IHRSA show '05: Jammed and jamming hall and booths

Packing in as many exhibitors as the fire marshall allowed, including in alcoves off the main floor and in a ballroom across the hall past the snack bar, the IHRSA show attracted clubs, trainers, dealers, analysts and others looking for new and cool products, a shot of inspiration from lectures and classes, and a good look at how the club fitness market seems to be faring.
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Packing in as many exhibitors as the fire marshall allowed, including in alcoves off the main floor and in a ballroom across the hall past the snack bar, the IHRSA show attracted clubs, trainers, dealers, analysts and others looking for new and cool products, a shot of inspiration from lectures and classes, and a good look at how the club fitness market seems to be faring.

More club and dealer executives seemed to be on-hand this year at the March 16-19 show compared to recent years, including more from the East Coast. They also seemed to have brought a larger herd of staff members than in the past – all of which lent energy to a show floor that buzzed and jammed from beginning to end and to early morning workouts that were beehives of activity in all corners, including the farthest reaches.

“Traffic has been good and we've been slammed the whole show,” said Lyon Alizna, commercial sales director for TuffStuff. “We aren't a household name for the club guys yet, but they are starting to pay attention to us.”

All in all, the show held its own despite continued industry consolidation and some talk of a just-recovering economy. In fact, one front-row exhibitor called the attendee influx when the expo hall first swung open its doors on March 17 like a tidal wave that flooded the booth. Even back-row exhibitors were somewhat stunned, albeit pleasantly, at the constant surge of the crowds.Â

Hall configuration and overflow
One thing that helped was the configuration of the approximately 260,000-square-foot main hall in San Francisco's Moscone Center (wide and shallow with entrance doors all along one long side) compared to the odd-shaped 300,000-square-foot hall in the Las Vegas Convention Center. There, the long and narrow hall, which allowed only three large booths across the front and had only a short row of doors on one narrow end, left many middle and back exhibitors with more time on their hands and completely desolate during early morning workouts.

“The layout of the show this year is far better than it was in Las Vegas last year,” said Wen Lee of Aeromat. “It is designed in a way to keep the foot traffic flowing to everyone.”

Still, the slightly smaller hall in San Francisco meant the show sold-out with 375 exhibitors despite adding an additional ballroom for exhibits that held nearly 11,000 square feet of booth space and close to 80 exhibitors. Las Vegas was able to accommodate 400 exhibitors and still kept them in one large hall with room to spare in the back.

The addition of the ballroom this year was a blessing and a curse. It allowed more exhibitors, but then placed them in a hidden area that many missed – despite IHRSA trying to entice attendees on Friday with free ice cream bars and adding intercom announcements after the first day to prod attendees past the snack bar into the extra space.

"I'm not that thrilled" with the placement, said Jason Grimm, vice president of marketing for new exergame specialist Powergrid Fitness. "It's definitely not as good as being across the hall."

Said Jim Stone of Cateye Fitness, “We were moved here because of space problems. They billed it as a 'showcase,' but it is really just an overflow area. There is not nearly as good of foot traffic on this side, and we are not happy about it.”

IHRSA apparently tried to accommodate additional exhibitors by tacking on the ballroom and told them exactly where the space would be, said Bill Howland, director of public relations for the association. IHRSA even put its own booth in the back of the overflow hall to show solidarity.

"We're generally bummed out at the lack of traffic," Howland said about the added area. "It's second-tier space. We told them that."

Attendees not lacking, product buzz so-so
Despite more hype and packed halls and workouts, the attendee count remained similar to last year, or about 10,000 based on preliminary numbers. That's about the same as last year's 10,000, which was up about 12 percent over 2003's 9,000, which was up a whopping 25 percent over 7,500 in 2002.

But it's not as if a plethora of new and wowie-zowie products was the reason for such a surge in energy. No one was heard saying, "Oh, you just have to go see X product." Sure, there were a few new companies and a few old companies with new or tweaked product (look to SNEWS® in the coming week for a more detailed round-up of what we saw), but attendees weren't tripping over it in every aisle.

The biggest buzz was about Technogym's world launch of its new Kinesis product – but that might have also been partly because the launch was swathed in mystery and was only behind closed doors with a by-appointment-only viewing and introduction. Low-key but with word getting around was the first mainstream product with Lamar Health, Fitness & Sport's new "Lock 'n Load" rocker-switch technology on a selectorized weight stack. No signs, no to-dos, just three machines on one side of the Cybex booth -- the first licensee -- with Kevin Lamar grinning as he held court. There was a constant stream of other manufacturers sliding by to inspect it. Across the aisle, if you could slip into the backroom, you could see Star Trac's two new ellipticals. And at the other end of the hall, Nautilus lined the front of the booth with its new commercial TreadClimber.

Perhaps not rocket science but nonetheless super cool (and even pretty, if we dare say that) were the new gel grips and weights at Hampton Fitness called Jelly Bells. Get it? Out of Japan came Konami Sports Club (www.konami.com) with an array of equipment it was just fishing out there for reaction to see if it could sell. The real come-on was that Konami's other business besides clubs in Japan is video gaming, so the screens on the equipment were huge, 3-D and pretty amazing. Don't think you know Konami? Bet you do: It is the owner and publisher of the hot video arcade game/exercise called Dance Dance Revolution.

There was also a lack of intros of big whammy group-exercise concepts for the first time, although Konami did show a group exercise version of DDR (that's what you call it if you're an insider, by the way). A new company called MyGym Fitness Systems (www.mygym.net) showed an all-in-one, step-like creation that has tubing for strength workouts, also slated for group workouts as well as retail.

Exergaming and video interactive technology was on the upswing (see SNEWS® story March 14, 2005, "Exergaming comes of age: Companies, consumers ready to jump on the bandwagon"); some seem to have a future, while others are just sort of trying too hard. The creation called Motivatrix that looked like Scotty and Captain Kirk would jump aboard and get beamed up left gaping passers-by puzzled.Â

Of course, other big name companies (True, Life Fitness, et al) were adding or upgrading TV screens on equipment. Funny, how that's more of a yawn these days. Among strength companies, aesthetics still seemed to be the biggest push, with Body Master showing a 13-piece, first-time-in-years lineup of new stuff (yes, we know it's in chapter 11 reorganization), and Bodyguard giving a first peek at a new look for its line, both cardio and strength. SportsArt also showed for the first time on a main floor nearly all pieces of its new selectorized strength circuit with truly sleek Euro styling, not to mention its X-Trainer bike-like cardio piece.

But is the glitz really for the industry?
More financial analysts seem to be sitting up and taking notice of the fitness industry, both club/commercial and even retail. At a forum of analysts on March 17, panelists agreed that the industry has capture the attention of Wall Street and VC money, and that they expect more of it coming into the industry to both clubs and suppliers over the next year or so. Analysts also said they expect further consolidation on the club and manufacturing sides.

What is interesting is that some have told SNEWS® they wonder if the larger companies and the public manufacturers are using the show more to impress Wall Street rather than really to attract new club customers. For example, several pointed out the Life Fitness booth – a truly impressive steel structure with sheer panels and high-tech lighting from all angles plus a two-story structure inside, all of which gave those inside a really clubby feel – cost buckets of money. But the company doesn't really need such bedazzle to attract club customers.

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