Going to the gym or to work out probably has never had so many possible meanings than it does these days.
The “gym” could be the cycling or barre or yoga or kickboxing studio, or the interval training popup.
Memberships in small, specialized boutique gyms and niche fitness studios grew 70 percent from 2012 to 2015, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. Compare that to the 5 percent membership growth in traditional gyms over that same period.
Fitness instructor Heather Coe and her brother, Jude Coe, opened a boutique gym, a 9Round Fitness franchise, at 3442 Lauderdale Drive in western Henrico County in November.
The place doesn’t have a lot of frills. The space is compact, and the focus is on a quick 30-minute workout that gets your heart pumping.
Customers go through a circuit of nine exercise stations, spending three minutes at each. There are no class times — just show up and get to work with instructors there to guide you.
“The model is based on fun, high-intensity interval training,” Heather Coe said.
If you crave variety, there’s a Corner Barre studio in the same strip shopping center. And not too far away, in Short Pump, there are other options, including an Orangetheory Fitness, a newly opened Cycle Bar GreenGate and a Flow Cycle Studio.
Coe, 24, has a phrase to describe the bounty of boutique and specialty fitness studios and regular gyms in the Richmond area. “I call it the gym belt. I think it’s great. People have variety,” Coe said.
Traditional gyms such as American Family Fitness and ACAC still have their fans, and some folks go to the niche places and still have a traditional gym membership.
“One of the biggest things I hear is that people already have two or three gym memberships,” Coe said. “That’s great. People are staying active.”
The niche or boutique gym trend is being driven to a large degree by entrepreneurial millennials who are starting up boutique gyms and patronizing them.
“One of the things that we’ve learned about millennials is that they are incredibly community-focused,” said Rachel Burgess of Richmond-based research firm SIR.
“This community idea, I think, makes boutique gyms so appealing. They do a really incredible job of building a supportive community around a shared activity,” Burgess said.
Going to the gym “becomes more than just an activity. It becomes part of their life,” where they hang out with friends or meet new friends, Burgess said.
A millennial herself, Burgess is one of those people who has been a member of multiple gyms at the same time.
“I do triathlons, so I need a pool. I belong to the (Jewish Community Center) so I can have pool access. Then I was at a CrossFit gym on top of it,” she said.
Kia Potts, 33, has been a customer and a proprietor of specialized fitness classes. She took classes at a boutique gym called DNA Fitness and taught Zumba classes at a local wellness center.
“With the boutique gym, you don’t get a generic class, and you don’t get lost in a huge class,” Potts said.
“It’s more intimate, and you can get to know students better,” she said.
That intimacy often comes at a premium. You might pay $40 to $100 or more a month for unlimited access to your local YMCA or big-box gym such as Gold’s, or even less at a chain like Youfit Health Clubs and Crunch.
But boutique gyms often charge per class — sometimes $15 to $20 per class — but the price can come down with monthly package deals.
“Boutique fitness is built around walking and neighborhoods,” said AnnMarie Grohs, who opened Boho Cycle Studio at 714 N. Sheppard St. in the Museum District in October 2013.
“Clients choose Boho because they want a personal connection to where they spend their time,” Grohs said. “We think of Boho like that show ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name.”
Grohs plans to open a second location this summer at 2401 E. Marshall St. in the new Patrick Henry Square development in the trendy, walkable Church Hill neighborhood.
The gym business is profitable for her, she said.
“Very much so. I don’t have the square footage that big clubs do. That makes overhead less when it comes down to rent,” Grohs said.
“The basic explanation for the growth in studios is that they are able to open in a much smaller space and employ less staff than traditional multipurpose clubs and therefore operate with much lower overhead than a traditional gym,” said Shannon Vogler, spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
Boutique fitness studios “cater to a very specific, specialized and passionate segment who are very willing to pay more for being part of a ‘tribe,’ ” Vogler said.
“It’s the sense of belonging where everyone is ‘like them’ versus a traditional club which caters to many different types of exercisers,” she said.
The big-box gyms are more likely to offer child care and other amenities, something that small gyms do not always have the space to house or the staff to oversee.
The business models for boutique gyms can be franchise or independent operation.
9Round Fitness has more than 400 locations and has been operating since 2008, according to the company website. A 9Round Fitness location at 13965 Raised Antler Circle in Chesterfield County opened in 2013, and a location at 3330 S. Crater Road in Petersburg opened in April 2014.
Nikki Davis and Cary Hairfield debated whether to open a barre exercise studio on their own, but after doing research decided to open a franchise of San Francisco-based The Bar Method. They opened The Bar Method Richmond at 7007-1/2 Three Chopt Road in The Village shopping center on May 15.
The 4,000-square-foot space — formerly a beauty salon — has two workout studios, a locker room, a child care room and retail space. It is the 107th franchise location for the company, which was founded in 2000.
The studio’s workouts focus on the use of wall-mounted ballet barre-based low-impact exercises to strengthen and tone muscles and to improve flexibility and posture.
“What it really boils down to is they have resources, doctors and physical therapists to help refine the exercises,” Davis said.
Their story speaks to the community gathering aspect of boutique fitness.
They met in 2015 when Hairfield took a barre-based class taught by Davis at a local barre studio.
Locally founded Bikram Yoga Richmond has been successful as an independent — which new co-owner Rachel Mzhickteno says helps distinguish them.
“It’s really cool to see our students sort of do our marketing for us because they really talk about how great they feel, and they encourage the new people,” Mzhickteno said.
She, Stephanie Greis and Victor Perea earlier this month closed on the purchase of the Bikram Yoga Richmond business, which was founded in 2003. They have two locations: at 3024 Stony Point Road and at 3621 Cox Road.
Before buying the studio, Mzhickteno and Greis taught classes there, and Greis also managed one of the locations. Perea is a longtime client of the studios, which specialize in hot yoga, or yoga practiced in hot, humid rooms.
Their clients are not necessarily just millennials, and they even offer a class for children.
“We really have this wide array of people from all backgrounds,” Mzhickteno said. “A lot of people come in because yoga helps them deal with chronic pain. Chronic pain and stress I would say are the biggest reason people come.”
The new owners have changes in store, including upgrading the floors in the 3,000-square-foot studios to cork flooring. In addition, the studios will start offering a shorter class — 60-minute express classes instead of the traditional 90-minute classes.
“It’s something people have been asking for for a while,” Mzhickteno said.
Fitness instructor and entrepreneur Jason Benn thinks the boutique gym trend is here to stay for a while. He looks at the CrossFit phenomenon as an example.
“It was a trend in the beginning. It has been around 20 years,” he said.
“There will be gyms that fall by the wayside. It just depends on staying innovative,” he said.
Benn and his wife, Candace Benn, started a mobile fitness business, Fit By Benns, after completing the Sports Backers’ Fitness Warriors training program this year. The six-month program trains people to become certified group exercise teachers with the idea that in return they will provide fitness classes in communities that are gym-needy.
“Working with Fitness Warriors, we also see the need to work on a sliding scale or for a service that is not so expensive,” Candace Benn said.
“Hopefully when we open our boutique gym, we can have the ability to maybe have a grant-funded portion of it. We are looking at kids programs and working with underserved youth that don’t have any activity in their community — have a service like a boutique gym but being able to tailor it to other people as well,” she said.