Pay for those Zoom fitness classes if you can. Your instructor needs an income too

Small studios suffer in disasters. "Should the only gyms that survive this be 24 Hour Fitness?" one instructor asks

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published April 25, 2020 11:00AM (EDT)

Money Raining On Yoga Instructor (Getty Images)
Money Raining On Yoga Instructor (Getty Images)

Janis Isaman recalls that in Calgary, Alberta, where her fitness studio is based, the government order closing facilities like hers came around March 16. Isaman, who owns and operates My Body Couture, says she shifted online almost immediately, reaching out to her existing students and clients to inform them of the change from in-person classes to a virtual format.

Beyond that, nothing about her level of service to her clientele has changed — including her fees. For the most part that hasn't been a problem.

"None of the people that I currently work with even hesitated or questioned whether they should be paying, because they had already been paying," Isaman explained to Salon. "I just went ahead with what I felt like was a sensible plan where, OK, my business continues."

Within those first few days of being online, however, she began hearing that across the fitness industry instructors had starting offering free classes. That makes sense. As of this week, the U.S. has approached a staggering 20% unemployment rate. Because so many household incomes have been hit hard due to the stay-at-home orders affecting most of the country, extending generosity to people who've canceled their gym memberships in the face of financial calamity is a natural impulse. At the same time, though, Isaman — who maintained her paying clientele after moving online — began to feel pressure to create free content herself in order to "build community."

She also started noticing that on Facebook and email threads from friends and potential clients asking for fitness recommendations, people mainly tended to recommend free programs in the replies.

"At any point if I mentioned anything that I [taught], I would get private messages from people saying, 'Oh, yeah, it's $20…no, I can't afford that,'" she said. "I simply would respond with 'I respect that, good luck finding an appropriate teacher platform,' something of that nature. I always acknowledge them and do it kindly."

Having said that, she admitted that this nascent sea change took her by surprise.

"It was a shocking moment to me where, in the 14 years that I've been an instructor, that it went from an assumption that people should pay to an assumption that it is free," she said. "I've never seen that before. I've never once had a conversation with any clients or students where they approach it from the idea that the teacher is making this content free."

It was so eye-opening to her that she wrote an article for wellness blog Elephant Journal titled, "Why your Yoga Teacher can't hear 'Oh it's $20? I can't afford that!' even One More Time."

This writer has firsthand knowledge of what Isaman is experiencing, both as a Nia Technique instructor and as the co-owner of a small movement studio in Seattle. We shifted our classes online in order to comply with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's order to close many businesses, including health and fitness clubs, that also went into effect on March 16.

The shift to teaching our studio's classes out of our own living rooms, home offices and basements has been bumpy. Even so, longtime clients have remained supportive, continuing to attend classes and purchasing their passes and memberships. Their support has enabled us to pay our studio's monthly rent. But it's not unusual for potential new customers to balk at being asked to pay for an online class, even at deeply discounted rates or via pay-what-you-can requests.

Because there are veteran online fitness moguls like Yoga With Adriene, with her 7 million YouTube subscribers, whose business models include popular free videos, the idea that a class delivered via computer into a student's home should be free has pre-shutdown precedent — sort of. But with an instructor leading a class via Zoom with real-time, the opportunity for personal interaction — very similar to what a student would receive in a brick-and-mortar studio setting — affords a higher level of service than a class that is recorded, uploaded to a monetized YouTube account and viewed on demand. It's not quite the difference between watching an exercise DVD and showing up in-person for a class, but close. People expect to pay radically different fees for one than the other, but it appears as though for many, the digital delivery has scrambled that distinction.

Of course people who have lost part or all of their incomes in the economic shut-down aren't being scouted as potential new customers; they are wholly exempt from this critique. And the majority of independent fitness instructors are eager to work with people in financial distress, especially right now. So if this describes you, don't hesitate to approach your teacher to make an arrangement that works for each of you. 

Donation-based classes are one way instructors are addressing this growing need. Grace Huang Otto is a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher who has built up a clientele over the course of a decade. Before the city closed down businesses deemed non-essential, including fitness centers, she was teaching 10 classes per week in addition to seeing a number of private clients.

