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When you look at Melanie Whelan’s career path, it doesn’t exactly point to SoulCycle.
Prior to landing at Equinox and SoulCycle, Whelan held positions at Starwood Hotels and Resorts and Virgin USA. For Whelan, the through-line of all of these companies was a core focus on hospitality and building meaningful relationships with customers.
“I think it all sort of goes back to my father,” she said. “I remember being on vacation, and he would always take calls from clients who were upset. He would say to us, ‘I can’t fix it if the delivery didn’t arrive or if the car didn’t arrive at the airport, but I can hear them out. And if I hear someone out, I am going to build a relationship, and they will be loyal and come back to us.'”
Now serving as the CEO of SoulCycle, Whelan sees the opportunity to expand the consumer-focused, experiential brand on a global scale. The company’s first London studio is set to open later this year, in sync with the brand’s expansion into events and new retail products.
On this week’s episode of The Glossy Beauty Podcast, beauty editor Priya Rao sits down with Whelan to discuss how to scale a boutique experience, how to move from a fitness to a lifestyle brand and why SoulCycle decided to make the move into wholesale with Nordstrom. Edited highlights below.
Scaling a boutique business
“When I joined the team in 2012, there were seven [SoulCycle] locations. The idea was, ‘Could we open 25 of these?’ Opening twenty-five is almost harder than getting to 91, right? How do you get from seven to 10? How do you get out of New York and into Los Angeles? How do you port a concept that, at its heart, is experiential more than anything? You’re talking about a people-led, people-driven, 360-degree, 55-person experience. From the beginning, we’ve always treated this as a live production, every hour on the hour. We want every class to feel like the only class that’s happening that day, in that studio. That takes a lot of work and a lot of care. We just put one foot in front of the other, and said, ‘OK, if we’re going to open 10 studios, we’re going to need a lot of managers. Where do our best managers come from? They come from the front desk. OK, we’re going to need a lot of front-desk people, and they are going to have to be trained.’ Then, ‘OK, we’re going to need a training program.’ Sometimes you need to have this really long-term vision, but there’s a really great saying that goes, ‘Vision without execution is hallucination.’ You really just have to figure out where you’re going, and then get one thing done after the next.”
Finding a way to spend more time with customers
“We have our riders for 45 minutes, and right before or after class. But there’s another 23 hours and 15 minutes where we don’t have them. They would say to us consistently, ‘We just want more ways to spend time with the brand, and we want a way to take that endorphin rush we get from being in the room out and into our lives.’ So, we built a media division in the last year with this series of products, services and events to really engage — not just with the audience that’s in the studio every day, but with a broader audience, as well. One of the ways we’re doing that is through a franchise called Sound by SoulCycle. Large-scale concerts with major musical artists, many of whom are connected to the brand personally. We’ll have the SoulCycle class, almost as performance art, on the stage, and crowds of hundreds of people in the venue. They’ll listen to the performer, observe the bikes and just have a really great time mixing in the community outside of the studio.”
Why wholesale through Nordstrom was the right choice
“We thought long and hard about whether wholesale even made sense for us, in the face of direct-to-consumer and Instagram being where I personally buy a lot of things. But when we met with the Nordstrom team, we realized their whole ethos is aligned with ours. They are hospitality-first and customer service–first, and they’re all about curating the best product for their very highly engaged shopper. We just had this great meeting of the minds in our first conversation with them around how they believe they want to service their customer, and how we believe our customer may want to interact with us in an environment outside of our studios. We’re really excited about it.”