Fitness brand empire CRU is taking over Singapore and the co-founding Ding siblings are in charge

The time is 11.59am on a Monday, and I am sitting intensely focused on my phone with my CRU app opened. At 12pm on the dot, the schedule for the next week’s fitness classes for CRU releases. This “camping” for a coveted spot in the class — be it for spin, boxing, high intensity interval training (HIIT), yoga and meditation classes — is common among CRU regulars as well as other fitness studios in Singapore. Typically, several of their classes book out within minutes.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak and resulting lockdowns, fitness studios across Singapore have been seeing a huge surge in people signing up and buying packages, to keep fit amid the pandemic.

That is good news for CRU, which means organic growth spiritually, mentally and physically in French. Launched in 2014, they are one of the pioneers of rhythmic indoor cycling and boxing in Singapore. They continue to amass a loyal following, while continuing to attract patrons of all ages and sizes.

To cater to their expanding fanbase, the siblings have opened their latest studio in Orchard Road — the 5,500 sq ft CRU Orchard — in September, boasting a brand new line-up of spin, yoga and HIIT classes. Their other studios across Singapore are also focused on spinning and boxing classes.

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The brand also opened a boxing studio in the West Hollywood district of Los Angeles, just two years after opening its first studio in Duxton Road. It was a hit with celebrities and singers Usher and Nicole Scherzinger. However, the studio closed last year because of the pandemic.

Options recently had the chance for a tête-à-tête, as well as an intensive spin class, with the siblings behind the fitness empire — namely 34-year-old Valerie Ding, 33-year-old Calvin Ding and 30-year-old Bebe Ding — who talk about staying on top of their game, reinventing the fitness landscape and working with the family.

How did you start CRU?

Valerie: All three of us studied high school in Los Angeles (LA) and went to college there, too. Eventually when we moved back to Singapore, we wanted to bring over something from LA that could give our friends and the community a taste of our experience there. We were excited to share with everyone what made us the people we are today.

Bebe: When we moved back, rhythmic cycling, also known as spinning, was one of the biggest trends blowing up in the West Coast (of the US). In that sense, we were naturally riding the wave of what we were most familiar with.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you first started the business?

Bebe: Initially, there was a lot of resistance from the community, because we were the first to bring this into Singapore. When we did back then, no one knew what it was. They were hesitant in trying out what we had to offer. But eventually, they did, and this could be thanks to social media, which led to people coming and spreading the word.

Valerie: In the beginning, our parents wanted us to join the family business. When we first came back to Singapore, Calvin and I joined the family business, which specialised in property investments and commodities. But it was when I was working with my parents that I came across the opportunity to start CRU as I chanced upon the real estate space at Duxton, where our first studio is.

Calvin: Our parents gave us the opportunity to explore this business venture after we graduated and learn how to run an actual company, before actually joining the family business, which is something more serious. But I guess they really did not expect for CRU to last this long.

With the rhythmic cycling trend booming and new spin studios popping up everywhere, how does CRU stay on top of its game?

Bebe: I think competition is good and healthy. This is what pushes us to want to stay ahead of the game. As the master instructor, whenever I interview new instructors, most of them would say they want to join us because CRU has been around the longest and is the number one. That helps us stay motivated to be on top of the game.

Valerie: This is also where CRU TV (their virtual fitness platform) comes in. We challenged ourselves to create this in the midst of the pandemic. We did everything in-house, from planning to recording and editing the online classes. We did everything among us, as during the “circuit breaker”, only owners were allowed in the workplace. That is how we started our first videos and it was very well received. When things got better, we got everyone in our team on board and today, we have developed the entire concept with the bike and an attached screen, as well as developed an entire software and hardware during the pandemic, it’s taken us just one year. I believe that CRU TV has kept us ahead of the game and the way we see it, it is the future of fitness, because the landscape is evolving with advanced digitalisation and technology.

high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes - THE EDGE SINGAPORE

Cru’s high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes features repeated, extremely hard bouts of work intermixed with periods of recovery

How has the pandemic affected your business and how quickly did you pivot?

Valerie: I would say we pivoted the business quite quickly with a series of online charity classes and effectively ran daily Zoom workouts to support our clientele, and for them to all see each other working out all the time. It was really fulfilling for us and our instructors.

