Fitness equipment manufacturers have plenty of ways to test a new product in the factory as it is designed, built and tweaked. But in the end, only real-world testing offers insights into just how well a product will stand up to the competition—not to mention the club and the end-users’ expectations.

As new products near the rollout stage, many manufacturers test them in partner clubs for anywhere from three weeks to six months to see how they stand up to the rigors of the commercial setting and the needs of members.

“By the time we put a beta unit into a partner facility, we are looking for anything we may have missed related to user interface issues, overall appearance and general client response,” says Jeff Dilts, director of product management at Star Trac, Irvine, CA.

Most manufacturers have compiled a lot of hard data on the products before testing them in partner clubs. Star Trac puts each product through thousands of hours of cycle and load testing and testing in the Star Trac showroom before sending it to a partner club, Dilts says.

Placing units in partner clubs helps fill in the blanks with more qualitative data to get a clearer picture of how the public responds to the product on many levels.

“We talk to members about their likes and dislikes, the features they choose to use and why, as well as how the new equipment compares to others in the facility,” says Adam Hubbard, director of product management for Woodinville, WA-based Precor. “We do this through informal conversation with members and staff as well as more formal focus groups designed to dive deeper into the member needs and how our products best satisfy them.”

Hubbard adds that the company finds out almost as much data through observation as it does through questioning club staff and users, which is part of the reason most companies work with clubs in close proximity to their manufacturing and R&D departments.

“Simple observation is also a hugely valuable tool,” Hubbard says. “Seeing how people use the products, where they place their towel and phone, etc., can provide vital information to inform the design of products.”

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Mike Williams, owner of Gold’s Gym Washington, began discussions with Precor in late 2009 about becoming a test site.

“Across our five Gold’s Gym clubs in the greater Seattle area, we wanted to be more involved in working with equipment vendors to enhance our experience with their equipment as club operators, along with enhancing our members’ experience with their equipment,” Williams says. “We approached a few equipment vendors with this idea a couple years ago.”

Williams’ location near Precor’s headquarters was a big plus in his clubs’ selection as a beta site for that company. Beyond location of the partner facility, most manufacturers consider traffic and demographics, among other factors, when picking partners.

The partner clubs—which are often chosen following extensive talks and non-disclosure agreements—can reap some benefits from the arrangement as well.

“Working with us in testing equipment, the clubs have the opportunity to provide their members/users with the latest in technology and innovation,” says Mark Zabel, vice president of global marketing for Johnson Health Tech North America, parent company of Matrix Fitness. “Most people are interested in trying something new in their respective exercise program, and this allows them to try it before it is commercialized.”

Williams says that his clubs benefit from being able to see the equipment in the club environment, receiving member feedback, and comparing the use and functionality of the equipment to that of other equipment in the club.

Those first-hand insights can help when it comes to determining whether to purchase the product after it is released.

“Being this involved in the early stages of the equipment gives us a lot of information about the equipment prior to our buying cycle,” Williams says. “In addition, the relationship strengthens with the equipment manufacturer as they have an understanding of our needs and how to address them.”

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These benefits lead many clubs to want to partner with vendors and be test sites for beta equipment, Dilts says.

Club owners whose clubs are selected as a test site must sign Star Trac’s product beta site agreement, which includes detailed responsibilities, including allowing Star Trac’s engineering teams to have access to the product and Star Trac’s product management and marketing teams to have access to the facility’s members and staff.

“This is where the rubber meets the road and our partners realize we aren’t just dropping off free equipment,” Dilts says.

In addition to these responsibilities, club operators must consider other factors when bringing new products into their fitness facilities, including remembering that the sample products placed in clubs are not mass production units.

“Therefore, one of the biggest responsibilities is setting expectations with users about product quality, quantity and availability,” Zabel says. “We may only have two or three units available for a facility to test, and sometimes the demand outweighs the supply.”

Williams agrees that partner clubs face some challenges, starting with members getting used to having new equipment in the facility, but the club and Precor worked together so staff was available to explain the features and benefits of the equipment to members.

Being a test site is a great way for clubs to see what their membership—and potential members—want. It can give them an advantage over the competition, says Frank Bentkowski, president of Fitness Equipment Source and a former manager of several clubs in and around New York City.

“The key, though, is to set the expectation level of the members,” Bentkowski says, “and be prepared to add more of the equipment during your next buying cycle.”