Friday, 23 November 2007

A Lesson for Gyms, Health and Fitness Clubs - Try Harder, Charge Less.

Gyms, health and fitness clubs, sweat matter which way you put it, the objective is the same: drain all who sign up of sweat, energy and above all, money. I don't know how it works abroad, but the health and fitness industry is currently big business in the UK. A few of the big players are David Lloyd, Fitness First, Esporta, LA Fitness and more recently Virgin Active's getting in on the action too. Their facilities range from plush to basic, the membership prices from £30 to over £100 a month; the contracts confusing, lengthy and often in ant-size writing.

In fact, I've been a member of 4 different gyms; two of which were the big players, one local and one at uni. Strangely, I've had the same problem with all of them: every one has continued to take money from my account for months after the contract was cancelled. One (LA Fitness) claimed it conviniently 'never received' the cancellation letter I handed into reception. Another (Fitness First - recently featured on BBC Watchdog) mislead me, then 19 years old, at the sales pitch, telling me my three month contract was just that - 3 months - and that it would cancel itself after this time. Needless to say, it didn't and they continued to charge me, threatening me with court action if I cancelled my direct debit. Even my uni gym continued to take money out when I'd given the specified month's notice. Given the increasingly bad press and my difficult experiences, I'm not keen on signing up to one again.

Esporta are currently in a bit of a financial pickle. Their dodgy membership contract clauses were also investigated by BBC Watchdog in March 2007, and if the conversations I heard on Tuesday night are anything to go by, the recent price increases are causing members to cancel left, right and centre. Given the prices charged for a membership at some of the clubs, their financial problems might be surprising. Given what you get for the money, it really isn't.

My mum is a member of one of the pricier UK clubs. At over £100 a month for membership, you'd think they'd be falling over backwards to make your experience as positive as they possibly can. Being bored as a lonely sausage on Tuesday, when my mum asked if I fancied coming to the gym for a 7pm class in the evening, I was quick to take up her offer. "Hell yeah, I'll have some body conditioning" said I. To take part in a class, I had to sign in as a guest and buy a guest pass. Last time I did this, they charged £10. Now, a couple of years later, we were stung for £20. We paid, I gave some details on the pass (Name, phone number....didn't give my email or mobile) and proceeded to sweat my arse off.

8pm and I leave the studio glowing and refreshed after an hours work out (or, more accurately, sweaty and knackered) and we head to reception to leave. Mum stops by the desk on the way out. A receptionist and a tall blond bloke are behind the desk.

"Hi, we've just paid £20 to come in on a day pass, but we've only been here for about 2 hours. I don't suppose there's a chance Jo could come in tomorrow for a swim?"
Tall blond bloke has this sneering smile on his face. His face seems fixed with this patronising grin which is teamed with a shaking of the head throughout the conversation.
"No sorry, it's a day pass so it expires can't use it tomorrow"
"Yes, I understand that, but maybe you'd be willing to offer a good will gesture seeing as we've only used an hour and not a full day, and let her use it tomorrow."

They refused and, with Sneering Cedric smiling throughout, informed us that we were well aware of the time when we bought the pass and that had we come in at 8pm, the cost would have been £10. Apparently, what we were asking "ees like, going into a cinema late, watching half the film and then complaining you didn't see the film". Not really the same thing, in my eyes.

However, we could buy 5 passes for £100 and get 5 free with a deal they're doing at the moment? Interested?

"Well the thing is, I'm a bit reluctant to part with £100 if there's absolutely no flexibility with the passes. Surely with the membership I pay, and I've been a member for years, I should be entitled to some free passes anyway? If you're not even willing to give a goodwill gesture to one of your long standing members, why should I bother?"

They refused to budge, and faced with an unhappy customer it became clear they were not going to do anything to chill the beans. And so the debate went on until we left with a parting shot, regarding my proximity to someone who would be very interested to hear about my experiences, which made his face significantly less smug-looking.

The clincher came when we got home and found out that less than half an hour into our exercise class, someone from Esporta had called the house (the male, foreign voice suggested it could have been none other than Mr Sneering Cydric himself) to ask if I would be interested in joining the club and offering a free days trial. That was quick. I'd only given my details at 6, by half 7 they were laying on the hard sell. "I don't think so" said my dad. After that? Definitely not, said I. It seems their gestures of good will apply only to those they haven't yet extracted money from. Charming.

So, if anyone from Esporta Health Clubs happens to come across this whilst googling their company, take note. There's a lot of unhappy customers who don't want to give you lots of money without getting some flexibility back, or some of what's called customer service. Nor do they want to spend an evening sitting in a lounge area filled with kids who insist on screaming demands to their overwrought parents.