Initially, online classes were launched as a way for our customers to continue with their workouts during the circuit breaker, and a way for us to stay connected with them. As it was very well received, we feel that there is definitely a place for this product in a post-Covid-19 world. Therefore, the product keeps evolving and elevating to what it is today. CRU TV, officially launching soon, will be our newest product. We have developed an immersive app — featuring CruCycle, CruBox, CruYoga, CruMeditation and more — which you will be able to download online on the App Store and workout from anywhere in the world.

We also started selling the CRU TV Bike, which will be one of the first of its kind in Southeast Asia. You will be able to order the bikes that come with a 21.5 inch screen built in and workout at anytime, anywhere, at home. We had also used the time right after the circuit breaker to develop this product, as you can see we have the CRU TV studios built out for filming as well.

Calvin: We created and pivoted our way into the digital world. Cru TV will become a new revenue stream for us.

Tell us more about your new Orchard Road studio.

Valerie: We didn’t want to create another spin studio for the sake of just opening up another spin studio. We wanted to create more interesting concepts and keep things exciting not just for ourselves, but also for the community. I do think the fitness landscape in Singapore is becoming increasingly saturated, especially in the past two years as people have become more aware of their health and wellness — both physical and mental — during this period.

What we are trying to do here is to do something that has not already been done. For instance, one of our latest offerings that is exclusive to the Orchard studio is CruYoga. People are saying it’s not traditional yoga. It is a completely different kind of yoga that is a combination of existing concepts, like weights, heat and music.

Orchard Road studio CruYoga  - THE EDGE SINGAPORE

One of the brand’s latest offerings that is exclusive to the Orchard Road studio is CruYoga

CRU is pushing both physical classes and online classes. How do you balance both without overshadowing the other?

Valerie: We thought it would be, but it is not. I think we are catering to two different types of clientele — those who want to be at home and get a good workout in and those who crave community and want to be around people. I think with Covid-19 still existing, there are many regulations and with that there is also an overlap in these two groups, where some would like the freedom to workout at home or in the studio.

So, what is next for CRU?

Bebe: We do have plans to expand around Southeast Asia, but as you know, the pandemic has just changed the route of what we had planned to do. But those milestones are still in our trajectory, whether it is expanding CRU TV in other Southeast Asian countries or distributing our bikes across Asia, or even opening up new studios. Valerie: This is what we want to achieve in the next couple of years, although the unpredictability of the pandemic means we are continually keeping our plans open and fluid.


CruCycle - THE EDGE SINGAPORE

50 minutes at CruCycle

Having known that CruCycle has one of the most intensive spin classes in town, I was no doubt a little nervous before the class as I was afraid of not being able to keep up. Bebe Ding was the instructor of the 50-minute class I attended.

She reassured me by saying: “Our tagline is ‘join the pack’, and we have always wanted to be a brand that is inclusive regardless of age, gender, size or weight. We make sure our classes appeal across the spectrum and make sure it’s fun for everyone and less intimidating for females or beginners.”

Looking at its Instagram page, the studio boasts a regular rider — only known as Mr Kiong — who looks to be in his 60s. He has been going to CruCycle at least once a week consistently since April and, if nothing else, is proof that Cru’s classes are meant for all.

Five minutes before the class started, I put on my cycling shoes (with cleats) and entered the studio to set up my bike (for beginners, the friendly team at CruCycle will help you with the set-up). Hopping on the bike, I roll out my legs for a bit, while waiting for Bebe to dim the lights and start the class.

The first song starts out as a warm up, while Bebe starts to hype the class to lift both our heart rates (and our spirits). She then takes it up a notch by taking us through fast jogs, sprints, heavy climbs and choreography moves on the bike.

It may sound daunting to some, but as the instructor will tell you — take the class at their own pace, and to only push as much as they can. There is always the option to sit down and take a rest. Along with words of encouragement, Bebe brings the class together to push themselves to the beat of the music.

In all, I found the class to be challenging, but that is a good thing. After 50 minutes of intensive workout and a stretch, we are out of the studio and I feel invigorated.

A single class at CruCycle might not have changed my life, but it sure did make my day.