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IHRSA show part I: Packed to gills in new Las Vegas venue

Energy was high and the show aisles filled at the IHRSA convention and trade show, which concluded its 23rd annual offering to health club management, retailers and personal trainers on March 25 in neon- and kitsch-lined Las Vegas, Nev.

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Energy was high and the show aisles filled at the IHRSA convention and trade show, which concluded its 23rd annual offering to health club management, retailers and personal trainers on March 25 in neon- and kitsch-lined Las Vegas, Nev.

Although exhibitors and attendees alike seemed to say they found what they needed and made the deals they came for or the education they sought, that didn’t keep a few glitches from surfacing at the new venue for IHRSA.

Without the spaciousness of the Moscone Center entry halls in San Francisco, the cramped entrance in Las Vegas left attendees literally packed elbow-to-elbow on the first day of the trade show, standing in long lines that weaved around the room and feeling like a Tokyo subway at rush hour. After standing in one line to register or check-in, attendees were then told to go mill around a second desk and wait for their name to be called to get a badge. Joked one, “I feel as if I’m waiting for a latte at Starbuck’s.” The entire process for some took an hour and was called by one regular convention services employee “by far the most poorly run” he’s ever worked of all the shows that flow in and out of the Las Vegas Convention Center on Paradise Road.

Then, there was the shape of the exhibit hall, which was quite similar to the one at Moscone, except rotated 180 degrees. That meant the only entrances were on narrow sides of the hall, leaving attendees feeling as if they were trying to flow all at once into the narrow part of the funnel from a wider mouth. That also gave the Big Gun companies (aka: IHRSA’s largest advertisers) and their booths a really grandiose showing — the front of the hall only held three big booths across — and left the middle tier and little guys hoping people would actually filter back to row 3000 in the rear of the hall past the fortresses in the front. It didn’t help that the ceiling height in Las Vegas in most of the hall used was 25 feet compared to San Francisco’s 37 feet.

“I feel very sorry for the people in 2400,” said Patrick Hald, COO of FreeMotion Fitness.

Maybe he did, but TuffStuff a bit farther forward than that in 2000 said the booth had been swamped with three times as much traffic as expected. Said commercial sales director Lyon Alizna: “They found us. We’ve had the traffic.”

And about the complaints about the loooooong walk from the hotel to the show floor: It’s not as if the San Francisco headquarters hotel is all that close to its convention center, but it SEEMS closer since corridors with meeting rooms can get you there. In Las Vegas, some said it took 20-30 minutes to wend your way from the Hilton to the expo halls and one tired participant jokingly said it must have been “at least 9.42 miles.”

So stop kvetching…

OK, so if you could get past poor registration organization, a rather odd-shaped hall, as well as the long cab lines and smoke-filled casinos Las Vegas is known for, the show itself was energetic and at least matched last year’s show in exhibitors and attendees. (Final numbers weren’t available by deadline since IHRSA staff took a day off. How dare them….) Although some moaned about having to take a cab everywhere, others reveled in less-expensive eateries, hotel deals if you looked hard enough, and more entertainment options … of all types.

Nevertheless, next year the show will head back to the City by the Bay in Northern California for a run from March 16-19, 2005. Rumor has it, it may rotate between Las Vegas and San Francisco, but SNEWS® hasn’t confirmed that yet.

On another bright note, the early morning workouts once again were loud, sweaty, energetic, and jammed with people either just looking for a workout or cruising to try new equipment. Indoor cycling was everywhere, and other companies gave group classes on their equipment often just to help get people on it. True’s treadmill and stretching equipment was busy, as usual. And if you spent a minute on each of any three pieces in SportArt America’s booth, you walked away with a T-shirt with either its new “brick house” or “spike” ad designs (definitely keepers).

Orchestra Section: The Big Guns

The biggest show floor yak was about Life Fitness’ front-row curtained booth. Without exhibitor rules that expressly prohibited it, LF draped its entire space in sheer white fabric from floor to nearly ceiling. That created a dramatic, very intimate, nearly clubby effect inside without feeling claustrophobic — one attendee commented he expected to see velvet ropes at the entrances. Good for LF. Bad for others behind it. Hald from FreeMotion told us that the Life Fitness booth blocked the hall, including his company’s booth. Others questioned the ethics of such a design. IHRSA staff wasn’t in the office to comment about a code of conduct and whether it may act to prohibit such booths in the future.

Technogym also took its place in the front, still stressing its wellness theme and maintaining its booth design from last year with a circular center area filled with bright red apples. Actually, SNEWS found them to be a snacking blessing in the midst of uninspired trade show snack counters and a sea of protein cookies, bars and drinks.

A few smaller booths found lucky fill-in spaces toward the front, including Woodway, Polar, Quantum and VersaClimber.

“Our booth has been very busy, and there’s been good traffic,” said FreeMotion’s Hald. “More traffic than we expected overall.”

