In your fitness facility, you likely use more technology today than you did 10 years ago. From front desk computers with card swipe systems or fingerprint check-ins to software that lets your members upload workout information to their smartphones, today’s clubs are becoming increasingly intertwined with technology. Before your member or a prospect even enters your club, he or she may well have checked your club’s Facebook page, found your facility on the Internet and perhaps e-mailed for directions, class times and fees, or other relevant information.
Why, then, with technology central to club operations, do many fitness clubs lack a chief information officer (CIO), chief technology officer (CTO) or vice president of technology?
“Any vertical market that has a lot of ‘mom and pop’ shops is going to have this profile,” says Jeff Skeen, CEO of Titan Fitness Holdings, McLean, VA. “Many clubs just don’t have the size or scale to have a CIO or CTO.”
Skeen, previously CIO of Gold’s Gym International, Irving, TX, says the industry also may have a historical or cultural reason for not designating a CIO or CTO.
“For years, IT professionals and vendors have done a poor job of showing a return on investment for implementing technology,” Skeen says. IT pros, he adds, need to think of and present themselves and their departments as profit centers rather than cost centers.
“Why should I be on Facebook?” Skeen asks rhetorically. “All I get out there are complaints. But if you do it right and put some coupons out there or offers to come visit the club, you could easily see that the $2,000 you spent on Facebook brings in $5,000 per month.”
Andy Wigderson, vice president of sales and marketing for CSI Software, Houston, says fitness clubs have historically undervalued technology. While industries such as retail, hospitality and manufacturing invest up to 6 percent to 7 percent of their gross sales in technology efforts, according to Wigderson, he pegs technology spending in the fitness industry at “not even close” to that level. He estimates that of the top 100 revenue-generating health club companies, perhaps only 20 to 25 have a CIO or CTO. CSI Software held a forum for CIOs this spring, drawing 10 of those estimated 20 to 25 CIOs in the industry.
One of those companies with a CIO is Goodlife Fitness, a chain of nearly 300 clubs across Canada. Its CIO, Steve Groves, worked for Goodlife for a number of years in its IT department and then left the company to work in media for a couple of years. Prior to his departure, though, Groves convinced Goodlife it should create a CIO position. After two years in the media business, Groves returned to take the position for which he had lobbied.
“I see my role as the chief innovation officer rather than the standard chief information officer,” Groves says. “We are at a really interesting crossroads between technology and the fitness industry. There is a lot of operational efficiency that can be realized but also tremendous opportunity to drive technology out into the hands of our employees as well as to engage our members. The most important relationship is going to be between the IT department and the marketing teams. We have to make sure we are reaching those potential members who are invariably living their lives online in a digital fashion. A significant portion of our leads come from digital marketing and various digital platforms.”
Glen Rappaport, vice president of information technology at McLean, VA-based Sport & Health, says much the same.
“You have a CIO to get a different vantage point from the standpoint of technology before other executives look at it,” Rappaport says. “Even though I run the technology department for the company, I really don’t care that much about the technology itself. I care about how the company can use it.”
Rappaport comes from the technology world, having worked for a hospitality technology vendor prior to signing on at Sport & Health. He cites one other reason some clubs might shy away from technology.
“It requires some overhead to get in the game,” he says. “Companies may think technology is confusing.”
Bryan O’Rourke, co-founder of Integerus, a consulting company based in Covington, LA, and Fort Worth, TX, says CFOs often are given the “info officer hat” within a fitness company, which short-changes the club.
“They need to be looking at technology as an absolutely essential function to the way they operate their business,” O’Rourke says of club executives. “They have to be aware of local search and of everything their members are using devices and Internet connectivity for.”
Skeen ties another critical business function to technology—risk management. Club owners who are not techsavvy, he says, may not even know that a computer system at the front desk displays credit card numbers and other personal information when members check in. That data can easily be misused or stolen, he says, and a company could find itself at the expensive end of a lawsuit if the club is found negligent in the way its systems displayed or handled personal information.
“Justifying technology based on risk analysis is much more difficult,” Skeen says, “but small business owners need to be aware of these issues to be successful.”
A CIO or a CTO can be the guide to help clubs navigate this technology.