Fitness Clubs Are Launching High-Tech Projects To Upgrade Equipment And Deliver More Connected Experiences
BY SARAH FISTER GALE
PORTRAITS BY MORTEN KOLDBY
Asger Andersen Høybye, Wexer, Vejle, Denmark
Treadmill, meet the internet.
As the fitness industry goes digital, gym owners and equipment makers are launching projects to serve new tech-savvy members who expect workouts compatible with their personal devices and wearable technologies. The global connected gym equipment market will see massive growth in the coming years, rising from US$121 million in 2016 to US$762 million in 2021, according to a Technavio report published last year. At the same time, according to a 2017 report from MarketLine, the global gym, health and fitness clubs industry can expect an annual revenue growth rate of 4.3 percent, en route to a market value of nearly US$90 billion by 2021. The major emerging markets of India, Brazil and China are the industry’s biggest hot spots.
To attract and retain members, project teams are revamping equipment offerings for the digital age. But organizations are balancing the need to innovate with a relative lack of experience in the digital technology realm—and the reality that they can’t afford to upgrade all equipment at once.
“The big question gym owners are asking themselves is how to stay relevant,” says Bryan O’Rourke, president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. The nonprofit organization develops and promotes equipment technology standards to enhance user experiences. “There are infinite options to compete, but they have to choose a path that will be sustainable for the business.”
Finding the right way forward involves a governance process to identify the best projects to invest in and project managers who can deliver solutions to meet gym members’ needs without unduly pushing up their monthly fees. Another requirement? The right talent.
But finding the talent to support these innovative tech projects isn’t always easy, says Prempal Singh, senior project manager for Life Fitness, a fitness equipment company based in Rosemont, Illinois, USA. “The move to software-and tech-centric products requires specific skill sets within the team,” he says. “At times, finding the right skill set has been a struggle.”
“The move to software- and tech-centric products requires specific skill sets within the team. At times, finding the right skill set has been a struggle.”
—Prempal Singh, Life Fitness, Rosemont, Illinois, USA
Even with an experienced development team on board, fitness franchises and brands often are hampered by legacy equipment and systems. “Gyms don’t replace their equipment every year,” Mr. O’Rourke says. They might keep a treadmill or stepper for as many as seven years, which means new technology needs to integrate with existing systems lacking Wi-Fi connectivity and digital interfaces.
Canada’s Ecofit Networks is one of the companies trying to overcome this legacy challenge. The developer of sensor technology for gym equipment launched a project to develop a device that plugs into the electronic ports on older equipment. It enables gym operators to capture data on how often the machine is used and when it needs service, says Dave Johnson, vice president of business development, Ecofit, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
The initial project to develop a plug-in device for cardio machines launched in 2011; the company has since rolled out a suite of plug-in devices for other machines, along with feature upgrades. The most recent project, completed in September, was a sensor for strength-training machines. “It was an innovative solution to a problem gym owners face,” Mr. Johnson says.
Legacy equipment is less of a problem in regions where the fitness industry is younger, such as Asia Pacific and the Middle East. That means clubs in those regions can leapfrog to the latest technologies, which can drive faster adoption, Mr. O’Rourke says.
For instance, Wexer, a global provider of digital fitness solutions, has partnered with Fitness First Asia, a chain of fitness centers across Southeast Asia, to develop a custom version of the Wexer mobile fitness app. The app project, which began in January 2017, will let clubs extend their reach beyond the gym, allowing customers to stream group fitness classes, design workouts and book exercise classes, among other offerings.
It’s a strong partnership, says Asger Andersen Høybye, head of technical delivery, Wexer, Vejle, Denmark. But working with clients in Asia required more thoughtful planning and communication than expected. While the Fitness First team spoke English, there were more interpretation challenges than the Wexer team was accustomed to.
“A big part of the project management process was making sure every piece of information was communicated clearly and understood.”
—Asger Andersen Høybye, Wexer, Vejle, Denmark
“A big part of the project management process was making sure every piece of information was communicated clearly and understood so there was no confusion,” he says. “And we still had to go back several times to validate what we were discussing.” That added some time to the development process, though a strong communication strategy helped avoid problems.
