Technology Is Infiltrating the Fitness Facility Ecosystem

Clients' growing affection for apps and devices leaves fitness facilities little choice but to embrace fitness technology.

By Shirley Archer, JD, MA
Feb 18, 2016

Fitness professionals cannot afford to ignore technology’s impact on client relationships. Activity trackers, apps and other fitness and health monitoring devices are growing more popular by the day. Indeed, the American College of Sports Medicine reports that wearable technology is the top fitness trend of 2016 (Thompson 2015).

Experts agree that consumers are adopting fitness technology faster than trainers, facilities and equipment manufacturers are. “Most clubs now have the idea that their members, clients and prospects are becoming more tech-savvy, regardless of demographics,” observes Tony Nicholson, MBA, director of virtual, wearable tech and wellness initiatives at Anytime Fitness® corporate headquarters in Hastings, Minnesota. “The challenge some clubs are facing is that they’re ‘late to the party’: They don’t have the resources or interest to adopt or adapt, or they simply don’t see the trend that’s directly in front of them.”

Experts agree that some fitness professionals fear that technology may replace their services, which makes these pros hesitant to accept new devices and software. But that does not change the fact that clients are rapidly adopting fitness technology. This obliges personal trainers, gym managers and studio owners to figure out how to integrate clients’ high-tech habits into their in-facility experiences.

Fitness facility managers can do a lot to embrace consumer tastes and enhance their locations’ technology ecosystems. Options include closed proprietary systems, mobile apps, networking and networked equipment—and combinations of these. Let’s take a look at some of the choices.

Technology Options for Fitness Facilities

Owners and managers mustn’t let the tech options distract from what matters most. Bryan K. O’Rourke, president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council in Covington, Louisiana, urges decision makers to keep in mind that technology should

not

be their first consideration: “Integration is not the answer,” he advises. “Integration is only a tool.” Catherine Kolbeck, president of Red Whisk Creative in St. Louis, adds this: “No matter what the technology, it’s still about the members’ experience when they walk in the door.”

While you’re keeping that in mind, here are a few companies that offer facility-based tools:


• Netpulse

creates customizable mobile apps for fitness facilities. These apps can include billing features, class schedules, integration of popular consumer fitness apps, activity tracking devices like the Fitbit® and Jawbone® UP™, in-facility programs and promotions, and more.

The system is designed to help fitness facilities extend their brand and engage members. For example, Orangetheory® Fitness, Gold’s Gym and Australia-based Goodlife Health Clubs use Netpulse.


• ECOFIT Networks

uses wireless connectivity to collect usage data from equipment sold by major cardio machine manufacturers. The technology allows fitness facilities to manage equipment, gather usage data and add workout data to clients’ physical activity records.

ECOFIT is a partner of Netpulse, and single facilities can adopt both systems.


• Technogym®’s mywellness® cloud

is a cloud-based solution using a mobile app or a Web-based platform to let users integrate tools such as these: popular fitness and wellness apps; monitoring devices like Fitbit, Polar®, Garmin® and Withings®; workouts on Technogym equipment; social media and entertainment options like Netflix® and popular games; and fitness facility programs and promotions.

“For example, many members wear Fitbits,” says Tony Kowalczyk, Technogym’s western states director in San Diego. “The wellness cloud allows the facility to tie that usage in. The club or trainer can send messages to members about their activity [with the Fitbit] . . . to cater to members’ needs for what they’re doing not only in the facility, but also outside. Another popular use of the platform has been for fitness challenges. Members can see on the leaderboard who is most active, and from that they can motivate each other. It’s a tremendous community-building tool.

“The mywellness cloud also allows for customization. For example, signing in on a piece of our equipment brings up your personal panel, which includes your social media accounts and your favorite games and entertainment channels, as well as a record of your personalized workout programs. It’s a catered experience.”

Benefits of Technology Solutions

Before determining which systems to implement, fitness facility owners and managers need to assess their needs and budgets, and then define what they want to accomplish with technology and the data it creates. Benefits of fitness facility technologies include the following:


• Tech-friendly billing and scheduling.

Netpulse points out that 80% of gym members carry a smartphone—and that 62% of all Internet access happens on a mobile device (Netpulse 2015). Features like online bill-payment and scheduling attract tech-oriented clients and make it easier for these people to interact with the facility. MINDBODY®, another popular studio solution, enables Web- and app-based class scheduling, payments and communications, among other features.


• Improved communication and member engagement.

Clare McKenna, executive director of the North Orange County Family YMCA in Fullerton, California, uses the Technogym solution. “Technology is a game changer that separates us from other fitness facilities and, more importantly, puts us in touch with our members’ needs,” McKenna states. “Members are more aware of what is going on in the facility. It’s the new way to communicate in the fitness world.” Fitness facilities can use technology to push notifications to members, offer promotions and spread program news.


• Accurate usage data.

Data from networked machines can tell facility owners exactly what is being used and when, enabling them to add popular machines and drop the unused ones. Managers can also track program participation and workout data. As Kolbeck puts it, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. All of these analytics provide an opportunity to improve and personalize the member experience.”


