Evolve Fitness in Halifax, Nova Scotia, took a huge step this past summer, going from 2,400 square feet to 21,000 square feet. That meant a lot of additions, including new equipment. “It was an eye-opener, for sure,” said co-owner Matt Benvie about the process. Benvie’s experience—along with the wisdom of countless other fitness facility and studio owners—reveals some good lessons for any fitness entrepreneur who wants to add new equipment, whether it’s for a big-box gym or a small studio and whether you’re buying in bulk or buying just a few pieces.

The fitness business field is crowded. To stand out long-term and attract and keep members, it’s important to stay up to date and relevant—without just chasing the latest gizmo. Investing in new equipment, from elliptical machines to kettlebells and floor mats, is necessary, but fitness facility owners have to balance the financial costs with the benefits. Owners must find the right choices for serving their clientele with the most relevant equipment, without losing site of their main mission—whether that’s to provide general fitness, small-group classes or training for powerlifting competitions.

“Consumers also demand and expect quality exercise equipment that’s current, offers variety, is plentiful, includes the latest entertainment features and, of course, is in working order at all times,” says Brent Darden, MS, fitness industry consultant and principal, Brent Darden Consulting, Dallas. “Thoughtful discussions regarding possible upgrades in these two areas—differentiation and consumer demand—should be undertaken regularly, as they likely offer a reasonable return on investment.”

Before you make your next equipment purchase, learn from other pros who have been through the experience.

Evaluate Your Core Needs

For Benvie and team, the expansion of Evolve provided an opportunity to rebuild services and offerings from the ground up, literally. Evolve designed a series of rooms for the specialty sessions that it planned to offer in its new home: boot camp, small groups, senior fitness and more. Then Benvie made a list of everything he wanted for each room. At first he shopped for his list items in person; later he went online, and he found that process more convenient and affordable. (This isn’t always true for everyone, as we’ll see.)

Evolve added air bikes, sleds, chin-up bars, slam balls and “more of everything,” according to Benvie. “I didn’t want to waste any money. We focused on our core offering—which, for us, is dumbbells and body weights. Our focus is lifting weights.”

He also evaluated other potential additions for their versatility, being careful to avoid the flavor-of-the-month approach. For instance, suspension exercise, and the product lines associated with it, is so useful that it has become a fixture; however, newer product lines and programs still must prove themselves to each business, based on the facility’s individual mission and needs.

Benvie also offered a lesson (one he learned the hard way) that can apply to any business purchase, no matter how big or small: The lowest price doesn’t always mean the best investment. “We added less-expensive flooring that had to be glued down, but we probably ended up breaking even with the thicker flooring that didn’t require that step,” he said.

Staying on Point

What makes you and your fitness business different? What’s your goal? Your answers should guide every business decision and will help make it easier to navigate purchases of any kind. For example, if your mission is to focus on and inspire the morbidly obese, invest in equipment that is suited for that niche (bigger seats, wider entry, etc.).

“We’re very purpose-driven,” says Jacob Trione of Triaffect Fitness, Health and Wellness, which is expanding to new commercial space in Houston. “Remember your direct purpose or reasoning, or you’re just throwing money into the wind. Know exactly what a piece of equipment is going to do for you.” And when considering replacing equipment, he says, remember that even the most neglected piece might have some ardent fans. Let these diehards know what’s going on and why, and guide them to alternative solutions to keep them happy amid the change.

Paulo Andalaft has guided Fit Factor of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, through 15 years of growth. “Some things are right for hotels or big-box gyms, but not for studios,” he says. “We base results on our experience and expertise, not on a piece of equipment. You don’t want to spend a lot of money on something that just sits there.”

Client engagement can help you make the right moves and help your members feel engaged and appreciated. If you want to know what clients would like you to add, ask them with a survey or a poll, in person or online. Get their input on everything that goes into the decision-making. “Everybody’s trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Joshua Jarmin of Blueprint Fitness in Atlanta. “There are cycling studios, rowing studios. . . . Lots of clients will say, ‘Let’s get this gear I heard about,’ but maybe the rest don’t want it. It’s more about educating your clients.”

When it comes to making the purchase, consider both in-person and online options. Depending on your location, you could score a real bargain. Jarmin said he saved 30% buying barbells, ropes and kettle bells from a local manufacturer and picking them up himself, rather than ordering online and paying for shipping. You also might consider buying high-quality used equipment.

Explain Changes to Clients

Whatever equipment you add to the facility, explain it to clients, even if it’s a minor upgrade. Bigger items might need to be introduced via classes, workshops or instructor-led sessions, all of which offer a natural way to talk about the new additions.

Whatever you do, don’t just put the new equipment out on the floor and act like nothing happened or assume members will know what it’s for or how to use it. That expensive new air bike won’t help anyone if no one knows why it’s there, so educate your clients and get them enthused. Dina Medina of Active Age Fitness in Mountain View, California, did this even when she replaced foam rollers. The equipment wasn’t expensive, but she found that members appreciated her buying different pieces and explaining why the new models were a step up. “A gym is a community, an organization,” she says. “Who are all the stakeholders in an organization? You have to have a voice for members so that they feel like they have a say in how things are being done.”

Ultimately, the people are the focus of a successful fitness operation, not keeping up with the Joneses and buying a shiny new item. “It’s not about toys,” says Medina. “It’s about community and people getting results.”

Back at the newly enlarged Evolve, Benvie is making sure his community knows the gym has moved, expanded and added lots of new equipment. He and other gym owners insist that each new purchase can be a marketing tool to retain current members—and to engage potential new ones.

“It’s more important to shape your members around your philosophy than it is to buy new equipment or keep up with the trends,” Benvie says. “But it’s important to know what your competition is doing and to help people get in shape and feel awesome.”

Guidelines for Purchasing Equipment

Keep these insights from other fitness entrepreneurs in mind before you buy that “new and improved” fitness widget or gadget.

Plan your budgets to include annual capital improvements. This might mean noting this approach in your membership contracts, so that clients know that you’re always thinking about improvements. (Note: Maintaining and repairing what you have on hand is not the same as purchasing new pieces.)

Regularly review all equipment to make sure it’s working properly and safely. Treadmills wear out. Machine gears get off track. Even steel bars can wear down or look dingy. “Although most strength equipment can last a lifetime, it shouldn’t,” says Brent Darden, fitness industry consultant and principal, Brent Darden Consulting, Dallas. “The condition of equipment speaks volumes about the status of the overall facility.”

Look at use. What’s gathering dust? Your members’ behavior is giving you valuable information. If something sits unused, consider replacing it. However, first talk to its loyalists and get them on board. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that no one will care.

Consider multiple options. Remember that every expense is unique. Therefore, consider buying both new and used equipment, depending on your needs. You might also want to lease or finance. And, depending on where your facility is located, buying online might be better than buying in person—or vice versa.

Jay Croft

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