Two days before alert level four lockdown, Unity Studios was meant to open its doors for the very first time. First-time business owners Caitlin Day and Sophie Lax were forced to quickly become a virtual studio hosting classes and consults online.
If you’ve never been on a Pilates reformer, the large machines look a bit like a torture device. The springs, wheels, tension cables and shoulder pads are all a bit intimidating for the uninitiated. With the right guidance, however, these elaborate contraptions will tone your core, get your glutes burning and sculpt your arms. But the team at Unity Studios never got to use their brand new machines with clients before the lockdown, having been forced to close their doors before they’d even had the chance to open.
Located above trendy Thai-inspired eatery Kiss Kiss just off Auckland’s Dominion Road, the refurbished space is Instagram heaven with its hardwood floors and painted brick interior. When co-owners Caitlin Day and Sophie Lax signed the lease on the former drum school last November, the open plan loft was in a state of disrepair. A few months of renovations later and the space was transformed into the purpose-fit floor that it is now with two group exercise studios and multiple physio treatment rooms.
Partway through the expensive rebuild, cases of Covid-19 started to spread around the world. The pair started to worry about what could happen to their business if the pandemic were to arrive in New Zealand. Then when it did, a lot of things suddenly had to happen very quickly.
“The plan was to open for physio appointments and then the next week to open as a pilates studio. The day that level three was announced [on March 23], we were meant to be seeing our first clients, but we didn’t, obviously,” says Day. “We had two days to wrap everything up. We put our builders under a bit of pressure to get done by March 23.”
Instead of opening their doors for their first physio clients, Day and Lax were planning on how to open a business reliant on physical contact and group exercise in the middle of a government social isolation order. With so much invested in their dream, it was scary thinking about how long lockdown might last and what the lasting effects of the pandemic would look like for Unity Studios.
“Essentially our business model was getting people together in groups to exercise and breathe heavily, and that’s exactly what we’ve been told not to do by the government. We were pretty terrified,” says Day.
But with no choice but to adapt, the pair came up with a strategy to sell online physio appointments and live workout classes, something neither had done before. Any clients already booked in were sent an invitation to an online consultation instead, and the mat pilates and yoga instructors were able to keep their bookings and host them online via Zoom.
As a physio trained to use her hands to treat clients, Day says it was a challenge to translate that knowledge into an online environment. She says it was fascinating and rewarding to see her clients recover during lockdown because of the advice she was giving out in video consultations.
“I had some people over lockdown that I saw for a couple of consults, never met them face-to-face and then I discharged them because they were better. We would use a bit of ingenuity and really focus on advice and stuff like that from afar, and they got better, so I came out of that thinking maybe we don’t actually need to use our hands quite as much as we think we do.”
For fitness classes, there were two possible ways to roll these out online. The first was what Day and Lax saw happening most frequently among Auckland studios, which was creating a database of pre-recorded videos that could be bought on a subscription or one-time basis that could be viewed at any time. The second – which was the approach the pair ended up using – was to host live classes via Zoom where people could book and join in on new and dynamic classes through the week.
With the help of fast reliable broadband, the live videos were the perfect way to introduce people to Unity Studios, and profile their workouts without the added cost and work of filming and editing dozens of classes in the short time they had before lockdown. It meant instructors and physiotherapists at home with their devices and broadband connections could reach clients all around the country – and the world – throughout lockdown.
“It worked really well. Smartphones, laptops and tablets these days have pretty good microphones, and as long as the wifi connection is good, then the video is good. You can converse with them, you can watch them if you want to and give them some feedback, so it was pretty cool,” Day says.
“The feedback was also that it’s so easy when you have that pre-recorded stuff to get to the end of the day and think ‘I just can’t be bothered’, but with live workouts, you’re paying for a time so you do it.”
Despite not being able to open their fresh new premises as planned, Day says the period over lockdown was a success for Unity Studios as it gave them a chance to focus on building their online presence.
“We were able to function as an online studio and run giveaways. We did a few collabs with other New Zealand companies and influencers as well, so we got about 1,000 Instagram followers just over lockdown. We didn’t know what to expect anyway, let alone in a pandemic, so we’re doing better financially than we thought we would be without the pandemic.”
Now that the bricks and mortar studio is up and running, physio sessions and classes are back to being in-person. But the success of its online consultations and classes during lockdown has changed the way the pair have decided to run the business. They found the studio’s pregnancy and post natal classes – run by specialised physios – were really popular during lockdown and revealed the value the convenience of working out from home had for those expecting or wrangling a new baby.
“We’re nearly through filming a pregnancy-specific package, so they’ll be able to jump online and pay a weekly or monthly membership.”
The experience of opening the business in the middle of Covid-19 revealed the potential – and importance – of having a strong online offering. When a second round of level three was announced in August the Unity team was able to quickly adapt their website to online classes and keep the studio open even though the doors were once again closed.
“There definitely is this big shift now. I’ve had a couple of people book in for virtual consults, which I didn’t do before. It’s at the forefront of people’s brains now when before that wasn’t really an option they had considered.”