Carrie Kepple and Amy Styles have created a new ‘health club of boutiques’ model, and their club’s COVID journey speaks volumes about the power of community. They speak to Kate Cracknell
What was the opportunity you identified for Styles Studios Fitness?
We saw an opportunity to cut a lane between the boutiques and the big boxes.
Styles Studios Fitness is located in Peoria Illinois, in the United States’ Midwest, and boutique studios are incredibly expensive for small and mid-sized cities like this. People might try them for a while, for the novelty factor, but they just aren’t willing to pay US$20 per class on an ongoing basis.
We wanted to bring a niche, boutique experience to people at a more affordable price.
How would you describe the Styles concept?
We’re still looking for the perfect way to describe our 14,200sq ft club, but so far the descriptors we use are “a health club of boutiques” and “Four and a Floor” – the latter because we have four distinct boutique studios and a gym floor, all under one roof.
Every studio has its own entrance and its own signage. They really are four unique boutiques side-by-side, and between them they offer over 350 live and virtual classes every week; that’s still the case post-lockdown, albeit the proportion of virtual classes is currently slightly higher than it was.
Classes run all day, every day and you can book them through our app. In fact, since re-opening, you have to book so we can manage capacity; we have a strong set of procedures and a #StylesSafe campaign, which is all about operating safely and building member confidence in the aftermath of COVID lockdown.
Tell us about your boutiques…
CHAIN is a 1,350sq ft, 35-bike immersive cycle studio – currently running at around 50 per cent capacity – where a 12 x 42ft curved wall screen provides participants with a cinematic experience.
FREESOL is a 1,000sq ft hot yoga studio with pre-COVID capacity for 25 participants; it’s also sitting at about 50 per cent capacity at the moment. It’s designed to create a sense of escape, with the only lights in the studio dimmable to the point that the walls just gently glow.
HUSTLE is our small group training studio – a 1,500sq ft space that holds just 16 people for very personalised coaching. The studio has a real wow factor, with eight massive strength training rigs and eight Woodway treadmills. It’s strength and conditioning made cool, all set to music and with regular CV hits on the treadmill to boost endorphin levels. These classes are still able to operate at their normal 16-person capacity and are 100 per cent booked all the time; we’ll be adding more in the Fall. In the meantime, as we have a huge outdoor space, we’ve also launched HUSTLE Outside and get 60–80 people per class at the weekend – all in line with state guidelines.
URBAN RITUAL is where we host our traditional group exercise classes, but these are taken to the next level thanks to the environment. There’s an incredible light show, a huge video wall at the front – big enough that, in virtual classes, instructors are life-sized – and the whole place feels like a nightclub. The theme that pulls it all together: “The music made me do it.” At 1,000sq ft, this studio usually holds 25 people; it’s currently around half that.
Meanwhile, the FLOOR is around 5,500–6,000sq ft and is equipped by Precor. There are 24 pieces of cardio equipment; pin-loaded strength and free weights; and a functional area, with a Queenax rig, taking up around a third of the gym floor. We’d make the functional space even bigger next time.
We also have a smoothie and coffee bar, nutrition and wellbeing coaching, and the region’s first Dexa Wellness office offering medical-grade body composition scanning and other fitness testing.
Virtual is like going to the fitness movies: our immersive environments drive engagement
How do you develop your programmes?
Both of us have a strong Les Mills background – Carrie in club management, Amy as the brand’s national training manager – so it won’t be a surprise to know that many of our programmes are Les Mills.
It’s currently all Les Mills programming in URBAN RITUAL, and in CHAIN with TRIP, SPRINT and RPM. But while FREESOL has Les Mills BodyFlow and Barre, we also offer meditation, pilates, tai chi and yoga. And HUSTLE programmes are all created by us, with a new workout made fresh every day. Amy is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and an incredible programmer – we’ll no doubt do more bespoke classes in the future.
What about your virtual classes?
At Styles, virtual is like going to the fitness movies: we create immersive environments that drive member engagement. We often have eight to 10 people in our virtual CHAIN classes, just as an example.
That’s great, because it helps spread the load away from peak times, keeps satisfaction levels high whenever people want to work out, and helps people build group exercise confidence.
Interestingly, the shift away from traditional peak times has become even more pronounced since we re-opened from lockdown. Virtual has been a godsend in this respect: it’s allowed us to cater cost-effectively for our members throughout the day. Members go into the app, see what’s coming next, rock up and they’re guaranteed a world-class experience.
