June 4, 2014 Leave a comment
I was rather aggravated after signing up for a gym membership at O2 Fitness (Hanover Center) in Wilmington, NC last February. I ultimately decided that rather than do what I usually – i.e. belittle and berate people until they feel shame – I would wait for a few months and see if I still felt as strongly about the situation as I did initially. I was recently invited to participate in an O2 Fitness Customer Feedback Survey, and it turns out I’m still really annoyed. I sent a copy of this review to O2 Corporate via the Customer Feedback Survey. This is my review of 02 Fitness at Hanover Center.
When I found out that O2 Fitness would be opening a second Wilmington-area location at Hanover Center (Intersection of Independence Boulevard and Oleander Drive), I was thrilled. Finally, there was a viable alternative to the limited gym options in the area.
Prior to the construction of O2 Fitness at Hanover Center, the only options were feeding trough-style meat-markets such as Gold’s Gym or Planet Fitness, or smaller, specialized facilities asking monthly membership dues of $100 or more. There was no middle-ground excluding the O2 facility at Mayfaire, which I considered before deciding it was a bit too congested for my liking.
At the time of the Hanover Center opening, I was using a facility in downtown Wilmington that, while satisfactory, was at an inconvenient location. I was driving 15-20 minutes out of my way just to get to the facility, which for me was a poor use of my limited free time. For reference, I was halfway through a two-year gym contract that billed at $30/month and had required no initial fee.
By contrast, the Hanover Center was in a very convenient location. I went in to sign up for a membership shortly after the doors opened in mid-December 2013, although I ultimately did not agree to a membership until February 2014 for reasons I will detail below.
In the interest of objectivity, I will break this review down into Value, Pros, Cons, Personal Biases, and Final Thoughts, as I do many of my Jack Reviews articles. I slightly altered this review for the Customer Feedback Survey I submitted to 02 in the interest of cohesion, but I made most of the same points.
Value: Both O2 locations in greater Wilmington are a reasonable value at rates of $44, $49, and $54/month, with each escalating tier offering additional amenities. For example, at the $49/mo. rate, members have access to all O2 facilities within a certain area. This could be a perk for someone living in Raleigh who might use multiple facilities.
For the sake of comparison, comparable corporate gym chains such as Gold’s Gym and LA Fitness include free access to all sister gyms with a standard monthly membership. Still, there are other amenities that O2 offers at the different monthly set rates. I am disinclined to sell for O2 and list all of those amenities, for reasons I will detail below.
The monthly rate is a reasonable value, given that the gym itself compares favorably to other corporate gyms, particularly local comparable gyms Planet Fitness and Gold’s Gym. At the Hanover Center facility, the the equipment is new and the gym is extremely spacious. The monthly cost accounts for both the gym’s quality and relative exclusivity.
As has become the new norm, O2 features both an Initial/Start-Up Fee as well as an Annual Fee that presumably goes toward the gym’s upkeep. These fees are $25/$50 Initial (depending on when you sign up), and the Annual Fee is withdrawn in July at the same rate as the negotiated Monthly Fee.
I find Annual/Start-Up Fees like this ridiculous, but this has become the new norm at large corporate gym chains. Both Fees can be negotiated to a limited degree, emphasis on the word limited.
Pros: As noted above, the primary reason I did not enroll at the Mayfaire 02 Fitness is that the gym is somewhat congested, in particular the Free Weights section. Most dedicated lifters would be annoyed at the Mayfaire facility because there is not really adequate room to do staple movements such as Cleans or Lunges. The area in which the dumbbells are kept is also extremely-snug, which I found prohibitive.
This certainly isn’t a problem at the Hanover Center facility, which is very spacious. There is generous room to work throughout the lower half of the two-level facility, and the Free Weight section is configured quite well.
As you would expect, the equipment itself is all new and in excellent condition. The gym has almost all of the standard equipment you would expect to find in a quality facility, and most of the benches and weights themselves are good quality.
The standard strength training equipment is buffered by a good selection of Hammer Strength and Life Fitness machines, and there is a nice variety of cardio machines including 30-degree treadmills, lateral and standard elliptical machines, etc. The gym is a decent value at the standard monthly rate ($44/mo.) based on the traditional equipment alone.
