FITNESS ENTERTAINMENT IS critical to competitiveness. It helps to create a workout environment that is motivational and enjoyable. Members now expect high-quality fitness entertainment, and if you do not provide it, members will go elsewhere.
A common moan of fitness center users and non-exercisers alike is that working out is monotonous. As a result, members' exercise routines grow shorter and further apart, and before long, they join the rest of the inactive population. Fitness entertainment helps to combat boredom, and enables a fitness center to successfully attract new members from the sedentary market.
"It is becoming increasingly difficult for clubs to compete without offering entertainment," says Kevin Fee, vice president of marketing for BroadcastVision, Agoura Hills, Calif. "Many of us have to be entertained or distracted in order to complete an exercise regimen on a regular basis."
Says Steve Slaght, sales manager for AV Now Inc., Santa Cruz, Calif., "Good-sounding audio is the way the best clubs are going. If clubs are not putting out [quality] sound, members will go elsewhere." AV Now has supplied hundreds of YMCAs with sound equipment. That YMCA facilities have invested in fitness entertainment despite moderate monthly dues is an indication of the importance given to this aspect of fitness center operations.
As demand for entertainment has grown, the technologies have advanced and the prices have fallen. Flatscreen TV prices, in particular, continue to fall dramatically, and audiovisual equipment is now a realistic investment for many fitness centers.
Fitness entertainment directly affects facility ambience. "The audiovisual aspects of a club's environment provide the most powerful impact on the overall feel and ambience of the club," says Fee. "The right mix of audio and visuals help create the energy, the mood and the identity of the club."
"Exercise entertainment is the feature that has the most impact with members -- we call it the 'Wow Factor,'" says Andrea Longfellow, North America regional manager, commercial sales, for Cardio Theater/ClubCom,a division of Precor, Woodinville, Wash. "It is what will initially draw [people] into the club, even if [they] can't quite put [their] finger on it." Longfellow draws a parallel with sports bars or a Hard Rock Café if they did not have TVs and a sound system. Now imagine walking into a fitness center that has state-of-the-art cardiovascular and strength equipment, but no TVs and no overhead sound system. How much enjoyment and engagement would an average person have in a facility like this? What is there that would keep members returning? "We strongly believe that entertainment, combined with technology and excellent cardio and strength equipment, will provide a member experience that keeps your members coming back," Longfellowsays.
Technological advances have expanded entertainment content possibilities, which is vital, as members want to choose what they watch and listen to. "Demand for customization is ever increasing," says Longfellow.
Most of the content and programming available on ClubCom is customizable. For example, the music videos available for the entertainment portion of ClubCom are categorized into genres: popular '80s, rock 'n roll, pop, etc. Fitness centers can define by quarter-hour what genre of music they want playing in the different zones they have designated. "This is important, as studies have clearly shown that music will not only help set the right atmosphere and environment, but also helps to motivate [people] through their workouts,"says Longfellow.
Promotional content can also be channeled through a fitness center's entertainment systems. Facility management can communicate more effectively with members, perhaps scrolling banners about new classes or special pro shop offers. However, making money with third-party advertising has proven tricky. Advertising will irritate members unless it is specific and has a direct relevance to them -- for instance, quality fitness products or nutrition programs.
Having invested in fitness entertainment, facility management needs to take proper maintenance steps. Faulty audiovisual equipment can be a major cause of member complaints.
Responsibility for maintenance depends on the facility. Larger club chains will have in-house maintenance personnel. In most instances, Cardio Theater/ClubCom will ensure that the staff is properly trained. The company offers certification training, and its service providers are certified to install and maintain equipment. Additionally, a call center and a dispatch team are available.
BroadcastVision is also alert to maintenance needs. This year, it significantly restructured and upgraded the way it services customers and systems. These improvements include increasing its customer support team to four full-timepersonnel; implementing an online, quick-start customer-service-request form; adding an audiovisual project manager to oversee and handle all installations; streamlining technical service manuals and information to customers; and adding additional regional sales managers (all with facility management experience) to assist customers with fitness entertainment solutions.
Fitness center management needs to be aware of the effects of fitness entertainment on equipment usage. Equipment with audiovisual options get far more use than others, and different grades of audiovisual equipment (e.g., personal screens versus wall-mounted TVs) generate different usage again. It is worthwhile to monitor the hours of use on each piece of equipment, and compare this with the audiovisual options available.
