If there’s one thing that can kill a facility tour, it’s a “black hole.” You know them well: those large areas of your facility that, when unoccupied, silently suck your budget into the operating-costs abyss. Silent tennis courts, empty swimming pools and, yes, even vacant group fitness studios fall into this category. And at the center of the group fitness black hole (well, usually in a corner or a closet) is a black box: the audio system.

Its ways are mysterious. What do all those knobs do? Why doesn’t it sound good? Most of us are simply content to find the “on” switch, yet instructors and participants know how frustrating an audio breakdown is. While group fitness managers would love to repair or even improve the system, they barely have enough money to replace the jump ropes (which keep mysteriously disappearing). And while general managers can’t justify spending dollars on high-priced equipment that simply keeps the beat for a step class, they do realize this is one area that impresses upon members the value they’re receiving in exchange for their monthly dues. Let’s be honest: a boombox at the front of a crowded room isn’t going to impress members or prospective members. It’s time to crack open the black box and discover its true value.

Why Invest?

Why put thought and money into an audio system? Just like any big-ticket item, the audio system is an investment, and the value you put in will directly reflect the value you get back. A good place to start is to educate yourself about what constitutes a quality sound system (see the sidebar “Knobs, Buttons and Outlets, Oh My!”).

Remember that safety is a primary concern—having the right system for the space can ensure the safety of members and employees alike. In a study conducted at Auburn University, “44% of surveyed group fitness instructors experienced significant voice problems as a result of teaching group exercise classes” (Long et al. 1998). The study authors observed that the vocal problems correlated to lack of access to microphones. In other words, many instructors were simply shouting to be heard over the music. Once the voice is injured, it is a long road to recovery, and future injuries are more likely to occur. Beyond the stress of having to find subs, damaged vocal cords can eventually cost an instructor her career.

Another study—which measured sound levels during 125 aerobics classes—revealed that club noise levels often exceeded those recommended by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) for occupational noise exposure. Average noise levels during aerobics classes ranged from 78 to 106 A-weighted decibels, or dB(A), with 79% of readings reaching 90 dB(A) or more for 60 minutes of class time. Instructors reported that, after class, they received subjective complaints of fluctuating hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing ears) from class members 50% of the time (Yaremchuk 1999). (For more information on OSHA standards for permissible noise exposure levels, please visit osha.gov and/or revisit the IDEA Opinion Statement: Recommendations for Music in Fitness Settings.)

Noise-induced tinnitus is a serious problem, posing a danger of irreversible hearing loss. As health and wellness leaders, we have an obligation to look out for all aspects of our members’ safety and well-being. While educating instructors on appropriate volume levels is important, a quality sound system set to the correct volume will convey the energy that participants want without damaging their hearing.

Monetizing the Sound System

Some expenditures that are necessary for member happiness and retention typically provide you zero direct financial return. Towel service is a good example. Management often views audio-system purchases in the same light. However, if you apply some creative yet simple ideas, your audio system can generate new revenue streams. Think of the audio system as a member of the sales team. If it looks and sounds appealing, it will leave a good impression—and good impressions lead to more members.

Create a Vibe. Let your audio system sell your group fitness programming, even when classes aren’t taking place. Determine a “default” state for each room during downtime that includes a looped CD and ambient lighting. Imagine the difference between a tour that leads into a dark space with a class schedule by the door, and a tour where a prospective member is guided into a dimly lit mind-body studio with meditative music playing. Which one will sell the membership?

Rent an Experience. Purchasing the “V” (video) in AV might be a wise investment. Install a projector and screen in one of your studios. This will not only allow you to create fun class experiences; it will also serve as a great opportunity to host outside trainings, workshops and community movie nights. Countless organizations are looking for a meeting space that provides basic audiovisual support. Charge a small fee and let your audio system earn back some of its cost. As a bonus, this is a fantastic way to let nonmembers see your facility without feeling the pressure of a sales pitch.

Set Up Specialty Programming. Group fitness managers know that the only way to increase their bottom line is through for-profit programming such as specialty workshops and pay-to-play classes. A maintained audio system that works well will appeal to outside educators, and a good experience will likely garner repeat business.

What a difference now that you know how the “black box” works and how it can work for you! What was once just a space holder in the studio is really a center of activity and entertainment. By putting additional resources toward the care of your audio system, you ensure a fun and safe environment for clientele and employees alike. Prospective members can now envision themselves taking part in the festivities. Let your audio investment enhance their first impressions and put your facility a notch above the rest.