How to shop for the latest equipment

When cardio equipment reaches 3 years old and strength equipment gets to 5 or 7, many club operators decide to go shopping. Certainly, clubs can make investments last longer than the warranty, but members always appreciate the latest equipment and a quality experience. On the other hand, they don't appreciate “Waiting for Service” signs.

If you are thinking of replacing some pieces, here's some advice on how to make the shopping process painless — and possibly even fun.

  • Take a trip to a trade show

    . Trade shows provide a place where you can try out different equipment at one time. Plus most manufacturers unveil their new designs at shows.

    “I take my strongest fitness people and mechanical people with me to [the trade shows to] evaluate how the equipment works, feels and is constructed,” notes Bill McDonald, COO of Premier Fitness Clubs in Louisville, Ky.

    Indeed, when at trade shows, don't just look at equipment. Jump on a piece and give it a try. Otherwise, you may wind up buying equipment that won't stand up to member use (and abuse).

    “Definitely be hands-on,” says Tom Hatten, president of Mountainside Fitness Centers in Arizona. “It's the best rate of success for the piece of equipment. If you don't do the purchases right, then it's only going to cause grief in your club and that new purchase will be wasted.”

  • Ponder your purchase

    . You can buy equipment at trade shows, but don't succumb to sales pressure if you aren't sure. For example, if you're dealing with a new vendor, use the opportunity to get to know the appropriate rep and the company's product. You can always buy the equipment later.

    “I don't do my negotiating at the show,” states Hatten. “I'll talk to the reps, establish a relationship and go back to my people and let them know what I liked and didn't like, and make my decision from there.”

  • Get references

    . If you can't make a trade show, ask manufacturers to provide local references — that is, other clubs within driving distance. You can then visit the club and test the equipment. You can also talk to club members and employees about their opinions.

    To get different perspectives, request that the manufacturer provide a reference from a club that just purchased the equipment and one from a club that has been using the equipment for a long time, advises Michael Bennett, associate executive director of Chester YMCA in Chester, Va. This gives you the ability to see what the club operators think of the equipment and discuss the vendor's service and warranties.

  • Compare the competition

    While it's nice to have a relationship with one vendor, it's smart business to look at the competition, too. “I look at all manufacturers automatically,” Bennett says. “I take the positives and negatives of the equipment we have and compare it to its competition to see if the other equipment is better.”

    In addition, Bennett gets quotes from the different vendors and compares what he gets for the price, such as warranties and service. “Price isn't always an issue with me,” he notes. “I'll pay more for equipment because I know they will give me a two-year warranty on a belt instead of a one-year warranty.”

    There's another benefit to talking to competitors, Bennett points out: They all know the pros and cons of different designs, so they will provide information that you may not have gotten talking to a single vendor.

  • Go to the equipment — or have it come to you

    . Vendors may be willing to fly you to their showroom to test the equipment out. They may also be willing to put a demo piece or two into your club, notes Hatten.

    “Ninety-nine percent of all equipment vendors out there will demo a piece of equipment for you,” he says. “Their reason is that they think if members are touching it and using it, it will be harder for you to take it out.”

    The typical demo period is 30 days. And, yes, members may get attached to equipment, something worth remembering if you agree to the demo.


Avoiding Equipment Fads

Sliding is a prime example of a fitness industry fad that slid right out of most clubs. But at the time of its popularity, not everyone foresaw sliding's demise. So how do you avoid getting sucked in by a short-lived fad? Use common sense, answers Tom Hatten, president of Mountainside Fitness Centers in Arizona.

For example, consider the elliptical. The machine made sense from the start: a piece of cardiovascular equipment that provides the same movement as the treadmill and stairclimber, but with no impact. Extremely user-friendly, ellipticals are great for beginner exercisers, yet at the same time provide high-end workouts for elite members. “You could see that it made sense, and it has had a high success rate,” notes Hatten.

On the other hand, the slide didn't make much sense. Difficult to use, this activity discouraged most exercisers — except for maybe the most dedicated ones. Remember, you had the special slide booties, the spray (which always got on the floor), the slide itself. All of these factors created plenty of hassle for a small audience. It just didn't add up.

In addition to using common sense, operators can avoid fads by questioning others and exercising patience. Don't hop on the bandwagon as soon as a product hits the market, suggests Hatten, who waits on the sidelines about six months before investing.

“I take time to ask lots of questions and observe other people's reaction to it,” he says, “then I make my decision.”