Life Fitness — Besides its booth design, the company had its dual adjustable pulley spiffed up to match its other Signature line pieces. It also showed its 95xi elliptical that had been through a few biomechanical tweaks in design (hand placement is now much more comfortable), and a multi-jungle that allowed club owners to configure it as they want, sort of “do it your way.” In addition, LeMond RevMaster introduced its “Pilot” wireless monitoring attachment for the indoor cycling bikes that gives tracks and displays a user’s cadence, time, heart rate, distance and calories (with the calculation modifiable based on weight and heart rate). A chip in the bike relays the information to the monitor on the handlebars and, get this, it ONLY works with the LeMond bikes and could help sell more over a competitor.

Cybex — Its new partner Trazer video fitness game was up and running, allowing attendees to compete against themselves and each other in agility games. Wait, sorry, FITNESS, as the developer kept telling everybody. But isn’t it OK that it’s also fun? Since SNEWS® first saw Trazer a couple of years ago, the video and interface has been upgraded considerably, and it should be a great sell for clubs, schools and community centers. Cybex also introduced its dual-action Arc Trainer and, as usual, smattered its booth with Arc Trainers and treadmills painted for show in a rainbow of colors.

Star Trac — Its new Pro series bikes, first introduced at the Athletic Business conference in December took center stage and caught a lot of attention, although a bit of debate ensued about the “lounge chair-like” arm rests on the recumbent. Are we exercising or reclining? You can look at it both ways since the recumbent user is often one that reads the papers so this makes it comfortable, or are we encouraging slo-mo pedaling? We LOVE the handle for adjusting seat height that wraps around the entire seat, eliminating the fumbling hunt for handle. Of course, its loudest attraction was Johnny G Spinning classes. And its quietest attraction was an espresso machine.

Nautilus Health & Fitness Group — A huge booth combined all its companies — Nautilus, StairMaster and Schwinn, as well as its pending partner Champion Nutrition and its many programs, including its new Fusion group exercise. New hits: A prototype of an elliptical that will dynamically change its stride length based on user needs (5300 VSL). If you are slower or shorter, the swing is shorter (it goes as short as 14 inches); stride out or if you’re a tall one, and it may reach its maximum 30-inch stride. It won’t be finalized or on the market for at least eight months and won’t come cheap — in the high $5,000s. Nevertheless, it allows a user to step on and move the way he or she wants rather than within the industry norm of about 17-18 inches. Although behind closed doors, it was no secret that Nautilus was showing off a prototype of its commercial grade TreadClimber, til now only a direct consumer product (introduced on TV and the web a year ago). Although still a year away and with a few quirks to be worked out, it was an interesting peek into development. We think it could be close to a Next New Thing for the industry. The movement isn’t as awkward and clunky as we’d imagined, and we think it will definitely appeal to a non-fitness enthusiast with its hiking-like movement.

Precor — With the largest booth on the show floor, Precor had of course now wrapped up not only itself but also ClubCom/CardioTheater as well as Icarian. Normally staid, the new booth had trendier, wow-ier graphics and colors, with back rooms that thumped with trendy hip-hop music and first-rate company videos. The company had finalized the branding of its Icarian acquisition, now calling it “Precor Strength, Icarian Line.” We were told other “lines” — including lower cost ones — could now fall under that umbrella, but that the Icarian name would be reserved for higher-end commercial equipment to maintain its reputation. Precor too is working on “new things,” but aren’t showing them yet. One note: its 556i total body elliptical has been tweaked slightly in the arm placement, wheels, display and elliptical geometry, as has its 846i bike. Plus, a user fitness test has been added to the 546 and 556 ellipticals.

FreeMotion Fitness — Biggest hit of course was the new alliance with Reebok (see our story from March 25). Although small, the so-called Reebok Deck was a nifty item — imagine a step (like those for step aerobics), only slightly narrower and longer. One end unsnaps and flips up to different angles so it also serves as a bench and incline bench for body sculpting classes. And risers are connected and just snap into place to create a second height. Or just use one for an incline or decline effect. It also has notches so you can more easily use bands and tubes. Although geared for the club, we think there’d be a huge market for this at retail (list $200).

True Fitness — If you could hear yourself pedal between treadmill class demos, the new ZTX bikes — two upright and two recumbent — had a sleek look. Forget flashy screens, says Bob Starr, this one is simple and resembles a cell phone screen that is friendly for most users. There are also 77 different levels, which means it can be widely adjusted from extremely light to extremely hard, much more than other bikes can. Plus — this is fun — the bikes with the display have an ECG graphic that actually reads your heart beats and displays the graphics. That’ll keep you occupied.

To be continued … OK, now don’t start fretting that we haven’t mentioned you or the company you’re interested in. There is so much to say, product to cover, and other companies to write about that we’ve decided to break this report into two parts. Stay tuned for Part II next week in which we’ll tell you about the companies in the middle section of the Twiggy hall, as well as the folks in the Back of the Pack. You had to work to find them, but there WERE some finds.