Affluent health nuts will pay extra for experiential fitness—and several new boutique studios are springing into action
by Atalie Gimmel | April 2, 2018 11:00 am
The status symbols of today are less about what you hold in your hands and more about memories you can’t misplace at baggage claim. The tangible has been eclipsed by the experiential—a fact particularly illustrated in the health and fitness industry. And with the race to create the “next SoulCycle” well underway, the business of fitness’s culture of luxury is officially flourishing.
According to the 2015 Vogue article “Looking Like Money: How Wellness Became the New Luxury Status Symbol,” fitness studios are well on their way to becoming the ultimate status signifiers. These classes, often created by former athletes, personal trainers and gym executives who have distilled their years of training into one 45-minute session, offer anyone with upwards of $30 to spare the chance to experience high-intensity workouts like boxing and cycling. These studio-based programs now account for 35 percent of the $25.8 billion U.S. fitness market, according to a report by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. But the competition in any luxury market is steep; currently, two frontrunners—running studio Mile High Run Club and the boxing temple Rumble—are in a race to lock in the business of the influential, young and affluent. And in doing so, they’re creating an experience that fits the bill.
Walking into Rumble’s second location in New York City’s trendy NoHo neighborhood, for instance, the “experience” factor becomes immediately clear. Once inside the massive 6,500-square-foot space, you’re treated like a five-star guest: friendly receptionists welcome you in for check-in and offer equipment to rent and amenities to use—and the towels and Essentia waters are just the beginning. Rumble’s locker rooms have everything to get you looking like you never broke a sweat, like products by Nubian Heritage and Beekman 1802 (the founders’ mindful alternative to “basic” luxury offerings like Le Labo and Malin + Goetz). But it’s not just the beauty products that make you forget you’re mainly here to workout.
All around you, designer duffels have been stuffed into crisp white lockers decorated with graphics in “Rumble Red.” On the lower level, a mural of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in their Pulp Fiction characters has been painted directly on the wall; opposite, a lifesize, gold-leaf sculpture of Biggie Smalls sits on top of a wad of cash, positioned in the likeness of Buddha. Did I mention the vibey hip-hop (Top 40 and throwbacks included) playing in the background? Not to mention the space’s actual fitness studio, which can host a total of 60 participants during Rumble’s 45-minute class model. As a package, Rumble truly packs a punch. And the brains behind this business are fully aware of what they’ve built.
“When you pay for a premium, you better be getting a premium product,” Noah Neiman, a founding partner of Rumble says regarding each class’s $34 price tag. “We gladly spent $2.5 million to build this place out,” he says. The business is, after all, financially backed by investors who include Sylvester Stallone and Justin Bieber. Equinox (the owner of SoulCycle and Pure Yoga) also announced a “significant minority” stake in Rumble one week into the New Year. New locations are set to open on the Upper East Side and in Philadelphia in 2018, and each location, Neiman explains, will follow suit. “We spent $100,000 on dryers—on dryers,” he says emphatically. From shower pressure to bathroom fixtures, no expense was spared in the making of this space.
“Why do you spend more money on Louis Vuitton when a Jansport backpack does the same thing? Because of the quality—the [Louis Vuitton] will last you forever.” Case in point, Neiman says, “Rumble isn’t going anywhere.”
Rumble is by no means the first boutique to delight fans of boxing and group fitness—Neiman himself found a haven in many gyms growing up in Philadelphia and credits greats (including NYC- and LA-based boxing studio Aerospace’s Michael Olajide, Jr.) for breathing new life into the sport. But one could say that Rumble is the first (of likely more to come) to marry the sport with the business of luxury—pure, shameless, Biggie-worthy luxury.
Rumble and Mile High Run Club consider their demographic to be relatively young (between 22 and 35 years old) and majoritively female (70 percent). But although those two variables can vary, one characteristic between the two companies remains constant: the people who can regularly pay for these workouts are likely to be affluent.
“Research shows that higher income level means a higher rate of exercise participation,” Dr. Danielle Wadsworth, who leads the Exercise Adherence and Obesity Lab at Auburn University, told Quartz in 2016. The article, about the rise in popularity of group fitness classes, touched on the simple logic that the trend is geared towards those who can afford it. Factors like budget and time are subject to a studio’s structure (including price-per-class and strict class scheduling) while they are the very things that attract an upper-crust clientele. And aside from people’s mere ability to afford this, is their willingness to invest in their personal fitness that attracts entrepreneurs. They know, as health mobile app Netpulse’s Greg Skloot told the LA Times in 2017, that “[people] want to be able to make physical fitness choices on demand, and they are willing to pay for it.”
