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Working it Out
Melanie Swanson, CTSM, controls costs and maximizes attendee interactions with an innovative and cost-cutting design solution for Matrix Fitness that showcases more products in less space. By Christopher Nelson
Melanie Swanson

Melanie Swanson, CTSM, has more than 20 years of experience managing trade shows and earned an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Swanson is also a portfolio advisor for the Certified Trade Show Marketer program and a member of the CTSM Ethics Committee. She serves on EXHIBITOR Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board and the EDPA Exhibitor Advisory Committee.
You don't have to be a gym rat to observe that wearable fitness technologies like Fitbit have exploded in recent years. A study by CCS Insight predicts that the wearable-technology industry will be worth $25 billion by 2019, with fitness and activity trackers expected to make up more than half of the estimated 245 million units sold annually. That demand for more informative and interactive technology is just as prominent in fitness clubs. After all, if you can track your steps and calories burned via a tiny device on your wrist, the treadmill at your gym better offer the same – if not more advanced – benefits. And if your health club uses equipment provided by Matrix Fitness, it just might.

Based in Cottage Grove, WI, Matrix Fitness is a commercial equipment brand of Johnson Health Tech Inc. and one of the largest U.S. providers of fitness equipment for health clubs and other facilities. Since 2009, the company has been expanding the technology available with its fitness equipment. Today, it offers a large portfolio of consoles that come on treadmills, climbers, and cardio equipment that feature everything from basic biometric tracking to smart diagnostics that let fitness facility owners know when the machines need repair.

As it turns out, that technological transformation was ultimately impacting more than just Matrix's products. Internal feedback regarding the company's presence at the 2016 International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) trade show indicated that the high-tech offerings were driving traffic to the exhibit and acting as a key differentiator that facilitated more substantive in-booth discussions with clients and prospects. As a result, sales reps wanted more console-equipped cardio equipment at the 2017 event to display Matrix's full range of tech-savvy options and increase opportunities to demo them to potential customers. The focus, it seemed, was starting to shift from the treadmills, ellipticals, and other equipment on display to the tech-enabled features embedded within their dashboards. And Melanie Swanson, CTSM, trade show manager for Matrix, had the job of addressing that shift as she began planning for IHRSA 2017. The annual show is the company's largest, and its 10,000-square-foot booth regularly features an extensive array of Matrix's commercial fitness equipment. With an exhibiting price tag of $1 million, it's also a big investment for the company. Matrix felt that in order to capitalize on that expenditure, spotlighting its line of tricked-out consoles would attract more tech-minded attendees and help sales reps further differentiate the company from exhibitors with smaller displays and fewer advanced offerings.

The console bank was positioned in the corner of the exhibit at the intersection of two high-traffic aisles.
"Unfortunately, the solution wasn't going to be as easy as just shipping more equipment and reconfiguring our booth space," Swanson says. "I was also tasked with controlling our exhibiting costs, and adding more equipment would substantially increase expenses." Those costs would include factory assembly for additional cardio machines, hefty shipping bills for the heavy equipment, and handling and labor to unload and arrange them at the show. Finally, each piece of machinery would need a power source and internet connectivity, ratcheting up additional expenditures even further.

Game-Changing Concept
Determined not to disappoint the sales team nor bankrupt her marketing budget, Swanson found inspiration overseas for a simple yet innovative cost-cutting and space-saving solution. While planning for IHRSA 2017, Swanson reviewed how Matrix's German subsidiary exhibited at FIBO 2016, a large European trade show for the fitness industry held in Cologne, Germany. "The exhibit at FIBO simply displayed our console technology on countertops without including all of the equipment itself, and I immediately thought this is what we have to do," Swanson says. The germ of an idea quickly grew to a full-fledged plan. Instead of adding more pieces of bulky and costly cardio equipment to an already packed IHRSA booth, Swanson and her team would craft a similar console bank.

"What's most important about our console technology is showing potential customers the interactivity and advanced features," Swanson says. "Most people have walked on a treadmill before, so they don't need to be able to do that to have a conversation with our team about the benefits of our accompanying technology." Reminiscent of the setups you'd find in an Apple store, the bank would be a display table housing multiple console units, multiplying the opportunity for different demos at a fraction of the cost of adding entirely new machines.

Team Recipe
Swanson drew up requirements for the design that included a number of elements with an eye toward maximizing long-term use and reducing costs. Instead of constructing one large console bank with the ideal dimensions for the company's biggest booth at IHRSA, Swanson had designers create two modular units that could be used individually in small exhibits or combined at larger shows. "Making the system modular allowed the platforms to be used in multiple shows simultaneously and to accommodate any booth size, from 10,000 square feet at IHRSA to the 100 or 200 square feet we have at some of our smallest shows," Swanson says. She also asked designers to craft each bank to fit in the company's standard 8-by-4-by-8-foot shipping crates and to be easily moved by forklift to avoid additional shipping and handling costs. A white laminate exterior and Matrix branding would match the existing booth components, and Swanson requested that the consoles be switched out easily as the company introduced new technology.
Thanks to a modular design, the console bank can be scaled up or down to accommodate exhibits of varying size.
But Swanson didn't work alone. She credits a collaborative Matrix team effort in bringing the concept to life, and that included up-front input from technology and marketing team members in developing a robust recipe of design requirements. Technology staff requested ample hidden inner storage for the computers, routers, cabling, and power sources needed to run the consoles, as well as built-in secure storage for flatscreen monitors that would be mounted on the outer ends of each bank to loop Matrix product videos. Marketing team members asked that each station accommodate six consoles – three per side with a Plexiglas divider between the two rows for sense of privacy during sales conversations. They also requested mounted placards next to each console to list technology specs that could be easily changed as product updates occurred.

