Zooming with wine bottles: teaching Pilates during Covid

Images above: Ris Widdicombe celebrates the second birthday of the Pilates now! studio, Pilates Now! studio

It doesn’t seem long since Ris Widdicombe proudly showed me around her Pilates studio, saying “In a year’s time, this will all be mine!”

It was early 2020, and Ris was referring to the top-of-the range Reformer Pilates equipment she’d purchased for her business, Pilates Now! located in the Virgin Active Gym, Chiswick Business Park.

Reformer machines use weights and other equipment to intensify your workout, bringing faster results than traditional Pilates mat classes. But such sophisticated machinery doesn’t come cheap – it cost Ris £35,000. She bought it on a three year finance scheme, to be paid off by October 2021.

“The studio was going brilliantly”

At the beginning of last year, she wasn’t too concerned about the loan.

“The studio was going brilliantly. The first three months of 2020 were really good; the business was growing, building. We were getting new clients. It was lovely.” she recalls.

A year on, things have changed dramatically. A succession of Covid lockdowns – and Ris’s decision not to physically re-open in the quieter summer weeks – means her studio has been in operation for less than three months out of the past twelve. During those long months of closure, her income has dropped by two thirds.

The equipment loan has had to be renegotiated several times. Because she was still building up the business when Covid hit, Ris’s turnover was not high enough to qualify her for Government loans or grants. And, to cap it all, her insurance company refused to pay out on her “interruption to business” policy, saying it didn’t apply to “unforeseen” circumstances. So, for the past year, Ris has been left to sink or swim on her own.

Luckily she’s a resourceful soul. With the help of her booking company, Pilates Near You, she quickly reinvented Pilates Now! as an online business. On March 26, 2020, just three days into the first full lockdown, she taught her first Pilates class on Zoom.

Image above: a screenshot from one of the Zoom exercise classes

“If Virgin had wanted the rent and the loan company had said ‘we want the full amount’, I would have been stuffed”

“Some people came straight online, others were more resistant. They thought, as I did, that the lockdown was only going to be for a short time” she says.

The idea was to make each class a very personal workout with a maximum of three people. Clients were encouraged to use whatever equipment they had to hand to emulate the extra resistance given by the Reformer machines.

While some had their own weights and flex bands, others didn’t. So Ris suggested they improvise with whatever came to hand.

 “I had one woman doing workouts using two bottles of wine as weights,” she recalls. “Others used tins of beans. But lots of people invested in equipment as the lockdown went on.”

“The most expensive shelving unit in the world”

All the lockdowns, re-openings and tier systems have meant a huge amount of extra work for Ris. Timetables and pricing structures have to be rejigged depending on how many people are allowed to exercise together, to allow time for extra cleaning, and to accommodate hybrid studio and online classes. The studio itself had to be restructured; social distancing measures mean that one of the Pilates machines has been moved to a corner where, Ris says, it’s now “the most expensive shelving unit in the world”.

Ris has found that she prefers teaching smaller classes. “I can do proper teaching and correction instruction, and selecting exercises”, she says. “I do one class for someone else which sometimes has six people in it. Personally, I find that too many – I can’t keep it individual.”

In terms of finances, she says things are “bubbling along” – largely because the finance company allowed her to make smaller repayments during the months of closure, and because Virgin Active waived the rent when its premises were closed, and offered discounts at other times.

“I’m really lucky my overheads are quite low – if Virgin had wanted the rent and the loan company had said ‘we want the full amount’, I would have been stuffed,” she admits.

As it is, Ris will probably have to extend her equipment loan until the end of 2022.  And because she’s only been paying 25 per cent of it back during the months the studio’s been closed, it’s likely to cost her much more in interest.

Financially, she’s not sure what lies ahead. She thinks she may be able to reopen the studio after April 12 for one- to-one classes. But she says the wording of Government guidance on this has so far been ambiguous, with different businesses interpreting it in different ways.

Indoor exercise classes – 17 May

After 17 May indoor group exercise classes should be allowed. But Ris is not sure about demand.  On the one hand, in the brief periods her studio has been open in the past year, she’s seen a flood of new clients, so she knows there is a demand for face-to-face classes. On the other hand, about 40 per cent of her clients come from Chiswick Business Park – and she already knows that some offices there won’t be reopening until at least June.

Whatever happens, Ris has decided she’ll continue with online teaching.

A ‘hybrid’ business

“Some people just love the convenience of it,” she says. “And I think it does bring opportunities for people who are either housebound, or can’t travel, or have just had a baby and haven’t got childcare. My feeling is that people who like online will stay online, but a lot of people would prefer the face-to-face. So I think it’s going to be hybrid. I think if we’ve learned anything this year it’s how to blend things.”

Ris says it’s been a year of “quite extraordinary highs and lows,” and “a massive learning curve for everybody.”

All those ups and downs have served to bring her clients closer together.  At the beginning and end of classes, they chat about what’s going on in their lives, including who’s had the Covid jab.

“It’s kept a really good little community going – it’s been lovely to see how friendly people have been with each other. You get much more involved with their life events” she says.

I, for one, am delighted that Pilates Now! has survived this incredible year. As a client, I can testify that Ris’s classes are both personal and fun. And they’ve helped the keep Chiswickians fit, motivated and engaged with each other during a very difficult time.

PilatesNow!

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: A year of pandemic – How has Chiswick fared?

See also: Young people who started their own business during lockdown

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