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Health & Fitness Business Show '06: Cardio still looking for next new thing, but not lacking innovation

Still on the lookout for the Next New Thing, companies at the Health & Fitness Business show mostly showed a lot of innovative small tweaks, updates, control upgrades, add-ons and new ways of looking at cardio equipment.

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Still on the lookout for the Next New Thing, companies at the Health & Fitness Business show mostly showed a lot of innovative small tweaks, updates, control upgrades, add-ons and new ways of looking at the current style.

Honestly, we don’t necessarily need a next new thing, not desperately, since there’s a lot to learn first about selling what the industry does have. But will that omnipotent search ever stop? In fact, one favor please: Will companies please stop trying to tout THEIR new piece as the “next new thing” since the market will decide that, not PR and marketing hot air. What do we need? Cardio equipment that is user-friendly, fun and inviting. We also need a way to convince the public that a little physical activity will help their life, health and pocketbook.

But the industry still rolled out its best at the 2006 Health & Fitness Business Show in Denver, Aug. 3-5. OK, so not having a “new thing” doesn’t mean there weren’t trends and a smattering of some mighty fine stuff. We saw technology upgrades, an attempt to make controls more intuitive and to put comfort center stage, a new sub-category of ellipticals and more ellipticals in general and a few new folding treadmills, as well as more companies launching so-called “light commercial equipment” that it seems to us is more about “high-end” retail equipment.

Trends and takes
Technology and the inter-relationship with technology still is on the forefront, including console controls that mimic round cell phone toggle switches (Horizon Fitness, Life Fitness treadmills), bigger and brighter television consoles (Landice and Bladez), downloadable programming (Bodyguard) and the coolest smallest idea — the Landice PodGrip, a sticky rubber pad that a user puts on the console and despite a slant will hold onto iPods, cell phones or other devices an exerciser can’t bear to part with during a workout.

Folding treadmills are becoming de rigueur, even with manufacturers which have been holdouts on that front (PaceMaster showed its first one for a retail of $2,500, as did SportsArt Fitness, retail $2,600, and BodyCraft, four models ranging from $1,000 to $2,000). With the merging of fitness into the home environment (it ain’t a garage or basement hobby anymore), it’s important for equipment not only to look the part, but also to fit in the space allotted, a theme that continues from our take on the strength-training gyms. (Click here for that report on Aug. 28, 2006.)

With the emergence of women as a hugely powerful consumer group (purchasing or influencing the purchase in eight of 10 fitness equipment purchases, stats have shown), Diamondback decided to show what it called a women’s treadmill. Granted, the idea is grand, and we think there is a future in equipment that caters to a woman, but we couldn’t really figure out why this 700TM treadmill — certainly a nice one at $2,000 — was a women’s treadmill. OK, so it had a glute toner program. So do others. OK, so it had a 5K training program. So do others. So beside the tagline “created with women in mind,” we’re not sure why it’s for women, except to help a retailer market them. Which may not be all bad as a reason. Still, we ask, “Where’s the beef?”

And although bikes are not gone, they definitely aren’t in the showcase window. In fact, Horizon Fitness didn’t have a bike in its booth and has gotten out of the bike business for now — although company execs told us they will be back there in 2007. LeMond Fitness in its teeny tiny booth still shows some of the best and comfiest recumbent bikes around and continued to hold court in that category, as does SportsArt with its mesh-back cruiser models.

Ellipticals and a sub-category of ellipticals
Ellipticals are now top sellers in the cardio equipment category, overtaking treadmills this year per our 2006 SNEWS® Retailer survey. (Click here if you missed that.) So that means everybody wants to be onboard and, if they’re already on the train, they’re looking for a way to stand out of the crowd.

The innovation wizard had wafted through the booth at Quantum, which had a coming-out party at the show as a company that now is an all-rounder with a full cardio line as well as strength — and had one of the greatest new cardio pieces there. A prototype of its new center-drive elliptical was one of the biggest draws at the show with the smallest footprint around, narrow foot pedals, a super smooth feel, and an extremely low profile appearance (home model retail $2,500; light commercial $3,500).

Not to be outdone was the elliptical leader (and overall winner of the SNEWS® Retailer survey in that category), Octane Fitness, with a total revamp of its line that created even lower-profile ellipticals with converging path handlebars that replicate the natural motion of swing arms. The aesthetics were also tweaked, so the units visually seem smaller and less imposing. And a newly refined version of its ArmBlaster workout alternates upper body intervals so your arms aren’t left out. The new models will be out in September and will retail for between $2,300 and $2,900.

