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Look back: Past IHRSA CEO Forums unfortunately mostly bark, little bite

The past two years of CEO Forums held at the annual IHRSA trade show in the spring have brought together some of the top thinkers in the industry, those that direct the leading companies, to think aloud together in one room with an audience.

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The past two years of CEO Forums held at the annual IHRSA trade show in the spring have brought together some of the top thinkers in the industry, those that direct the leading companies, to think aloud together in one room with an audience.

With that kind of brain trust in one place talking about what the industry needs to do to advance, gain broader strength, spread its fitness message and grow, the power of ideas generated is enormous. Unfortunately, energetic talk, lively debate, great question-and-answer, a plethora of ideas, and all kinds of altruistic yak about working together, selling one message, not hawking “stuff” but movement, and reaching out to kids ends up getting stalled at the door once the session is over.

No blame, really. No fault of IHRSA. The group, which we can thank for setting this up and moving the club side of the industry to a higher place, sets up the platform, poses the questions and says, “Go.” There is no real action item, no end result, no person or group taking notes or making a to-do list. And the companies involved in the forums exist, to be completely blunt, to make money and, in some cases, to maximize stockholder earnings. Not as if spreading the fitness word in a broader sense and tapping into the growing national cry about the obesity problem — all in the name of adding good conscience to a company’s resume — won’t in the long run make money too. Build it and they will come, so to speak. Or, invest some money and look for multiple results back.

“There was no call-to-action,” said Jim McPartland, former president of Star Trac, looking back on his participation in the forums. “People were asked to answer questions, and they answered questions. So you just end up with a presentation…. The loop wasn’t closed, and it wasn’t asked to be closed.”

Either way, the industry in the last two years has ended up mostly with lots of talk, little action, and a round of applause at the end of the discussion and big smiles talking about what a success the forum was. By the way, there is no CEO Forum scheduled for this year’s IHRSA conference.

“I do not see a concerted, multi-company, industry-wide initiative,” Cybex CEO John Aglialoro told SNEWS®, looking back himself. “There’s a lot of competition, and perhaps a certain myopic attitude has taken effect. It’s not as if the people don’t all want good things. They’re just all trying to make a living.”

Who has done what?
Of course, when we look at the executives who were on the panel, it seems that some longtime industry leaders who are deeply motivated by the topic of moving people to fitness end up leaving their big companies to try to get something done.

Ken Lucas left Matrix Fitness in January 2005 and is now at Sportwall, a company that emphasizes fun and fitness in a game setting with a lot of focus on kids and schools. He called his departure at that time “a personal re-thinking of what fitness can be.”

“In the end, fitness is a consequence of having fun,” Lucas told SNEWS® in January. “There’s something to this,” he added about the fitness-oriented games of Sportwall. “It may not be the whole answer, but it’s a good start.”

McPartland himself left Star Trac in June 2004 with the dream of opening what would become a global chain of small non-exclusive, accessible, quick-workout clubs working in conjunction with hospitals. The first is now slated to open in the second quarter of this year, he said.

As McPartland told SNEWS® last year upon his departure, “My ambition is to touch more people and to change more lives.” He also at that time voiced a concern about the club business that seemed to fight over the same small piece of the population. “The decision to step-down from Star Trac is a step-down to step-up,” he added.

On the other hand, one industry newcomer, Gregg Hammann, of Nautilus Inc., is helping to guide the company to a broad objective that will put its money where its mouth is. A non-profit institute supported by Nautilus will be announced March 18 — look for details in a SNEWS® story then — that will research and promote fitness as well as disseminate information to trainers, clubs, retailers and consumers.

“Because NLS now operates across all channels and virtually all fitness categories with the industry’s four leading brands, we are taking it upon ourselves to pursue a category growth initiative that helps people progress from wherever they are on the fitness continuum,” CEO and President Hammann told SNEWS®.

Let’s take a look back at the last two years and at some of the comments made:

In 2004, the forum was dampened by poor planning, a location too far from the meeting rooms, lack of attendance, a white-napkin sit-down lunch by invitation only, and an overly restrictive question about how to “leverage the healthcare crisis.” Nevertheless, some comments hit the mark:

Paul Byrne of Precor emphasized to attendees that everybody has to stop selling “stuff” but rather the joy of movement, especially with children. “Tomorrow’s success will be earned outside our walls,” he said. Life Fitness’ Kevin Grodzki, who has since left Brunswick’s fitness division for one in the marine division, said the crisis is clear and that it’s not only about doing the right thing but also about recognizing a business opportunity. He discussed a campaign in Chicago he’s involved with to help get Chicago moving and more fit after it was named America’s second fattest city in 2001. Nautilus’ Hammann drummed the same beat as Byrne in saying that it’s not about getting kids on equipment but getting them hooked on the great feeling of movement.

In 2003, the forum was much less swish, with SRO crowds in a small, packed meeting room vibrating with energy. Most messages were about the need for building an alliance in the industry that could help deliver the overall fitness message to all those people who do nothing and to kids, as well as work on keeping fitness and its message more fun.

“We hold in our hands a building block called fitness,” Grodzki said in that forum a year earlier. “If we can think more aggressively about building alliances … that would go a long way to increasing the level of participation and the level of retention in the long term.”

Byrne also said that year: “We are a small industry. Unless we can come together, it’s difficult to maintain the message.”

Kevin Lamar, then president of Nautilus, talked about the need for creative and grassroots marketing to help deliver the fitness message, perhaps in the form of infomercials. That could also help teach people how to get fit since “you’d be amazed there is so little information on how to get fit out there.”

But Grodzki at that time hit the nail on the head: The problem in the case of all the suggestions and thoughts is the need for a vehicle to implement them, Grodzki said at the 2003 forum, adding that execution is what’s needed.

For McPartland, the issue may be that an executive doing the speaking who has the passion can’t just hand that feeling off and tell someone to implement it.

“If you believe in something in your heart, you can’t hand off your heart,” McPartland said. “It has to be the person with the dream that makes it happen.”

Cybex’s Aglialoro, who has taken part in all of the forums, is still confident something will happen because we are nearing that tipping point. For his company’s part, it has taken on Trazer game that combines fitness with fun and is working with schools and other community facilities when it is available next quarter.

“There’s a triumvirate of actions that had to take effect,” said Aglialoro. “We are part of that. We are the physical fitness part. The second piece of that triumvirate is the food folks. The third, that’s the psychological side. That’s the big piece. It may not be today, or in three or five years, but these pieces will come together.

“Something will happen,” he added. “It’ll be in the self-interest of the companies.”

SNEWS® View: Hear, hear… These lofty discussions are inspiring — and we thank IHRSA for allowing them to happen and setting the stage for them — but what would be more inspiring is to see the companies actually join forces in some way in that oft-named alliance that would in the long run benefit all. Of course, IHRSA did in 2003 attempt to start what it called an “Industry Growth Council,” but what eventually sprang out of that was the Get Active America club campaign since the interest and funding was missing for other efforts. It seems IHRSA, however, is looking to do some additional research in 2006, based on recommendations from a committee of CEOs. Perhaps with the increasing volume of talk from the government, schools and researchers, all those pieces will come together and somebody or some group will emerge to bring everyone onto the same front.