered us the opportunity to temporarily create a pop-up location at The Garage. Several weeks later, after some construction, face-lifting of the space and new bikes, The Ascend Garage was opened.
Missing that in-person studio interaction was a huge loss for our community in the social aspect, as well as the emotional and mental benefits in participating in group fitness. The fact that we can now offer outdoor, in-person classes gives us the opportunity to give that back to our community, contributing to their overall health and wellness. At the end of the day, we are helping our clients achieve their goals and that energy pushes us to move forward.
The safety of our team and community remains the top priority for all our decisions. Opening for classes at the Ascend Garage was the perfect opportunity to offer classes where we could fully implement safety precautions and be positioned to differentiate ourselves from other fitness studios.
How are you keeping clients safe as they come back in for in-person classes? Did you have any hesitations about reopening?
We have implemented many new policies and procedures that help us to meet or exceed the requirements that are outlined by the state for COVID-19 prevention. Some of these measures include spacing clients at least 10 feet apart, wearing masks at all times when not exercising, temperature checks, extensive cleaning processes and more. Our top priority is making sure our clients never feel in danger or at risk. At each bike at The Garage and at each station in the Lift Lab, our clients have a space that is essentially their personal safety zone.
Of course we had hesitations about reopening, but ultimately the social and financial opportunity created through being able to teach in-person again made all of the changes and extra work worth it.
What keeps you hopeful and positive right now?
Our new space at The Garage has been a really fun and reinvigorating project. We are planning an open-house-style event in September where we will be introducing a new feature in our spin classes. Stay tuned!
In addition, the success with our outdoor classes, as well as our indoor small-group Lift Lab, classes has given me hope that we can exist in this new normal. While things have changed, our community has been very understanding and willing to make the changes and follow the new rules. This gives me hope that we can continue to manage through the pandemic.
If you could go back to the beginning of this year, what would you tell yourself?
Be ready to embrace challenges and change. Don’t forget the power of relationships and community support.
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