For Debora Warner, the founder and CEO of Mile High Run Club, one of her goals is to attract people who care about their fitness. The full- and half-marathon veteran (and former Equinox trainer) opened MHRC in November 2014, and aimed to translate the experiential components she admired so much in group fitness studios like SoulCycle to the traditionally solitary sport of running. And she especially hoped to do it for anyone, regardless of aptitude level, who truly values an exceptional fitness experience.
“I was kind of blown away by how committed their demographic is,” Warner says about the clients she would work with at Equinox. “I think anyone who really values [their fitness] will be willing to pay for it, and I’m that person. I will bargain hunt for clothes, but when it comes to fitness, health and wellness: the sky’s the limit,” she explains.
MHRC currently has two New York locations—one in NoHo, the other in NoMad. Both are stocked with luxury products by Red Flower, and both follow the theme of ridiculously well-outfitted locker rooms that tempt you to workout for the sole purpose of showering in them. Taking this into consideration, along with the upkeep of her studios’ equipment (each studio has 35 and 34 treadmills, respectively, and complimentary strength training equipment for all participants), Warner settled on the price of $34 per class—with class packages and occasional same-day discounts, directly through MHRC or booking platform ClassPass. If the prices start to seem a bit familiar, you wouldn’t be the first to notice. Did SoulCycle set a precedent with the $34-class price? “We believe you value what you pay for and you make the most out of the experience when you’ve paid for it,” SoulCycle’s SVP of PR and brand strategy Gabby Etrog Cohen tells us. “If SoulCycle has created accountability to show up and challenge yourself to be the best version of yourself then we hope we’ve set that precedent.”
“We were just looking at the competition, ultimately, and the market there,” Warner says of MHRC’s pricing, “and I’m still not sure if everyone’s quite figured it out, the pricing in boutique. It’s a little bit—the feedback from the customer tends to be that it’s on the high side, right? So, it’s something we’ve given a lot of thought.”
Whitney Casey, founder of fashion app Finery and avid studio frequenter, shares that exact sentiment. For Casey, boutiques offer the trappings of her regular gym (Equinox) and then some. Casey has tried them all—Rumble, MHRC, SoulCycle (her preferred studio), the list goes on. But at the end of the day, even to someone with a living room designed by Kelly Wearstler (a mesmerizing sight I experienced firsthand at the press launch of Finery last summer), “the cost is a bitch,” Casey says. But not enough of one, she adds, that it’ll stop her from reaping the benefits of being a proverbial member of the proverbial SoulCycle cult. “I still try to go three, four days a week,” she says. Not only has she made lasting friendships by riding so often, but she’s also formed key relationships with people in the tech industry. “There was a time I was trying to go everyday because there was so much going on [in my life]. It’s therapy and a workout.”
Not only do studios like SoulCycle, Rumble and Mile High Run Club offer incredible workouts—the benefits of cycling, boxing and running are indisputable—they also offer a level of brand awareness that goes beyond merchandise, and lands somewhere between experiential lifestyle and cult-like community.
Everyone who clips into a bike at SoulCycle is encouraged to tap into their emotions; lit candles are a meditative touch in each studio. Runners at Mile High Run Club are told to encourage each other; at MHRC, running can be about as much of a team sport as anything else. At Rumble, the moment you’re given a pair of boxing gloves is empowering and, to some, excitingly new. All three sell branded merchandise in-store and online—SoulCycle has become known for meaningful fashion collaborations with the likes of industry darlings Public School and PE Nation. And all three studios nail the art of the newsletter (Neiman claims that Rumble’s are so engaging because he and his co-partners author them personally). But walk in as one person to workout at each studio, and you’ll leave a better version of yourself. Therein lies the therapy—the real product for sale.
These studios aren’t just selling a workout here—they’re selling a feeling, a consistent experience and a brand in which you will entrust your fitness journey. Just recently, SoulCycle announced the launch of SoulAnnex—the brand’s foray into off-bike workouts offered at a standalone boutique in New York’s Flatiron neighborhood. Sans bikes, fans of the brand can now take everything from yoga to HIIT classes, instructed by the SoulCycle instructors (and held within a comparably luxe venue) they’ve come to know and love. Mile High Run Club provides off-treadmill running programs for anyone who wants to train for a race (or who simply wants to run outdoors with a pack of equally dedicated people).
Neiman, who envisions a similar growth for Rumble, says that their brand will eventually signify more than just someone’s daily workout. From a line of juices to an expanded collection of merchandise, “you’re gonna see a whole line of Rumble everywhere,” he says. “In New York, fitness is like a Starbucks—you’ve got a million different [options to choose from]. So we really wanted to be unique and create something you could only get here.” Here, and in a handful of studios coming to a city near you.
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