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Ann Marie Barbour on Building a Fitness Programming Business From The Ground Up

Ann Marie Barbour

Ann Marie Barbour is the founder of SoulBody LLC a company that develops “Boutique-Style” programs for big box gyms.

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Kevin: How’s it going everyone? Welcome to the Fitness Founders podcast. I’m Kevin Mannion, VP Marketing here at Glofox. This week we talk to Ann Marie Barbour, the founder of SoulBody. SoulBody develops “Boutique-Style” programs for big box gyms. In this episode, Anne Marie talks about how she grew a small company in Baltimore into an international business, the secret to creating great boutique offerings and while independent studios can learn from traditional big box gyms. Okay let’s have a listen.

Ann Marie Barbour, welcome to the show.

Ann: Thank you so much for having me, Kevin, happy to be here. 

Kevin: It’s great to have you. So Ann Marie you are based out of Baltimore Maryland. Maybe just tell me a little bit about your business, SoulBody.

Ann: Sure, my business partner Stacey Vandiver and I started SoulBody really back in 2010 just teaching, teaching boutique style Barre programming in larger clubs. We did that for a few years, really beta testing, kind of our process and program and classes. And then in 2015, we really saw a need for larger clubs that we were teaching in to compete with this smaller boutique studios popping up all over the place for Barre programming to start. So we created choreography, a training, a very high level comprehensive certification and started training and certifying instructors and then delivering quarterly choreography for our instructors to go out there. We call them our squad and teach our SoulBody Barre classes in these larger clubs.

Kevin: And how hard was it to make a transition from someone who is running a fitness studio to something that was a little bit bigger and more complicated?

 Ann: For sure, it was hard. It was kind of like ignorance’s bliss because we really didn’t realize what we are barking upon, and I think if we knew all the work and dedication it would take, we may have not done it. Today, of course, we’re happy that we did. It’s a lot. We not only had to really create an actual certification. It started out as a 2-day start and due to studios availability and what the clubs were looking for, we really shortened it to a full one day training. Again, a manual had to be created, choreography created, written, produced. We have videos, choreography notes, music playlist. We had to decide what kind of music. We decided to support original artists, so we use Spotify and iTunes in creating the music and the video and the choreography notes and the training. Then, you know, everything that goes along with agreements for clubs and instructors, and our fact sheet and our website. 

So it was a really big undertaking but at the end of the day, we knew we really had a solid product in the three programs now that we’ve created which is SoulBody Barre, which is a one hour Barre fitness class using the ballet barre. We have SoulBody Unhitched which now uses the weighted body barre for those clubs that don’t have a fixed a ballet barre. And then we saw that the HIIT, you know, High Intensity Interval Training trend to thirty minute workout and we have that, no props, and that’s our HIIT or to bottom meet strength. So created three programs, have over 500 squad members teaching our programs in over 200 plus clubs. So since 2015, we’ve really ramped up and created a solid business product and offering.

Kevin: Yeah, pretty impressive. Tell me what was it like in the first year? Did you keep your studio going and what were some the hard things that happened as you were getting started?

Ann: Well to be honest, we never were a bricks and mortar. We never were our own SoulBody studio. We were inside of various clubs in the Baltimore area. For example, Under Armour Performance Center, Merritt Clubs, a very big chain of clubs here in Baltimore, as well as Brick Bodies Perk which is another big, a local family on chain. So we really were working out of these big clubs and kind of that became our model. We said, great. You know, the members were getting a top tier boutique style experience. We thought there are lot of big box fitness chains or you know multi-chain clubs out there that need to compete because they’re getting killed by this boutique studios that are popping up on every street corner, really offering this experience at a really high level, not only with great instruction but just a great overall experiential factor that people really want to be a part of. So we work now with these clubs to kind to create as vibe and tribe in a larger club setting.

Kevin: Tell me what is like working with those bigger clubs. How do you keep a stamp on your own brand and your own programs and also help align with their brands and their vision for how they want to run their gyms?

