London Boutique Studios Divided Amid Tier 3 Lockdown Confusion

  • Boutique studios pivot to “open gym format” as London enters the strictest Tier 3 restrictions to curb a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections.
  • 1Rebel and F45 among studios keeping their doors open, while Digme has chosen to shut all seven of its studios across the capital 
  • “We don’t want to be only equipment for our members – it’s a disservice to the brand as we are so much more than that,” said Digme CEO and Co-Founder Geoff Bamber
  • 1Rebel launches Rebel Perks to add value for members amid restrictions, providing access to exclusive discounts from partner brands including Urban, Gaucho and Tommy Hilfiger 

LONDON, United Kingdom — On Wednesday, London moved into England’s highest tier of COVID-19 restrictions, forcing the capital’s boutique group exercise studios to shut or pivot to an “open gym format” to comply with the stricter rules. 

More than 34 million people are now in Tier 3 in England, with 21.5 million in Tier 2 and 700,000 in Tier 1. According to industry body ukactive, 280 boutique studios across London, employing more than 4,000 people, will now not be able to trade under Tier 3 restrictions. 

Under the highest tier regulations, group exercise classes are banned, however, gyms can continue to run as usual as long as they operate in a COVID-secure manner. 

While that distinction has led several boutique studios, including 1Rebel and F45, to strip back their offerings to follow the format of a typical gym floor in order to stay open, others, including Digme, Hotpod Yoga and KXU, felt they had no option but to close for a third time this year. 

“It is clear in the Tier 3 restrictions that group exercise activity is forbidden and as a result we have shut all studios in Tier 3 regions,” Digme co-founder Geoff Bamber told Welltodo, on the decision to close all seven of its London sites. 

“Digme is wonderful because of the people – the instructors, the staff, the members. Take out the vibe and you’re just some equipment and changing areas. 

“We don’t want to be only equipment for our members. It’s a disservice to the brand as we are so much more than that. So we are just using this period to focus on improving our studios and pushing Digme at Home even further forward.” 

“Open gym format”
By contrast, 1Rebel CEO and Co-Founder James Balfour notified members that the brand would be reopening its Broadgate, Angel, Holborn and Bayswater studios on Thursday, with the possibility of the remaining clubs reopening on January 4th. 

“Much like a gym, we can allow customers to use our clubs in an ‘open gym format’, or to follow provided workouts, albeit without our incredible instructors leading a session,” Balfour wrote. 

1Rebel plans to run continuous 45-minute sessions throughout the day, in which people can do their own training sessions or follow recommended workouts displayed on boards throughout the studio. 

Balfour added: “Whilst I appreciate this is not the Rebel you know, I can only apologise sincerely. Throughout this year we have tried to make the most of a bad situation, so we do hope that these new initiatives give a little hope that your commitment to staying fit and healthy will not be interrupted.” 

London Boutique Studios Divided Amid Tier 3 Lockdown Confusion

Image: Digme

What are the rules under Tier 3 restrictions?
Since 2nd December, England has been split into three tiers of restrictions under the Government guidelines

In Tier 3, an area with a very high or very rapidly rising level of infections, “leisure and sports facilities may continue to stay open, but group exercise classes (including fitness and dance) should not go ahead”. 

The guidelines also state: “Organised indoor sport, physical activity and exercise classes cannot take place indoors.” 

There are exceptions for indoor disability sport, sport for educational purposes and supervised sport and physical activity for under-18s. 

By comparison, in Tier 2, described as areas with a higher or rapidly rising level of infections, “organised indoor sport, physical activity and exercise classes will only be permitted if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with people they do not live with (or share a support bubble with)”. 

In Scotland and Wales gyms must close under their highest “level four” restrictions, while in Northern Ireland gyms can remain open for individual or one-to-one training. 

ukactive challenge group exercise ban
On Monday fitness industry body ukactive issued a statement challenging the Government on the decision to ban indoor group exercise. 

Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, said: “We understand the difficult decisions facing the Government as COVID-19 rates increase, however, we continue to work alongside our sector partners to understand the rationale for the ban on indoor group activities and exercise classes in Tier 3, and to see it reviewed and changed. 

“Indoor group exercise classes do not compromise any element of the Government’s safety guidelines, by operating at reduced capacity, with adapted booking and queuing systems to maintain social distancing, and using stringent ventilation and sanitisation processes. 

“These measures help explain the latest evidence from more than 2,000 gyms and leisure facilities which shows an extremely low prevalence of COVID-19.” 

Last week ukactive made submissions to the Government outlining the threat to thousands of businesses in London and other areas in Tier 3, which provide group exercise services to a diverse range of communities. 

“In London alone there are about 280 boutique studios, employing more than 4,000 people, which will not be able to trade under the current Tier 3 restrictions,” said Edwards. “These businesses will require urgent support to survive this period.” 

Edwards continued: “January is a vital time for our sector, and we urge the Government to provide tailored financial and regulatory support for its recovery, including a combination of business rate relief, VAT exemptions, and incentives that not only help to rebuild, but also encourage more people back into physical activity.” 

1Rebel launches “Rebel Perks” to strengthen bond with members
While the fitness sector continues to adapt to the fluctuating restrictions imposed on them, some have looked to diversify their offering to generate new revenue streams and add value for members unable to train in class. 

Most recently, 1Rebel launched Rebel Perks, providing members with exclusive discounts from partner brands including Urban, Gaucho and Tommy Hilfiger. 

“It’s always our aim to go above and beyond for our members, and give them as much value as possible, both in and out of the studios,” Balfour explained to Welltodo. “Rebel Perks came from this, as we wanted a way for our members to be able to get something a little extra, particularly during such turbulent times.

“Rebel Perks is something we’ve been considering for a while, but the pandemic certainly made it seem all the more valuable. We know a lot of our customers are furloughed or may have unfortunately lost their job, so discounts at partner brands might be coming at just the right time.” 


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Digme switches focus to online
While boutique rivals Digme have offered member perks for several years and a loyalty programme that rewards members for repeat attendance and hitting milestones, its biggest strategic pivot has been into the online wellness space with the launch of Digme at Home. 

“Digme has made a strategic choice to pivot to an omnichannel strategy and Digme at Home is here to stay,” said Bamber. “We will be focussing on two primary things: driving our digital product forward and re-building our studio business as the market for in-person classes returns.” 

He continued: “If this pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that Digme isn’t about the sweat, it’s about the people and community. 

“Society has been deprived of human contact throughout 2020 and we are certain that once people are confident that they are safe to return to be with others again, the social value they get from being part of a vibrant community will draw them back even more passionately than before.” 


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