A positive indicator of the power of fitness entertainment to attract the sedentary market is that total hours of use on cardio equipment have been shown to increase; audiovisual equipment boosts total usage levels.
"Go for the 'wow factor' and provide your members with the best possible exercise entertainment experience imaginable," advises Longfellow. "Think about what will engage and entertain your members, and what will set you apart from your competition. Don't be afraid to raise the bar when it comes to exercise entertainment." Go for the best possible visual and sound impact from the moment a member enters your facility. Walk through your fitness center as though you were taking a prospective member on a tour to determine where to strategically locate TVs. Work out on every piece of cardio equipment that will not have a personal viewing system to determine the appropriate viewing angles for the other TVs that will be in the cardio area. Do the same in the strength-training area. Pay attention to the availability and location of electrical outlets, how and where TVs and speakers will be mounted, and how to get the TV signal (cable or satellite) down to the necessary areas.
Fee of BroadcastVision outlines key issues managers should consider when designing an audiovisual and entertainment package for their facility:
* Consider the shelf life of the solution, and consider whether it will become obsolete and cause greater depreciation of equipment, such as with integrated LCD touch panels.
*Consider a flexible platform that allows the facility to grow with technology over time, allowing for integration of new features and concepts.
Slaght from AV Now advises fitness centers to look for specialists. "Some clubs go for a local sound guy, perhaps installing home-theater-like equipment that cannot cope with the load," says Slaght. Look for products that are designed for fitness -- for instance, sweat-resistant mike systems. For group exercise, headsets and transmitters take a beating. If facility management buys ordinary equipment, it will not last three months; a standard circuit board cannot withstand sweat. AV Now's E Mic is designed to last for about 20 classes a week for one year. Similarly, a company with fitness knowledge can advise on the optimum speaker configuration; for instance, what types of speakers to put in a 3,000-square-foot room. Slaght adds that facilities can see a greater improvement in sound from better positioning of speakers than from soundproofing.
Convergence of entertainment options
Fitness and entertainment technologies are steadily converging. Fee of BroadcastVision says he sees further convergence of fitness and entertainment equipment, but questions how far it will go. He points out that once you integrate or embed things like an LCD touch panel into a piece of exercise equipment and one or the other stops working, the entire exercise station is down and will not be used by members. Also, the integration of entertainment technology into exercise equipment will cause faster depreciation of the equipment, as entertainment technology is constantly changing, and becomes old technology rather quickly.
Fee identifies services that entertainment technology will bring to the fitness industry in the near future: private narrowcast networks; member identification on machines; profiled advertising; increased member access to wellness information, news, sports and commerce; and personalized entertainment on demand.
AV Now is currently working on a product for group cycling, which features a flat screen TV/DVD system and computer that can provide a group cycling class with custom rides. "There will be more integration," says Slaught. While video-related products are developing all the time, there are also advances on the audio side. For instance, the latest version of AV Now's Aeromix has an input jack for an iPod, enabling instructors to bring in their own playlists.
Making execise entertaining
Fitness center managers need to stay abreast of technological optionsand members' entertainment expectations. As Fee of BroadcastVision says, "There's no longer an excuse for boring!" Besides being essential to competitiveness, fitness entertainment technologies allow people to disassociate from working out, which brings exercise into the comfort zone for a far larger market.
CardioTheater/ClubCom (www.cardiotheater. com), a division of Precor Inc., has three categories of fitness entertainment products: cardio entertainment, personal cardio entertainment and ambient entertainment.
XTV 900 and 863 MHz Wireless: This system is comprised of two components: 1) a transmitter, which attaches to any video/music source, such as a TV or CD Player; and 2) a receiver (which most members refer to as the remote control), which isthe unit that attaches to the piece of cardiovascular equipment and allows the member to listen to pre-selected entertainment when they plug in headphones.
These systems are specifically designed for fitness applications. The xTV Receiver has a quick-change headphone jack that does not come into contact with the main circuitry of the receiver, and a moisture-seal connector on the back of the receiver that prevents any moisture (sweat, water or cleaning solutions) from entering the unit.
XTV FM is essentially the same as above, but uses the FM bandwidth. An optional FM wireless receiver is available, but most facilities that choose this product opt to have their members use FM personal stereos.
