Bally Total Fitness Gets Its Mobility Strategy Into Shape

No one has ever accused the health and fitness industry of ignoring a perfectly good fad. New equipment, diets and weight-loss methods develop seemingly out of nowhere, like bubbles in a (zero-calorie) soda. Whole fitness philosophies can be erased like lessons on a chalkboard, to be replaced with new instructions (also written in chalk). So it should come as no surprise that this agile industry would be a target-rich environment for enterprise mobility, dense as it is with potential customer-employee interactions that often can be deep and last months and sometimes years.

Several months and $300,000 into a limited rollout of a broad mobile infrastructure, the 1 million-member Bally Total Fitness chain of upscale gyms has decided that enterprise mobility is no fad. In an interview with CIO Insight‘s Jim Nash, the company’s SVP and CIO Guy Thier says he is confident that mobile devices will reduce member turnover, cut operating costs and increase membership sales.

Ten of Bally’s 100 clubs have at least some aspect of the mobility infrastructure right now, and those early adopters have seen an increase in membership sales. Thier says the very fact that clubs are always trying new things makes it hard at this point to say exactly how much new revenue is attributable to the mobility strategy. He is, however, confident enough to say that such sales will pay for Bally’s initial $300,000 mobility investment by summer 2012, when the company’s first mobile deployments turn one year old.

Bally standardized on Apple iPads and iPhones running either Verizon or AT&T to avoid having to deal with multiple vendors and operating systems. The devices — about 50 iPads and 100 iPhones — run a mix of internally and externally developed apps. Based on early results, it looks likely that most of Bally’s 1,900 employees eventually will be toting mobile devices at work.

CIO Insight: Describe what enterprise mobility looks like at Bally.

Guy Thier: Our vision is to really impact the entire enterprise, from consumers to employees. We have several pillars supporting our internal mobile strategy. Under one pillar, we’re putting mobility into the hands of salespeople and general managers to support interactions with customers.

We have a custom iPad membership app that enables our sales staff to sell right there on the floor. No more touring a club and going back to a little office to get the person to sign a contract. It sets a tone right from the start of a membership.

People check into the system when they come in, so we have good idea of who’s in the club. Staff can view each customer’s profile, including a photo and the person’s goals. Our people can stop by, offering workout tips. They could also discuss how one-on-one training could help that person hit their goals.

There’s an employee/operations pillar for the strategy too. Bally has an iPhone app that tracks and manages work orders for preventative maintenance, repairs, parts. It logs activities for later retrieval.

Part of our strategy also covers back-office functions. We have virtual desktops on iPads that are used primarily by IT, and have helped us to cut floor space by 50 percent for IT. That initiative started with allowing staff one or two days away from the office, and we saw improvement in productivity. It expanded to four days working from home with hoteling. That’s a very attractive [employee] retention tool, too.

Is it BYOD at Bally?

Thier: We buy the devices for employees, and we hand them out to people who we really want to encourage to go mobile [such as] executives. If you compare clubs with iPads to clubs that are still on PCs, it’s less expensive to work on iPads because the tablets are less expensive than PCs to buy, deploy and maintain.

How’s your budget for app development look?

Thier: With partnerships, it’s not too bad. We have the user experience-piece and the transactional piece. We use an outside vendor — Magenic — to develop the user experience.

You outsourced the user experience but not the behind-the-scenes work?

Thier: Right. We are more familiar than a third-party vendor could be with integration points between the multiple systems [managing employees, sales, member databases, etc.] that already exist in the enterprise.

With your focus on one hardware vendor — Apple — have you considered developing a mobile enterprise app platform?

Thier: We’re moving toward it. One advantage is standardization and another is the ability to deal with employee turnover.

What’s standing in the way?

Thier: It’s a matter of priorities for the company. If I could do it all over again, I’d be even more focused on standardization from the beginning.

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