SoulCycle and Flywheel, two of the top boutique cycling studios in the US (both started in New York and have expanded from there), have created brands that are buzzing with financial success and full classes. They certainly are experts in PR. How have they done that? Can you learn from them, while still staying true to proper training principles and “keeping it real”? Examine what you are doing at your facility and see if you can implement any of these suggestions to take your program’s success up a few notches.
Whether you are an instructor at a large chain club or a small facility, or whether you are the studio owner or program director, here are some tips on how to capitalize on the positive aspects of SoulCycle’s success.
Let’s examine some of the things that SoulCycle is doing that have led to their mind-boggling success in creating their brand. First, consider some of these numbers:
$32 to $36 per class, ten classes per day (some have more, some are less), I can’t find any actual numbers on their website, but I’ve been told or read that they have about 50-70 bikes per studio. Multiply that by seven facilities in NY alone (more opening up soon in NY, plus Miami, and Los Angeles area coming soon, not to mention their merger with Equinox). Some people are even purchasing a $3,000 pass for 50 classes (yes, you read that right, that equals $60 per class) because it gives them the “privilege” of signing up in advance of everyone else and getting a front row seat. Hey this is New York, I bet they sell a lot of those.
At one facility, that is a revenue of $12,000 – $16,000 per day (using 50 bikes, $32/class, 8-10 classes). That is some serious cash! Imagine the studios with 70 bikes…
Obviously they are in a market that can support this kind of volume—the metropolis of New York City and the very high-end communities of the Hamptons and Scarsdale. But any club in any market would do almost anything to guarantee their own schedule of classes were bursting at the seams, with lines of people waiting to fill those seats (saddles).
If you are a studio or club owner, how far would you go to fill your saddles? It’s easy to see why it is tempting to bring in the trendy “techniques” such as the upper body workout on the bike, but maybe there is something else to it? Maybe you can find a way to generate that phenomenal buzz and vibe without the contraindicated gimmicky moves?
While I (and many others) disagree with their unscientific and uncertified (at least by a reputable accredited certifying body) methods of teaching, there are some very positive things about SoulCycle. It is buzzing with excitement and energy and passion and community!
Or at least, that is the perception…
Perception. That is the golden key in marketing. Why else to you think people purchase products that with a little common sense and reflection, would make you think twice before shelling out the money? SoulCycle is perceived as THE place to be. How does it get to that point? Marketing and Public Relations.
But celebrity endorsements certainly help.
Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Nicole Kidman, Kelly Ripa, and more all work out there. Click here to read who else works out at SoulCycle. Celebrity endorsements are extremely powerful; if a famous athlete or celebrity loves something, their fans want it too. But you can’t expect celebrities to know that much about health and fitness; we’ve seen it over and over again where they’ve endorsed something that was unproven. This company convinced top athletes and celebrities to wear their product, and millions of people to shelled out money for a bracelet promising them balance, flexibility and strength, and was sued for $57 million for false claims.
SoulCycle has a marketing and PR juggernaut behind them, as well as a large influx of capital. Press coverage of this magnitude doesn’t happen on its own, it takes a polished PR firm and a lot of investment to help make it happen. As a result, they can wordsmith their way into the hearts of the public. Kelly Ripa promoting SoulCycle? That’s marketing, and it carries a lot more weight when it’s done on CNN and Live with Regis and Kelly.
Still want to know how to get a celebrity endorsement? It’s as easy as this! 😉
What can you do to promote your facility or class?
There are inexpensive and even free ways to capitalize on PR opportunities. Most newspapers have a local community section and are usually looking for good content. You should develop a relationship with your local paper and radio station, possibly even your local television station (especially smaller cities and towns). It’s important to do whatever possible to get your studio or club’s name into public view. Make sure to sponsor events or have your staff volunteer at charity fundraisers. Even better, hold your own, and get it into the paper as much as possible, before, during and after the event. If you are new, find out if your paper has a business section that highlights new businesses.
If you have a specialty or seasonal program that is coming up, make sure to get coverage in your local paper or television a few weeks in advance. This could include a Tour de France program, a weight loss group, a charity event, or even a theme ride. Every single opportunity you can find or create to put your name and program into the public view will serve to raise brand awareness.
Also, develop a relationship with your local bike shops and cycling clubs, especially if you live in a place where outdoor riding is seriously curtailed in the winter. You may even have a local cycling celebrity you may want to get an endorsement from. You never know unless you ask! Create ways for your cycling clubs to get together and train at your facility.
Whatever you do, whenever you receive any type of endorsement or coverage in your paper or on the radio or TV, make sure it is on your website and that you send a link to your members. Frame all magazine or newspaper articles about your facility or programs that you sponsor or are involved in, as well as photos of your special events or fundraisers. Post these in your studio or lobby in a tasteful manner. If you are lucky enough to have any kind of celebrity, even a local who is well known and viewed in your community, be sure to post photos of that person in your classes, with a note attached.
Personally I like the idea of turning your regulars into “celebrities” by putting their pictures on a wall (with their permission). What a great way to increase the sense of community!
