Club Industry '04: Better, better, cheaper, cheaper … so now what?

From motors and maintenance, to weights and workouts, to colors and construction, what the fitness industry now makes is, yes, better and better, based on what SNEWS® saw at the latest installment of the Club Industry show Oct. 13-16 in Chicago. Thanks to advances in technology that allow lower prices, not to mention offshore manufacturing (admit it, it's here to stay), the goods are mostly cheaper and cheaper too.

From motors and maintenance, to weights and workouts, to colors and construction, what the fitness industry now makes is, yes, better and better, based on what SNEWS® saw at the latest installment of the Club Industry show Oct. 13-16 in Chicago. Thanks to advances in technology that allow lower prices, not to mention offshore manufacturing (admit it, it's here to stay), the goods are mostly cheaper and cheaper too.

We like better-made stuff, and who can shake a stick at lower prices? So that's all good. But true innovation? Other than a glimmer of hope here and there, attendees were left mostly wondering what was next. And that's not so good. Certainly no fault of the show, which had good energy and numbers on par with last year, the industry seems to be in a holding pattern.

Despite lamenting all those widgets with attributes that mostly included lower prices or nicer aesthetics, attendees at the Club Industry show displayed a more upbeat attitude with bigger smiles than in a few years. Why? The economy seems to be turning around, especially for the fitness industry; clubs are being built, dealers expanding; and the nation is becoming acutely aware (OK, being whacked over the head) of the need to discover a healthy lifestyle. And we all know, as do the pundits, exercise is a huge part of that. Even the workout routines and fitness of presidential candidates John Kerry and George Bush have become big news and a part of the campaign.

"Overall, I'm pleased," said Kent Stevens, COO of 3-year-old Matrix Fitness. "Thursday (the first day) was very good for us, very productive, with lots of buyers looking for equipment. Friday was good too, but not quite as busy. Saturday was slow.

"I was expecting more local traffic on Saturday, like from recreation centers, hospitals and schools," added Stevens, who was one of many who called the show "regional," attributing that to many businesses watching bottom lines more closely.

Dancing fast to stay in place
Preliminary numbers indicate the show this year just barely eked over last year's number of exhibitors reaching 245 companies. But, despite more exhibitors, the show size hung tight at about 900 booth spaces, just like last year and the year before. ("You have to dance twice as fast to stay where you are," said Herb Greenebaum, marketing director for show owner Primedia.) No official numbers are available yet on the number of buyers that attended, but unofficially it seems to be about the same as last year.

"Any show is going to draw 65 to 70 percent of its attendance from its closest region," Greenebaum said. "The bottom line is, does it matter? What we're concerned about is bringing a quality audience to our exhibitors."

Early morning workout on Friday, the second morning, was packed, with the machines and classes in most booths, especially those in the front section of the hall, doing a steady trade for at least an hour or more of the two-hour session. Music throbbing, Pilates plie'ing, ellipticals whirring, cycling racing along, with a lot of instructors losing their voices in an attempt be heard above the din. Saturday morning? Musta been a lot of partying Friday night because 30 minutes into the session there were still more exhibitors and staff than attendees working out and testing equipment. efi's GravityTraining staff sat glumly at the back of the booth, lamenting that no signups had showed for the first class, and Keiser's indoor cycling class -- as others -- never seemed to have anyone in them except staffers.

The seminars, which ran from Oct. 13-15, drew more than 1,000 individual attendees, so the educational component remains important for the clubs and their staff.

Other than Saturday, whether workout or trade show hours, the event showed a bigger spark and that's all good.

"It's been dramatically more busy than last year," said Steve Nero, Star Trac COO and president. "We've had tremendous response, and the Club Industry show is a lot stronger than it was last year."

So now what?
OK, so we have better and cheaper, but does that really mean nothing new? On a whole, no, but there were trends. Indoor cycling is still attracting newcomers, mostly a couple of bike companies trying to bring their cycling heritage and manufacturing to indoor fitness. The "virtues of vibration" for fitness has four companies vying for attention. Www-eee ssstilllll say, hhhh-uuuu-hhhh??? Stretching wasn't a non-subject, which is all good in terms of fitness professionals teaching more balanced workouts -- and doing them themselves. Kids fitness and other games for fitness gained more attention and square footage, some of it high-tech and some if it pretty low-tech. The adults were the ones that couldn't stay away though! See? Everybody likes to play a game and laugh while getting a workout too.

Golf fitness had a couple of newbies on site; maybe not a category but no products before and a couple now? That's something to watch. Iron plates and dumbbells were nearly a commodity. With the exception of a couple of notable high-end or innovative companies, it seems everybody had some iron to hawk. Speaking of commodities: Stability balls were seen in 14 different booths. Yup. Everybody thinks they can make and sell a stability ball. Too bad that it has become a commodity item that seems to hinge on the cheap, cheap stuff. People buy them, then don't know what to do with them. Education is key in this arena. Despite yoga being a true public trend, there was only one heritage yoga product company on-site, Hugger Mugger. Can't figure that one out. But Pilates still drew products, filled booths and, likely, saw paper dropped.

New and tweaked stuff
Although we plan to take a look at products as a whole in a story next week, we have to mention two stand-outs:

>> Lamar Health, Sports & Fitness had a smallish, square booth in the 100 aisle that had Crocs sport sandals hanging around on rocks. So, ho-hum? Nope. Bubbling president/founder Kevin Lamar, only a few months out from his departure from Nautilus, ushered anyone who asked into his 10-by-10 back room to see a new "rocker switch" on a weight stack that was probably the best thing at the show -- and the newest and most innovative idea in a long time in any category. Thanks to inventor Mark Nalley, founder of Flex Fitness, now on his own. Each plate on the stack has a so-called "Lock 'n Load" switch on it that resembles a traditional light switch. Flip it over and the weight is locked and loaded so when you press, push or lift, that amount will be what you lift. Accidentally have more than one flipped? No worries. The heaviest one overrides any others. The real treat here -- despite not losing pins -- is that the entire stack can be locked down, meaning vertical facilities can leave rooms unattended without worries and parents can lock down home gyms and not fret about curious kids. We think this has a huge future and could become a standby for the entire industry.

>> SportsArt Fitness showed something it called an "X-Trainer" that resembles a recumbent bicycle but feels a bit like a recumbent elliptical. It has arms so you can push and pull for an upper-body workout while pedaling. Another ho-hum? Nope. The arms are independent, so you can't just ride along with them as on most other equipment. You must push and pull on your own; the resistance can be adjusted independently of the pedals; and you can therefore move your arms at a different rhythm than your feet. It's a walk-through design, and has a seat back that adjusts independently from the bottom in a forward and back motion for superior and individualized back support. And its list is only about $3,700. We think many might have missed the machine since SportsArt decided at the last minute to come to the show and ended up in a downstairs meeting room. Also hidden away in the room were a dozen or so of the company's new European-designed, single-station strength stations -- all 28 will be at the IHRSA show. These pieces were definitely some of the coolest-looking new equipment at the event.

Next week SNEWS® will present more details on product highlights seen at the show, as well as other bits and bites from the show floor, speeches and seminars.