A closer look at the popular fitness company’s community and culture
The Santa Clara
April 19, 2018
Walk into any SoulCycle studio and you will witness more or less the same scene found at the Soul Palo location in Palo Alto, Calif.
The all-white walls gleam under fluorescent lights. One side of the room contains sparsely filled racks of exorbitantly priced Le Labo toiletries and apparel with Soul X, the trendy designer-of-the-moment labels. The other side is lined floor-to-ceiling with rows of polaroids containing smiling, yellow t-shirt-clad staff and regulars, barricaded by a tall counter behind which the worker bees in the photos dance and sing along to popremix songs at a decibel so high the lyrics are incomprehensible.
The whole room smells of the grapefruit candle burning on the counter, the same ones that light the studio during rides, also available for purchase ($38) if you feel the need to experience the scent of Soul—sans sweat—at home.
Pasted on the wall of the locker room is a list of Soul Etiquette rules to follow. Above the bathroom door, a neon sign reads: “Unnaturally attached to our bikes, high on sweat and the hum of the wheel, take your journey. Find your soul.”
Back here, the towels are free, along with the Le Labo products you’ll have to pay $76 to bring home with you. The hair ties, bobby pins and gum—all free. There are even hair dryers for use, which have recently been zip-tied to the wall due to recent repeated thefts.
Welcome to the warm embrace of the community—or cult—of SoulCycle.
“Yeah, we even have tampons in the bathroom. Welcome to the young Ritz Carlton,” Devon Robinson said, SoulCycle front desk staff and avid fan.
Robinson’s sole tone of voice is monotone, Midwestern sarcasm—a characteristic so defining that most of her coworkers describe her as hilarious but entirely mysterious beyond her humor. She buzzes about behind the front desk, typing on the large Mac for one moment, grabbing a pair of shoes or shuffling papers the next, only locking her blue-green eyes with yours to confirm either that you’re laughing at her joke or that what she has just said was indeed intended to be funny.
Against the backdrop of “free” amenities and focus on brand-labeled gear, her luxury hotel reference is spot-on. Retail averages about 15 percent of the brand’s revenue but is more essential to engaging riders and cultivating the following the brand has amassed. SoulCycle speaks to the psyche of its members, every detail meticulously crafted to fuel the need to belong.
“We have to always be wearing Soul gear,” Robinson said, referring to the staff uniform. “We’ve always got our yellow shirts on but our pants can be anything from our apparel, otherwise they have to be black. Gotta represent. Brand is very important here.”
A former rider and former Soul manager, says the emphasis on a recognizable brand identity is a key to cultivating the SoulCycle culture and experience.
“I think most people like to represent the community they’re apart of,” she explained. “Whether it’s the college you go to or the city you’re from, your favorite sports team, it’s very common for people to have a draw and want to be a part of something.”
Though it’s unlikely putting Santa Clara’s interlocking S and C logo on a distressed designer label hoodie would convince fans to spend $295 on said item in the same way that SoulCycle’s yellow wheel does, the concept of representation is the same. You wear the logo because it stands for something bigger.
For regulars, the SoulCycle brand is bigger than an exercise class, it represents a lifestyle, a social identity. When you ride every day, you’re part of a tribe on the same journey of self-improvement. There is a community of motivational and loving individuals behind that yellow wheel, instructors who take the time to learn your name, and a staff that will cater to your every whim. There’s real value in the brand you’re buying into. In a fad-based industry, SoulCycle seems to have cracked the code to remaining a staple by cultivating a culture of exclusivity and a sense of belonging.
On a Wednesday night before the 4:30 p.m. class, SoulCycle staff member Molly Martin is on hour four of her seven-hour shift, five-feet-two inches of energy bubbling up from under her mop of dark curls.
She bobs to the music in the lobby of SoulCycle Palo Alto, murmuring commentary with a side-eyed smirk, waving and smiling at the riders as they flow past her, whispering without ever losing the beat.
“That’s Tracy, she follows me on Instagram,” Martin said.
She scans the room from her position in the corner, standing at attention in her yellow Soul shirt, arms firmly clasped in front of her as she gossips to me, breaking only to gesture instructions in response to bewildered looks from the two new employees she is training today.
