How Gail Asbell and Upstate Studios Have Found Success Through Overdelivering

Aitana G

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Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, we in the boutique fitness space have heard a lot of bad news: studio closures and bankruptcies, not to mention the tragedy of illness and death.

Upstate Studios, based in Australia, however, is both a bright spot and beacon in the new Covid climate, beaming light by way of not only a major pivot to digital success, but by imbuing pure positive energy into the world.

Co-founder Gail Asbell worked for ten years in brand marketing for Tourism Australia. She’d fallen in love with yoga – and became a certified yoga instructor – about fifteen years ago, all the while thinking it would be a hobby, never a full-time endeavor.

Two things changed that: first, her brother died suddenly in a car accident, and that painful time started Gail thinking about her true sense of purpose in life, and yoga helped her on that journey. Second, she loved teaching it from day one, and couldn’t shake the desire to continue.

“The mental and physical benefits of yoga get us through both the good and especially the hard times,” she explains. 

Passion and purpose converged, and Gail and her sister Charelle Cuolahan opened their first Upstate Studios location in 2009 in their hometown of Geelong, Australia.

Less than three years later, they opened a second studio further down the coast, at the same time adding reformer Pilates, HIIT, and boxing to their yoga offerings.

Studios three and four followed closely thereafter. 

“Our growth strategy was 100% in the studio,” says Gail. “We were self-funded, and had a slow-growth mindset. We saw our success as tied to opening new brick and mortar studios.”

There was no digital component to Upstate Studios whatsoever, in part, explains Gail, because they were so community driven.

“We just didn’t think you could get to that digitally.” She adds, laughing, “We think about things so differently now.”

As did most studios upon the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Upstate was mandated to close in March, but Gail had had a moment of prescience a few weeks prior, watching as countries like the United States abruptly shut down, with owners and founders incredibly ill-prepared for what lay ahead.

Gail and the Upstate Studios team decided to start livestreaming their classes in order to keep members engaged even before closing their doors in Australia’s Covid reckoning.

Their initial digital offerings were basic: the same number of classes per week (75 per location, 300 total), shot at the same time, in the same format, and with the same instructors. Utilizing just a MacBook Pro laptop and bluetooth mics, Upstate broadcast out their classes via their app (to sign up), Fitgrid (to receive the class link), and Zoom (for two-way viewing), all of which provided a simple and seamless transition through the inevitability of a full shutdown.

During the first couple of months of Covid, Upstate Studios focused primarily on refining the teaching style of instructors and the delivery of the classes themselves from a teaching standpoint. 

Later on, Upstate’s entire approach changed from a class perspective: class formats morphed from 45 minutes (IRL and in the early days of digital) to 28 minutes long (to allow for 2 mins in between classes) and go on all day long. They’re programmed to be compatible with each other ( for example, Strength followed by Yoga) and themed (body parts and more).

Upstate also offers classes On Demand. 

However, according to Gail, “Livestream is far more successful than On Demand right now – but in our view, you have to have both, because the need for On Demand may increase over time. Livestream is so important to us at the moment because we place the highest value on the greatest connection.”

That begs the question: just how does Upstate create that deep connection with their clients, over screens and not in person?

“We put massive emphasis on connection in the moment they’re in,” explains Gail, sharing that Upstate Studios instructors place a premium on birthday shoutouts, milestone classes, and anything they can see through the two-way video (for example, saying hello to a child or a pet that enters the frame). “We provide at least a little moment in their day that brightens it.”

Gail Asbell

Upstate Studios has also mastered the art of the ultra-personalized follow-up: no mass emails here. The entire staff engages in sending emails, phone calls, and texts directly to clients to check in on them and offer connection and encouragement.

When a client reaches a milestone (say, their 100th class taken), a staff member or instructor shoots a brief personal video that’s emailed to the client congratulating them.

Simply put, says Gail, “We celebrate members as much as possible.”

If you’re wondering how Upstate Studios keeps track of all of the milestones, birthdays, etc. they want to celebrate with clients, it’s through Loyal Snap – a staff member is automatically alerted when said milestone occurs.

And it’s precisely that laser focus on not only community but true connection that’s the reason for Upstate’s continued (and massive) success. The company has over 1,000 members over their four studios and are currently sitting on an 80% active rate…and a base that continues to grow, even with a sustained shutdown of brick and mortar spaces.

Every year, Upstate Studios holds an “Open House” weekend, offering free classes and prizes and other ways to showcase their studios and have clients bring friends and family, and for new potential clients to come and try things out. Word of mouth, according to Gail, has been a powerful tool for scalability. 

In 2020, they held their Open House digitally the weekend after they closed due to Covid, once again, offering complimentary classes, prizes, giveaways, and collaboration with a variety  of different brands across different industries. 

And, incidentally, Upstate Studios is a firm believer in collaboration across the board: they didn’t hold any free classes for their community on Facebook or Instagram, but they have done and do them for other brands to get in front of new audiences and serve new communities all at the same time.

Their modus operandi can be distilled down to that service mindset, explains Gail.

“In fact,” she smiles, “I have a piece of paper taped above my desk with the phrase ‘OVER DELIVER’ written on it in bold!”

Gail goes on to say, “We worked so hard to build our community – they need us, and our team needs us! We were determined right from the start of Covid – really from the start of our business but especially now – to over deliver and be there for people.

We did and do the best we can for our community – but the benefit was, from that, that brand awareness and opportunity for growth came along.”

That growth opportunity, thanks to Upstate’s commitment to over delivering, came in the form of worldwide visibility. Today, Upstate’s classes are in the top 10 of those booked globally on the ClassPass platform, with some classes topping out at over 400 participants.

The beauty of it is that Gail, Charelle, and the Upstate Studios team didn’t set out to be wildly successful – they set out to make a positive impact.

“Our mission,” she reveals, “is to create a positive state of mind for people through movement and connection and positivity. When you know the why, you can deliver the how - the whole team has stepped up to our mission and that has been the driving force to success during this time.”

“Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger,” Gail continues. “Including your clients. So ask yourself, ‘Why does our brand exist? What is our purpose?’ And then go out and deliver it.”

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