HUSTLE is the one studio where we don’t offer virtual classes, because the space also acts as an extension of the gym floor: people can train in there on their own when there are no classes.
Tell us more about CHAIN.
CHAIN is a fantastic environment and people are going crazy for the immersive experience – there really is nothing else like it in town. Even those who have never cycled before are now regulars.
Many operators worry about the cost of a big screen like we have in CHAIN, but there’s so much you can do with it – you aren’t just putting it in for one class. Our TRIP virtual classes are incredibly popular, but in our live RPM classes, for example, we’ll still use the screen to project high-energy content. You have to create an experiential space.
And it’s worth the investment, because cycling is a modality that’s never going to die. As a non-impact form of exercise, it’s good for all ages. When you also make it an immersive experience, which reduces the perceived exertion while still giving you a great workout… Well, people love it.
We focus on fitness cycling classes at Styles; we don’t have any ‘party on a bike’ classes. We are, however, looking to introduce Stages Flight soon, which will add a more competitive, performance-focused option to the timetable.
What proportion of your members take part in group exercise?
A full 90 per cent of our members have done a class with us at some point, but then our whole model has been built around this.
We’ve flipped the usual model, so our studios are the centrepiece and the gym space secondary
We still wanted to have a gym floor – it’s what people know and somehow it makes the model work, even though it isn’t used as much as the classes. But we’ve certainly flipped the usual model, so our studios are the centrepiece and the gym space secondary.
You say you’ve made membership affordable?
We have an “all under one roof for one price” membership which starts at US$75 a month for a 12-month membership, US$85 a month for six months and US$95 for monthly. That’s premium for our area.
We put prices up slightly after COVID, but we’re still focused on offering great value. We need to be profitable, of course, but profitable with acceptable pricing and good capacity management. We did some interesting research in New Zealand, exploring the ratio between floor space and member capacity, and we’re confident we can get to 2,800–3,000 members and still have everyone feeling good about being here.
Membership includes use of the gym floor and all classes. Nutritional programmes, wellbeing coaching and Dexa cost extra – and are available to non-members too – but we see all of this as invaluable to empowering people on their journey. There’s so much misinformation out there; we want to give people some simple principles they can apply.
Personal training is also available, but we’ve deliberately started small. That said, it’s really taking off since we re-opened.
What is your training philosophy?
Our approach is holistic, embracing stress management, nutrition programmes, Dexa scans. Our in-house experts don’t just look at weight loss either, but at things like inflammation, acidity, gut health, adrenal fatigue, detox – underlying factors that, if properly addressed, will bring results.
It’s also why we’ve created a multi-modality model. Because you can’t HUSTLE every day. You need recovery in your routine too.
What is the culture at Styles Studios Fitness?
We aim to be open and empowering, with one of our key straplines being #AllStylesWelcome. It’s about breaking down shame, barriers, doubts. Everyone is welcome.
We’ve done away with bright lights and mirrors. In their place, we have immersive experiences that everyone can get lost in – and we’ve found that men in particular have responded very positively to this. Our membership base is 55/45 female/male and across all our studios, 25–30 per cent of class attendees are male; it’s higher still in CHAIN and HUSTLE classes. Many have never done group exercise before, but they tell us they’re now addicted.
And there’s so much to choose from. It’s summed up in another of our main straplines: #NeverBeBoredAgain.
How are you building a sense of community around Styles Studios Fitness?
Our open approach is a big part of this. We’ve had a lot of people tell us they recognised fellow members from other gyms, but that Styles is the first time they’ve actually spoken to them.
We also let kids over the age of 12 (and up to 21) come and train with their parents, switching their contracts on and off to suit. All generations are loving it and it’s boomed since re-opening, with parents wanting to get their kids moving again.
We have what we like to call a “secret sauce” for our staff culture too. We recruited specifically for the Peoria community we’re here to serve, and we created an internal bible: The Little Book of Styles. It tells our story, our values, who we are, why we’re here and how to live that daily. And we celebrate successes as opposed to dwelling on mistakes: it’s about releasing serotonin and dopamine in our staff, not cortisol.
If you can do well in a B-rated, hard market like this, you stand a chance of scaling your model
And then, of course, is the fact that Styles is our family name – or it will be once Carrie gets round to changing her surname! There’s a very personal, close-knit, family feel to the place.
It all comes together to create a fun, safe environment where people don’t think “I have to go” but rather “Great, I get to go to Styles today!”
