Research Update: Techno Training
Ronale Tucker Rhodes
"Techno training is the next step in the evolution process for the fitness facility environment," says Bob Nutini, founder of Fitistics, Newington, Conn. For instance, says Nutini, "the first automobiles were nothing more than four wheels and an engine, but over time, they were equipped with various sensors and gauges to let the driver know how fast they were going, how long it has been since the oil was changed and how to get to their destination. In the same sort of progression, techno training products are giving fitness facilities the ability to provide their members with the sensors and gauges needed to reach their health and fitness goals. A fitness dashboard, if you will."
Techno training can be thought of as an extension of what's traditionally been offered at fitness facilities. "The traditional way to train a member is to have [members] physically be at your gym with the trainer," says Larry King, founder and CEO of Shape.Net, Colts Neck, N.J. But with techno training, you can provide the services of a trainer without the trainer present. "We call it digital training," says Declan Condron, co-founder and co-creator of PumpOne, New York, N.Y. "Our take on techno training is allowing technology to convey the methodologies of a personal trainer in a much more convenient (schedule-wise), portable (using devices members are already bringing to the gym) and affordable (since 92 percent of members don't use personal training services) manner."
What's in it for the facility and its membersDepending on the specific tool being used, members can access workout prescriptions, log workouts, track exercise performance and behavior goals, and interact with fitness center staff remotely. Even more, the tools can "educate potential clients, provide assessment and programming information for trainers, and increase communication between the facility staff and its members," says Chris McNeil, president of Faster Fitness, Charleston, S.C., and developer of Pensarc software. "The tools optimize all aspects of training management by packaging relevant information in a smart and strategic way."
The most important things about techno training, says Paul Wittrock, co-owner of FitSync, Washington, D.C., "is to complement, rather than replace, the services of a qualified personal trainer, reinforce the value of facility membership, and strengthen the connections among members, trainers and facility management." This is done by combining assessment equipment and/or handheld devices (PDAs and cell phones) with web-based technology, which Wittrock explains, "replaces paper-based training logs, expands member services in both personal training and self-guided fitness activities, and connects members, trainers and facility management in real-time, anywhere, anytime." And, the tools can help fitness centers and trainers become a part of all of their members' total fitness and active lifestyle activities, whether performed inside or outside the facility.
"Online training tools offer a way for personal trainers to improve the effectiveness of their sessions with clients," says Nutini. They "provide valuable information to trainers as to what their clients are doing in between sessions, which will enable trainers to design more effective workouts and offer more data-driven recommendations."
Which leads to the fact that techno training isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, says Terry Kapsen, vice president of marketing and business development for New Leaf, St. Paul, Minn. It's about tailoring workouts to the individual — making every workout count, in a way that is effective and engaging. And, this ensures "that everyone wins by delivering results for the member, providing efficient ways for trainers to leverage themselves by reaching and managing more members, and by creating a platform that drives broader participation and membership at the club, while helping to retain existing members," says Kapsen.
"We don't believe online training helps fitness facilities much or at all; we believe offline training is where the key is," says Condron. "Fitness facilities that offer integrated online training, along with memberships, show their members that they don't just care about getting membership fees. Caring about actually helping members reach their fitness goals and showing that by offering personal training services to all members, not just those who can afford it, will attract and retain members." In the end, by giving members faster results and motivating them with clear evidence of their progress, the facility will get more referrals and greater customer retention, says McNeil.
A day in the life of techno trainingTechno training tools can be integrated into the entire facility operation. Depending on the tool, when a new member joins, an account is created for them to use the techno training software. Fitness assessments are taken, goals are set and a program is developed for the member. At that time, depending on the way the techno training tool is packaged, the member may or may not have one or more personal training sessions scheduled. If so, the "lead management" process has been made faster, meaning the call from the personal trainer to the member happens more quickly. "In the old days, it would be a week or two before you got that secondary touch of the member; now it's 48 hours," Wittrock says.