Keys Fitness showed a new version of its show-stopper last year. The CenterG center drive elliptical that has been upgraded (now CG3) with an adjustable stride that goes from 17 inches to 25 inches (retail $3,000). Plus, Stamina — perhaps known for its Pilates and infomercial equipment — has gotten into ellipticals under the leadership of Chris Clawson. Under the brand name Avari, the group ranges in price from $2,300 to $2,700 and one combo-step-elliptical model has a “toe/heel stop” that a user can adjust to help keep the foot where he or she wants it, depending on the use.

One trend was the sudden emergence of a new sub-category of ellipticals, although still without a name. Basically, these pieces are, for want of a better description, “Arc Trainer-like” and offer users a feeling that is a cross between Cybex’s Arc Trainer, an elliptical and a stepper-climber. Basically, the Arc, before all alone in its Arc-ness now has siblings. Lamar Fitness showed its low-profile Hiker (retail $2,500) that has eight levels of incline, with the lowest feeling more like walking and the highest more like climbing. Life Fitness also had its Summit (retail $4,500), which stood quite high and dominated, and likely is more suited for light-commercial or commercial purposes. Vision Fitness also showed its new incline elliptical (retail to be about $2,500) in a private room, because as a prototype it still had some finishing to be done, and it too felt more like climbing at the highest level. Diamondback and Precor too have their incline ellipticals. And Cybex showed up at the show for the first time in years, showing prototypes of both its new home Arc Trainer, which will ship in October with an expected retail of about $3,500.

Also in the elliptical category, touting the space between the feet became one of the top schpiels around, with narrower being better. Heck, we at SNEWS® have been talking that up for years when elliptical makers had spaces from a then “narrow” 2 inches to as much as 3 or 4 inches, or wide enough to cause many people hip and low back pain. Now suddenly all the new ones, including those above, are competing for the my-stride-width-is-narrower-than-yours award with many now at 1.5 inches and most now at less than 2 inches if they are to earn any respect. Problem is, there is no standard of how to measure that distance, so it’s important for a retailer to ask if the measurement is between the pedals themselves or between feet when placed as close together as possible.

In addition to the companies and equipment detail, above, here are a few extra highlights we saw at the show.

(Several weeks of show coverage began Aug. 7, so don’t miss any of the reports, from general attendee information to education reviews to category reports. As always, SNEWS® gives you the best, most accurate and detailed show coverage anywhere. To continue our line-up of show reports is this week’s coverage of the cardio equipment category and heart rate monitor/electronics. One last report next week will take a look at a few of the odd, unusual, cool or plain wacky things we saw there.)

Bladez — Not everyone is jumping off the bike bandwagon. In fact, Bladez is jumping on for the first time. The new line, a pretty whopping one, has three uprights and three walk-through semi-recumbents, with retails from $500 for the uprights and starting at $600 for the semi-recumbents. Bladex also introduced two new ellipticals, including a smaller frame for $1,000 that still has a 20-inch stride. The company also revamped its already impressive treadmill line shown last year. In all cases, the company’s top pieces in each category have its so-called Motivational Entertainment Television technology with some of the biggest and brightest screens around.

BodyCraft — Getting into the cardio arena last year, BodyCraft this year introduced the start of its treadmill lineup with four folding models ($1,000-$2,000). All are folding and have the soft-drop technology. Particularly interesting is the “quick lube” feature: Each model has a small capped slot at the end of the side rail so all a user has to do is put a few drops of lube in the slot and run the belt per instructions. What could be simpler!

Bodyguard — What a turnaround at this Canadian company! Not only are the treadmills getting a facelift slow-by-slow, as is the other equipment, but the company introduced a feature that gives users their own programs via a small card that is inserted in a slot in the console. The SmartCards are loaded with a program by one of three ways, although not all are operative yet: A purchaser fills out a questionnaire with his or her goals and level and a fitness trainer on staff picks a program, loads it on the card and sends it to them; a user downloads one from the website (but so far that’s a ways in the future); and dealers at some point will get card-writers so they can pick workouts themselves for the user and load one to the card. Users will be able to then come back to the dealer to get more workouts, helping to establish a relationship between them. One other feature that is teeny-tiny in the scope of things but a big duh (whack on the head): The new treadmills actually have a clock! No more wondering what time it is or making sure a clock in the room is readable. It’s in front of your nose!