Ann: That’s a great question because it really is co-branding. It really is partnering and that’s what we do. And you know, I’ve read an article in Clubs Solutions about that co-branding. If you think about it, okay we’re not going to compare ourselves to Starbucks, but Starbucks inside of a hotel. We allow the clubs to do what they do best and we come in with a group fitness programming and we do what we do best. The club operators are running a club. You know they’re selling memberships. There is personal training, and small group training, and equipment that needs to be purchased and communication with the members. 

To create programming is a lot of work. There are clubs out there like Equinox that’s doing a really great job by building an in-house team and having them focus solely on propriety programming but many of us out there like Zumba or [unclear – 06:45] SoulBody, Pound,  [unclear – 06:48] and you know these are programs where they come in to these larger clubs and their brand stands out. It’s on the time table. People follow us on Instagram or follow these other programs on Instagram, find at a different club. So they’re getting two experiences, two brands, almost two cultures in one. But it works, it exists, it works. 

Kevin: It works. And tell me about the first steps in branching out of your local area. How did you, you always had a very successful business, a lot of word of mouth brand awareness locally. How did you start to branch out at a national level?

Ann: Sure, yeah. That was a lot of networking. We go to IHRSA which is a big show every year. We had to tradeshows. We presented and done workshops. We’ve done the SCW’s and that kind of was the start where we get our brand out there in this conferences and tradeshows. A lot of what is Stacey Vandiver and I have done is definitely created like you said of following where we are and then network and talk to club managers, club owners. You know, communicated really what we built here and we really consider these larger gyms our family of clubs, and we consider them or we want them to consider us their programming partner. So I think a lot of how we done it was really the relationship building and really caring. We care about their success, we care about their group fitness schedule and we care about their members’ experience. And I think that really shines through and of course there are testimonials and referrals and word of mouth. So it’s been very organic to be quite honest with you.

Kevin: How does it usually start with a big brand? So you start with one or two locations or how does the sales like work for something like this?

Ann: Yes, there’s quite a few touch points you know to go through. It’s definitely a six to nine month kind of lead time in it and really creating the relationship for sure because this is a big decision for a lot of clubs. They want to feel very comfortable with their programming partner whomever they bring in. Maybe there are master classes. But overall, it is usually piloted your craft in one or two clubs say it’s a twenty club chain. A lot of times they’ll bring you in, bring us in and say, “Okay, let’s pilot it in two to three locations. Let’s get the team built a smaller team built. Let’s see the feedback. Let’s see the member experience. Let’s gauge the class numbers.” And then, once that gauge and once the data is received to the club then there’s always more to come so we’ll do another teacher training. And then a lot of times spending on location we’ll do a master teacher training. Because not only, while Stacey and I do the master trainings for certifications, but the goal is you know in Egypt, we did a training in Egypt, in Spain, in Costa Rica, in China. The goal is to train up master trainers, so when they want to have more trainings they can just pick from one of the key trainers in that geographic location.

Kevin: You know a lot of your business is relying to training good trainers. Finding those master trainers that you can rely on to train more people. How hard is it to make this scalable and build a program that work of scale?

Ann: Yeah, I mean, it is a little difficult because of course Stacey and I, you know, we are the creators. We started it, we want people to have that same passion that we have, number one. And number two, to be able to effectively train the moves, the body alignment, the musicality, and be that kind of inspirational teacher to inspire our trainees to go out there and teach. So I think, again, it comes to relationship building them with our team. I think we’ve done a really great job. We normally start with the SoulBody teacher training. We pick out our stars. We see those that have a lot of experience maybe teaching pre-choreographed format such as [unclear – 11:04] or Zumba to the beat of the music. Those instructors often do the bath that understand you know teaching to the beat, then they teach for a couple of months but we have our eye on them, and then invite them to join in our master trainer team. So it’s a little bit of two step process, they take the teacher training. We you know mark who has potential and then they teach for awhile and then we train them as master trainers and kind of send them out in to the world but they’re given a lot of material and training to help them be successful. 

