Gym Owners Unperturbed by Reducing Class Size

May 12, 2020 by
Photo: @cf610
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Though post-COVID-19 rules for running a gym are still unclear in many states and countries, what is becoming more and more clear is that the days of running group classes of 20 to 30 members might be a thing of the past.

In Texas, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Tuesday that gyms can re-open on May 18, but they must operate at 25 percent capacity. And in Colorado, gyms are allowed to operate right now if they function as a personal training studio with no more than four people in the gym at once.

While keeping group class numbers low sounds like it has the ability to harm any small gym business, the overwhelming majority of owners we spoke with said they think small class sizes and semi-private training is better for everyone. In fact, 22 out of 25 gyms owners — who were asked whether keeping class sizes small would hurt their business — said no.

Abi Ann Reiland, the owner of CrossFit 8035 West in Grimes, Iowa was one of the few affiliate owners who expressed concern.

  • “We are a seven-year old affiliate and run a large facility. During a busy class we might have 20 to 30 people. We also have two or more coaches on the floor during these times. People really look forward to the energy and community our larger space and membership offers,” she said.
  • “So as much as I might enjoy coaching small classes, my overhead isn’t supported by small classes. I need the ability to have larger classes again, sooner than later,” she added.

Still, the vast majority said small classes are the way forward, pandemic or not.

  • “They are absolutely better, for the coach and the clients,” said Brendan Kelly, the owner of Stone Age Athletic Club in Evergreen Park, IL.
  • “Smaller is better,” echoed Bryan Stoneking, the owner of CrossFit School of Sweat in Temescal Valley, CA.

Teri Harrison Keaton, the owner of CrossFit Breaking Boundaries North in Alpharetta, Georgia, recently re-opened her doors and has kept classes to ten or less.

  • “I’ve been loving my classes (of) ten and under. Honestly, I’m going to offer more class time options and cap it at ten moving forward, even after restrictions are lifted,” she said.
  • “Coaches are less stressed, and obviously it’s more effective to coach 10 than 20-plus at one time.”

Alyssa Royse is of a similar mind: “It’s the people who thought that 30 members and one coach was a reasonable class that are going to be bumming. Gyms that built their business models around small class sizes are probably posed to absorb this a whole lot better,” said the owner of Rocket CrossFit in Seattle, WA.

Classes of 30 are “just Peloton in person at that point. Probably great for making money, but crap for coaching, learning and safety,” she added.

How small is small enough?

While opinions ranged on the topic, most affiliate owners seem to consider classes of between six to 10 athletes as an appropriately-sized class.

  • “Seven to ten is a sweet spot for classes,” wrote Johnathon Bohnert, a coach at Crystal Coast CrossFit in Newport, NC on the CrossFit Affiliate Owners Only forum on Facebook.
  • “One to ten (coach to client ratio) is ideal in my opinion,” added Arthur Pruneda, the owner of CrossFit Unchained in San Antonio, TX.
  • “We should be giving each member as much attention as they would get in one-on-one training. I don’t believe any single coach can truly give a one-on-one training (experience) to more than ten people at a time. I actually prefer six to eight people per coach. And that number only works if they are all experienced members,” added Helen Lawson, a coach at CrossFit Schenectady in N.Y.

Tricia Grunwaldt re-opened her gym CrossFit 610 in Lebanon, MO last Monday and reduced her class cap from 15 to eight.  So far some of her clients are “a little apprehensive” to show up, she said, so she has only had a few classes reach eight. In the future, she said she may add another class if classes become busier.

Holly Tabor, the owner of CrossFit Coordinate in Cary, NC also intends to reduce her class cap to eight when she re-opens.

  • “We still don’t know when we will open and what our stipulations are, [but we] are prepared for whatever they will be,” she said.

Tabor also uses HybridAF, which gives her members 24-hour access, so she expects this feature will be “even more valuable now,” she said.

Not so different than before: Though many gyms are reducing their class caps, potentially adding more classes, or decreasing class time from one hour to 45 minutes, other gym owners said they have always intentionally kept classes small, so new regulations won’t be so different.

  • “We have always been small groups in a big space, anyway. We shifted to a more personalized program well before this and it has not only helped with retention, but will make the backside of this less weird for our members. Our people aren’t there for 20-person classes and fist bumps,” said Chase Tolleson, the owner of Ardent Fitness in Algonquin, IL.
  • “I feel like (more than) eight people, you start to lose the ability to have a real impact on any single individual without detracting from the experience of other members,” he added.

Jeff Scott, the owner of CrossFit Beaufort in SC is another who has always kept his classes between six and 12 people, so not much will change, as has Beth VanDemark Sebby, the owner of Chester Springs CrossFit in Pennsylvania.

  • “Our model is based on a smaller class size, so capping sign-ups to six to eight people per class won’t feel very different for most classes,” she said.
  • “Our plan, however, is to start with a very limited in-person class offering, and gradually build as we gain confidence with our procedures, and as demand dictates,” she added.

A good time for one-on-one training: Jeremy Jones, the former owner of three affiliates in California and founder of Thrivestry, a company who offers programming to affiliates, thinks now is a good time for semi-private and one-on-one training.

  • “One of the silver linings of this whole thing is that if people really enjoy the small group (and) semi-private training (with) three to five people, it creates an opportunity to up-sell them on the service in the future,” Jones said.
  • “I think most gyms should be doing one on ones with everyone right now. It will be good for folks to get better direction after being gone from the gym for a couple months and it will be an opportunity to set some people up with regular personal training sessions in the future,” he added.

The question of cost: Smaller classes, semi-private and one-on-one training likely means charging clients more money.

A business model predicated on smaller classes and more attention from coaches means, “you better charge a lot more,” Kelly said.

For many small business owners, the thought of asking members who stuck with them through a pandemic for more money doesn’t sound like something they want to do, but this might be the only way for many affiliates to stay alive, said Maximus Lewin, an affiliate owner since 2006.

Lewin recommends gym owners viewing this time of reopening as an opportunity to grow.  

  • “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to change everything about your affiliate,” he said.

This includes potentially raising rates, which comes down to simple math, he said.

  • “Don’t doom your business by providing more delivery for less revenue. The only way it makes sense to add more classes is to raise your rates,” he said.

Lewin recommends charging a minimum of $299 a month for small group class training.

  • “And before anyone says, ‘People in this area will not pay this,’ sure they will, and this price point works most anywhere…Any city that has a SoulCycle has shown that there are people willing to pay vastly more.”

The pandemic has definitely changed the game, he admitted. For example, he suspects some people might have gotten used to working out at home and might not return to the gym. So it’s time to focus on high-quality clients willing to pay, he said.

  • “There are going to be a lot fewer, but also more high quality clients” willing to pay $300 a month, Lewin said.

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