Fitness Master — Calling itself a “decent sized company with a small mentality,” Fitness Master’s biggest buzz-collector was a new commercial recumbent bike (retail $2,350; add a 15-inch LCD screen and it becomes $3,600) with the brand name Aristo. The 15-inch LCD screen (CR2) on a swing-out arm allows a user to put the screen wherever is comfortable from directly in front to 45 degrees to the side. This was the talk of the town, so to speak and a really different design. (The CR1 has a traditional console on the arm.) The swing-out gives the bike true walk-through ease. The company had shown it at Taispo in April with big response, we were told.

Kettler — Its big story was all about calculations and workout accuracy. So very German, but why not? The Esys is a calibrated measuring system that uses ergonomics, electronics and mechanics but, most importantly, each machine is individually calibrated for accuracy. It also has 75 levels of resistance between 25W and 40Wm, and it even comes with a test printout sheet from the factory that tells you exactly how it is calibrated. The thought behind this, we were told, is that since the United States has no standards like Europe does, machines are not very accurate in what they report. The Syncross V3 (retail $5,199) is an extremely smooth elliptical with an adjustable stride-length system (14-22 inches) with 115 levels of resistance and a 97-pound drive system. It also adjusts to the target rate you need using a Polar-compatible system.

Keys Fitness — Aside from the new CenterG elliptical, the Ironman line has a new Legacy treadmill (retail $2,000) that has a body fat reader (just grasp the handrails). It also has built-in speakers, fans and toggles on the handrails to control speed and incline. Quite a package for that price, we must say.

Lamar Health, Fitness & Sport — In addition to the Hiker, Lamar had added a walk-through feature to its recumbent bike and still has the Airforce bike that is a piece that should get more attention.

Landice — We mentioned Landice’s screens already, but we didn’t mention the new Landice Vision System that was introduced for its retail-dealers. The system, with a 7-inch liquid crystal display, fully integrates into the treadmill with a DVD player and TV tuner as part of the unit. The system adds $950 to the cost of a treadmill.

LifeCore Fitness — Space-efficient was the theme here too with a compact elliptical trainer with a 7-inch LCD “OSD” TV screen that has workout information on the screen. It also comes with a workout DVD (why don’t other companies do this?) that makes it a great little piece of equipment for the retail price of about $1,800.

LifeSpan — LifeSpan by PCE is a company that is pushing hard in the programming area and less in trying to bring out the best bling-bling. We like the approach since its outreach into the medical fitness community and the senior area is highly needed and only an area that will grow. In August, for example, it had six hospitals coming to meet with them in Denver to learn how to use its online education system. The company is also working on studies that can validate what its programs are doing, as well as more tools for the medical community to use.

ProSpot — Yes, here’s the ProSpot name in the cardio story. Long known for its auto-spotting technology in strength, the company launched its Ascension brand for cardio, rolling out one treadmill, one elliptical and one each upright and recumbent bikes. The line is more of a light commercial line in heavy gauge steel with high-end prices. For example, the treadmill weighs 400 pounds (so don’t plan to move it too often), has all the features and programs with a retail of $4,800.

Quantum — We already raved about Quantum’s new Stride210 center-drive elliptical. What more can we say other than the booth lined up six solid treadmills as a part of a company transformation it had discussed with SNEWS® in June. Click here to see that story. The results were more than were described and President Brooke Ayton promises even more.

SportsArt Fitness — After a very long wait, SportsArt was able to roll out its new line of treadmills with that great sleek Euro look. The lineup includes the company’s first folding tread, as mentioned above (still a prototype at the show, however), and its three large platform treadmills in its TR series. The TR33 has an electronically controlled cushioning system (retail $4,000), while the TR32’s cushioning is controlled manually ($3,500).

Vision Fitness — Vision has launched an entry-level treadmill without all the bells and whistles but still has a 2HP motor and folds. Not a bad piece at all, the T1450, for a mere $1,000. Also, the company has lengthened its decks on two treadmills (9500/9450) from 54 to 57 inches. A nice idea but how many people really need that kind of length? The company also rolled out some lower-end recumbent bikes, with one for a mere $550 and another for $800. “The dealers,” said marketing director Chris Cox, “need a quality option to block sporting goods.” Vision also launched a breast-cancer marketing campaign that we’ll write more about in coming weeks.

If your product or company wasn’t mentioned here, that’s either because it didn’t strike our team as new or different, or perhaps we were totally brain-dead and missed it (unlikely, but possible!). Remember, we started reports out of the show on Aug. 7 and will continue them through Sept. 11.