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H&F Biz show '04 — Cardio around every corner

And you thought the cardio category was busting at the seams last year? Or even the year before that? Well, here we go again, with even more companies jumping in or expanding lines, if one can judge by the depth and offerings at this year's Health & Fitness Business show last month in Denver.

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And you thought the cardio category was busting at the seams last year? Or even the year before that? Well, here we go again, with even more companies jumping in or expanding lines, if one can judge by the depth and offerings at this year’s Health & Fitness Business show last month in Denver.

First, the relative newbies were all back, simply agog and glowing over their acceptance, success and line expansions, as they told us. In that category, think Bladez, Lifespan by PCE and Fitness Master (Fitnex). Second, we had more newcomers: Après-Nautilus Kevin Lamar launched his own company (Lamar Health, Fitness & Sport), with its cardio segment in partnership with Universal; and New Balance Fitness Equipment (by Fitness Quest) debuted its new cardio line to the retail market. Lastly, we had the strength companies still saying me-too as Body-Solid grew its Endurance treadmill and cardio line, and formerly strength-exclusive Bodycraft introduced two ellipticals out of Taiwan.

As one retailer told us, “Everyone and their brother had new ellipticals.”

Wait, we did lose one manufacturer (see SNEWS® story Aug. 21, 2004: “Theradyne treadmills to be no more”). Theradyne, the workhorse of treadmills although lately stagnant in aesthetics and losing ground to price cuts by others, pulled the plug, period. Parent Kurt Manufacturing was at the show just to close out remaining stock.

So that’s one gone, but about six added, with nearly every other company expanding, including Aerobics Inc., which announced it will become more than just treadmills (see SNEWS® story, Sept. 10, in this News Digest: “New Aerobics Inc. president to guide company into new categories”).

Ah, it’s a cardio world, it seems. (Maybe one day more of the public will actually work out and use more of this equipment too, but that’s another story.)

Aside from all the line expansions, what else was new? One perhaps jaded retailer told us nothing really, with the same-old at the show and the same promises of more to come. But we’re not that jaded. Now that most companies have been working on aesthetics in the last few years and escaped the black or charcoal square-tubed functional but blah pieces, the next step seems to be other features that allow the equipment to interface in some way with the user and allow it to adapt to that user and his or her needs, preferences and comfort. Adjustable-stride ellipticals were sprouting all around (SportsArt, Octane, Nautilus, Diamondback, Bodycraft); comfy and ergonomic backrests on recumbents weren’t an oddity (e.g. NewBalance and SportsArt); there were more programs that adapt to user needs better; and we saw digital feedback that goes beyond the now omnipresent heart rate and why-bother-always-less-than-accurate calorie and fat count (e.g. stride-length readout on ellipticals or steps-per-minute on the new Nautilus treadmill).

Will they all last? “We’ve seen the likes of Bladez, Lifespan, Fitness Master and Lamar before,” said one industry long-timer. “One or two of these companies will prosper, others will disappear. Ours is a maturing business, becoming increasingly more difficult to compete.”

Below you’ll find highlights from cardiovascular equipment shown in Denver. To get a full round-up of product and events at the show, however, you’ll have to start with the Aug. 23 News Digest to read all of our many show stories about equipment, events, workshops, fun and frivolity — more than you’ll find anywhere else. Also this week, find our lengthy roundup of the educational workshops and talks at the show. Next week, we’ll close out our show coverage with a look at “other stuff” — products that don’t seem to fit anywhere else and still definitely deserve a look.

Remember, we don’t cover every last bit of equipment and every last company that held court in a 10-x-10. If a company didn’t have anything new in particular (some are gearing up for fall or early 2005 intros such as Aerobics and SportsArt), we don’t necessarily mention them (such as Life Fitness and its LeMond brand, or Bodyguard and Body-Solid, which both updated names and some aesthetics). Some like FreeMotion Fitness simply announced the addition of vertical product as a part of its Epic line, while True Fitness unfortunately was ensconced in a meeting room for only two days of the show and was hard to track down.

Following, a brief, but by no-means all-inclusive look, at who had what in the cardio-equipment category we thought worthy of a mention (in alphabetical order):

Bladez — Kris Reibel, director of fitness products, was swamped throughout the show, but managed to surface for a few minutes by email afterward to say the company was “picking up dealers at an amazing pace.” Part of that reason was the company’s “clean slate” when it comes to its sales channels without Internet, discount or sporting goods muddying the waters. Still on the QT, is the staff it is building. While cardio is definitely the company’s focus with high-power ellipticals and treadmills, look out: Strength may become part of the brand in the next year. Watch for it to go head-to-head with both Vision and Horizon. Meanwhile, in Denver, the company introduced a treadmill with an Intel processor and an LCD Flat Screen 15-inch touch display.

