Member for life? Not after health club is sold

How long does a lifetime membership last? If you thought it meant until your death, think again.

Huntersville-based Peak Fitness is telling members who bought lifetime gym memberships from a predecessor company more than 20 years ago that those memberships are now illegal.

That the gym is apparently in the right doesn't make the news sit any better with those affected.

“Most of those who had a lifetime agreement feel like they've been cheated,” said George Fetty of Raleigh, who has been a lifetime member for more than 25 years.

Fetty didn't know how many other members were affected and officials with Peak Fitness would not say. Gary Govert, acting senior director of consumer protection in the state attorney general's office, said his office had received numerous calls complaining about it.

Govert said that Peak Fitness is likely referring to a 1979 law that made it illegal to sell any prepaid entertainment contract with terms beyond three years.

Prepaid entertainment includes such things as dance classes, dating services and health clubs, Govert said.

The law was designed to protect consumers from companies collecting large sums of money and then going out of business before fulfilling the contract.

“It may be legal, but is it ethical?” Fetty asked.

Fetty bought his membership in 1982 from the Spa Health Club and for the past 26 years, he has gone to the gym three times a week. Now, at 79, he does 100 sit-ups, rides the exercise bike and lifts weights.

Peak bought Fetty's gym about two years but didn't try to change any members' status until this year. Most of Peak's memberships are renewed every two years, said Ken Hanley, the company's controller.

“While Peak Fitness was not legally required to honor these contracts at all, Peak Fitness did so for two years,” Hanley said.

At renewal time, Fetty and others were told that they needed to pay a $199 annual membership fee, and a one-time $50 fee for facility improvements.

“They were given 30 days to renew their memberships under valid, legal, and enforceable Peak Fitness agreements,” Hanley said.

Fetty reluctantly paid.

“There are guys I've gone to the gym with since 1977,” Fetty said.

As Fetty's membership shows, some companies sold lifetime memberships after the law was passed. Fetty said he did not know such memberships were illegal, but he may have little legal recourse now. But the legal issue is not clear for Sam Hudson of Raleigh and others who bought their memberships before the law was passed.

“I've been a lifetime member since 1972,” Hudson said. His original contract also was with the Spa Health Club. He found out that his membership at Peak had ended two weeks ago – on his 80th birthday.

Hanley said that Peak has never offered lifetime memberships. The company entered the Triangle market in 2006 when it purchased Capital Health Clubs and Beyond Fitness locations. It has 27 gyms in North Carolina, including 13 in the Charlotte area.

Fetty said that his original gym was sold to different gyms before Peak bought it from Capital Health Clubs, and that the others honored his lifetime membership. He thinks Peak should do the same.

“When you buy out a business you accept the good with the bad,” said Fetty. “It's like getting married.” Staff writer Jen Aronoff contributed.