Kevin: Okay, that makes sense. That’s really cool. So you know, obviously took a lot of risk relationship building, networking and a good product to get your program to a national scale. What sort of challenges did you face when you started to move this overseas?

Ann: Yeah, distance is a tough thing. Here in the states, you know we have a really big team. It’s easy for us to come in and out and be there. You know, when you go clear across the ocean or you’re in different countries, there’s separation. So thank goodness for technology now, we’re Zooming, we’re Skyping. We have virtual classes on [unclear – 12:16] and we have our own classes that we sent to our trainers. So, you know, keeping up with the squad we do that virtually. But again the key is to have our ambassadors, our champions in these key geographic locations to be the Ann Marie and Stacey in these locations and the club owners, usually the club managers to champion it and really be on their team for launches, getting new updated marketing materials from us. So we do need the managers and the owners of these clubs to make it a priority to help encourage their team and tribe the programming. 

Kevin: What parts of world are, would you say are growing fastest in this area, or you can get the hottest in terms of uptake of your particular programs?

Ann: Yeah I mean, you know we see a lot in China. We see Asia really starting to accelerate especially in the boutique market, and now Barre. We’re seeing Latin America, or just in Central America, Mexico. We’re seeing a really big uptake there as well, so we’re really excited to expand in these regions. And for us, you know we do need proper representation. We’re looking for distributers possibly in these areas that really know the market that can help us accelerate and drive the programming. So we were now talking to distributers that understand where the power and popularity of boutique fitness, especially Barre is, because that’s what we offer right now and we’re working with them to help scale and expand effectively.

Kevin: Yeah, okay. I suppose it brings me on to next topic which is a more in the area of boutique and group fitness and you know you’ve I think become pretty well known as an advocate of group fitness. Why would you think group fitness is growing so fast globally?

Ann: I think people like to work out in groups. I mean, group fitness you know I’ve said it before in another podcast, in articles, does having a moment and I always talk about cross fit. You know they really started this community with in a box and now we talk about gyms creating the club within a club with group fitness, and we’re seeing in the boutiques. People feel a part of something. You know, your vibe attracts your tribe. There’s this tribes, you know there’s this motivational cap where people are motivated to work out together. You know, no shows get notice, people save a mat. You know there’s been studies that show you know you’re 76% to 80% more likely to finish a program that you’ve started with friends. So it is definitely the preferred form of working out whether it’s large or small group.

Kevin: Yeah, no obviously. Do you think things have change over the last three years from back when you were running a smaller business.

Ann: You know, I think what has change is the level of instruction and the availability to get what we want when want it at anytime during the day. So, I think group fitness is always been around. I mean I was in it years and years ago with step aerobics at Brick Bodies. I mean group fitness has always been a thing. There’s always been the big fish bowl where people take the classes and everybody in the gym looks in, it’s always been there. The instructors has always been kind of that welcoming face when people come into the gym and they come in to the club within the club and check for fitness and feels special and feel part of something. That has always been there. I think when cross fit came up and now all the boutiques, the instruction level, think about soul cycle and flywheel and other forms of, you know, all the boutique studios in New York City. You know, it’s got to be a top tier instruction. And then there’s the Instagram stars that offer, whether they are on YouTube or have their own channel. And then there’s all the virtual fitness apps on demand apps, so there’s a lot out there. So these gyms, the need to compete at a really high level because I can just pull up my computer and follow a rock star instructor in my living room and get a pretty amazing group fitness experience. So what’s change is definitely the virtual, the boutique and the higher echelon of instruction and talent. 

Kevin: Yes, so you think that the quality of the product has gotten so much better over the past few years that has driven more and more demands that snowballed affectively. 

Ann: Absolutely. 

Kevin: And then, I suppose a whole part of this group fitness is are at building communities, and I’m sure your advising all of your clients on how they can build better communities around their gyms. What sort of advice you are giving them? What are you telling them to do?

