Lynn Hudson was enjoying her morning treadmill workouts last February at the Northwest Side Gold's Gym - until she was kicked out of the club for not paying a bill she had paid months earlier.
The gym had the wrong Lynn Hudson.
Eric Grigel joined Arizona Swim & Fitness in July, only to find his credit card was being billed twice each month, once by the gym and once by the gym's billing company.
His card continued to be billed after the club went out of business late last year.
Both Tucsonans got the runaround when they tried to solve their problems.
Neither complaint was resolved to their satisfaction.
Complaints about the more than 70 area health clubs have more than tripled, from 10 in 2005 to 35 in 2008, according to the Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona.
Thirty percent of the complaints were resolved in 2005; 73 percent in 2006; 62 percent in 2007; and 54 percent in 2008.
"I would venture to guess that the health kick continues to grow in popularity and also that perhaps it wasn't until 2005 and 2006 that health clubs started demanding contracts," said Kim States, acting president of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona.
As evidenced by the plights of Hudson and Grigel, billing problems and customer service top the kinds of complaints involving health clubs.
Sanitary issues are another concern. The Pima County Health Department makes annual, unannounced visits to facilities that have pools and spas. The department closed down at least two pools and three spas in 2008 and found a few other violations.
"Relatively speaking, Pima County health clubs are in pretty good shape," department spokeswoman Patti Woodcock said. "But keep in mind what one person thinks is pretty good shape compared to another's is sometimes very different."
Tucson Racquet & Fitness Club, 4001 N. Country Club Road, has not received a single complaint from any of its 3,500 members over the past three years.
"We make people feel welcome," General Manager Bill Selby said of the family-owned club.
He said employees are willing to go beyond normal duties, and recently even changed a tire for a member who came in with a flat.
Joining a health club can cost hundreds of dollars a year. Dues vary greatly among the clubs, depending on the amenities, length of the contract and current specials.
Dealing with complaints
Area clubs with the most complaints from Dec. 2, 2005, through Dec. 2, 2008, are L.A. Fitness, with 36; Metro Fitness Inc., the parent company of Gold's Gym, with 25; and Arizona Swim & Fitness, with 19.
Complaints against another popular club, Bally Total Fitness, are filed with the Better Business Bureau in California, where Bally has its headquarters. No breakdown was available for the gym's two Tucson locations.
L.A. Fitness, with three locations in Tucson, had the longest list of complaints, but it also boasted a 100 percent resolution rate. In February, the health department shut down the L.A.
Fitness pool at 4240 N. First Ave. for murky water. The club rectified the situation the following day. The corporate office did not return calls for comment.
Gold's Gym resolved 56 percent of its complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau, but its most notable statistic may be the dramatic drop in them. Complaints against the 12,400-member gym plunged from 16 in 2007 to three in 2008.
"The construction was horrendous for everyone," said Kelly Palmiero, co-owner and director of operations for Gold's three locations. The East Side club, 5851 E. Speedway Blvd., and the
Northwest club, 7315 N. Oracle Road, were each under construction for more than a year.
Palmiero said renovations, which included a $750,000 remodeling of the Northwest club to include features such as two movie theater workout rooms, brought grumbling.
"No matter what you do, there is dust and debris," she said.
The health department closed the Northwest Gold's Gym's pool and three spas briefly in October, the former for insufficient chemical levels and the latter for exceeding temperatures of 104 degrees.
The downtown location, 110 S. Church Ave., voluntarily closed its pool in May to fix the chlorine levels, which were back up to par within three days. The health department found rust in the vents, cracks and crevices, and brown residue along the walls in the men's locker room, all of which have since been addressed.
The health department likewise found mold, damaged ceiling tiles and rust in the men's locker room and dirty mats in the abs room at the East Side gym in March. Those violations were also remedied.
Hudson, 56, was most upset with the way she was treated at the Northwest club. She said she was kicked out in the middle of her workout over a case of mistaken identity.
"I never received an apology," said Hudson, who had been a Gold's Gym member for 10 years.
The gym eventually admitted its mistake, she said, but refused to refund the 10 months left on her contract when she wanted to cancel.
"They said they couldn't do that," Hudson said. "They were bound by contract.
"My husband and I have been running a business for 17 years," she said of their family practice where she's a nurse and he's a physician. "I don't think you're bound by contract. You're bound by your reputation how you treat your clients."
Gold's Gym co-owner Palmiero said she is not allowed to discuss members' accounts, but said the gym has never kicked anyone out without a reason.
Grigel, 28, said he was treated shabbily when he tried to resolve the double-billing problem at Arizona Swim & Fitness, 1290 W. Prince Road.
Complaints against the company jumped from five in 2007 to 12 in 2008, with only 5 percent resolved. Many could not be pursued when it went out of business.
Grigel joined the gym to swim, but the pool closed for construction soon after he signed up, and he wanted out. The double billing just added to the frustration.
"I tried to cancel three separate times," he said. Each time he went to the club, he was told the manager was unavailable.
"One time they told me, 'He's not talking to any customers. He's sick of talking to people about it. You need to handle it with the billing company,' " Grigel said.
Grigel said he signed a one-year contract that he was told could be canceled at any time with no penalty. When he tried to cancel it, he was told he was in a two-year contract that came with penalties.
"I'm still being billed," he said. "It's still in the process of being resolved."
The location is still operating as a health club, but under the new name of Pro Fitness & Health. According to the woman who answered the phone, it's been operating under new ownership for the past three months.
The new owner did not return a call for comment.
The hundreds of Bally-owned clubs across the country amassed 2,880 complaints over the past three years, at least 73 percent of which were resolved.
Bally closed 19 of its locations following its Dec. 8 bankruptcy filing, including three in Phoenix. The two Tucson locations are slated to remain open, said company spokesman Larry Larsen.
Tucson Racquet & Fitness Club, with no complaints, has a personal touch not found in many larger chains, said Sally Viramontes, personnel and advertising manager, who has been with the club 30 years.
"It's family here," she said. "We treat each other with respect. It's not the commercial atmosphere. It's not just going through the mill."
General manager Selby, whose mother established the club in 1967, agreed.
"For many families this is their second home," he said. "We make them feel like that. They come in for breakfast. The parents play tennis and the kids swim in the pool. They reconvene for lunch. It's almost like a vacation every weekend for a lot of families."
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 14, 2009, issue of the Tucson Citizen.