SoulCycle instructors are revered by their students. The owners have publicly stated that they aren’t into hiring instructors with cycling or even fitness experience; they are looking for entertainers. Obviously I am writing this post to provide ways for you to make sure you can increase your class size and loyalty, and one of the ways to do so is to have great instructors. But I firmly believe you can do that with educated and experienced instructors and that you do not have to resort to gimmicks or pure entertainment to have it. Knowledge does not have to be boring! If the students are bored, it’s not necessarily what the instructor is doing, it’s usually the fact that the instructor is boring and has not learned coaching and motivational skills.
But, you can have it all! Invest in your instructors so that they can learn to have it all: exercise science knowledge, cycling technique, coaching skills that include motivating students to go beyond self-perceived limitations, creating fabulous profiles, and of course, choosing and working with music in a way that empowers the students. Provide ways for them to attend master classes or conference, or even online conferences. Give them incentives, perhaps even subsidies, to grow their knowledge. Regularly email them articles on technique, inspirational coaching, fun programming, and anything you can find that will improve their knowledge and repertoire. (ICA has a free training series on being a more inspirational coach and using music to match the coaching message. And, here are several free 1980s theme profiles and playlist of 285 retro songs.)
Educated, inspiring, fun instructors with great music do exist; they are out there!
If you are an instructor looking to rise to the top, increase your class size and help your studio increase numbers, then look at your skill set, determine where your weaknesses are, and work on them. Here at ICA we not only educate instructors about exercise physiology, biomechanics, and cycling technique, we also make sure they know how to be more motivating and fun, how to connect with students, and how to use music to empower their classes. Profiles can and should be technically correct, highly motivating and fun, all at the same time.
Again, you can have it all! Look for instructors that do, and when you find the good ones…pay them enough to stay with you!
Believe it or not, SoulCycle’s exorbitant cost has played a role in their success. Paying that much gives it a high-brow feel, people want to be a part of it. They want to show off to others that they have been to SoulCycle. It’s the Gucci bag of indoor cycling. It’s conspicuous consumption at its finest, especially when they also buy the T-shirt.
I do not necessarily advocate a $32–$36 class, but price does play a significant role in the perception of value. I know a business consultant who used to charge $100 an hour and had a hard time finding clients. He raised his fee to $250 an hour and now finds himself turning clients away because he is so busy! He didn’t change a thing in what he was doing, but the perception of what he could do for his clients was altered.
If you are a boutique studio, have you done in-depth market research on what your market will bear? My suggestion is not to be the least expensive if you have competition. Compete on value and on quality, but not price. Provide more value than your competitors, especially in the areas of customer service. Of course, if you are a program director at a large chain or a facility such as the YMCA, you won’t have any control over program costs, but you certainly can do your best to increase the value of what is offered.
Don’t give away the farm!
Make sure that you charge for special programs outside of your regular classes. For example, if you offer an 8-week weight loss or 12-week periodized cycling clinic, it should not be free, or if you are a studio that charges per class, these types of programs should be a separate package than your regular punch cards. I’ve had instructors tell me that they don’t think they could ever charge at their club for programs, but in most situations, if it’s done right, it is in fact possible to charge. If the program is well promoted, if it has greater value than your regular classes, if you want them to commit, then you should charge for a special program or class or they will not value it as much. This is simple human nature. People who pay for something over and above their membership fees will have a higher perception of value and they will likely be far more committed than if it was free.
Although some of the reviews I’ve read about SoulCycle were not very complimentary about the customer service, others raved about it. This is something they claim they do well. They do offer cycling shoes for rent, making life easier for the student, especially in a big city like New York, they don’t have to lug around their shoes in a heavy gym bag.
Flywheel is the primary competitor to SoulCycle. They are much more high tech and less into the claims of the signature “overall body workout” by SoulCycle (although Flywheel does do an upper body segment using lightweight bars) but apparently eschews any of the crunching or twisting moves that SC employs.
Here is a review that compares SoulCycle with Flywheel. The author says this about SoulCycle, “the studio’s marketing wooed me with a promise of exceptional customer service and instruction, and they’re just not keeping pace.” They give Flywheel high points for customer service, atmosphere, cool high-tech equipment and a much better price tag.
At your studio, make sure your customer service is top notch. It doesn’t cost much to provide good service, except perhaps spending a few more hours to train your front desk and other staff properly. There is absolutely no excuse for poor customer service these days, but unfortunately it is still too common. In these days of social media, and especially Yelp, a few poor reviews about your customer service can really haunt you. If you are in a competitive situation, make absolute sure your service is head and tails above your competition. Even if you don’t have much competition, the same rule applies, so your students will tell all their friends how amazing you are.
Studio layout and environment
SoulCycle’s studio environment is mostly perception; it looks great in the videos and promotional material, but this review talked about it being so crowded that she couldn’t do the upper body workout without hitting her neighbor, and was told to turn her body 45 degrees to avoid the person next to her. One person in this Yelp review was grossed out being hit by the flying sweat of the people packed in around her. The stadium layout of Flywheel on the other hand, is great for creating a welcoming environment, is less claustrophobic and gives every rider an unobstructed view of the instructor. They also have more room between their bikes.