When she first moved her classes online, she asked for donations in exchange for her services with the understanding that a large swath of the public is in dire straits financially right now. Otto can relate: Her husband edits unscripted television series and documentaries, and his work disappeared once restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 were enacted. So in addition to helping to care for their two toddlers, she also is teaching 10 online classes each week from her home.

When Salon first spoke to Otto at the end of March, she told us that some of those who attend her online classes donate, "but not a lot of people do." She cited one class attended by 10 people in which she cleared $5. At the time, she said that was fine.

But a few weeks of this moved her to write a Facebook post in which she says she has stopped telling her students to come anyway if they can't donate. "The main reason is many people came on, practiced, didn't say hello, goodbye, thank you, didn't donate, nothing," she wrote. "Just came, took and left. That doesn't sit well with me. Recently, I have been saying 'donations appreciated' but now I will change to 'Please donate and contact me if you're not able to donate.' I realize I need to [be] more clear."

Some of this attitude Otto and others are experiencing may stem from consumers having grown accustomed to expecting online instruction, even a class that allows personalized interaction with your instructor, to be priced very low or even given away for free. It's the same challenge that other industries, from music to the news media, have grappled with for decades now.

In our current financial crisis, the message of supporting small businesses rings through loud and clear. It's been beneficial to local shops and restaurants that have enabled online ordering, take-out or delivery. The customer sees an immediate win/win: He or she receives a tangible good in exchange for their contribution to that business's survival, which also helps keep the fabric of their community intact.

But for some reason, some people think differently about fitness. Although a number of official agencies have listed wellness maintenance as an essential aspect of staying healthy during this pandemic, the notion of devoting the same level of financial support to independent fitness studios or certified instructors teaching fitness online as one would for in-person classes seems to give a number of consumers — again, those who have moved to working from home and have retained their previous incomes — pause.

Studio overhead fees haven't been put on hold either. When the mandated business closures were announced, Isaman said, "I reached out to my landlord and was immediately told that my corporate rent and expenses wouldn't be changing, not by one penny. To this day, that is actually still true. There's no rent relief, there's no deferred payments where I get free anything."

Conjoined with this thinking is the notion that fitness instructors should be contributing their classes purely out of the joy of doing so. There are many reasons people decide to become professional fitness instructors. Some go into it as an extension of a lifelong relationship with a sport or movement. Others embark upon it as a career shift; and yes, some do it expressly for the joy.

What this doesn't take into account is the value of the teacher's time, training and more to the point, the instructors' own financial obligations. Many specialized fitness instructors must pay annual or monthly fees to maintain their licensing and certifications.

Your yoga teacher, for example, has spent anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars to train for her certification, in addition to hundreds of hours of study. Pilates instructor certifications can also cost thousands, not counting time costs. Nia Technique trainings cost $1600, not including independent study in relevant subjects such as anatomy and related movement modalities. In other words, your teacher puts significant time and financial resources into bringing you each hour of class that you take with them.

But it is true that joy is an essential part of why we teach. At the root of our passion, or calling, is a dedication to improving the health and wellness of the people who come to us, which requires dedicated time, ongoing study, and the financial wherewithal to train in one's chosen modalities.

"We're in a unique industry in the sense boutique fitness is at least 75% led and powered by women," pointed out Lise Kuecker, CEO of Studio Grow, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based boutique fitness consulting agency. "And I've often wondered if that's why so oftentimes, people view this as a hobby business. You know, this is a business where you take it up if it's something you're passionate [about], a passion project, it's a life calling. It's so many of those things. But very few people view it as a livelihood."

The assumption is that the teacher is in it for the passion "without ever recognizing, 'no, this is literally my paycheck.'"

Many fitness teachers and trainers make their living as independent contractors, renting space and time from smaller studios, gyms or spaces suitable for what they teach. Some, including yours truly, own or co-own fitness spaces. Entering a virtual space — primarily facilitated by platforms such as Zoom — means individual teachers' independent studios that primarily serve a localized client base now have access to customers across the country and the globe.

