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Photo by: Joe Putrock

In July 2001, Jill Doris thought she had found the perfect fitness center. It was fairly new, local, and with relatively low monthly fees. Most important was that the club had all of the programs she was looking for—or so she was told.

“I was really just looking for an aerobics program,” says Doris. “[One of the personal trainers] told me not to worry, that they were expanding into the building next door and would be starting up with free aerobics and other programs in August.”

In order to take advantage of the low monthly fees and programs, however, she was told that she would have to sign up for a two-year membership.

“I was a bit cautious about the length [of the contract],” she explains, “but the trainer said that it would be easy to cancel if I decided that I didn’t like the place.”

So she signed on the dotted line, and just a few weeks later, discovered how justified her caution had been.

Soon after she became a member, the club indeed began offering aerobics classes, says Doris—but for a fee. The club had also expanded its membership dramatically, and instead of having swift access to the majority of the club’s equipment—a condition she had been assured would be preserved—she found herself waiting almost an hour for access to even the most basic equipment.

According to Doris, when she approached club management, she was told that they could be held responsible only for the content of her contract, which contained none of the verbal assurances she had originally received. Furthermore, she discovered that the only way her contract could be canceled was if she moved more than 25 miles from the club or suffered an injury that prevented her from exercising for six months or more—an aspect of the contract that she said had not been communicated to her beforehand.

Doris resigned herself to finishing out the membership and the two years of payments it required, then found a new fitness center to join, embarrassed at having taken someone at their word rather than studying the fine print.

“I feel like I was taken advantage of,” says Doris of her experience with Wolf Road’s Super Fitness, “like I had been lied to.”

And Doris is not alone.

According to the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the number of complaints against businesses in the health-club industry has been steadily rising since 2001. Nationally, the industry brought in $14 billion in revenue last year, and with more than 23,000 clubs around the United States, the competition for membership—and wallets—is fierce.

In February 2004, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer concluded an investigation into Bally Total Fitness Corporation, one of the most prominent names in the health club industry, after his office had received more than 600 complaints regarding the company in the last five years. In the complaints, consumers alleged that Bally had tricked them into signing long-term memberships through the use of deceptive advertisements, misrepresented contracts and employed high-pressure sales techniques.

“When I asked about the plan you are advertising on television costing $18 down and $18 a month, [the salesperson] said ‘Oh that’s only for weekends,’” states one complaint filed in July 2003. “As you know, it’s [actually] for alternating days. . . . If this is not bait and switch tactics, I don’t know what is.”

As a result of the investigation, Bally was ordered to pay out more than $100,000 to consumers and required to initiate sweeping reforms of its sales, training and advertising programs.

“[The February 2004 investigation] was the follow-up to a previous settlement,” says Christine Pritchard, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office. “For years on end we continued to receive complaints from Bally members.”

Calls to Bally’s corporate headquarters were directed to the MWW Group, the public-relations agency representing Bally. “We have changed a lot of our policies in order to make it easier for people to buy memberships,” said MWW’s Matt Messenger. “We’ve been working closely with the attorney general.”

Although Bally is one of the most prominent representatives of the health-club industry to be accused of questionable practices, it is not the only one. “As an industry, it’s not the worst—but it’s certainly not the best,” explains Jon Sorenson, director of marketing and public relations for the New York State Consumer Protection Board.

Metroland spoke directly with more than half a dozen dissatisfied customers of fitness chains including Bally, Fitness Factory, Super Fitness, and Gold’s Gym. Their complaints ranged from misrepresented membership costs to contract renewals that occurred without members’ knowledge.

Even when nothing illegal is involved, it is clear that shopping around for a health club today often involves negotiating through intensely aggressive marketing by clubs whose intent is making sure that anyone who walks through the door leaves as a member.

“It’s a business,” says James DeFalco, manager of Super Fitness on Wolf Road, which hosts 300 to 400 members each day. “We have methods to try and get people to sign up that day, because 99.99 percent of the time when people walk out the door, they never come back in.”

And these high-pressure sales techniques can take a variety of forms, from salespeople telling prospective members that the prices they’ve seen advertised are for “this weekend only” to offers of free months of membership—with the free months usually excluded from the life cycle of the contract, of course.

“You’re encouraged to look for a way in with a person,” explains Conor Higgins, a former personal trainer who worked for more than 10 years with some of New York City’s largest health clubs. “Like any service industry, the object is to relax the potential member—to talk them around the problem issues.”

According to many of the complaints submitted to the state’s consumer- protection agencies, these “problem issues” often include the length of memberships offered by health clubs (too long), as well as members’ actual awareness of the commitment they’ve agreed to make. The desire to ensure a steady rate of membership—along with the lure of hefty commissions for every long-term contract—can cause salespeople to push the multiyear options with potential members, no matter how uncertain they may be about their long-term plans.

