Suzy Weyenberg brought Empower Yoga to the Milwaukee area in 2016 with hopes of making the health benefits of infrared heated yoga more accessible to all. By early 2020, the business was on a fast track toward growth, with four local studios in addition to its flagship in Appleton. Offering prices at half the national average and a welcoming atmosphere, the studios drew yogis by the dozens to most weekly sessions. Empower’s locations sat lifeless for 13 months during the COVID-19 pandemic, but hundreds of students continued to roll out their mats on living room floors and in backyards and tuned in to classes streamed live on Zoom. Following the recent reopening of Empower’s studios, reporter Maredithe Meyer caught up with Weyenberg about how the pandemic impacted operations, growth plans and demand for wellness.
What kept Empower in business with its studios closed for so long?
“What got us through was the Zoom classes, on-demand YouTube channel, and what we did was still make it very affordable. I always try to think like a customer and think like I did in my 20s or early 30s: ‘How much would I want to pay and what would keep me tuned in?’ We decided that Empower At Home would be $39 per month. So, we went with that, and people were showing up. People were saying, ‘I really need this.’ We just kept going because we were getting such great feedback. The fact that we had something unique, which is that yoga isn’t just working out, it’s full-self wellness – mental, emotional, spiritual wellbeing – was why I think a lot of people continued to practice with us from home.
“We did downsize two locations (Appleton and Mequon) that were at the end of their leases. It was very challenging to close but trying to support two other locations for a year would’ve been really hard. For our other studios, we connected with all our landlords and came up with a plan. It was wonderful to know that we had that support because we felt strongly that once everyone gets vaccinated, we’re going to be back to business.”
How have virtual classes helped expand your reach and retain customers?
“Personally, I was able to connect with students that I used to teach 10 years ago at Lawrence University who now live in Montana. We have people practicing with us from Germany and Florida, Chicago, or other places because they know somebody in Milwaukee that goes to our studio, and they told them to try a class.
“The other thing that’s been nice is the convenience factor. Some people are still working from home and have kids to care for and lots of things going on that they can take class at home. Lastly, if someone can’t get into an in-person class right now because it’s fully booked, then they’ll take it on Zoom.”
How have you kept classes and membership affordable during this time?
“Affordability is our mission, so everything had to be structured around that. If we couldn’t keep it affordable then we would have to downsize locations or think of something else. But we’ve reopened our three locations and we’re doing very well with our new price point, just $2 higher per class. … For us to grow, the small increase will help us be able to be more resilient if anything comes up.
“We really want to make sure that yoga isn’t something that people have as a luxury item or that they have to make great sacrifices to be able to participate in. … We feel like we’re going to be able to be very successful continuing with our philosophy. For me, success isn’t just about what’s on a spreadsheet, but also feeling like we’re a part of somebody feeling better or having a better outlook or having the ability to pause and take a breath – those are the things that yoga has given to me."