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South China Morning Post reports on ‘the dark side’ of Hong Kong’s fitness industry

South China Morning Post reports on ‘the dark side’ of Hong Kong’s fitness industry
August 16, 2016

Respected Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post has revealed how sales tactics at city’s gyms have come under fire for misleading and intimidating customers.

In a recent feature, reported Raymond Yeung revealed an industry of staff facing relentless pressure to meet ambitious sales targets, cutthroat competition between colleagues and staff meetings where under-performers are ridiculed in front of everyone else.

Such is the highly stressful work atmosphere for personal trainers at many of Hong Kong’s top gyms, according to one personal trainer, a former employee of a major gym chain, who described the industry to the Post.

He said it was “a cruel business” and that the pressure to meet sales targets could lead to unscrupulous tactics.

Many trainers work on commission and are expected to sign up a constant stream of new customers to extended and complicated membership contracts.

This dark side of the fitness industry was highlighted earlier this year when the Hong Kong Consumer Council (HKCC) took the drastic step of naming and shaming California Fitness for intimidation and misleading sales practices.

It accused the firm of pressuring new and existing members into signing hefty contracts for memberships and taking up expensive personal trainer classes.

Of 577 complaints against gyms last year, 296, or 51%, involved California Fitness. The situation seemed to worsen when the HKCC received 71 complaints between January and March against the chain, a 29% surge year on year.

Billed as a major step forward for consumer protection in Hong Kong, an amendment to the Trade Descriptions Ordinance came into force in July 2013 outlawing aggressive or misleading trade practices with offenders subject to a fine of HK$500,000 and five years in prison.

From more than 9,100 complaints the Customs and Excise Department received until February last year, prosecutions were made in only 99 - or 1% - of the cases.

Other traders were either let off with a warning, or avoided prosecution by providing a written undertaking.

While the Consumer Council handles complaints and conducts its own investigations, it is not a law-enforcement agency and hence cases have to be passed on to Customs for prosecution.

Hong Kong’s Customs Department recently arrested two workers at California Fitness on allegations they charged a customer’s credit card for HK$140,000 to pay for more than 100 private classes without her consent.

HKCC Chief Executive Gilly Wong Fung-han has urged the Hong Kong Government to study existing legislation saying that the intimidating and misleading methods used by the fitness and beauty industries had become more rampant in recent years.

She also called for legislation to introduce a cooling-off period to contracts as a way to safeguard consumer rights.

While the California Fitness case highlighted worst aspects of the trade, the South China Morning Post highlighted how other operators have a better reputation.

Operating nine clubs in Hong Kong with 18,000 active members, Fitness First differentiates itself from its so-called ‘budget’ counterparts by providing premium and honest services.

Fitness First Hong Kong Managing Director  Ken Mok said transparency was one of the company’s main goals when laying down business strategies.

For example, the longest membership that one can sign up for is 24 months and comes with a monthly payment option, avoiding exorbitant upfront costs.

Sales consultants are also banned from negotiating their own contract terms and maximise commission.

Mok explained “we don’t aim for sales volume.”

He said the firm would rather charge customers more and ensure their satisfaction than compromise on quality and pointed out that Fitness First had maintained a ‘seven-day money back’ policy since its first club opened in 2002.

Physical Beauty and Fitness, the largest chain in Hong Kong with 21 outlets across the city, also introduced a seven-day cooling-off period for customers in August 2015.

A spokesman said the measure allowed customers sufficient time to “assess their practical needs” and make changes or cancel if they are not satisfied.

Click here to read the original article in the South China Morning Post.

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