In February of 2020, life in Toronto was business as usual. Natalie Borch, founder of The Pink Studio in Toronto, was teaching a variety of classes at her studio: dance, yoga, barre, and pilates. On March 17, 2020, Premier Doug Ford issued a state of emergency, and by April 1, 2020, the Government of Ontario sent the entire province into lockdown, plunging businesses into an indefinite closure that would have profound ramifications for the fitness industry. In what would end up being one of the world’s longest lockdowns, the industry would suffer immensely, and for businesses to survive, they would need to innovate quickly, which is exactly what Natalie and the team at The Pink Studio did.
Statistics have shown that the Canadian fitness industry has grown at a faster pace than the national average industry growth. Statistics also show that each year, approximately 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness. The relationship between exercise and mental health has been proven, and the shutdown of fitness facilities for a prolonged period, due to the risk they posed, had profound impacts for public health. “We were closed for a lot longer than other businesses, like retail, for example,” Natalie states. The shutdown enforced in Ontario forced Natalie and her team into action, barely sleeping for a week in their pursuit of turning a brick-and-mortar business, to one that was purely online, practically overnight. Besides the online booking system that was already implemented at the studio, they had never dabbled in digital streaming of classes. The team’s hustle paid off, and within a week, an entire catalogue of classes had been uploaded and were available for access online.
The next challenge that Natalie and her team faced was how to maintain a sense of community online, something imperative to mental wellbeing. The Pink Studio found a solution by hosting a plethora of free classes, particularly during the first six months of the pandemic. Utilizing Zoom, the studio encouraged everyone, members or not, to show up online with their children, or to invite friends and family from across the country, or even from across the world, so they could connect and workout together online. They also utilized social media to support connection, asking people to send in BTS (behind-the-scenes) photos and videos of their workouts. The studio would then repost these images and videos on their social media accounts. Another fun way to connect: bringing pets to workouts online! “I felt a responsibility to serve the community. Some people had lost their jobs. People were feeling very financially vulnerable, and were also stuck at home.” Natalie states.
A conversation that has emerged during the pandemic and which is evident in The Pink Studio’s experience, is the accessibility that digital technologies can provide. In general, Zoom has enabled access to that which may have previously been beyond possible, and has enabled connection through the screen across multiple geographic lines and time zones. Does Natalie anticipate the digital trend continuing as studios begin to reopen in Ontario and beyond? “Virtual fitness is not going anywhere, it’s hugely accessible and is now the new normal”. Natalie has a strong belief that the future of fitness is hybrid, an approach that we are seeing replicated across small and large businesses in various sectors. Research is even showing that most workers prefer a hybrid model, which incorporates access to digital, remote work, learning, and in The Pink Studio’s case, exercise, with an in-person option which provides the benefit of in-person connection. “We can be convenient and cost-effective online. Deep connection happens in person,” Natalie states.
And what to make of brick-and-mortar? “I don’t think that brick-and-mortar is dead,” Natalie says. “When we first reopened, people were so excited to see other people in real life, not on a screen. People are doing online stuff because it’s very convenient and more cost effective, but they’re also coming now and then to a studio to be able to have that sense of community and feeling connected and a part of something.” Digital accessibility has also opened the reach of the studio far beyond the ten-block radius it used to advertise to on the Danforth. “I’ve been open for four years, I never dreamed I’d be marketing to someone in Vancouver, or that someone in Vancouver would be my customer. It has essentially opened my small business to the world. I can have someone in Portland, Vancouver, and Ottawa all sign up, which is pretty cool.” Natalie plans to continue to build out The Pink Studio’s online offerings, noting that “people came back for dance classes, but fitness translates really well online.”
The story of The Pink Studio is one that has been faced by countless fitness institutions across the world. The need to pivot, seek out new revenue streams, and stay connected with new and existing customers is a challenge that businesses across industries have grappled with. The situation today remains fragile, with new variants of COVID-19 emerging, but the resiliency, creativity, and innovative thinking of studio managers like Natalie reveal the passion and tenacity of small business owners across the nation and the world. It is a reminder that we can all play our part in supporting local business, and we can remain connected at a time when connection is perhaps more important than ever before.