Bodycraft — Taking the plunge into strength was longtime go-to strength-specialist Bodycraft with two ellipticals to start. Manufactured in Taiwan, one with a list of $1,500 is programmable with heart-rate control and six pre-set programs and up to 400 watts of resistance, while the non-programmable one goes without heart-rate control also and has up to 300 watts (list: $1,100). Promised initially last year, company co-founder Alan Gore said they held off to get it right. “Our effort isn’t to be everything to everybody,” he said. “We are growing and having loads of fun where we are now.” Well, SNEWS® thinks fun is good. We have to pass on that one retailer told us, “The more products Bodycraft adds to its line, the less I need to do with other companies,” while also complimenting the company’s service.

Diamondback — One of the talks of the show, for better or for worse, were the new Diamondback front-drive ellipticals, which were called “Octane knock-offs.” They are slated to be at retail in November. The 1250ef (list $2,400) has an adjustable elevation from 6 percent to 28 percent in 3-percent increments, which also naturally adjusts the stride length from about 15.5 to 19 inches. It, therefore, feels like different machines, with one attendee calling it a cross between a stepper and an elliptical because of how elevation differences change how you feel. The 950ef (list $2,000) elliptical has dependent upper body handles and 15 programs that include heart-rate control. Those were just two of eight new products for the company, six of which were recumbent or upright bikes.

Fitness Master (Fitnex) — Only in its second year at the show, Fitness Master (aka Fitnex as company name) stood out with its sleek and shiny, modernistic designed equipment, all of which was bright and nearly sparkly silver. Included in the new additions to its line were two bikes and two ellipticals, including light commercial product. We really liked the really really HUGE can’t-miss-’em buttons on the treadmills to pause or reset — done in a bright blue that adds to the can’t-miss-’em feature. Home treadmills go from $1,200 to $1,650, while home bikes go from $500 to $1,200. All have lifetime warranties for original owners.

Horizon Fitness — The result of some focus on message consistency was apparent at the Horizon booth. The S-Class (specialty) line was re-launched as the Elite series, with redesigns from console (new bright blue screens) to overall design. Treadmill lists are $800 to $1,700. The company also introduced a pivoting foot platform on the 4.1E elliptical that has an 18-inch stride and the same blue backlit LED screens. All seemingly great quality and look for the money.

Kettler — A long-timer in the industry, this company out of Germany owns much of the German-speaking market with its range of products from fitness to kids toys and patio seating. It’s now on the road to become a full-line U.S.-based company also. Although selling here since 1964, it really didn’t tackle this side of the pond seriously until 1981 — still a long time ago for the fitness industry! Its big talk was its new Mondeo cross-trainer, that was still in prototype on a pivoting stage in the booth (list expected to be $1,600). It has motorized magnetic resistance and eight training programs. The company does its own powder-coating.

Keys Fitness — Companywide, Keys is paying a lot more attention to style and equipment cosmetics. It touted the fact that its licensed Ironman brand at sporting goods is now being designed by the company. Also expanded is its own Alliance brand of treadmills, with built-in fans, controls on the short side rails for speed and incline and a lifetime warranty.

Lamar Health, Fitness & Sport — We have to mention the new company bearing the name of former Nautilus President Kevin Lamar … just because. OK, the equipment it did show wasn’t really tweaked or fine-tuned or enough to really write about, but Lamar is making a go of it and spent the show in a meeting room talking it up with retailers, building relationships and networking with potential dealers. Will the company make it? Hard to say. If it manages some innovative product (the Universal name won’t hurt), it could since Lamar himself is king of the relationship. But even a couple of retailers who are some of his biggest fans still aren’t sure if they’ll go with the product — because they feel their lines are set and they just don’t need another cardio line.

Lifespan by PCE Fitness — The biggest front-row attraction in the Lifespan booth (also only in its second year) was the Stretch Partner, which we already covered in our stretch/balance show story on Aug. 27. Its other intro was what it called the “Cardio Breeze Ionizer” treadmill. The fan is intended to filter air so when you’re breathing harder and need more, you are able to suck up purer stuff. List is $1,500.

