Giving your members the latest and greatest

Just when you thought you had all the equipment you needed, something new and improved hits the market or a machine shows signs of wear and tear. But should you buy new equipment? How necessary is it?

As it turns out you should buy and, yes, it's critical. "In the rapidly changing world of technology, it's important that clubs stay on the cutting edge of state-of-the-art equipment," says Bruce Carter, president of Weston, Fla.-based Optimal Design Systems, a part of Optimal Fitness Systems that establishes health clubs. "The market is much more educated today and demands the best." And, adds Carter, "the health club industry is very competitive, so if you don't buy the latest equipment, someone else will." But because most clubs don't have huge operating budgets, it's important to budget wisely and put some thought into what you buy. These guidelines should help:

- Look at the equipment and the condition it's in. "It needs to be smooth-running, quiet and functional," says Carter. The second litmus test: How outdated is it relative to what's new in the market?

- Bring in something new every six months to a year. "It shows your market that you're on the cutting edge of whatever's out there," says Carter. "It also shows that you're investing the profits of the club back into serving members."

- Look around your club. One telltale sign a piece should be replaced: It's not being used. "If you have a certain type of cardio equipment that isn't being used, you surely want to replace it with pieces that will be used," says Carter.

- Do your homework. Before you buy, look at industry trends. Visit other clubs and ask around to find out what equipment is being used. Attend trade shows and talk to different club owners to find out what's hot and what isn't. Finally, talk to your members.

"But don't open a can of worms by asking them what they want," advises Carter. "They may want a particular type of equipment, and if you don't get it, you're perceived as not servicing them."

Instead, present members with a few choices. Do a yearly member survey or rely on the suggestion box and word of mouth when deciding what pieces to buy.

- Try out equipment before you buy it. Some manufacturers will give you a trial run so you can see how members like the equipment. You may also consider leasing equipment. "You get the equipment now and pay for it over time," says Carter.

- Leave room in your budget for purchases. Carter recommends earmarking 3 to 5 percent of your budget for "capital replacement." "That means you'll have money set aside for equipment when the need arises," he says.

- Time your installation wisely. Let members know when the equipment is being installed and apologize in advance for any inconvenience. And try to do the installation during your downtime.

- Make room for the new. Unless you expand, "you can only fit so much equipment into your club," says Carter.

How to clear out equipment? Sell it to members. Or donate it or loan it long-term to a prison, police station or high school. When you do, send out a press release and get some publicity out of it.

- Publicize the new arrivals. You need to inform members that the new equipment is available and/or on its way. By knowing that you have made an upgrade, your club's members will see how their dues are working for them.

There are a number of ways to get the word out. Put up "coming soon" signs in the spot where you plan to put new equipment. Post a picture of the new equipment. Have instructors/ trainers talk it up. Then when the equipment arrives, tie balloons to it. Maybe post a sign reading, "It's here!" And make sure your trainers talk it up.

- Make your existing equipment more valuable and user friendly. Entertainment systems, for example, add to the entertainment value of equipment and cut down on member boredom. "Clearly every club is going to need some variation of these at some time in the future," says Carter.