Surviving and Thriving: A Look at Pilates Can’s Journey Through the Pandemic

Surviving and Thriving: A Look at Pilates Can’s Journey Through the Pandemic

In this first episode of The Pilates Business Podcast reboot, co-owners David and Claire Gunther of Pilates Can candidly discuss their COVID-19 challenges, from abrupt lockdowns to the shift to online teaching. Despite the difficult times, Pilates Can managed to keep their passion alive, adapt to new norms, and continue delivering their services.

They share strategies for survival, including price adjustments and studio restructuring, while maintaining client and staff engagement. The duo addresses the impact of the rise in reformer Pilates places, causing market confusion.

Tune in for valuable insights and a teaser of upcoming episodes covering diverse topics in clinical Pilates business, which include tips on effective lead generation, customer avatars, and in-depth interviews with Pilates clients and instructors.

Don’t miss out on this latest, or any, episode of “The Pilates Business Podcast”.

Show notes

  • [00:00:00] Introduction to Pilates Can Studios
  • [00:00:21] Impact of COVID-19 on Pilates Can
  • [00:00:54] Surviving and Thriving Amidst Challenges
  • [00:01:10] Interview with Claire Gunther, Chief Instructor of Pilates Can
  • [00:01:53] Recalling the Initial Shutdown in 2020
  • [00:02:42] Transition to Online Pilates Sessions
  • [00:03:27] Adapting to New Health Protocols
  • [00:04:49] Return to the Studio and Challenges of 2021
  • [00:09:42] Financial Struggles and Government Support
  • [00:11:54] Selling a Studio and Consolidating Operations
  • [00:20:44] Price Increase and Financial Planning
  • [00:22:32] Navigating Market Confusion with Reformer Pilates
  • [00:24:08] Looking Forward: Future Plans and Upcoming Podcast Topics

"2023 has been that gradual rebuilding. Getting back, financially, the ‘lost years’, and moving forward so we have a strong base, and continue. We feel we've got a lot more to offer, so we really want to keep the business going."                                Claire Gunther – Head Instructor/Co-owner Pilates Can

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Episode Transcript

DAVID GUNTHER: Pilates Can had two beautiful clinical Pilates studios. They owned both the commercial premises, and the clinical Pilates business. They had a dozen fantastic Pilates instructors who cared diligently for hundreds of grateful, happy, Pilates Can clients. It had been that way for many years.

Then in March, 2020 - bang - COVID shutdowns hit and we were suddenly non-essential. Then in 2021, the COVID epidemic smashed our clientele.

Clients had to either isolate, had COVID, or were protecting their families from COVID. This was followed up by an uppercut - Pow - as everyone went on holidays in 2022. And Kapowey - interest rates exploded in 2023. What has Pilates Can done to survive and thrive as a clinical Pilates business during these tough times. Will you find out by listening to this first episode of the rebooted Pilates business podcast?

So we have Claire Gunther, who's joined us from the Pilates Can studio. Claire is the chief instructor of Pilates Can in Canberra, and the co-owner with myself actually. we're using Pilates Can as a great example of a clinical Pilates studio.

Later on, in a different series. We'll talk to other studios that might want to come onto the podcast. But, at this stage, we've got Pilates Can here, as the example, welcome Claire.

CLAIRE GUNTHER: Hello, and thanks for having me.

DAVID: It's great to have you here on the podcast. We're going to be talking about the last few years, Claire. And what's happened since 2020 with Pilates Can. Let's start with 2020, why we had a break then? Can you remember what happened?

CLAIRE: Well, that was fun times back in March, 2020, when we were one of the unfortunate industries to come under the initial shutdown period. That was a very scary period for all of us, nobody knowing what was happening, and it was very early days.

DAVID: Yes. I recall, quite vividly, being 'non-essential' was a term that was used was that at that time, was that in 2020?

