How An Early Focus On Digital Prepared These Two Fitness Startups For The Covid-19 Pandemic

Although its popularity has ebbed and flowed over time, at-home fitness has played a key role in American culture throughout the last 70 years. Initially brought on by the post-war economic boom, introduction of the television, and a newfound awareness of health and obesity, the 1950s saw the rise of exercise TV shows, geared towards middle-class, suburban housewives who viewed fitness as a standard of beauty. In the decades that followed, working-out-from-home was fueled by an influx of gadgets and equipment—including ‘slim suits,’ vibrating belts, and the hula hoop—in the 1960s and 70s; the birth of the VHS tape in the early 80s and the ubiquity of Jane Fonda’s Workout videos that immediately followed; and eventually, the home gym and all-in-one exercise machine trends of the 90s.

These fads remained as we headed into the 21st century, but about 10 years ago, a new craze unfolded in the world of fitness: the birth and rapid success of destination fitness studios. From SoulCycle and Barry’s Bootcamp to Pure Yoga and Orange Theory, boutique fitness offerings began taking over the country, all promising a more unique and engaging approach to exercise than the next. With Instagram-friendly aesthetics and the same air of exclusivity that popular nightclubs boasted in the years prior, these workout studios quickly became the place to be, and members of their cult followings cheerfully paid up to $40 a class several times a week.

But as Covid-19 began its rapid spread across the United States in early March, these fitness destinations were forced to close their doors, and as Americans were directed to stay at home, a new demand for at-home workouts was born. To adjust to this new reality, many studios started exploring virtual iterations of their classes by way of online platforms and digital memberships, but in the very best of circumstances, these offerings took several months to fully establish, and all revenue was effectively lost during this time.

While these businesses floundered, though, and wondered if and when they could launch their digital existences, fitness startups Melissa Wood Health and P.volve were fully prepared for the quick transition to working-out-from home.

Former model and founder of the MWH Method, Melissa Wood-Tepperberg, created her virtual fitness empire almost by accident. For most of her life, she’d spent two or more hours a day working out and was convinced that anything less wouldn’t be enough, but after giving birth to her son five years ago, she realized she no longer had the time to do that. Pressed to find a solution, she sought out certification in yoga, Pilates, and health coaching and forged her own technique. “I married the two things that I love the most—yoga and Pilates—and started creating these flows that immediately made me feel not only so much more connected to myself but also like I got a workout in, which was the most important thing to me,” Wood-Tepperberg remembers.

Soon after, she began sharing clips of her workouts on Instagram, especially in her stories, and was met with huge interest from her followers and the larger Instagram community. Wood-Tepperberg was so impressed with her own results that she felt compelled to share her approach with the world and decided to pursue it as a full-time business. Rather than open a studio in her native New York and face the challenges of hiring staff and paying overhead expenses, she resolved to tap into her existing digital base and launched the MWH website in 2015. The brand has since gone through a few different versions of the site, as its audience and content have grown, and last December, Wood-Tepperberg launched a corresponding app.

P.volve similarly stumbled into the digital fitness space fairly organically. After opening a Chinatown gym that centered around her cofounder Stephen Pasterino’s functional fitness techniques, Rachel Katzman noticed a soaring demand for their services from a global audience on social media. “There were women from all over the world chiming in and asking if they could Skype into our class or have virtual personal training,” she says. She and Pasterino obliged, but with every week that passed at their tiny, 12-person gym, the more they realized doing virtual sessions and Skype-ins was not sustainable.

“I knew that we couldn’t keep this to ourselves and that it needed to be bigger, so we decided to put it all online,” Katzman recalls, so six months in, they rebranded and officially launched P.volve in late 2017 with an online platform, alongside a new, in-person studio and a line of proprietary equipment. “I taught myself how to edit videos and would be up until 5:30 in the morning every night filming, editing, and getting everything up online, the founder says. “It really just exploded, and we’ve kind of been on this rocket ship ever since.”

