When I first heard that SoulCycle had opened a new location in New York City that was quietly trying out a new menu of mat-based workout classes—that is, classes without bikes—I immediately wondered, why? The company had become a consumer sensation thanks to one thing only: its disruptive and original cycling classes. With the kind of brand awareness the company still enjoys from its core product, why try to get into the market for regular classes, with its vast sea of options and new entrants almost daily? I found myself thinking back to other examples of brands that became known for something new and wholly different, but launched follow ups that were much more traditional: when the breakfast cereal Grape Nuts eventually launched Grape Nuts Flakes, say, or when Bare Minerals makeup, after pioneering the new idea of mineral-based powder foundation, eventually followed with a line of plain-old liquid make-up. Can there be a SoulCycle without the Cycle? Would people want that?
The company—which is majority owned by Equinox—thinks the answer to that is yes. SoulCycle started beta-testing its new workout repertoire last fall in a new studio space called SoulAnnex. There are trademark signs of SoulCycle—Soul-branded apparel, kombucha on tap—but there isn’t a bike in sight. It’s a bold new direction for the company that pioneered a new way of exercising when it launched back in 2006 with classes that redefined indoor cycling: bikes in close proximity, very low lighting (with signature grapefruit scented candles flickering), heart-pumping music, and cult-of-personality instructors freed up to put their own stamp on each “ride.” It wasn’t a class, it was an experience, and it became a sensation, developing a loyal following, and growing to what is now 86 locations.
But, like every product, even those that go viral, SoulCycle has to innovate to stay relevant, and it has to capture more of its consumer – and new ones—to grow (especially with rumors of an IPO perpetually bubbling under the surface). And despite the success of its core product, company CEO Melanie Whelan said that customer feedback kept telling them that their users wanted to spend more time with SoulCycle. Fitness classes in general have been enjoying a resurgence, and most SoulCycle “riders” regularly incorporate non-cycling into their fitness routine; why not find a way to keep them under the SoulCycle tent?
So a little over a year ago, a small team started hatching ideas for what else the company could do. The result of 9 months’ worth of incubation, SoulAnnex launched unofficially last October. I was offered the chance to test it out, and, despite this not normally falling under the category of journalism work I do—and also despite the unfortunate requirement of having to appear on video in workout clothes—I agreed.
SoulAnnex offers classes in three categories: “Move,” “Define” and “Align,” loosely comparable to cardio, strength, and stretch/recover. The class I tried, The Link, fell under “Align” and was Pilates-inspired, featuring lots of foam rolling and stretch-band work, and was led by Laurie Cole, one of SoulCycle’s founding instructors with a cult following of her own.
I was a little hesitant since it’s been—let’s just say “a while”—since I’ve worked out regularly. But Laurie was great: her instructions were clear and motivating but delivered with humor, the atmosphere was trademark SoulCycle—grapefruit candles and all—and as for the work itself, it was very hard, but it was achievable. Laurie said I’d be a little sore the next day and really sore in two days, which turned out to be exactly right. It was also fun to feel like I was on the ground floor of something so “new”—many of my fellow classmates, SoulCycle devotees themselves, were learning their way around it just as I was.
SoulCycle says the response to SoulAnnex so far has been “incredible” and it has already added new classes. It says it has no plans yet to expand it, but if the new venture ultimately takes off and becomes a core offering, it may need to be called something other than an “Annex.” And if that happens, the parent may then need to be called something other than SoulCycle. Indeed, last year, a powerful ad campaign touted, “This is not about a class, it’s not about a bike. It’s about you.” And I couldn’t help but notice that during our conversation, Whelan referred to the company’s customers coming “to Soul,” not SoulCycle. That may just be her own shorthand. But it wouldn’t be so far-fetched to imagine the company developing other category expansions—as of this writing it recently launched a new cross-training class on the bike called SoulActivate—and eventually putting them all under a new umbrella simply called “Soul.” But for now, for a peek inside the new SoulAnnex, take a look at the video that accompanies this story.