And just as with many other services that advertise low monthly rates on extended contracts, the monthly payments are often accompanied by a host of taxes and surcharges, too—a condition that often makes the actual monthly fee quite a bit larger than the advertised rates. As many potential members have discovered, this fact is conspicuously absent from most advertisements.

Albany resident Jason Litwak joined Super Fitness more than a year ago under the impression that his membership was a month-to-month arrangement, and then decided soon after that he wasn’t satisfied with the facilities. After noticing that monthly dues had been applied to his credit card in the months that followed, he contacted the club.

Litwak discovered that the contract he had signed was actually quite different from what was described by the salesperson, and only after several months of discussion with the club’s corporate headquarters—in Ohio—was he able to get his finances back in order.

“[Fitness center] contracts are structured in such a way that you can’t understand a lot of it,” says Litwak, “but they make it sound so simple.”

While most health clubs do offer a variety of terms for their memberships, getting past the initial two- and three-year plans to these short-term contracts can require some persistence. When approaching local branches of Bally and Super Fitness as a potential customer would, Metroland found that salespeople were reluctant to provide the option of a contract for any term less than 24 months.

“Three-year memberships are the norm,” says Higgins, “even though people rarely stay that long in one place. . . . [When talking to potential members], the word from the managers on down is usually to tell them it’s no problem to cancel, when actually it’s a big hassle.”

Fitness-center members looking to end their contracts are typically given few options. While most contracts state that moving more than 20 or 30 miles away from any of the company’s participating facilities will allow members to end their contracts, when the club is part of one of the larger chains and has similar facilities in every major city, meeting such a condition is unlikely.

An injury that prevents a member from using the club’s equipment is also accepted as grounds for contract cancellation at most clubs, but a stipulation regarding the extent of the injury is usually included in a contract’s fine print. In some cases, an injury will merely extend a contract past its original expiration date for a length of time equal to the duration of the injury. Contract-limiting injuries aren’t something the club is going to take members’ word on, either. Usually, the member’s doctor must get involved in the process, confirming any injury and, in the case of some clubs, filling out forms provided by the club and sending the paperwork out to various agencies.

According to DeFalco, such requirements are necessary in order to ensure that a club’s success doesn’t depend on the general public’s mood swings.

“They’re going to come up with every darn excuse from A to Z to get out of their contract,” says DeFalco.

Another option is also available for those who wish to cancel their contract but don’t fall into any of the previously mentioned categories. Most fitness centers will allow you to cancel your membership by paying a fee. Yet, as many frustrated members have discovered, that fee is usually only slightly less than the sum of the remaining monthly payments—a fact that is conspicuously absent from most contracts, even in the fine print.

“I’d rather not get into that,” answers DeFalco when asked about Super Fitness’ cancellation fee. “That’s between the manager and the member.”

With many of the larger, more widespread health clubs, members’ frustration is often compounded by the fact that many of these companies rely upon outside agencies to handle billing operations. Members with questions about their payments or problems with billing are often directed to call long-distance numbers outside of the state and, in some cases, outside the country.

For many frustrated consumers, the problems associated with a membership gone sour extend beyond the cost of the contract. In an age where consumers’ financial reliability is measured by the strength of their credit reports, a disagreement with a health club’s billing agency can leave a lingering stain on a credit transcript. Fortunately for consumers, these marks usually don’t carry a significant weight, compared to, say, a missed mortgage payment.

“[Fitness-center billing problems] are usually no more than an annoyance on credit reports,” explains Richard Croak, a local attorney specializing in bankruptcy and credit counseling services, “but even if the situation was resolved in your favor, they can stay on your report for a few years.”

According to Croak, these problems are fairly common on credit reports, but could be less so if people took the right steps to get them removed.

“You need to call the credit reporting agency up and tell them it was resolved,” adds Croak.

While some of the more recognizable names in the fitness center industry regularly end up on the wrong side of consumer ire, some independent fitness centers in the region have managed to continually avoid consumer complaints—and thrive. Many of these clubs take a remarkably different approach toward the business.

“We don’t look at things the same way as some of the corporate facilities,” explains Adam Crotti, part of the management team at ABC Sports and Fitness, an independently owned fitness center in Latham. “We’re not trying to create a factory here.”

According to records from the both the state attorney general and the state Consumer Protection Board, ABC is one of the only clubs in the region to not have a complaint filed against it in recent years. Along with keeping all billing operations in-house rather than out-of-state, ABC also offers up an alternative to the multiyear standard. The longest contract ABC offers is a one-year agreement.

Jeff Zalacca, a former employee of ABC, calls the club’s policy a “more realistic” approach toward the public’s attitude regarding fitness. “Does anyone really have an idea about what they’re going to be doing in three years?” asks Zalacca.