CLAIRE: Yes, that's right. All Pilates studios, whether clinical or reformer based, came under the fitness industry, and as David just said, non-essential. So we were shut down with barely 24 hours notice. Prior to that, we'd been practicing. In the worst case scenario of perhaps putting sessions on Zoom and it sprung on us very quickly.

DAVID: It certainly did. I remember talking to my sister who had suggested that a week or so earlier, and I had certainly, poo-pooed the idea saying, 'oh, we're not an online service. That's not really the way we're going to go'. Head in the sand and disbelief that that would ever happen to us. But it certainly did, Claire.

CLAIRE: From an instructor point of view, it was only a week before the shutdown that we were having meetings about how we'd go about taking some sessions online. And we we're actually set up to practice that week. But we had no practice time. We had to do the real thing very quickly.

DAVID: Yes, nothing like the real thing for practice and I recall we had, and we still do somewhere on the website - we'll put this into the notes,- we had the Pilates Can health maximisation page, which really gives a running history from right down the bottom of the very long page now, of what happened to begin with, and then up till today when those same rules, for keeping the hands clean and different things like that with the equipment are still enforced, but you can see the whole history of where we've brought in different rules and regulations, so that we could protect the health of both the clients and the instructors.

Do you remember any of the little rules that we had, Claire, that seemed really strange at the time?

CLAIRE: Yeah, it's become a bit of a norm now, but the great thing is we never actually had to put gloves on, like you're doing the hospital or shields, as such, but we certainly had masks.

DAVID: Yes. I recall the masks were a real change in culture. We certainly hadn't worn masks before. And now of course it's so ordinary. Every day you see people with masks going shopping or whatever it might be that they're doing.

It was totally alien to us back then and quite difficult to make that change for our clients. Of course they weren't coming into the studio then, but when they did eventually get to come back in the studio when did they come back in Claire? Do you recall?

CLAIRE: Shut down was somewhere between 9 to 12 weeks in 2020. And it was amazing how quickly everybody wanted to come back into the studio. At that time, of course, there was still no COVID cases in Canberra, and in Australia generally. also people couldn't travel at that time, so they were very keen to look after their health and to get out into the real world. We were very busy when we came out of that.

Prior to that, when we were talking about going online, our priority as business owners was to keep the business going and to keep our amazing team together. As business owners, and for everybody out there, it was a very stressful time, but it was also a very interesting time to come up with different ways to keep everything going, and to keep people motivated. For example, we'd do a regular online instructor staff session once a week, and we take it in turns to do that. And it's amazing how creative we got.

DAVID: We certainly did. I can certainly also recall just how loyal the clientele were, as you say, how keen they were to come back into the studio when they could. And the same with the staff it was again, quite difficult doing semi privates online with cans of soup and towels and different things like that.

Mat work was pretty easy when we were online in some regards, but for instructors that were not used to using Zoom and not use to instructing over Zoom, it was quite challenging, and some of them opted not to do that, although most of the instructors were able to do mat work online, and we still have mat work online. We've had a bit of a redesign of the studio, which allows us to have six in the studio and online mat work that runs concurrently with the in studio session.

So we thought shutdowns were difficult in 2020. And then of course later on in 2021, we had lockdowns. Can you tell us what happened there, Claire, with the lockdowns?

CLAIRE: As you can imagine, from the instructor point of view, we were so thrilled to go back online, particularly for semis. I'm only joking, because it's very challenging to keep everyone motivated and to do semis online. And it's oh, here we go again. But we'd had that previous practice.

So we got in there very quickly. We were one of the first people to turn around and get everything on Zoom, basically within a few hours of the lockdown happening.

DAVID: Yes, lockdowns we're difficult for our attitude, as well as our bottom line because not all the clients could get onto Zoom. Some are more elderly. We had great support from our admin staff and the instructors in helping clients to get onto Zoom, but there were the inevitable times when people's software wouldn't work or hardware wouldn't connect. Occasions when there was some sort of user error, or error with the hardware or software on our side.

