Computer-Monitored Workouts and Member Retention

More than three years have passed since one female member of the affluent Fitness Club of New Canaan, Conn., walked out of that facility for the last time, remarking to staff as she exited that she wasn't getting enough personal attention. The abrupt membership cancellation came as a surprise to club owner Glenn Hutchinson and his crew. "We thought she was happy," he says. "She never mentioned anything, so we just didn't know."

The whole situation could have been avoided, Hutchinson claims, had the club at that time owned what's commonly become known as a fitness network - a computer-operated member-retention tool that guides users through customized strength and cardiovascular workout programs, continually updating and storing their detailed workout progress and preferences. Networks can automatically calculate everything from heart-rate level and exercise intensity to weight load, range of motion, optimum wait time and number of repetitions. Individual management stations allow staffers to access member information, monitor activity and print reports from networked personal computers. And, perhaps most important - at least in Hutchinson's case - they feature internal E-mail systems for users and trainers to communicate.

When Hutchinson invested in a network shortly after the woman cancelled her membership, he tacked on a $15-per-person per-month user fee, recouped his costs and watched his club's retention rate climb from 55 percent to 70 percent in less than three years; some months, retention reaches as high as 95 percent.

"People like that woman wouldn't have cared about the $15," Hutchinson says. "She just wanted the extra attention. With the system, we retain more people and it also brings more people into the club."

But getting people into fitness centers has always been easier than keeping them there. A variety of studies in recent years indicate that up to 40 percent of members quit within six months of joining because they're either bored, don't believe they're receiving enough input from staff trainers or are too embarrassed to ask questions.

"The key to retention is how much people are involved in activities that provide a feeling of community," says Ron Erickson, executive director of the Downtown San Diego YMCA, which uses a fitness network on about 30 pieces of cardio and strength equipment. "An operating system is part of that. Used properly, any of them would certainly help you retain members."

That's why many facility operators have chucked their members' labor-intensive and outdated workout cards and exercise journals to latch onto the fitness network concept. While "exertainment" systems allow equipment users to watch TV, surf the Web, catch up on E-mail or jam to their favorite tunes while working out (see "Let Us Entertain You," p. 58), fitness networks such as the FitLinxx ™ Interactive Fitness Network, Schwinn Fitness Advisor ® system and TechnoGym ® system actually teach skills and monitor individual development.

"They're in tune with our philosophy here," says Jim Gill, head trainer at the Phoenix Suns Athletic Club, an upscale facility owned by the NBA's Suns and Major League Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, but which also offers memberships to the general public. "Things that are tools for educating members about exercise programs - seat adjustments, speed and tempo, proper and improper techniques - are what we're interested in."

Gill installed 60 network units (30 on selectorized strength-resistance equipment and 30 on cardio equipment) in his club in April 1998, and he's discovered that while many types of members use them, key demographic groups are the over-50 and twenty-something crowds. "The older members are more interested in having something laid out in front of them," he says. "It's easier for them to grasp. All they have to have is their personal identification number or access key. The system walks them through their routines."

Younger users, Gill adds, are "more in tune technologically with gadgets and electronics. They see the system as another gizmo that makes their lives easier."

These gizmos are the future of fitness, industry leaders say. "They are in their infancy, but they shouldn't take long to catch on," says Rick Caro, chairman of Spectrum Clubs International, based in New York City. "There are people who now understand that the world is changing very rapidly, and we have a lot of decision makers who are not as geared up for technology as the next generation of people who are now coming into management positions."

The new generation of fitness facility operators has gotten a sizable jump on its competition. The network concept - only a few years old, in most cases - is still so new that many U.S. health clubs and YMCAs aren't hooked up.

Officials at the three major network providers are doing their best to change that, actively promoting their products not only to clubs and Ys, but to corporate wellness centers, law-enforcement training facilities, and high schools and colleges.

The FitLinxx system, like all of the networks, gives participants interactive feedback and provides information to users and staff members, who can internally message and encourage users and even give them a motivating kick in the rear, if necessary. Accessed with a PIN, each station and centralized kiosk displays graphs and reports to show progress toward monthly goals. The system can be retrofitted to most major equipment pieces. Late last year, FitLinxx debuted a new Internet tool that allows users around the globe to access their information via the Web. They can enter details from workouts while on vacation or from home, and they can communicate with their trainers from anywhere.

Schwinn's Fitness Advisor system, which has recently been installed at a number of high schools and law-enforcement training centers, works in a manner similar to FitLinxx, and the system retrofits to more than 20 brands of equipment.

TechnoGym, unlike FitLinxx and Fitness Advisor, uses a "Smartkey" to store and access users' medical histories, test results, and programming and activity logs. While the system is designed for use on TechnoGym's cardio and strength equipment, a Power Control unit upgrade kit makes the network compatible with all brands of selectorized equipment. Like other networks, such activities as swimming, jogging and shooting hoops can be entered and computed into calories burned and other information. A centralized kiosk houses videos of virtually any exercise, which users can download and review.

Life Fitness at one time also manufactured its own network software for its machines, but the company eventually agreed to team with FitLinxx and scrap its own software business.

With a key goal of fitness networks being member retention, the systems can be customized based on the size of the facility, the number of members and the amount of equipment.

Women's Fitness, a 500-member, all-female club in Harrisonburg, Va., installed a network system on 11 pieces of strength equipment about two years ago. During 1998, the first full year the club was hooked up, membership skyrocketed, says club owner Julia Wheatley. Today, Women's Fitness enjoys its largest membership ever, and at least 92 percent of members are on the network, paying an extra $5 a month for the privilege. "It's become a positive addiction," Wheatley says. "Once people start exercising with it, it's tough to go back to exercising without it." That's why her goal is to incorporate 100 percent of her members into the network, encouraging them at least once a week through the network's internal messaging system.