Ann: That’s huge. I think they need to focus on it. I think they need to focus on group fitness. It’s no longer an afterthought for the bigger clubs. They are realizing that now. I know before maybe it was the personal trainers. They are bringing in that ancillary income. Maybe it’s the bigger machines that they’re spending big money on and focusing on but they are now need to look at group fitness. And whether they are going to do it proprietary and create their own programming. I just contributed again to Club Solution in their blog. If they are going to go that route then go that route. You know, higher full time people that understand programming and creating a certification and really focus on a really strong whether it’s Barre or cycle or HIIT, whatever it is, make it a really strong program or B, bring in SoulBody or bring in an outside group fitness programming company and allow them, like I said, you do what they do best. Bring it in, champion the program, get your instructors in there, get the training and really launch it properly so your members see the consistency on the schedule. They see the high level of instruction and they are keep on coming back for more. They need to hand on to these members because they can easily spend their hours somewhere else. 

Kevin: They can move around, yeah. And I think then you’re obviously developing great programs for these gyms but I’m sure you’re advising them in other ways. So maybe tell me a little bit, maybe a few questions on, maybe start off what is the best practice for a gym that’s trying to improve its overall, say, branding and marketing? Where they should start when they are thinking about improving something like that, big or small?

Ann: Yeah. I mean, know and understand your brand and effectively communicate it whether it’s social media is of course huge. Have a smart social media presence and campaign. Definitely higher and strong team whether it is a marketing team, group fitness team and work together on having cohesiveness across, you know not be so silod. So the group fitness understands what their personal trainers are doing, what the sales team is doing. I think everybody needs to be on the same page and pay for your team to be educated. Bring them to the IHRSAs or the ideas, let them see what else is out there. Get out of the bubble. Go up the street to three or four boutique fitness studious whether you’re a boutique or a big gym. Get out there, see what other people are doing, get educated yourself, take a seminar, go to these not only the conventions to take the classes but also to take the workshops or listening to the keynote speakers, and seeing what other leaders, and managers, and sales people or group fitness people are doing and how they are making a change within their club or studio to make a difference and better convey their brand.

Kevin: Do you think there is a difference between a good personal trainer and a good fitness instructor? Their different skills, or no? 

Ann: Yes, the very different experience, very different you know, one hour. The one-on-one, you know, it takes a certain kind of person. I mean, they are listening to somebody’s maybe problems and they are with them for a whole hour, and there’s one-on-one attention. I think it’s very different than the group. It’s a little bigger. It’s a little more. You are walking around the room, you are working a crowd. So I think the one and a half hour experience is different. I think at the end of the day they need to be very knowledgeable in what they’re training. They have to understand body alignment, and movement, and physiology, and queuing and connecting and crafting and professionalism and being inspirational. So there is an overlap even though it’s a little bit of a different animal for sure. 

Kevin: Yeah. I’ve got another one for you. So a lot of the time when I see some of the bigger chains talk about group fitness like a lot of baby catch phrases like inspiration and community. If you’re big or small how do you create a unique or an authentic kind of experience for your members that goes a bit deeper than maybe just some of the group fitness buzz words?

Ann: Yeah, I think it’s that almost like you have to contract to expand. It’s okay to step back and really do you. Like let the clubs or the studios kind of understand what they are offering is. You know like there are a million water companies out there. There are so many brands of water and it is just water. You know, how do they differentiate themselves? I think that’s the same thing with clubs, it is almost like, and you know the buzz words are, like you said, community, or brand but really be real when communicating that to your members. Just be very authentic in your mission and what you really are offering and not trying to be everything to everybody because we’ll see that and go somewhere else.  

Kevin: Yeah. So a lot of people who are listening to our podcast are running smaller boutiques, independent studios. One of the things I heard you speak about recently was the importance of becoming a thought leader or be seen as an expert in order to get the word out about your studio or your brand. You are obviously somebody who has hone this successfully yourself. How do you go about that? Yeah, I think that’s huge and yes I did talk about that. I think when you’re an instructor, a small group instructor, a group fitness instructor, or even an owner, a manager, or somebody just working within a gym, you know, walk a little bit outside of just your job. You know, communicate the “why”, why are you there, what is your purpose. And I feel when you start to communicate and not be just like, “Okay, here is my moves, and here is my steps and this is my music and this is what I’m doing. This is my job for hour.” You know, more or less open yourself up to communicating all of the knowledge that you have and what motivates you to do it in the first place and I think people will start listening to you and understanding why they are with you for that hour, and why they are walking into your gym. It’s like teaching your child kind of things that is not just a rope but it’s kind of the passion of your family, or what’s important as a family, or as person. And then I think people will start listening to you and understanding because it’s more of the why you’re doing it. 