Those challenges just really highlight how difficult communication can be when you're not face-to-face and you're trying to use another medium that you're not used to. Do you remember any particular challenges there, Claire, with some exercises that you were trying to teach or some clients that you are trying to instruct at that time?

CLAIRE: I know the main thing is that Semi-private keeps you busy in the studio anyway, but online. It was incredibly challenging and. One of the things I really found that you were very exhausted after about three hours. In the studio, I could teach five semis in a row, five hours in a row quite okay, and have a quick break and ready to go again. However on Zoom, a lot more exhausting and you have to be careful to look after your own health. Particularly physically as well, while you're trying to demonstrate, because you needed to demonstrate a bit more online. So we we're very thrilled when lockdown stopped.

DAVID: I can recall too, there was a little bit of skill that you brought in from your aerobics days of being able to project your voice through the microphone onto the screen so that people could hear you through that medium, because again some of the clients are a little bit hard of hearing.

So you had to be able to not only look after your body and your attitude, you had to be able to look after your voice as well.

That was tough times, but we thought, okay, we've got support from the government with some money. Tell us a little bit Claire about the money side, because you do look after the money at Pilates Can, and pay the bills that are paying for all of our costs to run the studio and have fantastic instructors and all the things that we do. But also the money coming in.

So what was that like at that time?

CLAIRE: When shutdown happened and we were one of those rare industries that had to shut down. That was extremely scary, stressful. Unknown didn't know how we'd survive. Suddenly everything was cut off. There was many weeks of struggling to try to get through things.

And then as everyone knows, the government gradually came to help. Also the banks, because the government had influence there as well. So what we found during that initial shut down period with that government support is that we kept that in the business. Which was very fortunate because when we got to lockdown, there was minimal support and the bills and everything was still there.

And plus the banks weren't coming to the party to give you that breather. Some were, some weren't. So any buffer that we built up with the initial federal government support in 2020, basically needed to be used in 2021. We're back on that really stressful financial path, trying to keep the business going, trying to keep our fantastic instructor team together.

And we thought when we came out of lockdown - 'Great, we're back onto the road to recovery. Everything's going to improve from here on in'. But there were more surprises to come.

DAVID: Please take the time now to subscribe to The Pilates Business Podcast, and then listen on to the rest of this episode where we'll describe those surprises in detail, as well as the details of other episodes, and other series of episodes, that will help you with your clinical Pilates business.

Yes. As people returned, which they certainly did, we realized that one of the ways to save our business to save what we were going to be able to continue to do, hopefully, was to sell one of our commercial studios in Canberra, the studio in Woden and amalgamate all the clientele and instructors that were teaching there over to our Manuka studio (also in Canberra, couple of kilometers down from Parliament House).

We decided that was going to be a good move because we had a fair bit of capital involved with that Woden studio, and we were able to luckily to make a little profit out of the sale of that commercial space, and those instructors and clients, 99%, I think, maybe 98%, just looking at Claire there, moved across to Manuka.

We had a real process around that and we were very careful with how we did that. And of course the actual sale of the studio was a big process.

Do you recall anything from that time, Claire, that you thought we did well, and that helped us get that done?

CLAIRE: Like everything that we do, we made sure we planned. We went through all the financial aspects with our accountant. We looked at where we're at, how we could do it, what it would mean when we sold, how would it affect Manuka? We had a lot of planning go into that. And as David said, based on that planning, we did manage to do that successfully. And any buffer, once again that we had there, we thought 'great, things are on that way to recovery'. However, as I said, there was still more surprises to come our way, and for many businesses out there.

DAVID: For Pilates Can we have some very lucky clients who have a good lifestyle with being able to go on holidays. And of course, they hadn't been able to go on holidays up until 2022. They'd been kept inside in Canberra. So they were really looking forward to their holiday.

Everybody, including us, wanted to go on holidays and everybody did, once we were let out of lockdown shut down, and everything that went on until 2022.