Nautilus/Bowflex — The Nautilus Group was definitely on a roll at the show, practically bowling over others with introductions and new products, from strength under the Bowflex and Nautilus names (see our story Sept. 7 for that detail) to cardio equipment. The line up of Bowflex-branded treadmills were sprinkles on the ice cream cone, definitely playing in design to a Bowflex-minded consumer, e.g. when it folds, the bottom part that shows actually looks GOOD and designed. A nice touch. Plus, you can literally use one finger to let it drop to the floor for use (three models list for about $1,300 to $1,700). Another huge hit was the company’s adjustable stride elliptical, now fine-tuned from its earlier prototype. Every company does these differently: Nautilus’ will change without mandating button pushes or consumer choices; rather, the stride simply gets longer or shorter as a user’s “push” seems to demand it. Very smooth. But still expensive with lists that will likely hit from $3,000 to $4,000 (still being determined, partly based on retailer feedback). We also really liked the new high-end treadmill that senses your footfalls and actually counts your strides-per-minute. It actually has a training program that imitates the Boston Marathon course and other popular races. OK, also pricey (low- to mid-$4,000s), but obviously only for the true running geek who is willing to drop that kind of money. Oh, it also has diagnostic lights to help either the consumer know what to tell a service person on the phone about what might be wrong, as well as for the retailer doing service.

New Balance Fitness Equipment — We already covered New Balance in depth (see SNEWS® story, July 8: “New Balance equipment to debut at Health & Fitness Business show”), so go there for Fitness Quest’s rationale and development process. According the Rick Pawlak, director of sales, the response at the show was “more than we anticipated” — even in a booth that was nothing more than its square of carpet with the equipment stationed here and there. It also has the comfy mesh seat backs on its recumbent bikes (as SportsArt initially introduced a year ago), as well as pedals that are molded on one side something like a Birkenstock shoe for those home users who want to work out barefoot. Lots of other touches too. Plus, a name that many consumers will likely recognize. Could be good business.

Octane Fitness — For the first year actually on-site in the convention center — although still not on the floor but in a downstairs meeting room — Octane showed two new ellipticals (well, duh, since Octane only does ellipticals), which started shipping in late August. The Q45 (list $3,200) and Q45e (list $3,600) have an adjustable stride length and really cool “MultiGrip handlebars” that are curved in a loop that allows in a marvelously simplistic way for users of all different heights and statures to find a grip that’s comfy for them. The stride length is adjusted electronically; the machine perceives when you are going faster and “need” more length and adds it, which you can see on the console. The stride can vary from 18 to 23 inches. A great high-end home piece, which at 300 pounds ain’t going anywhere by itself.

Spirit Fitness — This show was Spirit’s coming-out party, if you will. It’s been 10 months since Taiwan-based Dyaco bought a controlling interest in the company (see SNEWS® story, Jan. 15) and brought on a new president. The company’s quest: to become more than a treadmill company and to update its line and its look. Out came two lines: Spirit for specialty retailers, and “Inspire by Spirit,” intended for sporting goods although any retailer could carry it — all are Asian made, but the company still has its manufacturing facility in Jonesboro, Ark. Under the Spirit umbrella came five treadmills ($800 to $2,000) and one elliptical (list $800). “It feels good to be back again,” said Spirit’s Jay Hurt. “We’re really proud of this line.”

Vision Fitness — Slowly reinventing itself in its quest to become a one-stop shop, Vision Fitness’ highlight was a special program on six bikes and six ellipticals (treadmills are coming, we were told) called the “Sprint 8.” It’s designed in partnership with Phil Campbell and is a 20-minute workout that requires 30-second nearly-all-out sprints followed by a one-minute easy period. Campbell and Vision call this the way to really reach weight-loss and conditioning goals. Also, remember that strength equipment that the company debuted last year? Won’t see it anymore. But wait till next year: More will be coming. The company wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the last round.

Wynne — With a large front-row booth area, Wynne International had a huge line from its Wynne price-point product to its higher-end Tunturi equipment, including a new elliptical and treadmills. Ellipticals were one of the stories here, with prototypes of two ellipticals (C4 and C6) letting retailers try the programmable product ($1,000 to $1,300). The console of the C3 ($800) is also in the process of redesign. Two light commercial ellipticals (C80 and C85) are being finalized now, we were told. The Tunturi T80 treadmill, out since March, is a sturdy workhorse at $3,400 (non-folding, add $300 retail for a folding version). We love the tortoise and hare designs on the console to indicate speed adjustments — it’s totally intuitive that the hare means you go faster and the tortoise means you go slower. That’s a grand way to speak to a consumer.