In your studio, create an environment that makes your riders feel good to be there. Walk into your studio and ask yourself, is your studio inviting? Are the colors welcoming? Consider adding an inspirational mural that enhances the emotions and feelings you want your riders to feel. Good lighting can make people want to come back, or make them stay away. Having lights with dimmers, or at least the ability to reduce the amount of overhead light, enhances the experience (just make sure the instructor can still see everyone’s face and riders can still see their heart rate monitors). Invest into a solid sound system; a poor one will drive people away. Never forget, indoor cycling is known for inspiring and energizing music and the sound quality is half of that equation.
How about your bikes, are they well maintained? When something is broken, is it fixed quickly? Nothing angers members more quickly than when equipment stays broken for longer than a class or two.
Are the bikes far enough apart so riders don’t feel cramped like cattle, and so their heart rate monitors don’t cross feed? There should be easy access to the bikes as you come into or leave the class, so you aren’t stabbed in the chest by a handlebar every time you walk amongst the bikes.
Your goal should be to make your students excited to be a part of your facility or class so that they want to come back again and again. Ways to do this are usually very simple, but not very common. First, make sure you know everyone’s name, and make an effort to learn something about them. Second, introduce your members to each other, especially the very first day that someone attends your class. Some timid people do not return because they feel like they may never fit in. Breaking the ice for them by introducing them to some of your longtime students will help make them feel welcome, and more likely to come back.
Social media is another way to connect with your members and students, and is one of the things that Flywheel excels at, more than any other studio I’ve seen. Many of their instructors have a Twitter handle that includes the word “Fly.” It may be that Flywheel includes social media training as a requirement (or very strong recommendation) for being an instructor.
I hear from instructors or studio owners that they can’t be bothered to learn about social media. There is a definite skill to using it effectively for promoting your business, and you should take those steps to learn more. Check into your local community college to see if they offer classes in social media for businesses, or take an online course.
Make sure you have a Facebook page for your studio and invite all of your members to “like” you. If you can’t spend the time posting on your Facebook page, hire someone to do it for you. Twitter is another way to spread the word of your facility or class. Keep in mind that a poorly maintain Facebook page or Twitter account is almost worse than not having one at all. Make sure you invest in education on best practices for fitness professionals or studios in social media. The Indoor Cycling Summit includes a specific course for studios and instructors on Social Media for Fitness Professionals.
Email newsletters are an excellent means of connecting with and keeping your students informed. Create a weekly newsletter that offers training and fitness tips, promotes your classes and special events, and announces any changes or subs. A newsletter can be done by the studio or club, which might include information on other areas of the club, or an individual instructor can create an email mailing list to stay connected with her students via a newsletter.
This article only scratches the surface with some of the techniques and tools you can use to create buzz about your program, and ultimately fill your classes so they are more fun to teach (if you are the instructor) and increase your revenues (if you are the owner). At ICA, we’ve got numerous member articles to help you through each of the steps outlined above, including improving customer service, creative programming to increase class numbers, creating community, and writing your own weekly or monthly newsletter to increase engagement among your riders and keep them coming back.
These types of facilities and “programs” really get my blood boiling – primarily because it lessens the credibility and value of the certification(s) that I hold. I’ve invested quite a bit of money and my time in learning the physiology, anatomy, scientific theory and mechanics of cycling. I’ve been to 2 WSSC Spinning events and have worked hard to build relationships with credible people in this industry to better myself as an indoor cycling instructor.
None of this matters when I get in the saddle in front of a class and they are dismayed that I’m really just “boring” & “too hard”.
I know that science-based cycling programs work. Living in Buffalo NY, I’ve used the Spinning program to help train and condition for 5 marathons, 10 half-marathons, and a first place finish for my age group in a duathlon. If you aren’t familiar with Buffalo winters, its too cold and wet for me to run outside and the races all start right after everything thaws out 🙂
If you think about the amount of money you’ve spent on your own certifications and continuing ed courses, plus the value of your own time and effort since you’ve been certified, I’m sure you’ll agree that this is an expensive endeavor and once students get wind of the acrobatic entertainment of a program like SoulCycle, it quickly deflates everything you’ve worked so hard for. Do you agree?
Thanks for writing this article Jennifer.
I have often wondered about what (if any) positives can be gleaned from the SoulCycle. They make people believe they are in the ‘Hip and Happenin’ place to be with all the marketing but their practices are so repugnant that it is easy to dismiss them as the steaming turd of indoor cycling.
We do ourselves a disservice if we overlook the fact that they movitate and create an atmosphere that is really connecting to people and keeping their customers happy.
I have used this reflection over the past few years to examine my own teaching, coaching, motivating and innovating practices. Creating an innovative class with a theme or story to tell (Tour de France, Alpe d’Huez), motivating my students and connecting with them with concise ques (coaching and queing series), and teaching them about effective training for athletes and improved fitness for all gym goers (almost every article on ICA).
I have noticed a change in my classes and have recieved wonderful feedback about the positive impact of the motivating and coaching and the very best part of it all is that it is done without sacrificing the integrity of safe training practices and the elegant simplicity of the Spinning program.