This also places them into competition with multi-million dollar companies such as Peleton, Beachbody, or nationwide chain fitness clubs, companies with access to massive Internet-based platforms that can afford to offer content for free. That poses a peril to instructors for whom teaching is their livelihood, and leads customers to question why their teachers are still charging for their class time.

Accessing your teachers and regular class via a live online class has distinct advantages over taking a pre-recorded class. Foremost, we have the advantage of interacting with our students and seeing their faces. Boutique fitness customers and people who follow a particular instructor are also notable for their devotion to the community engendered by that place or anchored by that person.

Plus, in order to teach, an instructor has to have a place to teach — and there are only so many instructor spots available in chain fitness facilities. Kuecker, whose agency works with studios around the world, including around 500 in North America, estimates that 12 months from now, 50-60% of independently-owned studios will shut down permanently as a result of COVID-19 related closures. 

Kuecker bases that estimate on her own outreach within the industry and on statistics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which further estimates that within a year of navigating any disaster, another 25% of small businesses will fail. Worse, according to the United States Small Business Administration more than 90 percent of independently owned and run companies fail within two years of being struck by a disaster.

In terms of independently owned and operated fitness studios, Kuecker said, "we're estimating the market will look much more akin to what it did in 2014."

Admittedly some fitness teachers may be better positioned to compete in a flooded market than others. Isaman, a movement specialist, offers Pilates and Yamuna Body Rolling™, specialties not typically found at chain fitness facilities or massive online fitness platforms. My studio's specialty in Nia Technique and a Feldenkrais-based format called Awareness Through Movement has helped differentiate us in a market that is rich with boutique fitness options.

Yoga, whether delivered live or via recorded video, is plentiful online. That may create a challenge for yoga instructors trying to coax their students to their virtual classes, or studios doing their best to stay afloat in order to be there for their regulars when restrictions lift and they can re-open.  

Not every teacher who plies fitness online has dire experiences to share. Ali Griffith, a Zumba instructor based in Springfield, IL., normally teaches at the local YMCA and a fitness studio in her area. Griffith says she's thriving in the Zoom class format, and credits the Zumba corporation's top down support of its instructors are part of the success she's experienced. (Full disclosure: Griffith is Salon editor-in-chief Erin Keane's sister.)

She's also making more in donations than she did working at the Y, and is thrilled that Zoom has enabled her to welcome students from other cities as well. "I know everybody is eager to get back into the gym, and I am too because I miss people. But this has been a really great alternative," Griffith said. "Now I have people in Canada taking my class. I have people in Florida taking my class. Now, my friends that have never even been able to dance with me get to dance with me every day."

She's also fine with people dancing with her online for free. "The YMCA for me changed my life eight years ago," she said, which is around the time she began teaching group fitness. "It made me a better person, a healthier person. I want to give that back. And if I make money along the way, great. If I don't, that's fine too."

But again, Griffith's case is not universal; she is not reliant on the income she nets from Zumba. She also stresses that she supports paying fitness instructors for their online classes.

For independent teachers now teaching out in their homes, the obligation to simultaneously maintain the places where they usually teach hasn't budged. Rent is still due. Utility bills still need to get paid, and teachers themselves still need money to pay for licensing fees and, yes, groceries. 

Joy and a customer's appreciation alone do not pay for those necessities. Money, whether for drop-in fees, memberships or by donation, does. 

Isaman is part of a Facebook group of studio owners, and she shared that someone recently asked the group's members how many of them were pulling in enough income to make that month's commercial rent. She says somewhere between 80 and 90 percent reported that they weren't earning enough to do so. 

"No matter what, we are going to lose studios," Isaman said. "Should the only gyms that survive this be 24 Hour Fitness? ... I think as a consumer you really need to figure out if, when you walk back on to your local street in three months, do you want it only to be filled with chains that have big corporate backers and are sitting on the stock exchange, or do you want businesses that are owned by people in your local community?"

Salon Culture Editor Hanh Nguyen contributed to this report.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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