Kevin: Yup, no, that’s makes a lot of sense. For someone who is listening now and say they’ve got a lot of technical expertise and think that they could build a business like your where they could have certifications, do training. What sort of questions do they need to ask themselves before they know they’re ready to jump into something like this?

Ann: Yeah. I mean, being prepared for a lot of work. I mean, you are not going to just start and all of a sudden the money is going to be coming again, and you may have all these skills, but all these skill sets you’re not going to be able to do it yourself. You have to realize there is the entrepreneur, and then there’s the manager, and then there is the person that is the practitioner so I think what we learned maybe took us a little too long to learn this because we couldn’t do everything ourselves. And I think what I would have change in our business, and Stacey, I’m sure too, is we would have really brought in a really solid team quicker. Bringing in people like the tech people that do what they do, or the sales people, or the social media experts. 

Really create a team pretty quickly and yourself as the owner or the entrepreneur. You know, keep it open to where you are scaling and looking for great partnerships or good opportunities and oversee the practitioners within your business; because if you’re just a great tech person you are not going to able to build a business being behind your computer building just your website. You know, that is just one facet of a very multi faceted business and you need to bring on a really great team pretty quickly to scale faster. And I would also say find money. Definitely find investors, family or friends to help drive it because it is costly. And if you get people to believe in you, in your message, in your brand, and your product, you know bring them in with your passion and use that funding and capital to build the team and communicate your messaging and get out unto the world quickly. 

Kevin: Yeah. I’m guessing, learning fast is going to be a key to being successful. What sort of resources did you have or do you recommend, be it mentoring or book to read or podcast to listen to? Where can somebody learn fast?

Ann: I mean, I’m on Audible all the time. You know start with Why, The E-Myth revisited, Pitch Anything, Top of Mind. I mean, there are a lot of great books on Audible. And there is a lot of great podcasts like your podcast, Fitness Business podcast. I knew Matthew Januszek has Escape Your Limits. It’s all within the fitness industry and you can really learn from people just like we are talking right now. Best practices, what they messed up on, what they would have done differently, definitely book and definitely podcasts and there is a ton out there on fitness for sure and building a brand and becoming an entrepreneur and business owner. 

Kevin: And I think the obvious question then is what would you was the biggest mistake you made or you fell down the most in the first couple of years?

Ann: Not getting funding fast enough for sure. Get the funding, get the help. You know, listen, we don’t regret anything and when we bootstrapped, whatever you want to call it, and everything we created we created on our own, and there is something to be said about that. We got a great product right now. Now, we are looking for fuel to scale but that’s okay because now it’s a proven product. If you get it earlier, that seed money, or maybe the business hasn’t even started. But I think that’s one thing we would have done differently is just get a little more capital to get out there a little quicker. 

Kevin: Yeah, okay, that makes sense. Tell me about your relationship with your co-founder. How do you make something like that work? 

Ann: Yeah, that’s a great question because the great story is we’ve been best friends since 9th grade in high school. We were friends for many, many years. We went our different directions and then we came back. We both found fitness a little later in life through pilates and barre. And you know, Stacey, my co-founder, one day was like, “You know what? Hey we could do this on our own. We don’t need to teach for anybody else. We don’t need to work for anybody else. Let’s do this.” So I raised my hand and was like, “Yes, let’s do it.” But working together is something like a marriage for sure especially when you know somebody so well. But one thing about Stacey and myself or me is we have very similar skill set. We’re both very creative. I’m the program director for SoulBody Barre Unhitched, she writes for SoulBody Barre. We did higher program directors for our power class. So we have similar skill sets but we started just kind of branched out. She is more social media. I do more of the business end of it, the website or taxes or agreements. Not so much of the fun stuff. And Stacey is very strong with sales, and networking and communication, but of course we both do sales. So we have similar skill sets but we’ve learned to divide and conquer and where our talents lie. You know, after that then we started bringing on some strong members some did physically write the choreography notes. Somebody did design the website and help with marketing materials. And even Stacey does a lot of the social media, but we have a team. We have our master trainers. Then we just started building the team, and then together separately overseeing aspects of that team. 

