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How Creativity Helped 202strong Create a Hybrid Business Model

Staff at 202strong in Washington, D.C.

The coronavirus pandemic required fitness businesses to be creative. So 202strong took classes online. And on demand. And to a professional soccer stadium.

Building a business around barbells

Maddie Watkins started her career in fitness as a personal trainer who specialized in making barbell work accessible to women. As she trained her clients, she saw that more women were intimidated by barbells, often skipping them for other workouts like yoga and barre, and she realized that there was work to do to make her favorite form of fitness accessible.

"That's what inspired 202strong to open," Watkins said. "We bring the barbell into the fitness space, and we try to make it accessible and remove intimidation. When you walk in, you know you're in a safe space to lift, to learn proper form, and to be part of an awesome community."

202strong and Maddie focus on making functional fitness accessible to everyone, regardless of age or ability. Even the gym's two locations were chosen for accessibility. There's a location in Washington, D.C.'s central district for members to work out before, during, and after the workday and one in Bethesda, Maryland, for suburban dwellers to work out at either end of their workdays.

No barbells? No problem

But when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Watkins to close her business, she had to figure out how to livestream her equipment-centric workouts to her members virtually—and without equipment.

"Before everything shut down, I realized we can't stream our classes to do at-home because there's just too much equipment that we use in the gym," Watkins said.

Combined with much of her clientele living in urban homes without much, if any, outdoor space, Watkins knew she needed to think of smaller and simpler workouts for virtual classes.

"If you live in the city, you're not going to have a big back yard or garage where you can lift," Watkins said. "So, I needed to bring the same feel and structure of our class with a strength component and a circuit component, but just tailored to fit your kitchen or living room."

Gone were the barbells that she loved, and in their place, Watkins started designing a new type of workout based on bodyweight exercises and lighter weights, like dumbbells or a weighted backpack. And Burpees—lots of Burpees.

A woman working out at 202strong

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Thorpe

Building a strong, new business model

When Watkins started streaming her new classes on March 16, she didn't know what to expect—would her customers join her? It only took her a few videos to realize that her customers would come and that she had an opportunity for a new type of membership that focused on pre-recorded video. She set up memberships for her virtual platform and called it Strongline.

"It's a really low barrier to entry, virtual option that's grown and taken off," Watkins said. "We have about 65 Strongline members that joined through word-of-mouth."

The virtual membership has also powered growth for 202strong—the business has an expanded reach outside of the D.C. area. It's not unusual for class attendees to come from other states or even continents.

Even as her virtual workouts grew, Watkins wanted to get back to her gyms. When they could reopen in June, she was ready—but she wasn't done being creative. With members at 202Strong's Washington, D.C., location largely working from home and the Maryland location being impacted by an order to wear masks during indoor workouts, Watkins knew that she needed to figure out a way to move classes outside.

A 202strong class at Audi Field

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Thorpe

Go big, so they don't have to stay at home

That's when a once-in-lifetime opportunity to teach in a professional sports stadium found 202strong.

"Audi Field reached out to me back in May," Watkins said. "They were toying with the idea of holding fitness classes on the field because obviously, they're not playing soccer there right now."

Watkins said yes, and then just needed to wait for the green light from the mayor to start teaching fitness classes for more than ten people. Once it came, 202strong members were taking classes on the same pitch where the D.C. United play during typical summers.

"We finally got the green light to start on July 6, and it was just amazing," Watkins said. "They've added more studios and classes are selling out. People just want to work out in person again, and just being around that energy is amazing. It lifts you up because you get so used to just working out by yourself at home."

Supported for the future

2020 has been a year of unexpected hurdles, but Watkins and 202strong's ability to be creative has helped them navigate it. But that creativity takes focus, which means that Watkins has had to rely more on technology to run her business than ever before. She needed to trust that she had software that could power her virtual memberships and bookings for huge outdoor classes—all at the same time.

Her not-so-secret weapon? Mindbody.

But it hasn't always been that way. When 202strong first opened, Watkins used Wodify to manage her business. But after a few years, she decided to move to Mindbody.

"What I liked about Mindbody was that just being more integrated with the fitness community," Watkins said. "It integrates with everything. It's kind of a no-brainer switch."

With Mindbody, 202strong and Watkins can manage whatever creative ideas they come up with to handle whatever 2020 throws at them, regardless of where it happens: in-studio, outside, or virtual.

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