After eight months of work, Martin has absolutely no idea what her job description formally requires of her. She pauses all movement when asked, a look of confusion spreading across her face as she tilts her head and frowns in consideration. Martin does it all—child care provider, dog-sitter, therapist—the kind of personal assistant you might find in a romcom who lives and breathes your life for you.
The title she has put on her resume reads “Front desk staff/keyholder at SoulCycle Palo Alto.” But, for a company built on customers’ cult-like obsession with the brand, it’s everything and anything to keep them coming back.
This means a typical front desk shift entails far more than charging clients for shoes and water and keeping the studio clean.
Martin has been slipped $10 to watch a rider’s car while she was illegally parked, loaned her phone out to a rider needing to reach her nanny and frequently has to keep an eye on rider’s children who are left sitting outside, nanny-free, staring in at her through the studio’s glass-walled storefront.
She is often left with rider’s dogs, who are allowed to stay inside with her, unlike the children. This she doesn’t mind. Her favorite is a chocolate colored labradoodle named Fred.
“Two people’s dogs were there today, I put (Fred) on my Instagram story, he’s so cute,” Martin said.
Martin described a recent incident where a regular rider arrived with her two children, expecting that they would be able to ride.
“You’re supposed to be 4’11” and 12 years old to ride and there’s even a measuring stick next to the front desk on the wall,” Martin explained. “And if somebody comes in that’s under that, you’re supposed to measure them. She’s a super frequent rider, and so nice, and her daughter walks in and she can’t even see over the front desk.”
When a manager attempted to breach the subject of the children riding, the woman “got kind of snippy with him,” Martin said, telling him that Kamelle, a prominent instructor in the company, had told her it would be fine.
“Instructors are not allowed to give you permission, that’s corporate policy you have to be 4’11 and 12 years old so we don’t get sued,” Martin said.
Nevertheless, they let her ride anyway, tiny tots in tow.
“That’s an example of how we bend the rules for good riders. I mean, she had booked three bikes,” Martin said, shrugging.
Three bikes and two shoe rentals, however small, make for a $102 family outing.
“We are so lenient about the policies. And I never go against what a customer wants. If they want to cancel like five minutes before class I’m just like, ‘Yeah sure, no problem.’”
The cancellation policy is 5 p.m. the night before and you’re out the $32 for the class, but not if Martin is on duty.
“I always give it back,” Martin said. “I’m way too nice. At 30 bucks a class you better be nice.”
According to Martin, this “Yes, I can do that for you” attitude is a necessary part of the job.
“It’s just all about customer service, go above and beyond,” Martin said. “Do whatever you need to make the customers feel like they’re part of the community and want to come back.”
According to the former Soul manager, the brand’s intense hospitality-focused culture is what helps foster the tribe-like following attached to the SoulCycle name.
She explained that greeting a rider by name makes their day and gets you a smile, but getting them their favorite bike with all the right settings is what brings in the twice-a-day regulars who obsess over all things Soul, the ones who won’t flinch at the $70 this habit costs.
She once Googled a VIP rider signed up for an upcoming class to ensure the staff would be able to recognize him and go the extra mile to make his ride a good one.
Going above and beyond the call of duty for regulars not only helps build the brand, it builds a relationship with benefits for staff members—treats at work, a bottle of wine at Christmas, even job offers at companies like TRX or Twitter.
“It’s good for connections,” Martin said, whose sister got a job from a Soul connection. “She worked at one of the SoulCycles in the city, and met a person that knew the president of TRX who was like, ‘You’d be perfect for this job.” Now she’s working her dream job as an assistant marketing manager for the company.
Devon Robinson had a similar experience at the Palo Alto location.
“I met a guy my first day that I worked at Soul one year ago and noticed he always came in late,” Robinson said. “So I memorized his bike settings and would set it up before he came in. Because of that, we became super close friends.”
The rider ended up being a founder of Twitter, who has recently broken off to form his own company.
“He said he would be able to get me a job if I ever needed one,” Robinson said.
Service with a smile helps build the community feeling at SoulCycle, but also enables staff to form relationships with riders, ones that extend outside the studio and into the real world, where who you know matters.