Both Melissa Wood Health and P.volve experienced continued growth since entering the virtual fitness sector, but when the Covid-19 pandemic brought a new need for at-home workouts, their numbers doubled and tripled within a matter of days. “We have seen astronomical growth this year,” Katzman says. “Our revenue has grown 154{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9} year-to-date, and our paid subscribers have grown 191{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9}.” Wood-Tepperberg has seen similar increases and says that her Instagram, the point of discovery for most of her members, went from around 250 thousand followers in early March to more than 500 thousand by May.

Having gone digital several years ago, neither P.volve nor Melissa Wood Health had any shortage of content on their websites when the pandemic began, with approximately 250 and 100 videos available to members of each, respectively. With a new reliance on their digital offerings and thousands of new viewers to cater to, both brands would need to continue adding new workouts, but with production studios still closed, this meant getting creative.

“When I first started, I filmed myself, with no lighting and no camera crew, on a $24 tripod from Amazon,” Wood-Tepperberg recalls, noting that she eventually stepped up her game, hiring editors and filming in a more official studio. “But since the pandemic began, I’ve been filming all of my flows out east in my house, and it’s definitely brought me back to my roots and how I started in this space. They’re very raw and very me, and if I mess up, I really try to keep that because I want people to feel like they’re with me while I’m filming.” This approach has enabled the MWH founder to add a new video to the site every Monday and often a bonus workout on Fridays, in addition to regular Instagram Live appearances available to subscribers and non-subscribers alike.

Over the last six months, P.volve has made comparable adjustments in its approach to content creation. “Prior to this, we really only filmed our on-demand content in our production space, and it was limited to our trainers in New York,” says Katzman. “Obviously, health and safety were the number one priority for us, so we shut down our studios and our production space, but being in the digital world, we couldn’t just stop. So, we sent our trainers tripods and cameras and lights, and we’re having them film at home right in their bedroom or living room of their apartment or their in-laws’ house.” With these new methods, P.volve has been able to release four new pieces of content every week, bringing the total number of videos available on the site to more than 320.

With studios in L.A. and Chicago meant to open earlier this year, though, the pandemic-caused shift has provided a new opportunity for P.volve to feature new trainers on the digital platform. “We’ve been doing virtual personal training sessions, and we’ve kind of opened up this ability for our online community to connect with new trainers who they may have never been able to watch or workout with before,” the cofounder explains. “As a member, it’s cool to see trainers from all over and see their different personalities and styles.”

With many states now reopening their economies, the return of gyms and fitness studios appears not far off, and it seems likely that with it, the demand for virtual, at-home workouts will drop. But with the height of the Covid-19 pandemic now ostensibly behind us, Melissa Wood Health and P.volve have seen their popularity only continue, and they expect this will remain the case well into the future.

“I’ve still experienced such a consistent build in subscribers, and I really believe it’s because this time has opened all of our eyes to first, understanding that we can get such work done from home and be effective remote and second, understanding how you can get a workout in at home,” says Wood-Tepperberg. “ I do hope that as time goes on, all these gyms and studios are able to reopen and remain in business, but I think this time has shown just the flexibility and the convenience of being able to get an effective workout in at home.” And with a heightened awareness of germs and hygiene, she thinks the idea of working out at home with your own mat and your own equipment will be more alluring than ever.

Katzman agrees that the newfound demand for virtual fitness will continue, but she envisions it more as a complement to in-person studios. “I think the traditional studio-goer, who likes that accountability and in-person community feel, has now realized that they can actually get a good workout at home and that if they can’t make it to that 8 a.m. class, they can still do their favorite workouts on their own schedule,” the cofounder says.

P.volve plans to open its new L.A. and Chicago studios as soon as it’s safe to do so and already has waitlists for both, but the brand hopes its digital platform will sustain act as a supplementary option. “I think what we’re seeing is that whenever this new normal happens and the switch flips, it’ll really be more about studios and streaming being integrated, and it’ll be better for the consumer,” Katzman says. “We want to come out with the best possible offering for our members, and we want to make that really seamless for you because either way, it’s our brand, it’s our methodology, and it’s our trainers.”

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