Ready to ride: Donna Suro aims to bring group exercise back with CycleBar in Midlothian

Donna Suro, owner of the recently opened CyleBar in Midlothian, sees group excercise making a comeback as the pandemic wanes. ASH DANIEL

Donna Suro is no stranger to challenges. Shortly after signing the lease to open her first CycleBar franchise at Short Pump’s GreenGate shopping center in 2017, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Three years later, Suro was tasked with operating the franchise during the coronavirus pandemic. Gyms, health clubs and fitness studios were considered nonessential businesses by the state and were forced to shut down in March of 2020 before being allowed to reopen at 30% capacity in June of last year.

Now, Suro is leaning on those experiences to conquer a new challenge. Last week, she opened a second CycleBar franchise at Winterfield Crossing in Midlothian.

The studio offers a low-impact, high-intensity workout inside a darkened room. An instructor leads each 45-minute session, complete with mood lighting and upbeat music intended to provide an engaging escape from life’s everyday stressors.

“It truly is a party on a bike,” said Suro, owner and operator of the franchise. “You feel like you’re at a club.”

Suro opened the GreenGate location with a business partner, Libbie Crane, but today she’s flying solo (Crane, however, still visits the studio weekly to ride).

When Suro, 50, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she said it came as a “complete shock,” as it doesn’t run in her family. She underwent various treatments, including surgeries, which were completed in November 2016, and chemotherapy, which she finished in March 2017, just two months before the GreenGate location officially opened.

Still, she never gave up on her dream of opening a boutique fitness studio – a small, specialized gym with a focus on group exercise and fostering a sense of community. Working to get the business opened was a welcome distraction from everything she was going through at the time, she said.

After a number of clients expressed interest in a Chesterfield location, Suro decided to look into a second franchise. She settled on Winterfield Crossing, off U.S. Route 60 not far from the state Route 288 interchange, because she saw an “incredible development” near Midlothian village.

Suro, who has a degree in nuclear medicine from Virginia Commonwealth University and worked for an advertising agency after college, found her calling while leading a group fitness class and discovering that it made her feel like she was a performer on stage.

“I think I always wanted to be on Broadway, and [fitness] was my stage,” Suro said. “It made me feel good, and I loved being able to see people transform their lives.”

She also has a very strong interest in motivational speaking. Being a fitness instructor allowed her to merge the two things, she said.

Suro opened her first boutique fitness gym, The Fitness Connection, in 2001. At the time, boutique fitness was still a new concept in the Richmond area. Because box gyms – places like Gold’s Gym or Planet Fitness – were so popular at the time, Suro struggled. She wanted to oversee the aerobics section and have someone else focus on yoga, for example, and another instructor on personal training. However, she couldn’t find other instructors to rent the space with her, and eventually the gym was forced to shut down.

Fortunately for Suro, entrepreneurship runs in the family. Her father, the late Rick Sharp, was the former CEO at Circuit City Stores and is widely credited with building the now-defunct electronics retailer into a national powerhouse in the 1990s. Sharp also founded CarMax, which was spun off from Circuit City in 2002. Prior to his passing in 2014 from Alzheimer’s – he was 67 – Suro said she learned a lot from her father about running a business with integrity, what he defined as “doing the right thing even when nobody’s watching.”

Suro said she was devastated when The Fitness Connection closed. However, Sharp coached her through it, and she still draws on his customer services principles today – things like putting herself in her customer’s shoes when it comes to setting prices, for example.

A different set of challenges arrived during the pandemic, however. Gyms across the country were forced to shut down – by the end of 2020, the Global Health & Fitness Association reported that 17% of U.S. gyms had permanently closed.

To survive, Suro was forced to find new revenue streams. The solution, she discovered, was renting out the studio’s stationary bikes monthly. Shortly after shifting to this strategy, all 41 of the studio’s bikes were rented out. Clients loaded them into vehicles and went home to do virtual rides from pre-recorded workout videos made by instructors.

“If there’s ever a question that these people are complete rock stars, this will answer it, because these [instructors would] come into an empty studio and teach as if it was a class,” Suro said.

Opening a new business during the pandemic was scary, she said, especially when the highly contagious delta variant started spreading earlier this year. There was a moment when she questioned if she was doing the right thing, and wondered whether she would have to get creative once again to keep the business afloat.

There’s also been a dramatic shift in how people exercise. During the pandemic, many canceled their gym memberships and discovered they enjoyed working out at home. In addition, home exercise subscription services like Peloton, which sells internet-connected stationary bikes and treadmills and virtual classes, have grown in popularity, especially during the last two years.

According to CNBC, while Pelton’s revenue growth fell in its fiscal fourth quarter of this year, its subscription revenue continued to trend upward and subscriber rates soared. In August, Peloton finished the fiscal quarter with 2.33 million connected fitness subscribers (people who own Peloton products and pay monthly fees to access the company’s digital workout content), up 144% from the previous year. Digital subscriptions that don’t require Pelton equipment were also up 176%.

“[It’s] always a little bit like a knife in the heart when someone tells me they are leaving because they bought a Peloton, but what I’ve found is that most people come back, even if it’s just for once a week because they want the community,” Suro said.

The community aspect is something that CycleBar prides itself on, and Suro said there is something magical about it. Research has shown that group exercise lowers stress more than solo workouts. It can also lead to friendships both inside and outside the class, Suro said.

“When you do hard things together, it grows you as a community,” Suro explained. “Going into that room and accomplishing hard things is a bonding experience.”

And while the pandemic put a damper on group exercise, Suro believes it won’t be long before the trend comes roaring back. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, group exercise was one of the top trends in fitness before the pandemic hit. As the pandemic eases and becomes more manageable, she believes her studio is well positioned to take advantage.

Meanwhile, Suro said she feels a big responsibility to keep everyone safe. COVID-19 mitigation strategies are implemented at both the Midlothian and GreenGate CycleBar locations. There are two hospital-grade UV air purifiers installed at each studio, and bikes are cleaned daily with a strong disinfectant that’s used to clean a business in the case of an outbreak, Suro said.

In the future, Suro hopes to open a third CycleBar location in the area. Although she’s not decided where yet, she said clients have expressed interest in Mechanicsville and different neighborhoods throughout Richmond.

As for the Midlothian location, she hopes that the community created inside the CycleBar studio extends beyond its fours wall and out into the Chesterfield community.

“I know a lot of the neighborhoods here are very community-driven, so I’d love for this to just be an extension of things they do with their time and with their friends,” Suro said.

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