Marice Richter Special to the Business Press
High temperatures, often coupled with oppressive humidity, can make watching the golfing action at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial a battle of endurance rather than a matter of entertainment. But this year, spectators will find a cool new treat that could be more refreshing than a frosty brew. Athletic Recovery Zone, a company from Jacksonville, Fla., will have one of its cooling benches set up in the lounge to provide instant relief to those who feel a little woozy. The company started four years ago when a Jacksonville heating and air-conditioning contractor was approached by the Jacksonville Jaguars football organization to invent a system that would prevent players from passing out from the Florida heat. “They had some players from the Northeast who were not used to playing in Florida, so one of their trainers asked me to come up with a product to cool the guys down on the sidelines,” said ARZ owner and Chief Executive Officer Brian Cothren. Cothren’s benches, with a patent pending, channel cold, dry air through the backrest and grates in the floor to quickly regulate body temperature. They also emit heat for cold winter conditions. The benches were an instant sensation and a remarkable success story for the start-up company. Besides the Jaguars, which use the benches at the team’s training facilities as well as games, ARZ has contracts with many college football teams, including Texas A&M University, as well as NASCAR and other racing organizations, and PGA events. The benches are used for players on the sidelines as well as for spectators, depending on the event. “I love to stand near the benches and watch people’s reactions,” said Jay Lent, chief financial officer of ARZ who has a background in international banking. “They look at them like they are seeing an animal they have never seen. Then they sit down and the reaction is always the same: ‘Ahhhh’.” As part of the company’s push to market beyond Florida and the southeast United States, it is demonstrating the benches at events including the HP Byron Nelson Championship, May 16-19, and the Colonial, May 20-26. The company has brought 20 feet of benches – enough to seat 10 people at a time – to the back-to-back PGA events. These are the company’s first spectator events in Texas, Cothren said. Colonial tournament manager Michael Tothe said he didn’t hesitate when approached by the company to conduct a free trial. “We’re excited to see how they work,” Tothe said. “Memorial Day weekend is usually hot, anywhere from the upper 80s to the triple digits, so this is the perfect opportunity to preview this product.” Cothren designed and built the first 10 benches to get the company up and running four years ago. Now they are manufactured as the company’s exclusive brand. Because of operating logistics, the company rents the benches rather than selling them. “We take care of everything,” Cothren said. “We deliver them, set them up, operate and maintain them, clean up and take them away.” The benches, which are produced as units of five feet each, require a forklift to install. Operating the benches requires water and electrical sources and extensive cabling. ARZ, which is funded exclusively by private investment, is in its second generation of design and is looking ahead to its next generation, Lent said. “Our first benches were very clunky and industrial-looking,” Lent said. “Our second-generation design is much sleeker – it is definitely evolving.” The company is also looking to develop a handicapped-accessible version with a wheelchair ramp, Lent said. Beyond their practical purpose, the benches serve an important medical function in crowds, Lent said. At some events, the benches are set up near the medical facilities so anyone who faints or is sickened by the heat can be placed on a bench and cooled off quickly on site rather than rushed to a hospital, said Lent. The company has enough benches to accommodate multiple events in different locations. For sideline functions, ARZ sets up as much 120 feet of benches, Cothren said. Looking ahead, the company is anticipating selling benches to industrial firms for use in lead smelters, oil and gas rigs, paper mills and other operations where workers must endure high temperatures, Lent said. ARZ hasn’t released information on pricing. Sponsorships are key to broadening the rental market. “We’d like to get them on the sidelines of high school football games but schools would need a sponsor willing to put their name on a bench,” Lent said. For now, the company is content to move cautiously and reach broader audiences through its current business model. “It is listen to people’s reaction, especially when someone says ‘I wish I had invented this’,” Lent said.