When opening a Pilates studio, making the right decisions about location, staff and programming can be difficult. However, help is out there. Get some advice from others who have started successful Pilates businesses.
WE READ a lot about the challenges of opening a full fitness center with loads of equipment, locker rooms, etc., but what about the challenges studio owners face when they open something smaller in size, like a Pilates studio? There's less space, less overhead and, in turn, less expense, but attracting clientele to your studio is potentially an uphill battle. After all, you may only offer Pilates training, while other facilities offer a wide variety of fitness options. Pilates studio owners are part entrepreneur, part educator, part marketer, part instructor and part cheerleader. Jennifer Raby, owner of Core Pilates Yoga in Newport and Bristol, R.I., says one of the challenges she faced four years ago when opening the Newport studio was that people weren't sure what Pilates was. They knew about yoga, and Newport was already saturated with yoga studios, but Pilates was something unique. Stephanie Ziegler, owner of and instructor at Pilates Studio Tiburon, Tiburon, Calif., says that, aside from the market not knowing what Pilates is, the challenges of deciding whether to open a studio in a market where you'll be competing against a facility in which you worked previously, or in a new market where you are initially an unknown, can be tough. "Opening a studio is capital-intensive," she says. "Do you decide to open a studio that is private, semi-private, open to group training, mat only?" Do you start slow in purchasing equipment, or do you purchase everything necessary for a full-service Pilates studio right away? There are many important decisions to be made.
Choosing a space
Raby started as inexpensively as she could. She leased space in a historic building in an upscale location. To save money during her first year, she leased used, good-condition reformers from a fitness center no longer using them. The studio space was beautiful, so she didn't need to spend a lot to get it looking just right. "I wanted a space where I could imagine myself living: ... light-filled, motivating, clean, sophisticated," she explains. Pilates Studio 1 in West Palm Beach, Fla., has a similar feel, though the original owner did a lot of work to get her space like she wanted. From painting to electrical work to sewing curtains, the interior space of Pilates Studio 1 was redesigned top to bottom to make for a relaxing, yet funky, environment. A lot of thought went into purchasing things new owners might think of as after-thoughts, such as credit card machines and general office supplies. Ziegler suggests that as you look at space, think of the "gawk factor." If you choose to be on the ground floor, you'll have people looking in your windows. Are your clients comfortable with that? Can you camouflage your clients without hindering your light? Would you prefer a second-floor studio? Second-floor studios, with good signage, will be as noticeable as a ground-floor studio. Debbie Moore Johnston, owner and instructor of The Scoop - A Pilates Studio, St. Louis, Mo., suggests making sure your studio is in an area where clientele can not only afford Pilates, but are interested in such a different way to work out. As for equipment, popular companies include Stott, Balanced Body and Peak Pilates (see the Directory of Resources).
As clientele grows, so too will your need for additional instructors. One idea, suggested by Ziegler and Johnston, is to visit the website of the Pilates Method Alliance, a not-for-profit organization that is an oversight body for Pilates to determine whether instructors are certified by a reputable certification body. The certification is important, because, much like personal training and group fitness, weekend certifications are starting to pop up within the industry. "So many people claim to teach Pilates when they really don't," says Johnston. "They may know the mat work, but have never touched equipment." Studios can also become business members of the Pilates Method Alliance. Says Ziegler, "It's sometimes hard to know for the lay person [which studios are using reputable instructors].With a membership, you are guaranteed to know, because membership requires documentation of instructors' certifications [and] ongoing trainings in Pilates." The most recognized and respected Pilates certifications are based on the work of Joseph Pilates, but add a modern twist to make them more user-friendly. Studio owners may also look for instructors who have previous experience working with clients with certain physical conditions. Instructors can have experience in assisting those with back injuries or pregnancy, or sports participants, such as golfers, tennis players, etc. Even though these programs are marketed as "Pilates for Golfers," etc., Raby and Ziegler explain that this niche is still teaching the basic Pilates exercises, with a greater emphasis on whatever area the client wants to work. The quality of instruction students receive can make or break a Pilates studio. Unlike a fitness center, which can sell itself on a variety of programs, a Pilates studio sells one thing: Pilates. Instruction must be excellent, thorough and consistent. Also unlike a fitness center, where members purchase a year's commitment, at a Pilates studio, they often purchase a block of classes. At the end of that block, they have the option of continuing on or going somewhere else. Studio owners need to keep that in mind as they hire new staff.
Studio owners offering group classes should schedule classes much like group fitness managers in a fitness center would: around the work day. Early morning, mid-day, evenings and weekends are typically the busiest times for group instruction. However, throughout the day, Pilates studio owners should offer private instruction. Some studios, such as Pilates Studio 1, have the good fortune of having two studios, so classes and individual instruction can happen simultaneously. Others, like Pilates Studio Tiburon, prefer not to have two instructors giving private classes at the same time. Says Ziegler, "It's not the greatest utilization [of the space and equipment], but it is the nicest for the client." Studio owners may also want to take their Pilates instruction on the road and offer classes at schools and community centers. It needs little to no equipment, and is a great way to introduce the exercise to your community. Also, don't forget programs of interest to men. Many mistakenly think of Pilates as just for women. But, as Johnston says, "Real men do Pilates, too!"
Marketing your Pilates business
When opening any new business, the important steps of licensure, insurance, securing loans, etc., can be daunting. Fortunately, there is a lot of help out there. Balanced Body offers spreadsheets and templates, which Zieglar found useful in pulling everything together. You can also find liability waivers, release statements, accident forms and more on the Pilates Method Alliance website. You may also choose to contact the Small Business Administration or the National Women's Business Center. You'll need a logo for your signage, T-shirts, business cards, ads, etc. Your logo will be the first thing people notice, and there are a few options out there to help you design one. You may want to work with a graphic designer to make sure your logo suits your style and conveys your message. If you choose this route, meet with a few different designers. Have them sketch ideas based on what you are looking for, and then choose the one that best suits your look and budget. You may also choose a less expensive, but easy and effective, route with companies such as Vistaprint. Johnston used it for business cards and postcards, and the company can even help you create a logo. "They were easy to work with and affordable," Johnston says. A web search will help you find many other companies that do the same thing for a reasonable price. Once you get your logo and marketing materials, it's time to hit the streets. Health fairs, community benefits and the like can help get your name out there, but so too will word of mouth. Some students will come to you, but you'll have to go out and get the rest, whether it be through reputation, marketing, community involvement or some other way of getting your name out there. Once you do get your new clients in, your atmosphere and, more importantly, your instructors, will keep them engaged and coming back.