• More customized programming.

“We have decided to meet our members where they’re at,” shares Nicholson, who is implementing a solution to serve as many as 3,000 Anytime Fit-ness locations worldwide. His team is building a hub with information about members’ workouts both in and out of the fitness facility. The hub also tracks eating and nonworkout activity, and it connects with leaders in wearable tech, health and wellness mobile apps and nutrition. “Our core business is still about intense activity,” explains Nicholson. By creating a focused strategy and mixing in accountability and motivation, “we believe we have something great that produces the results our members desire,” he adds.


• Community building.

Technology tools can foster exercise gamification; they can also promote friendly competition that motivates and rewards members and builds community. For example, the MyZone® monitoring system—attached to a chest strap— transmits heart rate, calories and effort in real time to a live display and to a user’s app. Fitness facilities are using MyZone to create competitions among people of different fitness levels—using individual effort levels as the metric. In other words, someone who is new to fitness and working at 75% of effort would be tied with a fit athlete who is also working at 75%.


• Improved retention.

Originally, fitness technology exceeded expectations because it created retention, McKenna recalls. “We used challenges strategically to maintain members during dips. What continues to surprise us is the competition between members, as well as with other branches, that has increased the sense of unity at our branch.”

Technology Challenges

Experts agree that facility leaders should think carefully before deciding which technologies to adopt. Here are some of those challenges:


• The “walled garden.”

Some experts fear that facilities and equipment manufacturers are turning toward closed circuits that use only proprietary devices and/or keep all of the customer’s data within proprietary systems. For example, certain apps created by fitness facilities allow user data to be stored only in the facility’s app. O’Rourke cautions, “It’s important for brands to evaluate the issues of truly

open

systems.” Experts note that it’s not likely that facilities will be able to “keep” their users’ experiences. People want to use their own data in their own ways. In addition, if proprietary monitoring devices are required, facilities must determine how to manage the costs associated with those.


• Data overload.

Once fitness facilities accumulate massive amounts of data, what will they do with it? Will members use the data on their own, or will trainers use it in concert with clients? Can it become another source of revenue?


• Privacy.

Data collection raises privacy concerns. Monitoring devices can track activities, sleep, heart rate and other biometric data, and GPS devices can identify locations. As fitness facilities collect and maintain technological data, they need to address privacy and security issues. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has written a helpful white paper about the privacy risks associated with fitness apps (PRC 2013).

Here’s how one fitness facility addresses these challenges: “We offer free and open Wi-Fi, and we have offered workshops to educate clients about which techno-fitness gadgets are best for them,” explains Gayle Winegar, president of Sweatshop Health Club, a 14,000-square-foot facility in St. Paul, Minnesota, that provides group and private training. “Our trainers then work with clients, who collect their own data. We don’t collect the data. We use technology to help get better results for our clients. We are on the simple side of the equation.”

The User Experience and the Facility Experience

There’s no doubt that technology is affecting how the fitness industry does business. Customer expectations are changing, new client experiences are possible, and the relationship between clients and trainers is evolving. As technology stimulates more consumer interest in personal health and physical activity, fitness facilities have an exciting opportunity to reach and support these people.

“Don’t be angry about change,” urges O’Rourke. “It’s here. The bottom line is that the customer is going to rule. Brands need to be thoughtful about using technology in a seamless way to achieve what

their brand

is trying to do. Fitness facilities need to determine what they want the member experience to be, and then use technology accordingly.”

Fitness Facility Technology Benefits and Challenges

Technology options include mobile apps, networking, networked equip- ment, proprietary systems and combi- nations of tools, all of which can affect the membersÔÇÖ experience and enable data collection.

BENEFITS

  • provides branding, communication,management and community-build-ing tools
  • permits tech-friendly billing andscheduling
  • allows members to use their favoriteapps and devices in the facility
  • fosters easy communication of facil-ity programs and promotions
  • enables data collection on equip-ment usage and member activityÔÇö to meet member needs more accu- rately and to customize training programs
  • encourages friendly competitions and challenges that build commu- nity

Challenges

  • Closed-circuit, proprietary solutions(which allow users to record their fitness data on specific equipment, and which prevent sharing with other devices and apps) can be costly and may not appeal to users who want to ÔÇ£ownÔÇØ their fitness experience.
  • Data is valuable to facility managers only if they analyze it and apply it to measurable objectives.
  • Data collection raises privacy and security issues, so facilities need to adopt policies regarding how data will be protected.
  • Technology is a tool. Facilities need to decide what tools best promote their own brand and create the best member experience.
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Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is the 2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and is IDEA's mind-body-spirit spokesperson. She is a certified yoga and Pilates teacher and an award-winning author based in Los Angeles, California, and Zurich, Switzerland. Two of her books, The Walking Deck and The Strength and Toning Deck, are now featured as iPhone apps. Contact her at www.shirleyarcher.com.

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