The only thing required to access the techno training software is Internet access. Some facilities provide a computer terminal for members to access the online software, while other facilities require members to log on at their own computers or via hand-held PDAs and even cell phones. For self-guided members, they can log their workouts on their own. For those who opt for personal training sessions, it is the trainer who logs the workouts for the training session, and members log the workouts they perform on their own. At any time, members and trainers can monitor progress, including viewing progression charts for body composition and exercise success. Some systems have ranking tools that show how members are doing in terms of age group. The key, says Wittrock, is to provide members with reference points. They set a goal and then are provided with the tools to measure their success, so they can see how far they've progressed.
Communication between the member and trainer is all-important. In most instances, members are provided with instant email access to trainers who will answer questions. And, facility owners/operators have access to the software to monitor how many members are using the system and how their trainers are interacting with them.
Workout programs are standard on most of the techno training software. However, most also allow the facility's trainers to create custom workout programs, which can be offered at an even higher premium. "We're encouraging the club to make it more personal to their facility," says Wittrock. "You can get 'Jane's Workouts' at 'Jane's Club.'"
Bringing in an extra buckNot only do these tools provide the motivation to keep clients working out by showing them the results they are achieving, but these programs also provide an additional revenue stream for the facility.
First, techno training tools can work as a membership sales tool, says Daron Allen, president and CEO for Visual Fitness Planner, Fort Worth, Texas. "I am a firm believer that a huge majority of people learn through visual methodology. [W]hen you combine visual with audio, the learning experience is much great than the individual parts," Allen says. So, before the techno training tool reaches the trainers, staff can use it as a "presentation platform" for prospective members to show them how their fitness assessments will be monitored and how their goals are going to be tracked.
The cost of almost all techno training products is paid up front by the facility itself. The fees, however, differ, depending on the product. Some companies charge a flat monthly fee, regardless of number of members using the product, averaging about $2,500 per year. Others charge based on the number of members who are using the product; and, in some cases, minimum volume requirements need to be met to get the lower prices. And still others have different software packages, which provide fewer or more training options, that determine the cost. For instance, some companies charge a flat fee for member access, but also charge for trainer accounts to be set up, as well as a manager page to be accessible for overseeing all of the accounts. In some cases, volume-based profit sharing programs are offered. And, in a few instances, it is necessary to pay an additional charge to purchase equipment for assessment purposes.
To offer these tools as a profit center, facility operators, then, can set up a variety of pricing structures to offer these techno tools to members. These include offering them as part of the basic membership package, as standard with all memberships but using them as a channel to sell club-branded workouts or exercise/workout libraries, bundling with premium membership packages and/or bundling with personal training packages. It's up to facility operators how and how much they want to charge the members.
"By giving members choices, the club can offer techno training tools to suit the needs of most everyone," Kapsen says. "For example, basic levels of service can be integrated into monthly membership fees, while more advanced training can be offered as a fee-for-service or integrated into programs like group exercise, the running club, triathlon training, etc."
"Fitness facilities can offer training tools with a built-in profit margin to address both personal training clients and self-guided members," says Wittrock. "Training tools may be a direct or indirect profit center. For example, a direct profit would result from selling a premium membership with techno tools included for an additional $10 to $20 per month. An indirect model would be to include techno tools at no charge if the member purchases 25 or more personal training sessions."
"Techno training adds a significant no-cost or low-cost revenue stream," says Condron. He suggests offering daily, weekly, monthly or "by-workout" fees from an integrated online store so the non-personal-training member can pick and choose how to spend their money. "Take about 15 percent of the number of non-personal-training members," says Condron. "Assume they spend $30 for a month's worth of workouts. Then, assume about half of that return on a monthly basis to get new fresh workouts. That's 8 percent repeat that would grow, depending on the facility's ability to market the service."
How much can the fitness center stand to make with these new tools? "The profit potential is hard to quantify because there are so many indirect benefits, and there are a lot of influencing factors outside the techno training tool itself," says Nutini. "One major influencing factor is staff support. The staff needs to take responsibility for making the training tool a success."
Like anything, the more you put into it, the more it will pay off. "The more aggressively the club promotes the service, the higher the return," says Wittrock. For instance, if a facility charges its members an additional $5 per month for an upgraded membership that includes the online package, and 10 percent of that facility's 2,500 members subscribe, then an additional $1,180 per month will be generated. At this level, the minimum volume level has been met, so the facility is being charged around 25 cents per member. That's a 1,000 percent profit margin the club is making by selling the techno training tool.
