What the Exhibitors Had to Say

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Now that I've returned from the IHRSA trade show, I'm sitting down to blog about a few of the exhibitor visits I had while at the show.

My first visit was on Tuesday at the Sales Maker booth. Sales Makers has traditionally been a consulting company, but Doug Miller is now expanding the company out a bit to include a new product called Joinonline247.com. The product allows potential members to visit a club's Web site, take a tour of the club, sign up for a free pass or register for a membership. The members pay for their membership through Pay Pal, so the club never has to deal with payment issues. Sales Makers is also looking to offer something called E-lerts, which is a desktop widget that allows instant communication with people who have downloaded the widget. They don't have to open a browser. This would be a way for a club operator to stay in touch with members and notify them of news without having to send e-mails.

My second visit of the day was with John Stransky, president of Life Fitness (and a proud University of Kansas alumnus, as am I). Stransky says that since he came to the company three years ago, he's been moving the company away from strictly focusing on the equipment to a focus on taking care of their customers (club operators) so their customers can take care of their customers (club members).

“We recognize that people who work out have made a commitment. They have goals. It's important for us to recognize that commitment and help them reach their goals,” he said. “We don't just want to make equipment; we want to make sure that our customers can take our equipment and help their members reach their goals. So we need to be our customers' best partners.”

Stransky says that Life Fitness is helping by making equipment easier to use, providing more entertainment options on the equipment and making it more aesthetically pleasing so it's not so intimidating to new members. The company's new Elevation series cardio equipment includes iPod capability, USB ports so users can download their workouts and a virtual trainer option.

Of course, all this additional technology adds to the cost of the equipment, and in this day and age, added costs can be a problem, but Life Fitness offers cheaper equipment options for club operators who can't afford the more expensive, but entertainment-laden equipment.

“If it doesn't help the exerciser, the cost is too high,” Stransky said. “But if the extra benefits result in the exerciser having much greater success, then it's worth it.”

Later that day, I spoke with Brent Knudsen, founding and managing partner of Partnership Capital Growth (PCG), and Brian Smith, partner in the company. The two did not have a booth at the show, but they were making the rounds. They spoke about how their company matches club operators with potential investors. Knudsen has a background with Northcastle, which owned Equinox at one time.

“Brent found a disconnect in the business. Private equities had a leg up in structuring deals over club owners,” Smith said. Smith says that PCG can help club owners prepare for investment by a partner or prepare for exit from the business.

Both of them said that club operators might be surprised by the number of investors still looking to get into the club business despite the economy.

“There are more investors than ever. There's more money available now,” Knudsen said, noting that banks are loosening up now, and he anticipates that the stimulus bill would free up cash.

My last visit on Tuesday was with Fiserv (which recently renamed Checkfree as Fiserv Club Solutions). Randy Ivey, marketing director for the company, introduced me to Jim Parks, the new vice president and general manager of Fiserv Club Solutions. Although this was his first fitness industry show, Parks noted he was excited about the changes under way at his company and the opportunities for the company in the fitness industry.

On Wednesday, I just had two booth visits. The first was with Tim Porth at Octane Fitness. Porth showed me the company's new seated elliptical, which is now being sold, and its new elliptical prototype, which will be released later in the year. The seated elliptical allows you to work upper body only, lower body only or both at the same time. It allows the exerciser to do some muscle work in addition to cardio, something that a lot of club goers want these days. The new standing elliptical allows users to change the stride length, offering shorter stride for smaller people and a longer stride for people with long legs or those who want to simulate a run.

My last visit of the day was with Keith White at Star Trac. White just returned from the Chain Reaction event that Star Trac was holding in the other hall. Chain Reaction was a three-day charity Spinning event to benefit Dr. Oz's HealthCorps, which is a group dedicated to combating childhood obesity and raising awareness about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. He took some time to talk with me about plans that Star Trac has for working with clubs. Although I can't share more details about that right now, I am able to say that the company's equipment is being featured prominently in this season's “The Biggest Loser” TV show on NBC, something that White says has boosted Star Trac to one of the top 10 most recognizable brands in the country today.

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