The Soul network is very well connected, and in a world of $32 exercise classes and $115 Lululemon (with Soul Star logo) leggings, most are very wealthy. The whole Soul vibe is seemingly designed to attract the rich and powerful, cultivating a culture of elitism and the cult-like distinction from the rest of the world of non-members.
A single 45-minute SoulCycle class will drain different sums from your bank account, depending on where you ride. In San Diego, those looking to get off the boardwalk and ride a bike indoors can do so for $20 at SoulCycle. Out of the 84 studios currently open, this is the least you’ll ever pay for the Soul experience.
On the other end, heading out for a weekend in the Hamptons will have you forking over nearly $40, a dollar a minute to sweat in one of the four seaside studios—the priciest in the company.
Unlike most gyms and other exercise studios, SoulCycle offers no monthly membership program. Rides can be purchased individually or in class packages of five, 10, 20 or 30. For the most dedicated of riders, the Super Soul 50-class- pack is available for $3,500.
This specialty package comes with a concierge service, all the kindness and attention the staff has to offer, but most importantly, it allows Super Souls to book the rides and bikes they want ahead of the rest of the pack.
Regular riders scramble to do their weekly bookings each Monday starting at noon, a task so stressful the phrase “noon on Monday” is plastered on Soul apparel as a badge of honor.
Most Super Souls will purchase regular packages for daily rides as well as a Super Soul packages for busier rides.
“As a Super Soul you can book them months in advance,” Martin said. “So if there’s a really popular sixty-minute survivor class on a Saturday with a really prominent instructor, they can book them two weeks in advance and get the bike six, or their top choice in the front row.”
The front row—bikes four, six and eight—are the most sought after spots.
They are also unofficially reserved for the best riders, those who can stay on beat and won’t throw up or pass out from exertion like the newcomers in the back.
Which bike you ride is important and every regular rider has a preference for a certain spot, one that staff will remember and be sure you get to ride.
Amy is one of those twicea-day Super Soul regulars. She is there every day at 7:30 a.m. and back again 4:30 p.m. Before a 4:30 p.m. class, she breezes into the studio with a fresh blowout and red-bottomed heels.
The front desk staff cheers her name in unison as she walks in and other riders stop to hug her as she heads to the changing room to trade her lawyerly day clothes in for an all-pink ensemble, her trademark look.
She heads into the studio, clips her pink shoes into bike six and effortlessly executes each move for the next 45 minutes.
“Amy will book bike six for every Saturday and Sunday survivor ride with her Super Soul,” Martin said. “This Saturday and Sunday there’s one at 9:30 a.m. with her favorite instructors that she’s signed up for.” She adds that unlike some riders, Amy would ride on any bike. For her, it’s about being there more than anything else.
Riders like Amy don’t go to SoulCycle to be seen, they ride because of the mental clarity it provides and the support of the community. There are no numbers in the studio, no judgment, but there is an ever-present love yourself attitude.
Riders use SoulCycle to deal with life’s challenges and become their best selves.
One of the most famous riders at Soul Palo is an 11-year-old boy who chose Soul over a sports team when his parents encouraged him to lose weight.
He has his nanny drop him off half an hour early and wait outside so he can talk to Farrell about his lizards and tell his instructor about his day.
Though he is the youngest person there, and illegally so, Soul is his community and is where he feels at home.
“Certain instructors are just super-inspiring and motivational,” Martin said. “Some of them call it their ‘church’ or their ‘soul getaway’ like it revitalizes them. People get really into it, a lot of them cry after class.”
As the former manager puts it, “People come for the workout, but they stay for the breakthroughs. I really do believe when people walk into stores they’re looking for the best workout they can possibly get but what keeps people around are the mental and personal breakthroughs that people have on the bike, in the room, in the community.”
From the outside, SoulCycle is a private playground for the rich and famous. However, inside the studio, many of these wealthy elites are truly finding themselves and a loving community.
SoulCycle is successful because its members truly enjoy the self discovery and improvement that stems from belonging. This is why they are willing to pay for this experience.
Whether that is a community or a cult may depend on your point of view, and maybe the size of your bank account too.
The original version of this story was created for a Magazine Journalism class.
Contact Emalee Moore at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.