The gym’s selling point for me was the specialized Performance equipment housed in the upper-half of the facility. The section is lined with football-field turf, and includes equipment geared toward athletes such as Prowlers, Bumper Plates, Ropes, a Glute-Ham Raise, Kettlebells, etc. While this section is primarily used for Personal Training clients, at the time I signed my contract I was told that any member of the gym could use the section at any time. This specialized section was the primary reason I enrolled.
The gym is also clean and well-maintained. The staff is almost unfailingly polite. I have almost no complaints about the gym itself, but that has become a common tack when dealing with larger gym chains.
Cons: Buckle up, because I am going to get my money’s worth. I will get two minor issues out of the way before I get into the issues that really disappoint me regarding the facility:
1) There are a few minor pieces of equipment the gym could stand to add, most notably a few standard attachments for the cable towers (V-Bar, Straight Bar). A Hexagonal/Trap Bar would be a nice addition to the Performance section. Oddly, the gym does not have a regular Stairmaster. Having said this, the gym has so much quality equipment that all of this is really a minor concern.
2) After signing my contract, a rather passive-aggressive addendum was added to the 2nd-Level Performance section: “All members must be accompanied by a personal trainer to use this section,” or something to that effect. I have never had this silliness enforced, but given that I signed up at O2 Hanover Center specifically to use the Performance section, I will be forced to make this an issue if I am ever hassled or asked to stop using the equipment.
These are relatively-minor gripes that would not have warranted mentioning had a more-egregious problem not presented itself. It’s the same problem that seems endemic to most national and regional corporate gym chains.
My main issues with O2 Hanover Center are the sales staff’s obtuse stance on local market competition, and the high potential for future billing issues.
This is no revelation, but the larger and more successful a business is, the less of a premium the business needs to put on Customer Satisfaction. A business such as O2 Fitness can put out as many Customer Feedback Surveys as they wish, but if they make no real effort to accommodate the requests of customers, surveys such as this are hollow and meaningless.
As I cited specifically in the Customer Feedback Survey, “I was so disappointed because I had hoped O2 would be different than Gold’s, LA Fitness, et al. in terms of recognizing the value of a content customer, particularly in a smaller market such as Wilmington, NC.” This was so disappointing to me because it directly ties into the second part of my point, which is that O2 Fitness members face a high potential for future billing issues.
Large gym chains are notorious for acquiring a customer’s payment information, and billing a customer’s credit card continuously and recklessly. I had hoped O2 would be somewhat different in this regard, but the early returns are not promising. At best, the O2 gyms in the region seem to get mixed reviews, and I have to report similar trends.
As alluded to above, I had a year term remaining on my commitment to another Wilmington-area gym, which compares favorably to O2. The local gym I had belonged to – whose name I don’t want to drag into this review – actually offered strong amenities (swimming pool, racquetball courts, etc) than O2, but again the location was problematic for me. I would not have considered switching to O2 Hanover Center if the gym were not so far away from where I live and work.
Anyway, I bought out the remaining term on my contract at a rate of 50% for a total of $180, spread out over six monthly payments of $30 each. I did this of my own free will, but in the sole interest of signing up at O2 Hanover Center.
I was thrilled to sign up, as I was practically salivating at the Performance equipment available at the club. The only thing I asked was that, as a token of appreciation, one of the membership counselors help me recoup some of the $180 value I had sunk into cancelling my membership at the prior gym.
This ended up being a lengthy ordeal. I first tried to sign up in December 2013, and ended up signing up in mid-February only because my desire to work out outweighed my contempt for the disingenuous salespeople I had to deal with.
Here is specifically what happened, directly lifted from the letter I sent to O2 in the Customer Feedback Survey:
…I had planned to sign up with my business partner, and in fact recruited him to join me at O2 Hanover Center, in early January. My view is that I paid a relatively-significant amount of money ($180) in the interest of enrolling at O2 Hanover Center before I gave O2 a single dime, and it have would been a Gesture of Customer Appreciation if someone at O2 Hanover Center would have helped me recoup some of that figure in value.