With the requirements defined, Matrix leadership approved a project brief in early November 2016, giving Swanson the green light to begin the estimated four-month build. Continuing to pinch pennies wherever possible, Swanson chose to have the structure built internally. "Matrix Fitness has an in-house fabrication area inside our facility," Swanson says. "Leadership approved using the model shop to build the banks, which meant that we could complete the project at a much lower cost than if we had requested help from an outside exhibit house." Fabrication included construction of each 8-by-4-by-7-foot station from durable steel and wood framing with a laminate outer shell. With the structure complete, staffers in the model shop built mountings for each console with piping to neatly hide the cabling needed for the supporting technology and power components inside the display, keeping the design sleek and clean.

"Many teams within the company had input into the project," Swanson says. "By working together from the beginning to create a comprehensive needs/wants list and project brief, the console bank was created almost exactly as envisioned while keeping our costs contained." Swanson saved additional dollars by keeping the buzz on her new console banks to a minimum. "We have always had a very large presence at IHRSA, so we didn't do any extensive pre-show marketing," Swanson says. "We planned to position the banks on the highest traffic corner of our booth as a natural attention-getter, with the goal of attracting as many IHRSA attendees as possible."

Enter the Matrix
The setup for Matrix's 10,000-square-foot IHRSA exhibit was extensive, meaning Swanson and her team arrived in Los Angeles nearly a week before the show to begin setting the stage for success. For the new console banks, that included reassembling the internal technology components to power and run the equipment. Aaron Raulin, assistant technology production integration manager on the Matrix marketing team, oversaw that effort. "I remember that Aaron was up in his hotel room cutting cabling for the technology a couple nights before the show," Swanson says. "He wanted to do it himself to make sure it was absolutely perfect."

As attendees began swarming the Los Angeles Convention Center, that attention to detail started to pay off. Visitors to the Matrix booth were transported from the show floor to the gym floor. "Our whole exhibit was designed to replicate a fitness facility," Swanson says. "If you think about the inside of a fitness facility, it typically has distinct areas with specific equipment – free weights, strength training equipment, cardio machines, etc. That's exactly how our booth is laid out."

Positioned at the intersection of two high-traffic aisles at the front right corner of Matrix's booth space, the console banks became the undeniable star of the show. The individual units were combined to create one large demo station that sat beneath a massive 80-by-80-foot branded element running diagonally across the space. "That front corner of the booth became our technology hub during the show," Swanson says.

"Members of the technology team held impromptu presentations with attendees and were able to discuss the capabilities featured on the TVs at the end of each bank. Then, they simply walked guests over to the consoles for hands-on demos."

Focusing solely on each console's unique features enabled staffers to quickly walk attendees through the company's high-tech wares.
As initially requested by the marketing team, the combined demo station displayed 12 units, allowing Matrix to showcase its full line of technology. "Each console on our bank was unique," Raulin says. "This allowed us to walk attendees through our entire portfolio in one place, providing a more holistic view of our technology strategy and making it easier for potential customers to compare models and for our sales team to highlight the advancements from one model to the next."

Immediate Impacts
Swanson notes how easy it was to immediately see the benefits of the console banks. "Visitors and our sales team didn't have to spend time waiting for a piece of equipment to become available to have a conversation about the technology," Swanson says. "I'd look out and see long lines at other booths to try out equipment, but our team was able to move through a lot more attendee interactions in the same amount of time it took other companies to engage with a single visitor." And according to Swanson, the banks didn't just attract attendees. "It turns out that our competitors were impressed by the consoles as well," she adds. "Booth staff had to politely disengage competitors from the demo station on several occasions."

Cutting out the equipment that would have otherwise accompanied the consoles also came with some unanticipated benefits. "Our reps were actually more effectively able to go in depth on conversations about the technology because it was just them, the visitors, and the consoles," Swanson says. "They didn't have to worry about someone trying to run on a treadmill while they were showing the technology, so they could focus on providing booth visitors with a much better understanding of the technology and its benefits."

In addition to IHRSA visitors and competing exhibitors, Swanson's cost-saving design solution also caught the eye of All-Star Awards judges. "This was a very innovative use of technology and design to solve an issue for this industry," one judge said. "I love the way the company came together to brainstorm and offer up requirements to effectively overcome the many different challenges while saving dollars at the same time."

Sweet Success
Not only did the banks save money, but they turned out to be great space-savers as well. "We were able to showcase 12 consoles in the same amount of square footage it would have taken to display three actual pieces of cardio equipment," Swanson says. That meant more interactive displays – and more demos – per square foot, which resulted in Matrix being able to engage with 75 percent more attendees than in the past. Moreover, Swanson's design also met her objective to control costs. "The console bank design and use of our in-house resources saved us thousands of dollars in expenses," Swanson says. "The 2017 actual budget was only 1.5 percent over target."

Keeping the budget in check, Swanson still delighted the sales team. Internal post-show survey results included requests from sales reps to have the demo stations featured at more shows, which means they are already on the docket for IHRSA 2018. But this time, Swanson anticipates Matrix won't be the only one employing the space- and cost-saving strategy. "For IHRSA 2018, we fully expect to see our competitors implement their own versions of our console bank," Swanson says. "I'm already excited to see what they will do." With innovative ideas like this, we're excited to see what Swanson's next move is as well. E

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