Of course, we only get paid for people coming along to our classes. We don't have sleepers like in some industry where people might be paying direct debit for a service, but actually not coming along. That's not something that happens even medium term, certainly not longterm, with our clientele.

They went on holidays, so suspended their payments, and of course, just at the time when we were hoping to build up more business at that time with the restrictions that had happened previously.

CLAIRE: The other big thing in 2022, as David said, a substantial amount of clients started traveling and traveling for long periods because they were wanting to get out and about. But the other thing that happened was all the isolation protocol around that we all had to follow. Once someone in the family had COVID, everybody else had to isolate.

We had clients that could be out of sessions for three to four weeks once it went through the whole family, so we had huge amounts of clients disappearing out of sessions and at very late notice with the COVID isolation rules. And then we also had that big. Chunk that were out on their traveling times as well, overseas, perhaps, or around Australia. So 2022 turned out to be much more challenging than we ever could have predicted or thought would happen.

And in fact, it was one of the hardest years that we had during this whole COVID scenario. We're back on working out how financially we were going to come through that as well.

DAVID: Yeah, I think a lot of what we did was just continuing to do the basics right. And doing them time and time again. For many people that are in business, that have stayed in business during that time, during this time, they're aware of exactly that. So you're aware that you need to do some things. Over and over again continuously and you need to do them well.

There's no quick fix for business. There's nothing that's going to be your savior or going to make you the best business in the world, other than many little things and getting those right with staff, with clients, with sales, with retention, with referral, with advertising and marketing and how much you spend on those sorts of things. Keeping the costs down, and keeping the clients and the staff happy and productive.

We always talk about an 'Excellent Pilates Exercise Habit' as something that we're trying to help our clients to create, and so we did that. We continued that connection with our clientele by doing all the many little things correctly, and these things we'll be sharing with you in subsequent episodes with the different series that we've got coming up in the next few months, and coming through the rest of 2024.

Claire, can you think of any of those little things that we were doing? I can think of one in particular: you guys were like, and still are, the best cleaners in the world. Able to keep everything clean and sanitary, and really give everyone confidence that if they were coming into the studio, then it was really a fairly safe environment, in comparison to anywhere else they might visit, because of all of those protocols that we had in our health maximisation update.

And we didn't just talk about these things, we did these things. It's not what you say, it's what you do. In business, people notice what you do. Our clients and our staff could see that we were doing the right thing, and we were doing that continuously and we were doing that very well.

Any thoughts on that, Claire?

CLAIRE: We never thought, as professional Pilates instructors, that cleaning would be a big part of our job description. That was interesting, but we knew that we had to keep doing that so that we could enjoy, as David said, a safe environment, have everyone in there. We all love Pilates and we want to share that, and that was really our main goal, but we had to do all those other little things on the side.

The other thing during all this process is exhaustion. Instructors, business owners, clientele, our team, everybody after several years at this stage were getting quite exhausted where is that ending point for things to come back to normal. The recovery time for us as a business was much longer than we expected, and it's been very interesting years to keep going.

I do remember someone saying to me way back in the early stages, 'oh, I'll probably be 2023 before things might come back to the normal or new normal. I remember thinking in 2020, that was a long way away. But, how right they were. It has been a long time. And as David said so important to keep doing all those little things that we do really well. Managing the bookings, making sure we're planning in all different ways, not just as instructors, as a business. The list just goes on.

DAVID: Yes. At this point, a big shout out to those business owners that have decided to not continue. That have taken the decision, for many good reasons, to get out of the business of owning a clinical Pilates studio or being a Pilates instructor. Totally understandable with what has gone on. We salute you and we wish you very much all the best because we know what you've gone through and where you're coming from to have made that sort of decision.

We hope that people that have made that decision, perhaps in the future sometime, they find their way back to the industry because we need all the great people that we have had in the past. We need more great people working in our industry, helping the clients in the fantastic ways that we do that, and very unique ways that we do that in clinical Pilates. Claire, would you like to say anything to those studio owners, business owners that have made that decision.

