"There isn't a ton of pitch," says Tom Boyle, vice president and general manager at Life Fitness, when asked how he talks to customers about upgrading their cardio equipment. "Most people understand that this is just the world that we're living in, and then for us it's really understanding, 'What are your pain points? What do you need?' "
Boyle says most fitness operators have moved way beyond simply wanting to better manage their assets. Now, he sees clubs and rec centers working to set themselves up for the future.
His customers are asking about how they can further engage their clientele through on-demand content, or how they can integrate their equipment with their member management system. Boyle admits, "Then it's really up to us to figure out things like how do you make the technology affordable? How do you prove out the ROI for the clubs and then really get people to transition from the LED consoles to premium consoles, where you can offer content, where you can offer a better workout experience?"
Today's high-end connected cardio equipment addresses a range of needs, from sophisticated end-users' desire to track the minutia of their workouts to operators' desire to address operational pain points. Here's a look at a few reasons why investment in a cardio equipment upgrade might be just the ticket to boost business, satisfy customers and ease the challenges associated with day-to-day operations.
Questions to ask manufacturers before upgrading cardio equipment:
• Does your platform support third-party apps and services?
When every piece of cardio equipment is essentially controlled through a touchscreen tablet, end-users become a captive audience of sorts, which presents a great opportunity for operators to personalize their customer experience and differentiate from the competition.
"I tell our customers, my definition of success is when there are four gyms on the same block that have my gear in them, but they all look different," says Jeff Bartee, product manager at Precor. "They act differently. They have different services on them, and they're all reflecting that club's message."
Legacy LED consoles are a static medium that has served a purpose, but today Bartee says Precor is trying to take its equipment to the next level. "We think the services that we deliver need to meet the exerciser and the operator where they are," Bartee says. "How can we make that an experience and not a piece of metal? Technology is one of those tools to deliver that experience. You tap it and it's part of the overall workout experience."
That experience embodies a number of unique features. For instance, operators can message a user directly on the console about anything from new programming to holiday hours. Personal trainers can review workouts and check in with feedback. Connected software also provides the infrastructure for some unique niceties. For instance, a user might be able to hit a button and have someone bring them a bottle of water or a towel without breaking stride. Through the use of personal profiles, individual end-users can immediately log into and access all of their personal streaming and social media accounts — Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Facebook.
Retention and engagement
It's no secret that cardio can be a drag. Running or cycling in place for an hour is hard work. State-of-the-art equipment is aimed, at least in part, at keeping end-users committed, which goes well beyond offering access to Netflix on the treadmill.
Marco Zambianchi, president of Technogym North America, sees that screen on the treadmill or elliptical as a dynamic tool for ensuring that end-users stay engaged with the club or rec center on multiple levels.
For Zambianchi, the supporting software platform has become a repository for stores of valuable data on individual customers. In the past, a user might have ground out an hour on a treadmill and would have no real idea how that particular run compared to their session the previous week. With today's cloud-based platforms, every performance is captured and stored in the end-user's profile, allowing them to access that data on a daily basis, which in turn motivates them to do better each time. "When we incorporate that into our connected ecosystem of equipment, we're able to allow more programming opportunities, more opportunities to follow up with actual data as to how that user is participating as an exerciser," Zambianchi says. "All of this helps the operator to stay in this activation mode with their customers. They're always engaged, they're always finding new ways to drive their members' journey by having this touchpoint of connected equipment."
Zambianchi says the screen is also an effective way to deepen an operator's relationship with customers. "One of our applications is called Communicator and it allows the operator to push content, push surveys, get feedback, advertise specials or bring in local partners with ads or incentives," he says. "We're able to control your screensaver. We're able to add new content, enable push notifications. I mean it's such a great way to really engage with your users."
Cloud-connected cardio equipment refers to equipment that is connected to the internet, which in turn allows for data to be collected and then stored on remote, secure, centralized servers (the cloud) and accessed from anywhere. So, today's workout might be logged on a treadmill at the gym but can then be accessed and reviewed from a mobile device while the end-user is sitting on the couch at home.
A robust central processing unit and a connection to the internet are also integral to addressing one of the primary pain points for operators — maintenance. Preventative, or predictive, maintenance means the equipment itself has the built-in smarts to identify a problem and automatically alert technicians that something is about to break.
Ashley Haberman, U.S. commercial marketing manager for Matrix Fitness, says that his technicians can monitor a unit from afar. "If there's an error, it will notify us so we can get service called and reduce the downtime on that machine," he says. "We're also going to work with the customer to ensure that we come up with a plan for regular maintenance that keeps things up and running."
In fact, preventative maintenance has become the norm. "It's basic asset management," says Laughlin. "We're able to care for the product. We're able to monitor your network. We're able to monitor the usage and default indicators. So, from a peace-of-mind standpoint, we'll have all of that. We've got you covered, and you'll find that across most manufacturers' basic level of cloud connectivity."
It's worth noting that a robust connection to the internet is crucial when it comes to powering this kind of equipment and features. Equipment providers will likely want to know the specifics of a facility's internet connectivity and may need to make changes to service if the bandwidth or speed is inadequate. "We have to spend a lot of time talking about network connections," Boyle says. "We have to talk about your bandwidth and who's your provider. There's a lot of education, but this is the way things are going, and you want to have the conversation up front. It's fairly seamless, but you have to educate early and not later."
One of the advantages of having computers embedded in a piece of cardio equipment is that new features and technology can be added via software updates. When shopping around, it's worth asking manufacturers about their technology roadmap and how they're planning for the future.
Bartee says he's concerned with ensuring that flexibility is built into the platform itself. "Boutiques have really blown up. Budgets have really blown up," he says. "So we're really trying to understand how we build systems and platforms that don't paint us into a corner, so we can respond quickly to support customers as they go through market changes."
Part of ensuring that kind of flexibility is the openness of the company's Preva platform, which is built around common programming languages, such as HTML5 and Java. "We have a developer program with instructions, sample code, and we also have engineering partner support in Shanghai, London and Seattle," Bartee says. "So it's one thing to say, 'Hey, I'm open.' It's another thing to say, 'Here are processes and tools to enable creativity by helping partners get on the system and start using the platform.' "
To Bartee's point, most manufacturers have little interest in becoming content creators, or experts in artificial intelligence. Therefore, it's key that they have a plan in place to partner with companies proficient in those areas. "It's complicated to try and cover all those bases, and it's a ton of money," Bartee says. "We're working really hard to knit together a broad variety of our own services and those of our partners and bring them together on a platform that enables a seamless integration so the customer can choose. Our goal is to do what we do well and enable our partners to do what they do well."
In the end, all this new technology adds up to a lot more choices for operators. In fact, the features on these new machines can border on overwhelming. The key to making the right choice for your business lies in understanding what you want out of a cardio floor full of screens — before you start shopping — and plan to lean on your chosen manufacturer to help guide you through the process.
This article originally appeared in the January | February 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "The Easy Pitch: Next-gen cloud-connected cardio equipment" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.