Factoring-in that I ate the buyout cost of my former gym, the distance I was driving to use the Hanover Center facility (32 miles), and the fact that I had recruited a second member to enroll with me, I had reasonably sought somewhere around $90-$120 in value, i.e. reductions from my total Annual Membership Cost.
The sales counselor I met with offered me a $5/month reduction based on my status as a student, and at the time the Membership Special was $1 Initial Fee. This equated to $85 in Annual Value. All I wanted – again as a token of appreciation, not because I desperately needed the cash – was another $40 or so in Annual Value. Waiving my Annual Fee, or giving me my first month free, would have easily accomplished this. So would dropping an additional $5 off my monthly fee. I suggested all of these ideas, and they were all rejected.
I asked the sales counselor to come up with some solution that put about $40 of Annual Value back in my pocket. My business partner signed up for a membership, but cost was no factor for him because his military service covered his enrollment costs. Meanwhile, I was angrily preoccupied with the $30/month I was paying one of O2’s local competitors to not use their facility. To my business partner’s chagrin, I walked out because of the sales counselor’s unwillingness to compromise with me.
The sales counselor followed up with me repeatedly, but I insisted on more Annual Value in some form. She declined to come up with a solution, so I contacted a different sales counselor. The second sales counselor, without replying, passed me along to the Hanover Center GM, Justin Mascho, which I was fine with.
Mr. Mascho also repeatedly rejected my request for additional Annual Value before signing. I made four or five different suggestions, all of which were dismissed. It made me sound cheap, arguing for $40 in Annual Value against $520 Annual Commitment, but again it would have shown decent Customer Appreciation if Mr. Mascho had just honored my request. After all, I was requesting $40 in Annual Value against a $520 Annual Commitment – less than 10%. It’s not like I was asking for a 50% reduction or a $10 /mo. membership.
Rather than just honor my request in any form, he positioned me as ridiculous for arguing for a relatively-small amount of value.
I almost asked him for $40 out of his wallet, if it was such an inconsequential sum. Instead, I asked him one final time to waive my Annual Fee ($39). He declined, but was willing to move my Annual Fee six months forward to January 2015.
I almost walked out of the gym again, just based on the subtext of Mr. Mascho’s offer: he either believed he was really helping me by pushing the Annual Fee forward, or he thought that I was dull enough to dismiss the Fee because it wasn’t as immediate. He was very directly insulting my intelligence.
But my desire to just go exercise outweighed my desire to continue arguing with a person of Mr. Mascho’s disposition. Aggravated, I finally gave up and signed the membership contract.
What disgusts me is the sheer greed on O2’s behalf, vetted by the Hanover Center staff. Mr. Mascho (and his sales staff at the time) protected O2’s interests extremely well – I assure you, he got every penny I was willing to spend on an O2 membership out of me. However, here is the fallout from his decision to decline my request for additional value from my contract:
1) My enthusiasm for O2 was killed on my first day as a member. I walked in with a great deal of optimism surrounding the gym, but was greatly disappointed by the unbelievable greed on O2’s behalf in my membership negotiation. I was disgusted before I touched a single piece of exercise equipment.
I would have been a member who promoted the gym and brought new members in. I am active in the local sports and fitness community, and it would have been probable that I would have solicited four or five new members over the course of a year. In fact, I’ve probably had 10 or 12 people ask me where I work out and how I like it since enrolling.
My response to them? You’re reading the long version of it. I certainly haven’t given the gym a ringing endorsement, again based solely on what I perceive to be a lack of customer appreciation.
2) I have to assume that most of the employees are working under Mr. Mascho’s mindset, which apparently is that all member decisions are made on a calculator. If Mr. Mascho is putting such a premium on the bottom line over Customer Satisfaction and reasonable accommodation, I have to assume that the people under him are working under the same mentality. This makes me disinterested in being cordial with the staff, and while that’s no loss to O2’s bottom line, I’m bringing minimal positivity to the Hanover Center facility.
This extends to other members. As with the staff, I am certainly not abusive, but I am not outgoing, either. What O2 lost in this case was an opportunity: rather than having me on-board as a content, enthusiastic member, I’m annoyed as soon as I walk in the door. I could be increasing the enjoyment for other members and indirectly promoting the gym, but instead I mostly just do my training and go home.