But then, who needs customer service if there aren't going to be any customers?


Reluctant Blogger said...


It's no wonder we are turning into a nation of middle class thinnies (who can afford the extortionate prices) and working class fatties (who can't and who are too busy working in call centres to go anyway).

The price of keeping fit really pisses me off actually. Even public swimming pools are expensive really if you are in a poorly paid job or a student.

Running is free though!!

Perpetual said...

I have tried to be a member of two gyms. At Canons I was very naive and signed up for their best package which was a 12 month deal. I went a lot in the first month and then one day drove past the gym on the way home because I felt tired and then simply continued to pay my £80 a month for the next 11 months.

Then I joined a more local gym that was slightly cheaper, but did just the same after two months.

Now I just walk the dog a lot :)

Ella said...

I joined the gym 3 weeks ago on a "special student offer". I had such good intentions but alas, I have been only once. Anyway, what really gets on my nerves are the text messages they send you at least once a week grrrr @ their intrusive marketing!

Bec said...

The last time I went to join a gym (and my God do I ever need to) the size sub-zero receptionist was so rude to me I jut left... which is really unusual for me! Normally there would be yelling and things but she made me feel so horrible... gah!

Jo said...

reluctant - Exactly, thats the message I'm trying to promote. You can get a more relaxed atmosphere at a friends house, and a better work out on the street. Why pay £80 p/m for the pleasure?

perpetual - We've got a canons gym near us as well. 12 month deals are a scam as well, because usually you can only cancel within a certain month before they renew your contract for another year. So much small print :(

Ella - I did the student offer at fitness first but they took the piss. Blatently mislead me when I signed up! There are no incentives after you join, just marketing.

Bec - The receptionists were the people I had the strange encounter with this time. You'd think they'd want to help happy customers, but they just couldn't be arsed to help.

Karissa said...

As someone who used to be a receptionist at a gym, it makes me cringe to hear of people receiving bad service, even though I am no longer one. I must say though that if it was me, I would have probably let you in for free. Since I worked at my gym for 3 years and never ventured anywhere near a single workout machine (even though we got free membership).

Steph said...

I think all health clubs/gyms are smarmy, rorting bastards. They fleece you left and right and you don't get much in return.
Better to save the money and create your own home gym.

James said...

Extortionate guest passes are one of the big things that puts me off the 'better' health clubs. I was very close to joining one a few years back, but the problem was that I prefer to play squash/tennis/badminton to keep fit rather than go to the gym.

I had a handful of friends who I played against with varying regularity and I knew by joining this club I would be unable to continue playing with them. With the big fees I would be reluctant to pay to play anywhere else and they would be reluctant to pay such big guest fees.

In the end I found a cheaper alternative which was a college by day, but open to the public at night. The membership was much more reasonable as where the guest fees (so reasonable it was easy to get away with not paying a lot of the time).

I just find the exclusivity of the whole health club very annoying. It would be nice if members were allowed an allotted number of guests per month. Even 2/3 a month would be an improvement.

londongirl said...

Horrific customer service - some people just do not grasp what is acceptable to customers. GRRRR.

I'm lucky enough to have a gym at work which I go to sometimes. My local council gym/pool has a very flexible deal too - perhaps worth che checking yours out?

Shameless said...

I cancelled my gym membership at Holmes Place Spain back in March. The continued to charge me for 3 months even though I called, emailed, visited and faxed. I then went to the bank and cancelled the payment, the gym then had the cheek to phone me to say there was a problem with my payment..They then told me they'd lost the cancellation form so I faxed it again. After months of badgering I finally got my money back last week - 8 months later. And Loco wonders why I don't want to join another gym..
Thieving bastards.

bendersbetterbrother said...

£20 for a day pass. They're taking the piss. As a protest against these new wave of gyms and their sharp practices I'm going to stay slightly fat.

Jo said...

karissa -These two at reception were what you call 'jobsworths' - the worst kind of employee, I think.

Steph - I couldn't agree more, we've got one of those ball things in the spare room, although I'm not sure that constitutes a gym yet ;)

James - exactly, we weren't asking for like a free week pass...They do make it pretty unaccessible for people outside to go, but then I suppose thats what separates it from a public swimming place or something.

Londongirl - Good suggestion, I know there's one fairly near but I haven't checked out the prices.

Shameless - the old 'we lost your cancellation letter' seems to be a favourite with gyms. Its weird that it's happened so many times to me.

bendersbetterbrother - hello! well as long as when you're fat you don't whinge about it, that's fine with me!

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