Joey Gonzalez’s journey to the top spot of Barry’s didn’t begin through an executive recruiter or a meet-and-greet with the board of directors. Instead, he started out as a customer of the boutique fitness brand, quite literally working his way to the top after taking a class, falling in love with the brand’s high-intensity ethos, and then joining the company as an instructor in 2004. Since then, he’s risen through the ranks from manager to director of operations to COO then CEO, a position he’s held for just over five years.
The springboard from customer to chief executive often offers a critically unique perspective on what drives success — starting close to how the customer interacts with the brand gives leaders a keen understanding of what drives and retains their loyalty. This is particularly true for Joey who, even after a 16-year climb to the top of company continues to instruct classes, keeping him constantly immersed in the customer experience and close to the community of fitness enthusiasts the brand has nurtured.
Joey’s executive remit has been to scale the company, a strategy which has had to be revisited following the pandemic and resulting lockdowns. As part of our Office Hours Q&A series on @AmericanExpressBusiness on Instagram, we asked Joey to share his key perspective to help us understand how he’s using his closeness to the customer to shape decisions for the brand, find ways to keep the community engaged, and emerge leaner and meaner on the other side.
We might look back at the pandemic as a watershed moment that forever changed every industry – that will certainly be true of dining and retail. What do you think the long-term changes will be like to fitness? Is this where a tech-driven migration to home workouts begins? Will it for pricing model changes in the industry overall (i.e., pay-per-month gyms)?
I believe the ultimate effects on the fitness industry depend on the type of fitness offered. Some workouts, like Barry’s, are very challenging to replicate at home, as they require a lot of space for various (and in some cases) large and expensive forms of equipment. I do believe the simpler cardio based workouts that require less equipment may be at risk post COVID, if customers have adapted to an online experience that they find comparable in quality and value.
Sadly, there may be a meaningful number of studios that don’t survive. Which is very unfortunate given the communities they serve will be displaced and the overall impact to boutique fitness will be challenging. However, I do believe once the pandemic is behind us, people will flock back to the in-person experience. Throughout this crisis, people have been cooped up in their homes, in some cases in complete isolation, for a painfully long period of time. I think most will be yearning for companionship, and once the world feels safe again, will replace their tech/virtual temporary routines with ones that reintroduce relationships and human interaction.
Regarding pricing, I can’t speak for others, but we have carefully evaluated what percentage would be the lowest financially tenable capacity at which it makes sense to operate, without increasing our pricing. We understand the financial impact COVID has had on our community and we are doing our best to be there for them throughout.
A common thread we’ve unearthed during Office Hours discussions has been companies that have embraced digital MVPs on hyper-restricted timelines – you mentioned that Barry’s released Barry’s at Home after only three weeks of development where you would have wanted a year. What did that process reveal about your capabilities? Did you have it all in-house, or did you tap an external team to help? What did it teach you about your ability to develop tech-first products?
COVID-19 has been one of the most disruptive experiences we’ve ever experienced but also one of the most transformative. It’s inspired the continued pursuit of creativity and innovation which has led to us pushing the boundaries of what we can deliver, both in studio and online. Our team has been incredible throughout and has worked tirelessly to adapt to the ever-changing landscape to serve our community.
Our in-house operations and digital team stepped up to tackle all the tech requirements and issues that arise when you’re building an entirely new digital service from the ground up. It became an iterative process; as you saw, we first started releasing complimentary, twice-daily workouts with our instructors over InstagramG, just to get our community moving and provide a release during all the chaos.
When it became clear that the shutdown was here to stay and we needed to bring in some revenue, we launched Barry’s At Home. We’ve updated this as we’ve gone, too, in terms of class length, as I mentioned, and offerings - we expanded our strength training classes to offer Ride, for those who have a bike at home, and RUN classes for those who have a treadmill or want to do a safe, guided run outside.
This has been one of the most disruptive experiences we’ve ever experienced but also one of the most transformative — it’s inspired the continued pursuit of creativity and innovation which has led to us pushing the boundaries of what we can deliver, both in studio and online.
Mission, vision and values — “workout hard, have fun, find your strength, be your best” — are key anchors of the Barry’s ethos. How do you translate these principles to your digital audiences? How do you stand out from competitors who are also offering online fitness classes, especially to new customers who may not be able to feel the energy you can offer in-studio?
Our mission, vision, and values have been the road map to executing the Barry’s-at-Home experience. Our “virtual Red Room” includes a video sharing experience and a unique approach to virtual workouts. We’ve done our best to produce a product that truly mimics the connection and high touch experience people get from a traditional Barry’s studio. With at-home, a Barry’s moderator checks clients in, just like the front desk. Instructors correct form and connect with clients in real time, similar to the in- studio experience. And clients can workout alongside their friends and family as well as their favorite instructors or new instructors in new cities. Each day, we offer around 100 classes, for multiple time zones across the US, and we usually see between 30-200 people in each class.
We’re also trying to connect with our community on a human level. We know people are bored and lonely in their homes, so Barry’s has also been creating fun virtual events and lifestyle content. For example, we held a virtual Happy Hour on Zoom with Don Julio, where we taught everyone how to make our signature Barry’s Does Tequila cocktail. It was authentic to Barry’s, we took a previously loved in-studio event and made it virtual.
You mentioned you found a ton of new customers from places that didn’t have Barry’s studios, who’ve turned to you to work out during lockdown. How are you thinking about maintaining that momentum after lockdowns ease and they can once again go back to their local studios or gyms?
We plan to build out a robust digital product that is fully integrated into our app and website. That way, those who don’t have access to a physical studio or those who prefer to stay home, can fully experience Barry’s and its offerings.
We will continue to hold challenges that can be completed both in studio and at home and will continue to create new modalities and classes that will be offered on our digital platform only.
Low interest rates, density concerns and remote work are bringing some people out of major cities and into smaller ones and suburbs. The jury is still out on whether this is a short-term trend or long-term change, but assuming it is here to stay, how do you think it would affect your approach to in-studio fitness? Would you look to open up new studios in new pockets of activity? Or would you turn to Barry’s at Home and other digital products to supplement?
That is one of the potential silver linings to this situation. Barry’s At-Home has undoubtedly highlighted a segment of the population that seeks out at-home workouts and personalized attention from instructors in an intimate setting and who can’t get to a physical studio. It has also allowed us to exercise our mission, to transform lives worldwide, on a much larger scale than ever before and has given clients the opportunity to experience new instructors in different cities!
Prior to COVID, we actually had plans to open in smaller markets. Our development and analytics team have been working in tandem to determine the feasibility of opening a studio and will continue to do so. We will also continue to augment Barry’s at-home as we understand there are some who would prefer to workout at home.
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