Meanwhile, about 3,000 members of the Oxford Athletic Club North in Pittsburgh train on a network that was installed a little more than a year ago. Another 3,000 or so work out on a network at the Oxford Athletic Club East. The mere presence of the networks has helped gain new members who recently moved to the city and previously belonged to another networked club. It also has helped retain individuals who might otherwise have felt underappreciated and lost among the 16,000 members at both clubs, says Jeffrey Esswein, Oxford Athletic Club's general manager. "I've paid for this five times over just by retaining the people we would have lost," he says.

While Esswein leases his clubs' systems and doesn't charge members for their use, other facilities, like Women's Fitness and the Fitness Club of New Canaan, help offset the costs of leasing or owning a network through increased membership dues. Since September, the North Park Racquet and Athletic Club in Spokane, Wash., has been charging $14.95 a month to use the facility's network. Another more structured 12-week program costs $99.95. "We guarantee that you will lose body fat and increase strength, or your money back," says Patrick Fischer, manager of North Park's fitness network. "This is a perfect thing for clubs, because instead of people getting frustrated in their programs and fading away, people are going to be a lot happier with their memberships because they're actually going to see results."

An additional monthly fee of $5, $15 or more for a certain degree of personalized attention is not unreasonable, considering that some personal training clients dole out $450 a month for one-on-one service. "The reality is that fitness networks have increased the number of people coming into the personal training services arena," New Canaan's Hutchinson says, citing the affordability factor. His club offers four levels of membership: standard, which comes without much individual attention or the fitness network; the fitness network-only option; eight-week fitness clinics using the network; and one-on-one sessions with a personal trainer. "I've got members who used to only spend $1,000 a year at the club who now spend $2,000, $3,000 or more on programs we've built around the network," he says. "I didn't realize how dramatic the increase would be."

Neither, initially, did personal trainers. "When we first mentioned the idea of a fitness network to the trainers, there was some concern about their jobs becoming obsolete," Gill says. "I told them that the system replaces the trainer writing out a member's workout. It's just another tool in their tool belt."

In reality, rather than eliminating jobs, many fitness networks require more work. The Phoenix Suns Athletic Club hires three interns a year whose tasks include monitoring the system daily, checking battery levels, calibrating sensors, keeping track of technical and upgrade information and fielding users' questions.

The Shelby County branch of the Birmingham (Ala.) YMCA also hired more people to help maintain its 13 network units on the facility's strength equipment. "You can't just buy this, put it on some equipment in a room, leave it alone and think it'll work wonders," says Chris Talbird, the facility's fitness director. "We've never had a monitoring method before, and many of our trainers have 100 members in a group. We've gone from trainers standing on the floor and making sure everybody was happy to monitoring a computer, calling members and following up with them. If they don't come in, we can note that, call them at home and ask why they weren't here. The guilt trip works for us. We're not calling to ask for money; we're calling because we're concerned about you. We want you to come in."

That inviting, user-friendly attitude has spawned many marketing opportunities for clubs - including a simple "personalized computer monitoring" bullet point in a Yellow Pages ad, weekly fitness segments on local television newscasts featuring a club and its network, and incentive programs in which members earn points through frequent network use. Those points can be converted into dollars and applied toward membership dues, and pro shop and juice bar purchases.

At least a handful of clubs are also working with local insurance companies to help self-insured members keep their rates down by using a network system. Some HMOs may consider computer-monitored exercising a form of preventive medicine because it allows users to test themselves for compliance and keep track of their progress, says Tom Rogers, general manager of the Phoenix Suns Athletic Club, adding that the local Blue Cross/Blue Shield chapter is interested in pursuing that avenue with his club.

Other facilities are using network technology to tap into the home fitness market. The Fitness Club of New Canaan plans to launch "virtual memberships" this month, targeting people who work out on home equipment. Under a recent pilot plan, one woman paid $25 a month to exercise at home, communicate with a club trainer via E-mail and log her workout routines and progress into the club's network system over the Web. The woman lost 19 pounds in about six weeks, Hutchinson says.

Meanwhile, ActFit.com, an interactive health and fitness Web site, is taking a different technology-driven approach toward member retention. "Weights in Motion," the first installment in a new CD-ROM series called "Body of Knowledge," features an encyclopedia of 56 strength-training exercises that users can download at home for audio and video demonstrations. Stretches, cardio warm-up exercises and club etiquette tips also are included on the disc, which is aimed at beginners and people who haven't exercised for awhile.

Additional technological advancements to further aid member-retention efforts are inevitable. John Colbert, director of product marketing at FitLinxx, foresees consolidation of all four technology categories in the fitness realm - exertainment systems, front-desk operations, fitness assessments and fitness networks. "They will have different manufacturers, but they will all talk to each other," Colbert says. "So competitors will have to be friendly."

Here's how such a union would work, according to Colbert: The swipe of the magnetic strip on the back of a membership card would alert the facility's management station, which in turn would notify that member's trainer that he or she had entered the club. By the time the member accessed the network, the trainer would have been able to send an internal greeting via the system or welcome the member in person when he or she emerged from the locker room. Meanwhile, a PIN would access fitness network programs and a user's Internet, television and music preferences. Fitness assessments would be updated as a user works out, perhaps even in real time. "It's incredibly imperative to combine technology into a user-friendly environment," Colbert says.

Before the fitness industry gets too absorbed by technology, though, it would be wise to heed the words of Esswein, who carefully researched the network concept for three years before incorporating it into his clubs. "These are only tools," he says. "You still have to have people to use and execute them."