OVERLAND PARK, KS — As club operators have put off equipment purchasing due to the recession, many equipment manufacturers have experienced a downturn in sales. Because strength equipment often has a longer life than cardio equipment, that delayed purchasing trend has had an even greater effect on strength equipment manufacturers. But for some of those manufacturers, one of the best ways to make their product attractive to club operators is to offer them a packaged deal with other manufacturers.

Hampton Fitness Products, Ventura, CA, has had discussions with Nautilus Inc., Vancouver, WA, and Matrix Fitness, Cottage Grove, WI, to create packaged deals for club operators, according to Robert Hornbuckle, vice president of Hampton.

“Gym owners want to one-stop shop as much as possible,” Hornbuckle says. “Forming a partnership with these larger companies will open more doors for Hampton to put in more free weights, dumbbells, plates, bars and the things we specialize in.”

Packaged deals mean club operators sign one lease rather than two different leases — one for free weights and one for strength and cardio equipment. A club owner who builds a new club may spend $150,000 to $300,000 on strength and cardio equipment and only $15,000 to $20,000 for free weights, Hornbuckle says.

“Hampton, compared to these bigger companies, we're kind of the guppies in the ocean that keep the sharks clean,” Hornbuckle says. “Everybody has their part to play, and with free weights being essential in every club that opens up, these partnerships have to be formed.”

Hampton also recently signed an agreement with Spectrum Athletic Clubs, Los Angeles, to be the exclusive supplier for free weights and group ex equipment, Hornbuckle adds.

In February, Med-Fit Systems, Fallbrook, CA, purchased most of the Nautilus commercial business. Since then, Nautilus has spoken with at least a couple of free weight manufacturers about proposed packaged deals, says Dean Sbragia, president of Nautilus and CEO of Med-Fit Systems. One of the companies involved in the discussions is Ivanko Barbell Co., San Pedro, CA, Sbragia says.

“Ivanko and Nautilus had packaged programs addressing the free-weight needs based upon facility size and products ordered,” Sbragia says. “We ship all products together, simplifying delivery and assuring the facility operator of a coordinated installation.”

Partnerships are not the only way manufacturers make purchasing strength equipment more attractive to club operators. Nautilus is producing new equipment with an emphasis on the same programming that Nautilus had when Arthur Jones founded the company in the 1970s, Sbragia says.

Sbragia wants to target the senior market for a new program called the Restoring Seniors Vitality Program (RSVP) in which outpatient physical therapy clinics would use Nautilus equipment to help keep the elderly healthy and eliminate the need for them to be institutionalized in retirement homes.

“Some manufacturers in strength have gotten away from biomechanical engineering and have concentrated on design engineering,” Sbragia says. “We really need to emphasize not a good-looking machine but a good-looking user. That's our call to force here.”

James Newman, the commercial sales manager for Troy Barbell and Fitness, Houston, says the key to getting operators to purchase strength equipment is developing relationships with both manufacturers and club companies. Troy has working relationships with bigger manufacturers, including Life Fitness, Schiller Park, IL; Cybex International Inc., Medway, MA; Star Trac, Irvine, CA; and FreeMotion Fitness, Logan, UT.

“It starts with your people,” Newman says. “If you can have the newest product on the market, and if you don't have people passionate about it and understand it and want to talk about it, how are you going to sell it? How are you going to make it exciting or innovative to anybody?

“We're not afraid to think outside the box. We're not afraid to ask questions and get feedback on our product or put it up on a message board [online]. If somebody needs to deconstruct it for us to make it better, we're totally open to that.”

Motus USA, Carson, CA, is trying to attract customers by introducing equipment at a lower price point without sacrificing the quality from previous models. The company's dual-action equipment costs less than some other products and takes up less floor space, according to company executives. Roy Greenberg, president of Motus USA, says strength manufacturers need to be careful about how often they release new equipment.

“Just like an automobile, if I bought the latest or newest Mercedes, I don't want to, a year from now, see that a newer model was released,” Greenberg says. “We try to make our products cutting-edge so that when we release them, they're ahead of the curve. After a few years expire, we can bring out an improved version or a new model of that particular machine.

“It's also very important not to dilute your brand. By bringing out too many new products too often, you confuse the customer and you cheapen the value of your product as a result.”

Michael Rojas, president of Iron Grip Barbell Co., Santa Ana, CA, says his company's biggest challenge is improving the design of its products because that design has worked so well. However, the company has continually improved the durability of its products, he says.

“It's a tall order to improve strength [equipment],” Rojas says. “It is hard to innovate when you, by design or by luck, happen to have a couple of major innovations right out of the gate.”