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Where Technology Is Taking Fitness Management

Technology has improved fitness center operations with better tracking methods, and convenience for members and managers.

NOT SO LONG ago, the majority of fitness centers made the transition from paper-based accounting and client management to a computer-based system. The next step, already being used by many, is the transition from PC-based software packages to Internet-based, or "hosted," online services. This transition is in step with the general increase in public demand for businesses to offer web-based services. In the last 10 years, people began using the Internet to shop, pay bills, purchase plane tickets, reserve hotel rooms and much more. In fact, a 2004 eMarketer study indicated that 101.7 million Americans shop online. That number is expected to reach 120 million by 2006.

Member convenience

Rick Stollmeyer, president and founder of MindBody Online (www.mindbodysoftware.com), credits the move toward web-based solutions to the need for fitness centers to satisfy members. "The clear trend is toward web-based solutions, which allow fitness club management and staff members to connect in real time with members and clients, focusing on their needs and making their experiences more enjoyable," says Stollmeyer. MindBody Online's web-based program, called PT Manager, allows fitness members and personal training clients to schedule classes and appointments online, as well as pay for services.

Not just for members

Fitness center members and the public are not the only forces driving web-based solutions. More fitness facility owners and operators are beginning to recognize the benefits of using "hosted" business management tools as opposed to packaged software programs.

Steve Ruth, director of sales at Aphelion, Houston, Texas (www.aphelion.net), sees the trend toward web-based services as a means for fitness facilities to gain an advantage over competitors. "Any size fitness center, from 300-member locations, to personal trainers, to 8,000-member flagship clubs, utilizes technology," Ruth says. "The top clubs utilize club management software as a tool to gain a competitive advantage."

Ruth says that automating repetitive tasks reduces costs, which allows fitness center management to devote more resources to recruiting new members. Aphelion currently offers both a PC-based and web-based product, and is used in 3,300 club organizations.

Ruth believes that the next expansion in technology, beyond using web-based management services, will be meeting the demand to deliver Internet services to members, such as being able to look up accounts online, make payments, and sign in or register - features some developers already offer.

Virtually all online fitness management products, whether members can interact with them or not, allow for simple, scalable growth. When a fitness center expands or opens another location, there is no need to purchase additional software packages, because access to the management system is available from any computer with an Internet connection.

This benefits members, as well. For example, multi-location facilities can use one online system, allowing members to visit any location at any time and swipe their member card for quick and easy check-in.

Another key benefit is the ability to easily and efficiently collect, store and update member or client data in real time. Being able to capture when members visit, how frequently they visit, what classes they participate in, what classes few people participate in, and even connecting members by relationship to offer referral incentives - all provide operators with a bird's-eye view of the facility's and clients' needs.

"I do believe that, finally, more and more operators are becoming enlightened to the fact that, in order to obtain good statistical data on what their members want, need and expect, they must implement a club management software system," says Benson Fine, CEO and founder of Conexion, developer of Conexion Fitness Club Software (www.conexionllc.com), based in Baltimore, Md. "It's virtually impossible to do so efficiently without one." Conexion offers both a packaged software program and a hosted service. According to Dave Merrill, Conexion's chief technology officer, the vast majority of customers buy the hosted service as opposed to the packaged software. "Our hosted service provides operators complete redundancy," says Merrill. "Operators can count on backups [and] updates, and receive product enhancements 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Web-based (hosted) services also provide operators with the luxury of working remotely. "Most people in business would rather be home checking the numbers or sales if they could, and hosted services provide that option," Merrill says.

Increased revenue

Jai Lewis, program director at 360 Health Club (www.360healthclub.com) located just outside Los Angeles, Calif., lends a unique perspective with a background in IT and previous work as a computer consultant to San Francisco-area start-ups. When he began working in fitness, he was surprised by the lack of technology in use. 360 Health Club uses a two-system scenario, applying two different products to cover all the facility's needs: Aphelion's PC-based software package and MindBody Online's web-based product. Lewis sees the software industry getting closer to developing one perfect-fit solution. Lewis also believes that web-based programs that allow member interaction will become the norm for all facilities.

Contrary to popular belief, age is becoming less of a factor when it comes to introducing members to new technology. "About 800 to 1,000 of our members are 65 years-plus," says Lewis, who implemented three Internet kiosks at 360 Health Club to help familiarize members with the online service. Taking the time to "train" members, as opposed to expecting them to pick up the technology themselves, has paid off.

Lewis referred to 360's Pilates program, which was experiencing a lag in growth, largely due to a cumbersome reservation process. In the first full month after the fitness center introduced a web-based scheduler, Pilates class participation (and its respective revenue) jumped nearly 30 percent. It has since leveled off to about twice as much as what the facility was bringing in prior to the new system. "This particular technology helped us to increase revenue without a significant increase in anything else, including manpower," Lewis says.

Seeking innovation

Software and Internet developers are constantly seeking new innovations and ways to advance business-management programs. One emerging factor that will affect the fitness industry is the pressure for health insurance companies to cover activities deemed to be "preventive health" measures, such as exercise.

As this becomes an accepted and expected benefit of many group health plans, fitness centers will need to be able to provide detailed proof of an insured's workout and attendance history to be reimbursed for memberships or drop-in fees. While this could represent a nightmare in paperwork (as most hospitals and health centers know), advances in technology will benefit fitness facilities over the next few years. "In the next three to five years, we are going to see a convergence of the healthcare industry and the fitness industry," predicts Merrill. "Operators will need to better understand their members and the needs of their community, and technology will drive that."

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