One other nice thing: everyone has a Styles wristband, which uses the same technology as Disney’s FastPass. It gives access to the club, operates the lockers, allows you to make cashless purchases – and then outside the club, there’s a community of local businesses who will offer a discount to anyone who shows them their Styles wristband.
LA and NYC dominate the boutique scene. So why Peoria?
This decision was about family. We have a son and we wanted him to grow up close to his grandparents – Carrie’s parents. It has also meant we’ve been able to lean on the support of family as we get this project off the ground.
But interestingly, there’s a saying around here: “If it plays in Peoria, it will play anywhere.” If you can do well in a B-rated, hard market like this, you stand a chance of having a model that’s scalable.
And it has worked well: we opened in January and had got to 500 members after eight weeks. Then COVID lockdown hit and we were closed for eight weeks – a period during which we could probably have grown by another 400–500 members, hitting operational break-even. So, COVID certainly cut the pace of our growth. However, we worked hard to keep the members we had and have since grown to 600 members, with weekly attendance at 90 per cent of pre-COVID [data correct as at 4 August 2020].
Given low levels of local competition and the size of the potential market, we’re confident that – even though fear of COVID is probably cutting our receptive audience in half at the moment – we will still be able to achieve the 2,800–3,000 members we were always aiming for.
Will you open more Styles locations?
We only opened this first site at the beginning of the year, so we’re still finessing the offering. Developing our model was a three-year project and we’re still very much on the learning curve.
Equally, we didn’t set out just to grow a chain. We wanted to get people healthier and fitter, happier and more confident.
However, we are getting some investor interest, so if we turn out to be the next cool thing, we’re fully open to the conversation, whether that’s opening more sites ourselves or franchising the concept.
If we build more Styles sites, we’ll probably look for 16,000–18,000sq ft in total so all the studios can be bigger. Proportionally the other studios will still be bigger than URBAN RITUAL though; it’s in HUSTLE, CHAIN and FREESOL where we run our trademark, signature programmes and where we place our main focus.
Equally, it would be easy to see our HUSTLE brand working well as a standalone boutique.
Whatever we do, though, it will be the smaller cities we focus on – the places that haven’t seen anything like the spaces we create, and where we can therefore make the biggest impact. And we will always actively look for dense pockets of Les Mills instructors. They’ve had the best instructor training in the world, so we know all we need to do is give them the right tools to create a world-class experience.
Tackling COVID head-on
“We came out of the blocks quickly in our COVID response,” says Styles Studios Fitness co-founder Carrie Kepple. “Amy and I had been through a crisis before – at the Les Mills Christchurch club that was hit by an earthquake in 2011 – and I think it was this that made us accept what was happening quickly rather than spending weeks fretting over it. We just said: ‘Well, this is happening. Let’s react now. Let’s control what we can control.’
“We closed with 500 members and spent lockdown focused on looking after this core group. We prioritised people over payment and focused on community – on being a club and supporting our members’ wellbeing. The support and engagement that flowed as a result has been incredible: we retained 98 per cent of our members, with many of them continuing to pay through lockdown even though we told them we didn’t expect it, and we’ve come through this with higher levels of loyalty than ever.”
Kepple continues: “We launched free online fitness for all our members, including those on frozen memberships, initially through a closed Facebook group and then through our member-only app. We live streamed a couple of classes a day – including meditation, self-care, mental fitness – and members were tuning in religiously.
“We’re continuing to offer online now, including it in all our memberships; our studios are set up with cameras, so it doesn’t cost us any more to live stream a class that’s running anyway. It’s great for the times when members can’t make it to the club, adds real perceived value and makes it far more likely that people will stay with us for a long time.
“We’re also selling online-only memberships, currently for US$25 a month – we’ll work out if that’s the right price over the coming months. But really, for non-members, our big focus is now our HUSTLE@home app – www.stylesstudiosfitness.com/hustleathomeapp – which again we launched during lockdown. Anyone in the world can buy this app and it gives you access to all sorts of features on top of our live and on-demand classes. It costs just US$14.99 a month, or US$59 for a whole year.
“Other new areas of business launched in the last couple of months are our physician- and FDA-approved high-end supplement line, Designs for Health, and a made-to-order clothing line.
“We’re also the first US facility to partner with FitTrace, creating FitTrace for Athletes; when student athletes have a Dexa scan with us, their body composition is mapped against that of a pro athlete playing in the same position in their game, and they get a personalised consultation to identify what they can improve. We’re partnering with Bradley University to put all their athletes through this programme.”