And yet, according to Zalacca, who worked for three years as part of the ABC staff, of the 300-plus members who visit the club each day, many are on their fifth or sixth year of membership, despite the short increments of contracts. Something keeps them coming back.

Another difference between ABC and other health clubs, according to Crotti, is the absence of automatic membership renewal. At some other facilities, an oft-overlooked clause on the contract allows the club to automatically renew a member’s contract unless the member contacts the club’s billing department within a specific time period—usually a two- or three-week period near the expiration date. This controversial policy has found its way onto numerous complaints in recent years, but its widespread use has also earned it a place in state legislation.

Almost eight years ago, in response to numerous constituent complaints regarding health-club memberships that had renewed without members’ consent, Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany) first sponsored a bill that would require written consent for any membership renewal. According to McEneny, he was made aware of the policy when a constituent who had been out of the country when his contract expired returned to find himself saddled with another year of payments.

“For a lot of health clubs, there’s a very narrow window to stop renewal,” says McEneny. “If you miss that window—well, you’re up for another year.”

While the Assembly has passed the bill numerous times since it was first introduced, it has yet to pass the Senate.

Although the advantage for consumers may initially seem to lie with membership in small, independent health clubs, the need to be cautious when shopping around in the independent market is just as important. According to state consumer protection agencies, growth in both the number and concentration of health clubs around many cities has forced many small clubs out of business—often leaving members to fight for reimbursement of any prepaid dues.

“There’s been a number of issues across the state where [the attorney general’s office] has had to step in when clubs have closed unexpectedly,” says Pritchard, who added that consumers should be wary whenever a fitness center requires advance payments.

In most cases, a club that requires prepayment of membership dues must also purchase a bond from the state in order to pay back members in the event of a sudden closure. Notice of this bond must be included in any contract, as well as posted publicly at the club. The Web sites for both the attorney general’s office and the Consumer Protection Board encourage anyone shopping around for a health club to ask about the bonds if they aren’t posted publicly.

While sudden closings are becoming a more frequent occurrence among the small or independently owned clubs, fitness centers backed by a well-funded corporation have largely avoided this fate.

“One of the advantages of having corporate assets is that when you have a couple of bad months, you’re not up the creek,” explains Higgins. “I’ve seen smaller places become wildly successful for a few years, then leave a lot of members unhappy when things took a downturn for one reason or another.”

And unhappy members are something there seems to be no shortage of, no matter what type of fitness center is involved. Many have found the Internet to be a good forum for consumer advice and—more often—warnings regarding fitness centers. Web sites such as that of the New York State Better Business Bureau (www.newyork.bbb.org) contain reports on the reliability and reputation of various businesses, and provide general evaluations of businesses using this information.

On a less official front, former members of both corporate-owned and independent fitness centers have flocked to Web sites such as the Complaint Station (www.thecomplaintstation.com) to air their frustrations and buyer-beware horror stories to the general public. And more people are using the Internet to directly target some of the more prominent clubs, as sites with names like Bally Total Fitness Sucks (www.ballysucks.net) and Fed Up With Bally Total Fitness (www.mwns.com/ btf/index.htm) attract hundreds of visitors—and contributors—each month. The latter site even calls for frustrated consumers to add their names to a potential class-action suit against Bally.

“I was a member of Gold’s [Gym] for 2 years, paying monthly, and was told that my contract ended after the 2 years,” writes H. Shriver, a contributor to the Complaint Station. “Gold’s renewed my contract another year without my knowledge. . . . I’ve contacted Gold’s so many times, and no one there will speak to me. The salesperson who originally told me I had no further obligation no longer works there, and the collection agency will make no deals.”

For those wishing to voice their complaints to a more official ear, however, state agencies such as the Consumer Protection Board welcome public input on businesses that engage in questionable practices.

“We encourage people to give us a call when they feel like there was something wrong with the way a business treated them,” says Sorenson. “You have to stand up for yourselves, but we can help.”

While Pritchard acknowledges that the attorney general’s office exists to represent consumers’ interests in situations like these, she is quick to point out that her office cannot work on behalf of one consumer, and takes action only after seeing a “pattern of complaints.”

“We can’t act as someone’s individual attorney,” says Pritchard. “But we do our best to resolve the issue on a timely basis when we’re needed.”

While no fitness center is likely to satisfy everyone, consumer groups agree that taking certain steps before signing on the dotted line can reduce the potential for disappointment—or litigation.

“Read the contract, weigh things in the long term and don’t take the word of an employee,” advises Sorenson. “Sure, reading a contract is never fun, but in this industry, like many others, it can save you a lot of time, money and energy if you do it beforehand rather than after.”

rmarshall@metroland.net


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