Kevin: What is key to a successful business relationship like this?

Ann: Definitely respect and listening to each other and faith in the other, not micro managing each other for sure. You know, somebody thinks, “Hey, I think this is a good avenue.” Trust them, “Great, go for it.” Like no micro managing and I think we’ve done that really well.

Kevin: Okay. We are near the end of the half hour now Anne Marie, maybe leaves us with just four people out there that are maybe working for a big box gym, a big fitness brands. What are the things that they should be thinking about when it comes to boutique fitness?

Ann: For people working for big box, I think take a page from their playbook. Definitely go out there, see what the boutique studios are doing. Get out of your office, get out of the four walls, get outside the four walls see what they’re doing. Get on the virtual fitness apps as well. There are a lot of them. And as big box think about offering programming and classes outside of your four walls. I know Gold’s Gym has done a really good job with that. Quite a few other clubs are now not only offering classes in-house but you can still stay with your brand and experience it in your own home or when you travel. So definitely look at the trends out there with virtual fitness. Get out there and take classes and get out there and go to like I said the IHRSAs and the Ideas and the SCW’s, and you know listen to the keynote speakers. Listen to experts in your industry of what they’re doing and really think about the culture in your communication of your brand, your culture, and make sure you take the time to interview the people that are part of your team. And not only people in-house but like us coming in into a club, the programs that you are bringing in. Bring in the owners, bring in the founders. See what their programming is like. Have their members experience it, because if you’re bringing an outside programming like SoulBody, you know do your research, experience other programs and make the right choice for your club. So I think you know really come a little more in words to understand your brand but then it go outward and get out there and see what everybody else is doing just to be more aware of other offerings and best practices.

Kevin: Okay, that’s very useful and given your experience working with the bigger brands and from building a business yourself. What advice can you leave some of the smaller independent studio owners that might be listening?

Ann: I think the smaller studio owners a lot of them are doing it out of passion but at the same time it’s a business. There’s those that are you know killing it. And there are those that you know were a little smaller, still trying to build a following. And I think that’s okay because that’s more of a passion project. So for those smaller studios, again, stay really true to why you got into the business in the first place and it can’t just be you the studio owner. You know because then you’re going to get burnt out, you know your teaching every class. If you created a small boutique or small studio, get the team that breeds your vision and together, be there, be a brand and experience for your members and it just have some good people behind you that could support you so that you can do more outreach and not be so much in the business but you can work on the business.

Kevin: Yeah that makes a lot of sense here. I think you’re right. It’s all about that next level of people who can help you grow the business more than you can do it on your own. 

Ann: For sure.

Kevin: Okay, I’m sure there are people listening who may want to be one of your ambassadors, who may want to get you into their gym. How can people get in touch with you?

Ann: Well, I love to hear from you. You can reach us email at [email protected]. Our website is And yeah we’ve trainings all over. You can see our schedule on the website. We welcome anybody to come take a class, there’s no pre-requisite. And if you are a gym owner and instructor, reach out to us and we’d love to have a chat. 

Kevin: Okay. Well, listen I’m sure hopefully, get one or two people getting in touch with you from that. Ann Marie, I just want to say, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I definitely learned a lot on many front set. Thank you very much coming on the show.

Ann: Kevin, thank you so much. Such a pleasure and goodluck to you guys too. Let’s stay connected. 

Kevin: I’m sure we’ll cross paths. 

Ann: Yes.

Kevin: Thank you, bye-bye.

Ann: Thank you, bye.



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