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How Health Clubs Can Navigate the New Meeting Landscape

As face-to-face meetings give way to more video and streaming gatherings, what do we risk losing and how can we maintain connections? How does the lack of hands-on interaction with the latest equipment impact facility planning?

There is little question that the pandemic has had an impact on a crucial aspect of the club business, especially where equipment purchasing and planning are concerned: Face-to-face meetings. Between the cancellation of a multitude of trade shows, educational summits, networking events, and planned one-to-one meetings, the loss of those opportunities has blunted peer-to-peer learning and hands-on experiences with the latest equipment.

At the same time, the desire for face-to-face meetings going forward remains high. According to the Future of Business Travel survey, more than 75% of respondents believe face-to-face meetings for sales and pitching are preferable to remote working, and 80% say a vaccine would make them more likely to travel for meetings.

That’s good news. But, to some degree, the die has already been cast, with face-to-face meetings likely to decline in a post-pandemic world. A recent survey of remote employees in Australia, for example, notes that, for 80% of respondents, most meetings will likely be remote once workplaces reopen.

“According to the Future of Business Travel survey, more than 75% of respondents believe face-to-face meetings for sales and pitching are preferable to remote working, and 80% say a vaccine would make them more likely to travel for meetings.”

It’s Different for Health Clubs

While many businesses can easily make the move to remote meetings, the proposition is not as simple for the club industry, particularly where equipment is concerned. There is a tactile element—a need to test and work with pieces hands-on—that simply can’t be replicated through video meetings.

“Although we’re global, our industry is still relatively small and relationships tend to be cultivated over time, and through frequent contact via industry meetings and other venues,” says Jay Ablondi, executive vice president of global products at IHRSA. “That peer-to-peer contact is critical. It fosters a greater ability to learn about industry trends, how other operators are using innovation to tackle tough problems and develop safety procedures, and, just as important, test drive equipment and products as they plan their facilities. It’s hard to replace that first-hand experience.”

Eddie Tock, president of REX Roundtables, a global organization that operates executive roundtables for business owners and chief executives, including more than 225 club owners, echoes Ablondi’s thoughts, drilling down further into the benefits of larger gatherings.

“Our industry has been built on relationships and these relationships have grown through face-to-face interactions over the past four decades,” he says. “The trade shows, regional meetings, and other leadership gatherings are where we share ideas and have the opportunity to reinforce old relationships and create new ones. The best part of larger trade shows is the early-morning workouts. Working out together is such a special moment. We share impressions of new treadmills, ellipticals, bikes, and other products and industry trends in a relaxed setting and then we sit down for a nice breakfast before we head to educational sessions. Those face-to-face meetings are really tough to beat.”

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What's in the future for conventions and in-person meetings?

Why Video Just Isn’t the Same

Fortunately, as the pandemic restricted face-to-face meetings, a range of online video platforms worked to help bring people together. Yet, many valuable nuances and other benefits can be lost without direct contact.

“There’s certainly value in online meetings as an avenue for collaboration, etc., but we are, at heart, social, physical beings and you just can’t replace that online,” says Carl Swedberg, fitness services director at PRO Sports Club in Bellevue, WA. “I’m a bit of an introvert and still would prefer learning or meeting in person. From a planning standpoint, we have high expectations of the fit and feel of equipment and—no offense to salespeople telling us how ‘it’s the best thing ever’—we like to kick the tires and then some. Just looking at equipment online limits getting a full opinion of the item.”

Among the biggest losses in terms of meetings is the benefit of the spontaneous, unplanned encounter.

“There is a certain serendipity in chance meetings,” Ablondi says. “You’re in a line at a coffee shop at one of our shows, and you just happen to bump into somebody that you realize you have a lot in common with, because you overhear them talking about something. Some of the best contacts I’ve made over the years have been based on these serendipitous moments.”

Ablondi also points out the advantages of interaction at industry gatherings that bring together larger numbers of peers.

“We hold a European Congress that’s a two-and-a-half-day event and everybody’s in the same hotel,” he says. “The amount of networking that happens, just from all the social interactions—whether it’s the dinners, the cocktails hours, or the exercise breaks—simply can’t be replaced by Zoom meetings.”

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"We’re pretty ‘Zoomed out’ right now,” says Eddie Tock.

Looking Ahead

As we get closer to a vaccine and look at the post-pandemic world, people are clearly looking forward to getting back to more normalized meeting environments.

“Video conferencing has helped us all stay connected during this COVID-19 crisis, however, we’re pretty ‘Zoomed out’ right now,” says Tock. “REX members are yearning for the regional meetings, but we know we have to be patient.”

As we round the corner, among the advantages the industry can leverage is pent-up demand.

“We know that members are chomping at the bit to back to their workouts and that will help the industry rebound and grow,” Ablondi says. “And that energy will drive our comeback. As we look ahead to our next IHRSA show in September, we know we have nine months leading up to the event to ensure the safety of attendees and create an environment that maximizes that pent-up demand. Even though the tunnel may be dark at the moment, there’s a bright light at the end of it: The companies that survived this pandemic are really going to be positioned for growth. We’re looking to celebrate more than just the IHRSA’s 40th anniversary at the next show; we want to shine a bright light on the new possibilities for operators and our supplier partners.”

Swedberg strikes an optimistic note regarding PRO Sports Club’s post-pandemic future.

“We’ll hopefully see a surge in membership and participation onsite that we’ll be able to further build on in 2021 and 2022,” he says. “We’re looking forward to being closer to business as usual, including trips to IHRSA and other events, and updating equipment and services so that we can continue with our mission of improving people’s lives.”

How has the change in meeting styles impacted your club and operations? Do you think the current video meeting environment can be improved on? What does your equipment and facility planning look like going forward? If you want to take your turn to be heard regarding these issues and more, just take this survey. It’s your chance to weigh in on the future.

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Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to IHRSA.org.