At 6 foot, 1 inch, with a chiseled physique and Popeye arms sculpted by heavily stacked barbells, you’d think Bryce Mitchell was preordained to be a personal trainer. Not so. About 10 years ago, he was muscular but rail thin from a running obsession.
He ditched his running shoes for weightlifting, changed his diet and soon his body became the perfect advertising mechanism for a boutique fitness business he didn’t have ... or want.
After a year working what he calls a dead-end job at RadioShack, he decided to get a personal training certificate, because it was a constant topic of conversation with strangers.
“People would talk to me about working out all the time. All. The. Time. I’d be out eating somewhere and have to put the fork down to talk,” said Mitchell, now 33. At the time, he laughed it off. He was flattered but politely refused all requests to train others. He couldn’t imagine he could make a living doing it and hadn’t even heard the term “boutique gym” until recently.
Like the boutique hotel market, boutique gyms are smaller and more exclusive than regular gyms. They tend to focus on specialized training, but the cachet of membership comes with being part of a tribe, and being in the know about a best-kept secret or stellar new workout.
Participation in boutiques doubled from 21 percent in 2013 to 42 percent in 2014, according to research from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.
And boutique chains added new studios at a rate of 450 percent per year between 2010 and 2014, according to the fitness-focused investment firm Piper Jaffray. That makes them the fastest-growing part of the annual $22 billion U.S. health club industry, according to the investment bank.
The boutique experience is meant to be intimate, trendy and intense — a blast of training that releases enough endorphins to carry people through the rest of their day with a sense of accomplishment. Mitchell offers thunderous claps and cheers to spur on a group class during his Manic Monday class (a class that some takers have dubbed “Murder Mondays”). As he laughs, they groan. “It’s almost over. Come on now. You got this!” he tells them.
Mitchell’s small fitness studio is self-funded, and he jokes that for the price of the studio maybe he should set up a bed in the back. But nationally, private equity money has been pouring into boutique fitness businesses as workouts are branded and a large population of fitness enthusiasts sustain a $3.4 trillion global wellness market, according to the Global Wellness Institute in Miami.
In a nation where two out of three people are classified as overweight or obese, it’s easy to scoff at the viability of a fitness craze.
But Mary Ellen Bryan of Central Studio in the Central West End explains that people aren’t just looking to attain a beach body. Many are looking for an energetic outlet for stress, injury prevention or recovery, and perhaps staving off the need for medicinal health interventions.
Her four-year-old studio includes about five multipurpose rooms and a roster of 50 Pilates, dance and fitness classes a week, many branded as Central exclusives. She said there is no “trick” to maintaining a boutique fitness business, “you just have to care about your students, physically, mentally and spiritually.” She estimates that there are about 150 new and returning students each month, but her database includes at least 3,000.
Although national boutique fitness growth comes from strong neighborhood support, both Bryan and Mitchell say that they have clients who drive past a handful, if not dozens, of gyms and fitness offerings to work out at their studios.
In the area of Brentwood and Highway 40 (Interstate 64), there are more than a dozen fitness offerings within a short jog of each other — Shred415, Core3, The Refinery, Studio Element Personal Training, CrossFit St. Louis, St. Louis Spinning, Iron Tribe Fitness, CrossFit 26, Club Fitness, Bar Method St. Louis, Complete Fitness Results, Club Pilates, ATT Evolution, Stone Strength Systems and the Mid-County Family YMCA.
It benefits from being a highly trafficked crossroads region, but each facility fills a niche from surfboard workouts to ballet barre fitness.
Roxanne Borger, director of client education for MindBody Inc., a company based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., that provides business management software for the wellness services industry, says most business resources say ignore the competition but keep them in your periphery.
“You need to be aware of what your competition is doing and how people will be comparing you,” she said. “The biggest priority is finding what you do that is uniquely excellent in your community, although that might not be apparent up front.”
Small studios don’t need to fear huge chains, but they have to pay attention, she said.
Private equity firm TPG Growth, known for investing in Uber Technologies Inc. and Airbnb Inc., took a stake in Club Pilates, the biggest chain of Pilates studios in the U.S., with 179 active studios, including one in Chesterfield and the location in Brentwood. More than 300 other cities have been identified as locations “opening in the very near future,” according to the Club Pilates website.
In March, the first local CycleBar, 1657 Clarkson Road, opened in Chesterfield and soon after a Creve Coeur franchise opened at 11625 Olive Boulevard. Founded in 2004, the Cincinnati-based CycleBar began franchising two years ago and now has 122 open studios but boasts that more than 200 new locations are in the pipeline nationwide. About 100 have or are opening this year, according to Jordin Cooper, CycleBar director of marketing in an interview with the Post-Dispatch earlier this year. Locally, two other locations are in the works.
And though boutique fitness runs the gamut from international to nascent, the common thread includes creating a niche and providing a thrilling experience.
Mitchell said he wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge of joining the fitness industry, but now he understands it. At first, he said, “I didn’t want to (train others). I thought I’d get burned out.” But he says that training others gives him a rush of adrenaline he never expected.
One day, he said, “it just clicked that I could do this as a business,” soon after he found that owning a gym was viable. One of his first clients owns the space that he leases for New Era Fitness at 3165 Morganford Road. The two initially struck up a conversation while walking down the street together, his future landlord started confessing his health goals and desire to drop some weight. At the time, Mitchell had just begun to train people out of his Spartan garage setup.
By the time he was ready to open New Era Fitness last year, he had built up a solid clientele, including his landlord and his wife.
It’s a common boutique fitness trajectory.
“People are always looking for something to inspire them,” said Victoria Lyon, who teaches a class called Pound at Central Studio. The lower-cost class starts at $5 compared to private Pilates sessions at the studio that can cost as much as $65.
For Pound, participants get weighted drumsticks that they use to rhythmically strike the floor and click together in the air as they squat, lunge and bounce to the beat of pop rock music.
Lyon, who is also a Zumba instructor, said, “I call the drumsticks ‘weapons of mass distraction’ because it gives people this liberty. It’s permission to get loud that adults don’t usually get. I think people come back for that … and the sweat.”
Debra D. Bass • 314-340-8236
@debrabass on Twitter