I tend to be persuasive. If I think a gym is run by disingenuous people or a poor value, people tend come around to my point of view. What Mr. Mascho squandered over $40 in value, not cash, was free local promotion. Perhaps in the future, a greater premium should be put on ancillary costs such as this rather than just the final figure from a member’s monthly dues.
What the decision-makers at O2 need to ask themselves is this: are nominal sums in value such as what I requested really worth a greatly-dissatisfied customer?
As you can see, my issue is pretty specific to me, but it indicates a greater problem that could potentially concern you:
Larger gyms such as 02 Fitness are notorious – repeat, notorious – for assigning customers undue charges. I worked for one of these gyms, which I will detail in the Personal Biases section. My point is this: if the GM at O2 Hanover Center was this unwilling to work with me over such small amounts of value – again not cash, but value – what is the likelihood that he will have no qualms about overcharging your account after you attempt to cancel? Or saddling a customer with other unwanted or unrequested charges?
I obviously have an axe to grind, but I had zero problem with O2 Fitness or any of the local staff prior to entering the club. On the contrary, I had hoped O2 was different from Gold’s, Planet Fitness, LA Fitness, et al. in the sense that they viewed customers as more than just checking account numbers. Alas, my experience with O2 Fitness to date has been that they are relatively similar to the other large gym chains as far as money-handling goes.
I worked for LA Fitness, a California-based gym chain, and had an extremely-negative experience there. That obviously factors into how distrustful I am of the sales staff and how vehement I was about extracting better value in my membership negotiation.
However, I quit LA Fitness because I have a conscience and ethics, which many of the other people working for that corporation do not. Day in and day out, I saw frustrated members who were unduly charged monthly dues after cancellation, or trapped in Personal Training contracts they were misled into signing.
Beyond this, many of the sales staff members at the LA Fitness locations I worked in were instructed to misdirect customers who attempted to alter or cancel their memberships, all in the name of squeezing a few more dollars for the corporation. As a stand-up guy, this practice disgusted me.
I have never worked for an O2 Fitness, but the similarities between the O2 model and the LA Fitness model are striking. I admit to being distrustful of salespeople, but again I walked into O2 with a great deal of optimism.
My degree is in Exercise Science, and I have pretty discriminating taste when it comes to gym equipment. This bias works in your favor as a reader, however, as you will get a rock-solid assessment of a given gym. I can say with confidence that the equipment at O2 Hanover Center is some of the best available in greater Wilmington.
Some people will read this and say, “Who cares, it’s only a gym membership.” That’s fine. I just happen to be particularly-sensitive to the devious ways in which many larger gym chains operate, and I want discerning consumers to be as well-informed as possible.
I obviously cannot speak to all O2 Fitness locations. I have only ever been inside the Mayfaire and Hanover Center locations in Wilmington, NC. But knowing what I know about gym chains, I get the impression that the issues I have with O2 Hanover Center are not isolated.
It’s worth repeating that as far as gym memberships go, O2 Hanover Center is a competitive value compared to other gyms in the local market. But being competitive within a mediocre market is no coup. I would have been much happier to report that O2 Hanover Center went to lengths to ensure my satisfaction as a member, but that simply was not the case.
The dedication on behalf of the O2 Hanover Center staff to not meeting my reasonable request for recouped value in any way, shape, or form was very telling. Again, O2 Fitness does not have a spotless reputation regarding hassle-free membership cancellation, so I wanted to get a few dollars back up front to offset this. The Hanover Center staff went to lengths to not accommodate me, and did so in the argumentative way that veteran sales people tend to.
Still, I did enroll, due to the combination of equipment, location, and frankly lack of decent alternatives. There are certainly perks to enrolling at O2 Hanover Center – just know that you are going to end up paying (a lot) more over the term of your contract for the spacious facility and quality equipment.
In closing, I will tell you the same thing I would tell my friends if they asked me about O2 Hanover Center, which is this:
It has some excellent equipment, but I can’t fully recommend it because in the end, I think the billing issues will cause you frustration and cost you more than you bargained for.