The electric light bulb transformed civilization. So did the internal combustion engine, and, for better or for worse, the cell phone that also takes digital pictures. If you could hire your own personal Thomas Edison to improve the health club industry, what device would you ask him to invent? We polled club owners and managers for their thoughts and got some, er, interesting answers.

“The auto-flush toilet has already been invented, so it would have to be something else. We just got them [auto-flush toilets], though, and what a difference it makes,” says Mike Combes, general manager of the Michigan Athletic Club in East Lansing and Genesys Athletic Club in Grand Blanc, MI.

THE MEMBER “HAPPIFIER”

For Combes, clean toilets are a customer satisfaction issue and he would like to see some other inventions that help in the satisfaction area. “It would be great if someone could invent a pill ora drug that made the members happy with everything you did,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of the people are great, but you end up with 5 percent that, no matter what you do, they're going to whine or cry or complain.”

Since mandatory Prozac for all members isn't really practical, Combes has another idea that might accomplish the same goal: “We could use something that works like an airport metal detector that members have to walk through. If they're not happy that day, they couldn't get in,” he suggests. Of course, having a detector machine like that would negate the need to check member's shoes for explosives since they wouldn't be angry about anything.

THE INDUSTRY IMAGE ENHANCER

Several fitness industry professionals asked for an invention to change the industry's image. “The reason this industry's only got 12 percent to 15 percent market penetration is because we're doing the same things we've been doing for 30 or 40 or 50 years,” says James Cummaro, owner of the Ardsley Athletic Club in New York.

Cummaro thinks lifestyle enhancement training is the answer and he would like to see some technology applied to marketing it.

“Just because somebody can bench press 300 pounds doesn't mean they can move a couch around in their living room,” he says.

“Visuals are important,” Cummaro says. So, maybe the industry can enlist a Hollywood special effects wizard to invent a machine that melds video of a member working out with scenes of them leading their lives outside the gym. “We're turning the club membership into a lifestyle enhancement thing where they can take groceries out of the SUV,” says Cummaro. “They can shovel their snow better. They can chase their kids around. Their tennis game improves. That makes them feel better about themselves.”

Cummaro cites a major industry image factor that he believes keeps a large number of potential members away. “One of the things that has hampered this industry is that people have this preconceived [notion] about what it's like to walk into a health club,” he says. “They think everybody's beautiful and in incredible shape, but what about the 95 percent of the market that isn't? Everybody's not a supermodel or Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Mike Grondahl, owner of Planet Fitness, operator of five clubs on the East Coast and franchiser of seven others, agrees with Cummaro. “The fitness industry is run by aerobic queens, body builders, and people that are real hard core. That's a problem in this industry,” Grondahl says. Perhaps someone should investigate genetic engineering to create a different breed of club owner, although Grondahl would like to see some mental constraints installed as well. “If I could invent one thing, it would be something that makes all the other owners understand that service is saying hello, saying goodbye, and keeping the place clean,” he says. There's that auto-flush toilet thing again.

THE REMOTE-CONTROL EMPLOYEE

After members and owners, there's a third element in the club industry that certainly affects successful operations: employees. Some people would like to have a greater degree of control over who does what and how much of it they do.

“Forget personal training,” Grondahl says. “Forget aerobic classes and spinning classes. How do you keep control over the service your member gets when you've got somebody that works for you only two or three hours a week?”

“Our philosophy is that we've got a manager that we pay well. Beyond that, it's more of an entry-level position so the door turns fast.” Grondahl says. “Reducing turnover would be a help, but it wouldn't be worth the price.” Although no one came right out and suggested disposable trainers, the idea of standardized, interchangeable front-line employees appeals to some in the industry.

Combes, who oversees about 500 employees between the two clubs he manages, would also like to see some attention to employee capabilities.

“Dealing with employees is one of the largest problems we face. Trying to get that many part time employees to do everything that we need them to do is one of our toughest challenges,” he says. However, he does have a solution. “A robotic front-line employee would be perfect. We don't pay a whole lot of money for someone to work the front desk, so they turn over a lot. They'd have to be a robot with a personality, though, like Rosie on the Jetsons,” he says.

Why must employees have a personality? According to most marketing gurus, employees with personality make members happy.

Cummaro believes in hiring employees with personality and works to invent a sense of community at his club. They have parties, do wine-tasting and bagels and lox on Friday mornings. “There's a sense of friendship here. We've developed a place where people can come and sit and have an espresso, chat, and feel good about the other people that they're with,” he says.

The mention of food service gave Combes another idea for an invention that might be the most promising of all. “An energy drink that tastes like beer would be a perfect invention,” he says. “The members would like the taste, while at the same time they'd be drinking something healthy.” And now that the auto-flush toilet has been invented, the fitness world is ready for it.

Dave Donelson writes and speaks on marketing and management nationwide.