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Working It Out - Student Recreation Complex at Arizona State University

As featured in Recreation Management Magazine
By Jessica Royer Ocken

The Student Recreation Complex at Arizona State University had the classic problem for on-campus fitness facilities: too much love. 

Opened in 1989, the facility’s three large gyms, 14 racquetball courts, squash court, and rooms for circuit training and fitness classes indoors are complemented by a 70-meter heated pool, 5,000-square-foot weight room and basketball courts outdoors. At its busiest, the complex may be visited by as many as 5,000 workout-loving students, faculty, staff and alumni per day—far more than even the most packed commercial gym. In addition to sports clubs, group exercise classes, Pilates, yoga and aquatics classes, the facility hosts a thriving intramural sports program. Intramural matches often keep the center open until 1 or 2 a.m., just to accommodate all the competition junkies. “Students don’t like it, but if they want to play, they show up,” said Julie Kipper, associate director of programs and marketing for the ASU Student Recreation Complex.

Among the most-used items at the center (during daylight hours) were the 85 cardio machines scattered throughout the building. By 2007, when ASU began considering how to improve the Student Recreation Complex, some of the machines were eight years old—absolutely ancient in terms of exercise equipment technology. “We didn’t have a lot in our budget for true replacement,” Kipper explained. “So we just did a few here and there. [Many of the machines were] very old and needed constant repair.”

Not only was this time-consuming for staff and frustrating for those coming to work out, it also added to the complex’s budget woes. “Those [repair] costs couldn’t even be estimated each year,” Kipper said. “We never knew what would happen.” The staff did as many of the repairs as possible themselves and only called a technician when necessary. But even so, “it got to the point that it was just too much for us in terms of the budget and not enough having enough equipment for students,” Kipper said.

The rec center staff knew they needed to make a change, so they got creative. “Our department had a reserve account set aside for debt retirement, but it had been earning interest,” Kipper explained. They approached the university vice president and asked if some of that interest could be used to replace their decrepit cardio equipment. They received permission and, after an analysis, determined that because of the nature of the funding, a lease situation made more sense than purchasing the equipment outright. 

Armed with this information, the staff laid out their goals. The current cardio equipment was an array of makes and models from several manufacturers. They now wanted one brand. “We needed to have easier repairs, plus make it easier for patrons to move from machine to machine, [because the] screens and setup would be similar.” In addition, the never-ending repair odyssey that had swamped their maintenance staff and budget for years made an outsourced equipment-maintenance program another essential for their lease agreement.

With these ideals in mind, ASU put the project out for bid. One of the responding firms was Advantage Fitness Products (AFP), a Culver City, Calif.-based company that can design, supply equipment for and then support recreation centers. “AFP did a walk through the building,” Kipper said. “We needed wiring for cable, so they did a complete analysis to see what we had, what kind of wiring they’d need to run. They were pretty much only vendor that did that. Their bid was very thorough.”

Along with their attention to detail, AFP offered a leasing option that appealed to ASU. “At end of three years, the equipment is not theirs, it’s ours,” explained AFP Key Account Manager Nels Nelson. “We wheel in new stuff and hopefully renew the contract.” Rec centers that enter this sort of residual lease agreement with AFP also have the option to pay 20 percent of the equipment’s purchase price and own everything at the end of their contract, “but three years is when those machines start to break, you’re without a warranty, and now your equipment is three years old,” noted Nelson.

A final component that sealed the deal for ASU? Certified equipment technicians at the ready. “We have a service department six miles from there,” Nelson said. “One tech is ASU’s tech, and he’s there at least two days a week.”

It took some time for the proposal to wend its way through ASU’s administration for approval, but once it did, ASU signed a three-year contract with AFP to supply and maintain cardio equipment for the Student Recreation Complex in exchange for a monthly fee. With the agreement in place, AFP took a mere two weeks to transform the complex’s cardio offerings, and they did so without ever closing the building.

The first week, AFP did the cable wiring necessary to support the new and improved cardio machines. Then the heavy lifting began. Timed to coordinate with an intersession break in July 2008, the transformation was completed in sections. “We did a part at a time, [each] in one day,” Nelson said. One whole day was devoted to removing the 85 aging cardio machines. After that, “we added software components, computers and equipment in five days,” Nelson added. “It was fun to see things transform like that. It’s pretty cool.”

ASU’s Student Recreation Complex now has 110 pieces of cardio equipment, which line the building’s two main hallways, as well as filling a loft on the second floor and adding an aerobic option to the weight room. All are Precor Experience Series machines, which feature personal viewing screens that allow users to watch cable TV and even tune in to a special ASU-programmed station for information on fitness classes and recreation complex schedules.

Along with adding an entertainment component, the wiring on these linked-in machines enables them to communicate with a master server. They may report a potential maintenance issue before the user even realizes it. “In the old days that was part of problem,” Nelson said. “A treadmill is broken, so the user just goes on to the next one, and the problem doesn’t get reported. Now Precor allows the machine to report itself.”

Whether the machine reports itself or a problem is discovered the old-fashioned way, Kipper said the maintenance staff has been great. “We call our tech person if we have any problems, and we can get in touch right away,” she said. “They are very responsive.” Not only does the ASU center have a dedicated AFP tech, “we have parts allocation for ASU in our Tempe warehouse, so we can fix [broken machines] in a day or two,” Nelson explained. “That’s a big thing.” There’s no languishing for a week with a “waiting for repairs” sign on a machine. Instead, they’re up and running and being put through their paces. Nelson also provides ASU with a weekly report of any problems with the equipment in the hopes that this documentation will make their decision easy when it comes time to renew the contract.

So far, so good. “When we first got the equipment everyone was so grateful,” Kipper said. “The other comment we get is that people love the TVs. They say they work out longer because they can watch TV.” Although Kipper stresses that the recreation center has always been adequate for university needs, she notes that shiny, new, matching cardio equipment is an advantage when prospective students tour the fitness center. “Now they can say they replace their equipment every three years,” added Nelson.

On the whole, ASU is very pleased with their new and improved Student Recreation Complex—especially the system for maintenance and replacement of cardio equipment. “In three years [we can] turn over the equipment and not end up in the same situation again where we have 8-year-old equipment,” Kipper said. And although it’s nice to have the option to buy the equipment after three years, “we’d better replace it,” she said. “Our equipment gets lots of use.”