The original Cardio Theater Wired Systemconsists of an amplifier (the module that the TVs and/or audio components are plugged into) and a monitor box set per piece of cardio equipment. The audio signal coming from the TVs and audio components arrives at each piece of cardiovascular equipment via coaxial cable that is generally laid out on the floor (and usually concealed with wire molding or some form of cable management if conduit is not available). The upper monitor looks essentially the same as the xTV wireless receiver, in that members still plug their headphones into this unit and are able to channel up or down and increase or decrease volume levels.
PERSONAL CARDIO ENTERTAINMENT
Cardio Theater 15-inch Personal Viewing System (PVS): The Cardio Theater LCD 15-inch PVS features a 20-key controller, close-caption,
V-Chip parental controls, picture-in-picture, auto shutdown with removal of headphones and default programming to the ClubCom private television broadcasting network. Future 2006 PVS enhancements, combined with ClubCom and InSite technologies, will provide members with personal video-on-demand, individual music play lists, training instructions from personal trainers and club messaging. Mounting options for PVS screens include independent floor stands for all makes of cardiovascular equipment, rail-mount for e-Zone racks or Precor integrated mounts.
ClubCom is a private television network that facility managers can customize to offer entertainment and promotions. Fitness centers can generate additional revenues through advertising placed within ClubCom content. Proprietary technologies permit facility operators to pre-set different music video channels and internal promotional campaigns (up to three distinct zones within the facility: i.e., front desk, strength, locker room, etc.) throughout the day based on member preferences and demographics. This year, Cardio Theater/ClubCom also launched both Y-TV forits YMCA customers, and U-TV for colleges and universities.
BroadcastVision (www.broadcastvision. com) offers personal multimedia screens that attach to individual pieces of exercise equipment, and are compatible with major brands. It also offers widescreen televisions that can be wall- or ceiling-mounted. Cybex is also incorporating BroadcastVision systems into its equipment.
BroadcastVision recently began shipping its Orbit Personal Screen Controller and Orbit Wireless system receivers. These devices interface the exerciser with the facility's audiovisual entertainment in the cardio area. BroadcastVision commissioned BMWto design the Orbit controllers and receivers.
BroadcastVision also offers its new Combo Tone, black and silver, telescopic, personal screen stands, which it says cuts installation time by 50 percent and can support screen sizes up to 27 inches.
AV Now (www.avnow.com) offers complete sound solutions for fitness facilities, covering systems for group exercise areas and background music for an entire facility. The company sells different levels of equipment, and a premium sound system costs from $25,000 to $40,000.
"We have been doing this for 10 years, and have the things fitness people need that cannot be found at a local music store or with a local sound contractor," says Steve Slaght, sales manager for AV Now Inc. Based in California, the company has a strong presence across the southwest, southeast, New England and Chicago areas. Recently, the fitness center at the Pentagon ordered three AV Now systems, which was followed by a purchase for Andrews Air Force Base.
AV Now also manufactures waterproof microphone systems. It hand-builds the AMA Baquapak microphone system, which allows an instructor to be completely in the water, using the waterproof headset and transmitter to instruct the class. The sound is amplified through the SportSound portable poolside all-in-one sound module (with music), or through the facility's own pool sound system.
DirecTV (www.directv.com) offers programming packages for fitness center environment that provides access to digital-quality channels. DirecTV operates via a satellite system, which must be purchased up front.
Many packages are offered, including (among others) 1) Business Value, providing access to more than 80 networks of entertainment, sports and news with a monthly fee of $67.99, or an annual fee of $815; 2) Music Choice, a commercial-free, digital-quality audio service with up to 47 channels of music in a variety of formats for a monthly fee of $39.99 or an annual fee of $449; 3) HD Package, a high-definition alternative for $13.99 monthly; 4) Local Channels only for a monthly fee of $6.99 or an annual fee of $83.88; 5) Business Entertainment, which provides more than 40 channels of entertainment programming, as well as some complimentary channels for a monthly fee of $44.99 or an annual fee of $539; and 6) Business Information, providing news and information from 16 networks for a monthly fee of $29.99 or an annual fee of $359.
Supreme Audio (www.supreme-audio.com) features a selection of complete sound systems, sweat-proof and waterproof aquatic wireless microphones, variable speed pitch control CD players, variable speed pitch control tape decks, amplifiers, speakers, mixers and portable sound systems for the fitness industry.
Six different sound system configurations are offered for group exercise areas and small- to medium-sized fitness centers, priced from $1,600 to $2,400. And, three different "silent" group cycling sound systems are available, priced from $1,400 to $1,900. Sound system accessories are also available.
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