As she fights to keep her brand ahead of the boutique-fitness pack,SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan talks about perfecting the customer experience,harnessing your team’s talent, and chasing a certain former president.
Melanie Whelan is not new to customer service. Before joining SoulCycle as COO in 2012 and moving into the role of CEO in 2015, she cut her teeth at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Virgin America (which she helped launch), and Equinox Fitness. Now, in the increasingly crowded world of boutique workouts, Whelan is tasked with keeping SoulCycle ahead of the competition— in the very industry it helped spawn. Her plan: Grow steadily from its 77 current studio locations, with an eye toward international domination; treat customers like family; galvanize her ever-expanding team; and of course, never forget where the company finds its soul.
You joined SoulCycle as COO back in 2012 before moving into the CEO role in 2015. You had been working at Equinox—what was so appealing about this brand to pull you away from your gig there?
I actually met [SoulCycle founders] Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice back in 2008 at the first location on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I was doing business development for Equinox, and my job was to look out for new business opportunities. I kept hearing about SoulCycle. I have a rule that if you hear about something three times, you have to try it.
That’s a good rule. What was your takeaway?
It was a really special experience, and the next day at my desk, there was a silver SoulCycle bag with a handwritten note saying, “Thank you, it’s wonderful to know you” and a baby onside, because I was six months pregnant at the time. It was so personal. Usually in this industry, if you try a new service, people send a follow-up asking you to come back in, offering a buy-one-get-one or some kind of promotion. This simple hospitality touch stuck with me. And then, of course, in 2011 Equinox acquired a majority stake in SoulCycle, and in 2012 I joined the team, at long last.
SoulCycle pretty much invented boutique fitness. As the market gets more competitive, how do you stay ahead?
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