Did the Recession Hold Up Fitness Equipment Innovation?

Did the Recession Hold Up Fitness Equipment Innovation?

It’s odd how two groups in the same industry can come away from the same event with such different views. One thing seemed clear to the health club operators I spoke with after the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) trade show last month: At least for now, many manufacturers aren’t as much about new products as they are about upgrades on existing products. Manufacturers, on the other hand, gushed about the value of their new products and changes to their existing lines.

Club operators, still stinging from the revenue and retention losses of the recession, are awaiting that new product category that will re-energize the industry and alleviate their product boredom. Their thoughts, perhaps, are that a new innovation could drive the masses to their clubs or at least change up the stale workout routines of their die-hard members before they seek variety elsewhere.

One club operator (who said the IHRSA trade show floor was full of “equipment karaoke—lots of people doing poor impressions of another person’s innovation”) asked whether this stemmed from a lack of funding or a lack of creativity. I would say funding.

Manufacturers have had to spend their dollars wisely as club operators curtailed new equipment purchases. For some, that meant cutting back on research and development. For others, it meant spending those R&D dollars in areas that offered the greatest return on investment. The problem is, some manufacturers determined that the greatest return would be a product upgrade while others determined it would be in developing a whole new product. So, the possibility of a lot of truly new products being introduced within the next year or two (research and development can run 18 to 36 months for a new product) is low.

The human body hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years, nor has the way people can move their bodies. Does that mean we are at the end of new product possibilities? Perhaps not, but perhaps fewer new exercise options are possible without in some way piggy-backing off existing products in an effort to refine them. However, I have faith in humankind’s capacity for creativity, and I think new product innovations are just a matter of time. One manufacturer told me that many of the innovations that occur in our industry actually come from outside inventors who are able to look at the industry with a fresh set of eyes and imagine what those closer to the industry may think isn’t possible or feasible.

That’s why even though some of the people I spoke with derided some of the more infomercial-type products at the IHRSA show, I was pleased to see people trying something new, even if those products likely will not work in a club setting. You never know from where the next great idea will come. You never know what other industry holds the key to a new fitness idea. Just 10 years ago, no one would have thought about merging video games and exercise.

Perhaps the one in a million idea that does work will be the one that will cause the deconditioned to finally break down the club doors and demand memberships. I just don’t want to have to wait much longer.

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