CLAIRE: Thinking of you. I know how much you love Pilates as well, and all the best with everything that you're doing.

DAVID: Now, along the way here, in 2023 - When did we come up with the price increase Claire? Was that earlier this year or was that..? It's gone so quickly, but it also seems like such a long time ago. We hadn't raised prices for over seven years, I believe? Which was probably not the best thing to have done, but of course we couldn't raise it during the midst of lockdowns and shutdowns, or we didn't feel as though we could do that. But once we came out of that, we realised costs have gone up in a big way, and it's very difficult to recoup some of those costs without increasing the pricing.

So again, we planned. We could do a whole episode, and we probably will, on what we did with raising our prices and how we went about that, so that we made sure, again, that we had really excellent uptake. Again, about 97, 98% of clients were quite happy. In fact, some clients made comments like we'll start paying now. One of the strategies that we had was to inform people that these prices were going to change and to let people know there'd be a timeframe within which we would be raising the prices so that they weren't just totally shocked one day to the next. That sort of approach, a very honest approach with our clientele and our instructors, I think really helped us. Any thoughts on that, Claire?

CLAIRE: Once again, it was the big thing of planning, making sure we looked at all aspects of it because it was a really big deal.

We know that we were under pressure cost-wise but we're also aware that clients are as well. But really, to continue in our business, we needed to do it. Fortunately for us yes, as David said, our clients were supportive and understanding. But we had to do it well, and we had to do it gradually.

One of the other things during this whole period that we haven't touched on, and I know it's happened around Australia and overseas, is reformer Pilates places suddenly springing up during the midst of coming out of COVID. And at the time that happened, which is in 2022, I thought, ' that's not going to affect us', cause that's actually not our niche. We know that we're not into the fitness type reformer classes, we're into the rehabilitation, the general wellbeing. There's semi privates.

However, what I didn't anticipate, is how confused the market was getting. They just see the word Pilates and then they see a cost, and they think if it's only that cost, only let's say $10 a session, and it's called Pilates. Why would I do anything else? So the reformer Pilates actually did affect us in the confusion in the market. We, once again, had to get out there, identify ourselves and our style, and help people understand the difference. That has taken quite a long time. So, 2022 had that challenge as well.

2023 has been that gradual rebuilding, getting back financially the lost years, and moving forward so we have a strong base, and continue. We feel we've got a lot more to offer. So we really want to keep the business going, our amazing team. We want to share with clients and staff instructors, students.

DAVID: We're going to leave Claire there for the moment and certainly come back to Claire in future episodes and series as a very valuable resource, working at the coalface in clinical Pilates business.

And the sorts of episodes and series that we are going to bring out in 2024, include the following: how to structure your website for successful lead generation (and that will include quite a bit of an emphasis on search engine optimisation - SEO, that's coming up very soon), The Adventures of Betty (the animation series that's come out about our client avatar, Betty, why we've done that, and how we've done that), the Movement Health Score (and other lead magnets that we use at Pilates Can), and also Who is Your Pilates World (interviews with clinical Pilates clients and instructors finding out about the where, the how, the why, of those very important people to our businesses). That's just a few of the topics, episode, series, that we'll be bringing out in 2024. So, please do take the time to subscribe now, so that you don't miss out on any of those.

In our next episode, we'll be discussing a little bit more about what happened in 2023, with the exploding interest rates and the connection with our instructors, and how important they are obviously to what we do with our business Pilates Can and what we all do with our Pilates businesses around the world. We can't do that without fantastic instructors, so we'll talk about that important link in episode two of the reboot of The Pilates Business Podcast. Until then, stay awesome.

"2022 had the challenge of reformer Pilates places springing up, causing confusion in the market. We had to get out there, identify ourselves and our style, and help people understand the difference."                                                                             David Gunther, The Pilates Business Podcast & Co-owner/ Instructor Pilates Can

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