Mr. Høybye’s team also was surprised by the feedback it received from the gym owners in Asia. Team members anticipated eagerness to adopt new technology, but during iterations in the app development process, they discovered that wasn’t entirely the case. Gym owners were excited about the promise of streaming classes and app-based content, but they wanted to start slowly with cost-effective solutions that were easy to implement without a lot of technical support.
So Mr. Høybye’s team took an agile approach to development, with lots of short sprints and feedback loops that left room for change. “Once we recognized their discomfort with doing too much at once, we pivoted the plan and came back with something simpler,” he says.
“By taking an iterative approach, we were able to develop something that ... we can scale over time.”
—Asger Andersen Høybye
“When you let your team self-manage, and listen to their feedback, you will get a better result.”
—Adam Podber, Blink Fitness, New York, New York, USA
Instead of rolling out a full live-streaming solution with cameras and projectors in the exercise studio to film and stream live classes, the first iteration of the app that launched in August gives users access to a library of workouts. The plan is for later versions of the app to live-stream classes directly from gyms as the owners get more comfortable with the technology and cost. “By taking an iterative approach, we were able to develop something that works for them today and that we can scale over time,” he says.
EMPOWER THE TEAM
Tech projects in the fitness industry encompass more than just the workout experience, however. Some organizations are focused on implementing analytics and data management tools to better manage the gym itself.
“It’s all about creating a better member experience,” says Adam Podber, senior director of technology for fitness chain Blink Fitness, New York, New York, USA. Mr. Podber is currently developing a program to help Blink franchise owners better understand their customers and the way they use equipment so they offer the best products and services.
Mr. Podber’s latest project, which began in May, is to capture and analyze data to help gym members customize a fitness plan to fit their interests and needs. His team is developing software that will live on a company website and on kiosks in the gyms, where customers can fill out questionnaires about their demographics, age, expertise and workout preferences. Then the software analyzes data and provides a workout strategy.
Mr. Podber also prefers an agile approach for his projects, which includes using feedback from his own developers, as well as gym owners and customers, to adapt the project plan. Getting developer feedback ensures his team creates something that is feasible to design and deliver. For example, the original plan for this project included providing animated workouts to show how to perform various moves. But developers concluded it added time and cost to the project and would push the schedule off track. As a compromise, they replaced the animations with simpler motion flow diagrams that were easier to deploy. “We set that as a sprint goal and got back on schedule,” Mr. Podber says.
US$762 million Value of the global connected gym equipment market in 2021—up from US$121 million in 2016.
Empowering teams allows them to devise shifts in the plan that ensure projects come in on time and on budget, says Mr. Podber. “When you let your team self-manage, and listen to their feedback, you will get a better result,” he says.
Blink rolled out a pilot version of the software in August, and Mr. Podber’s team is now tracking data on whether customers finish the survey and use the advice. They also plan to track retention and return rates for users who complete the questionnaire as a way to demonstrate the value of the project.
“You have to own your key performance indicators as a project manager,” he says. “There are a lot of great ideas, but you need to create solutions that deliver ROI.” PM
Some organizations are betting that virtual reality and exercise can go hand in hand.
Virtual reality and gyms are converging. Consider Icaros, the virtual reality (VR) flying machine system developed by a startup of the same name. CEO Johannes Scholl and his partner founded the company in 2015 in Munich, Germany with the idea of creating a VR experience that requires users to build core strength as they move over treetops and across mountain ranges. Think of it as part exercise machine, part flight simulator. More than 300 facilities around the world had installed Icaros machines as of October, gambling that their price—about US$10,000—will attract people looking for a different type of workout.
The organization’s teams designing the software and full-body equipment used initial feedback on a prototype to streamline Icaros’ design and more closely align graphics to how the machine moves. The software, electronics and hardware teams all work in the same space to ensure each change adds value to the design and doesn’t disrupt another part of the project. It’s a key component of their agile project management process, allowing for faster and easier communication. Every member of the project team also has access to an Icaros machine to test every change. For example, changing the angle of a graphic might mean the machine has to tilt in another direction to feel natural.
“It is a holistic development process,” Mr. Scholl says. “Every change influences something else in the design, so they have to work collaboratively.”
Icaros, the virtual reality flying machine
PHOTO COURTESY OF ICAROS