And, one last interesting way to make a profit from these new tools is with corporate accounts. "More and more companies are rewarding their employees for living active lifestyles, whether it's with health club membership reimbursements, prizes, additional vacation or contributions to the health savings account," says Nutini. "What employers are looking for is accountability. Facilities that offer online training tools that provide quantified proof of exercise (not just a barcode swipe at the front desk) will have a whole new value to offer employers."
Pre-purchased or do-it-yourselfIs it feasible for facility operators to consider creating an online techno training tool of their own? Or, are they better off using one of those currently available? This may seem like a no-brainer, but some facility operators have opted to go on their own. "We developed our own software with the vision of using our studios as a testing ground for programs we would then make available nationally," explains McNeil. "There are over 5,000 man-hours [in the] development of this software, which was developed ... to meet the unique needs of the fitness business and of our special clients." [Editor's note: McNeil's Faster Fitness won the 2007 Nova7Awards Websites and New Technology award for the development of its Pensarc software, which at the time, had not yet been marketed commercially.) But, as McNeil will admit, "few facilities have the time or the development expertise to create such a system. Besides, why reinvent the wheel?"
That seems to be the consensus of the suppliers. The top four reasons are cost, core competency, support and best practices. "Developing techno training tools can be expensive," says Nutini. "Buying or leasing an off-the-shelf tool will only be a fraction of the cost of trying to develop it internally." In fact, King estimates that it would cost more than $20,000 to design software and implement it on a facility's computer network, "most of which would be paid for designing the software to provide the desired features," he explains. "Licensing the software would cost about $2,500 per year — a much more cost-effective process."
Allen adds that "the companies in our industry that have been building these systems and building these tools have ... between five and 20 years of making all of the mistakes that people would invariably make." Plus, the companies offering techno training tools have already been through the trial-and-error process. Most companies' products have evolved over time due to constant feedback from customers. With the pre-developed tools, facilities can install the software immediately and learn implementation best practice from other locations that may already be offering the system, says Nutini.
"Fitness facilities are in the business of selling memberships [and running their business]," says Condron. "They are not in the technology business."
If you offer it, will they come?It's difficult to quantify the success of techno training tools in fitness facilities. This is due mostly to the issue of facility operators not wanting to reveal their corporate secrets. However, one supplier did say that one of its clients has been providing the service for several years to approximately 25 members on a weekly basis paying $20 per week, with annual profits averaging approximately $25,000. Another supplier says that it has accounts that are generating between $5,000 and $10,000 per month.
Most companies say that facility operators tell of their successes with the tools anecdotally. "Most of the operators will not share specific numbers with us," says Allen. However, "some of the success measures are increased membership sales and increased personal training sales."
At McNeil's Faster Fitness, it began using its software in different stages of development since 2002 with thousands of clients. "As each component has evolved," says McNeil, "studio management has become more efficient, and client success, referrals and retention has not only improved, but become much more visible."
But, are these types of training tools really what members want? "It seems that in the world of tracking, you have a certain amount of the population that don't log anything," Wittrock says. "Those who don't log either 1) 'wing it' in the gym each time, or just do the same workout year after year; or 2) tried logging, but it was too cumbersome, plus they saw little value in recording data without any analysis, so they stopped. ... Results of numerous focus groups, surveys and random discussions indicate that clients don't renew with their trainer because they 'aren't getting results.'" But, says Wittrock, in many cases, clients really are getting results, but it's not evident to them. For example, they lose 10 pounds of fat, but gain 10 pounds of muscle, and the scale reads the same, so the client is disappointed. "Clients want to see progress and want personalized attention from their trainer; they won't want the same routine that all the other clients are doing," he says.
In the end, it most likely all comes down to results. "A lot of times, clubs say we have a lot of triathletes, so [the product] will be great," says Kapsen. "But, often, it's the 65-year-old woman who has struggled with fitness all her life [who uses it.] Or, the busy mom who has little time to devote to exercise and really wants to get results from what she does."
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