Client on a table working with a professional at a StretchLab location.
Through the pandemic, assisted stretching startup StretchLab found that it became a solution for its customers seeking relief from increased stress levels. — StretchLab

Why it matters:

  • According to a McKinsey survey of consumers’ interest in wellness amid the pandemic, 79% of respondents deemed it important, with 42% considering it a top priority.
  • COVID-19 prompted consumers to place a heightened focus — and greater spending — on their physical, nutritional and mental fitness.
  • The rise in self-care has fueled the growth of niche, wellness-geared fitness franchises, such as sauna studios and stretching labs, which are leaning into pandemic-changed consumer needs.

Though the wellness industry was already booming pre-pandemic, COVID-19 has put health and self-care top of mind for many consumers who hadn’t necessarily prioritized holistic fitness before.

For some brands that tapped into this new wave of wellness, it has been a year of both big challenges and big wins. Businesses that have found success have one thing in common: They are designed to help consumers feel better about themselves — evidenced by the growth of self-care-geared fitness concepts.

These franchise businesses encompass traditional realms such as weight-loss programs, but extend from niche wellness experiences like infrared sauna studios to emerging workouts trends such as assisted stretching labs.

The rise of fitness-meets-wellness business models are a sign of the times and consumers’ pandemic-informed health needs. Those who work from home may be suffering from stiff muscles and aching backs without the ergonomic chairs once provided by offices, for example; meanwhile, jobs in industries like healthcare and retail that keep workers on their feet have likely become more stressful in the two years since the pandemic began.

According to a recent McKinsey survey of consumer interest in wellness amid the pandemic, 79% of respondents found it to be important, with 42% considering it a top priority. Of the six countries surveyed, each market, including the U.S., reported “a substantial increase in the prioritization of wellness over the past two to three years.”

Helping home office workers loosen up

Somewhere between a low-intensity workout and physical therapy, StretchLab is a physical and digital wellness concept designed to help guests achieve a more advanced level of flexibility than they might on their own.

At a time when consumers are experiencing increased stress levels and many people are working from home all day in often less-than-ideal and uncomfortable setups, assisted stretching provides a unique opportunity for relief, according to StretchLab president Lou DeFrancisco — and over 40% of guests convert to members upon their first visit, he said. Since the start of the pandemic, StretchLab retained all of its locations and opened 30 new studios.

 Headshot of StretchLab president Lou DeFrancisco.
Lou DeFrancisco, president of StretchLab. — StretchLab

For some of StretchLab’s franchise partners, the pandemic led to not only audience growth, but real estate opportunity as well, as commercial rents dropped and landlords were open to negotiation. “And then it's like a flywheel effect,” said DeFrancisco, “the more locations you open, the more people know about StretchLab.”

As more consumers become interested in spending time and money on making sure they stay healthier and live longer, more niche markets are poised to open up within the boutique fitness and wellness space, sources said.

“Business trends change, business dynamics change. Consumer interest changes, competition changes,” said StretchLab’s DeFrancisco. “I think the silver lining of COVID was that it really showcased that stretching is a valid wellness modality that can help a lot of people in a lot of different ways.”

 Woman wrapped in a towel inside an infrared sauna at Perspire Sauna Studio.
Perspire Sauna Studio has credited its customer-centric mantra for the exponential growth it experienced through the pandemic. — Perspire

Sweating it out in infrared saunas

With 21 locations across the country, Perspire Sauna Studio is among the nation’s fastest-growing infrared sauna studio franchises. According to the company, it has nearly tripled in size since the start of the pandemic and is now welcoming more members than ever before.

“The pandemic put a spotlight on the need for consumers to take responsibility to seek out what works for their physical, mental and emotional well-being on a regular basis,” said CEO Lee Braun.

 Headshot of Lee Braun, CEO of Perspire Sauna Studio.
Lee Braun, CEO of Perspire Sauna Studio. — Perspire

One of its biggest growth drivers over the past year has been an increased flexibility to its membership policy, which now lets members cancel anytime. Perspire also benefits from the member experience being inherently socially distant, as each sauna is housed in a private room. The chain has opened 13 new locations during the pandemic, and according to the company has seen a 34% increase in revenue and a 23% increase in memberships since March 2020.

Customer-centricity, Braun said, is the key to success through times of disruption. “Small businesses should have a process and method to listen [to] and engage with their clients in a factual manner and be open to hearing what they are really saying,” he told CO—.

“Positive growth in our membership numbers also drives our continued franchise development, not just by serving as validation for new franchisees but also for those currently within the system,” Braun told CO—.

Customer-centricity, Braun said, is the key to success through times of disruption. “Small businesses should have a process and method to listen [to] and engage with their clients in a factual manner and be open to hearing what they are really saying,” he told CO—.

[Read: Tech Powers ‘Food as Medicine’ Trend Amid Consumer Quest for Holistic Nutrition]

 The office front desk at Medi-Weightloss.
Medi-Weightloss's strategy through the pandemic was to remain open as best it could, offering curbside pickup and telemedicine, as well as financial support for franchisees. — Medi-Weightloss

Helping consumers shed pandemic pounds

Medi-Weightloss, a chain of facilities that provides individualized treatments for obesity, is one company leaning into the weight management concerns of a nation navigating the lifestyle disruptions of a global health crisis. “Many people reported gaining weight during the pandemic and a renewed focus on health,” Edward Kaloust, founder and CEO, told CO—. The company used the opportunity to gain market share by helping people improve their overall health through weight loss.

“Our top focus has always been patient care and, specifically during the pandemic, remaining available to our patients,” Kaloust said. “People with obesity who contract COVID-19 are more likely to develop serious complications, including hospitalization and even death.”

 Headshot of Edward Kaloust, founder and CEO, Medi-Weightloss.
Edward Kaloust, founder and CEO of Medi-Weightloss. — Medi-Weightloss

To remain open through lockdowns, Medi-Weightloss rolled out new protocols like curbside pickup and telemedicine, as well as financial and marketing support for franchisees. According to the company, it saw $62 million in revenues in 2020 across its 92 individual locations, and many of its franchise owners experienced their best sales to date.

“I encourage other businesses to focus on their brand’s most valuable service or product,” Kaloust said. “For us, the patient experience is key and that meant not abandoning patients during the pandemic,” he said. “Our focus on [both] staying open and on our marketing investments has fueled our growth.”

[Read: Staying Healthy at Home: How COVID-19 Is Changing the Wellness Industry]

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Published January 25, 2022