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Real Life: Breaking free from the big chains that bind

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Back to basics: Trainer Dave McConkey (standing) coaches Ross, Liz and Chris in his garage gym in Dublin's Harold's Cross, which has become popular through word of mouth. Photo: Ronan Lang

Back to basics: Trainer Dave McConkey (standing) coaches Ross, Liz and Chris in his garage gym in Dublin's Harold's Cross, which has become popular through word of mouth. Photo: Ronan Lang

Back to basics: Trainer Dave McConkey (standing) coaches Ross, Liz and Chris in his garage gym in Dublin's Harold's Cross, which has become popular through word of mouth. Photo: Ronan Lang

When Philip Tyrrell and his friends set out recently for their regular morning workout at their local gym, they got an unwelcome shock.

"Some of us showed up and the rest of us -- including our trainer -- got a text saying we were locked out. It was a nasty surprise," says Philip.

These gym members and many more are the human face of the recent spate of fitness club closures across the country. Dublin chain Total Fitness is the latest casualty, citing high rents as the reason for their demise.

It's a similar story across the country and now the future of dozens of rural leisure centres is in question as they are based in hotels, many of which are going into receivership.

The problem, according to some, lays in the perceived disregard for members' welfare in an industry with a business model one gym owner sums up as: "Get them in, get them out, and get their money. And for every one member who signs up there are three who join but never attend -- big gym chains count on it."

As a growing number of fitness clubs struggle to stay in business, figures due to be released next month reveal many of us are choosing alternative ways to exercise, including running, swimming, triathlon training, and even US-style garage gyms.

Meanwhile, there are calls for tougher regulations on private clubs as gym wars heat up across the country, with fitness centres dropping prices and offering to freeze fees for cash-strapped members, or even letting you work out for free in an attempt to entice new clients.

Three Total Fitness gyms closed in Dublin last month, leaving 100 people out of work. Staff and members are angry that they received no warning about the impending shutdown.

The company behind the Total Fitness gyms in Castleknock, Malahide Road and Sandyford -- Centre Operators Limited -- was also wound up, citing high rents as a reason for why it's joining the list of high-profile clubs closing their doors. Last year Jackie Skelly gyms were taken over by UK company Energie Group following examinership.

But claims of high rent pressures aren't much consolation to gym members out of pocket.

"My membership was coming up, so I was lucky, but some of my friends had just signed up for another year, and are now trying to stop payments going through on their credit card," says Philip Tyrell (40) from Malahide.

It's not the first time fitness club members have been left dangling, and consumer groups are calling for change.

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The Consumers' Association of Ireland is warning gyms will continue to fail unless the "entire structure" of this self-regulating industry is changed.

"We are getting a drip feed of sorry and sad stories, and gyms are in trouble because cost and upkeep of their loans and rents have become unaffordable," says association chief executive Dermott Jewell.

"The problem is, because of the lack of regulation, a number of clubs are closing overnight without any notification to members, who end up out of pocket, including some poor unfortunates who had only paid up the previous day."

The association is calling for the establishment of a bond system to be set in place for gym members' protection.

What is the Government's take on policing the fitness industry? Unfortunately a spokeswoman for Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Leo Varadkar, did not respond to calls on the issue of gym closures.

Meanwhile members such as Philip Tyrell and his training buddies say they are "disgusted" at the treatment meted out by their long-time gym.

Tyrell was a Total Fitness member for more than 14 years, along with his wife Sandra and daughter Clara, age seven. Their family membership cost €970 annually, but Tyrell says he was getting less and less value for money.

"Long-time members weren't rewarded for loyalty and new members were given much better deals," he says.

"We'd started hearing rumours that the club was in trouble, but staff assured us things were OK, and I really think they believed what they were saying."

Tyrell, from Malahide in north Dublin, trains most mornings at 6am with a group of friends, and the fit early risers have signed up with nearby fitness centre, West Wood, on Clontarf Road.

Luckily, they are finding positive aspects to the move.

"We got a programme done by Rachel Bolton, a really good personal trainer," he says.

Although he's happy at his new fitness centre, it's more expensive, and because of fees and distance he can't do the family membership.

Yet Tyrell and his mates say the gym is still their favourite way to keep fit, particularly in winter, and they are not alone.

"Going to the gym is one of the main ways many of us choose to stay healthy as it's a non-competitive sport, and for a lot of women especially, it's a social thing," says Irish Sports Council spokesman Paul McDermott.

However, factors including the economic downturn and the decline in our Eastern European population mean fitness club memberships are falling, he says.

"There would appear to be no significant recovery in membership of gyms and health and fitness clubs," he says.

Since our love affair with the gym does not seem to be going away any time soon, what can you do to protect your membership money if you do join one?

One option is to sign up for activities, such as running groups and family exercise schemes run by the Sports Council as they are often low cost, or even free.

Another choice is to check with your local council. A growing number of local authorities across the country run fitness centres and pools.

The Institute of Leisure & Amenity Management (ILAM) says fitness clubs signing up to its code of practice are awarded a 'white flag', with 27 such clubs in Dublin and Wicklow.

"No white flag-awarded facility has closed or is in danger of closure," ILAM chief executive officer Kilian Fisher told the Irish Independent, branding the recent closure of Total Fitness as "unfortunate".

However, ILAM is a voluntary organisation and it does not underwrite gym memberships for those losing out.

Pat Henry, who has just celebrated 25 years in business, says the focus should shift back to getting people healthy rather than concentrating on profit and a business philosophy that depends on more people joining up than actually attending.

Some clubs have shut their doors more than once, he says.

"There are gyms that have done it three times, and closed owing as much as €12m -- it's disgraceful and it gives the whole industry a bad name," says Henry, who heads the newly revamped Pat and Karl Henry Fitness Centre in Dublin's Pembroke Street.

Henry believes in keeping things on a human scale and is happy with a membership of around 300 people.

"We know every member who walks through our door and if they don't show up for training, we ring them to find out why."

The Henry gym charges an annual fee of €625, a rate similar to other city fitness centres.

To further prove that big isn't necessarily better, a new style of 'garage gym', popular in the US, is attracting plenty of members keen to park their excess calories.

"My selling point is service. There are no fancy machines or promotions to get people in the door," says garage gym operator David McConkey.

Behind the chipped metal door of his Harold's Cross garage, the car is out, and groups of sweating fitness fans, tired of commercial gyms, are in.

"Classes are literally held in the garage. I've got barbells, kettlebells and a few free weights."

People are flocking to classes, despite the fact, he says, he's done minimum advertising.

"It's word-of-mouth," says the fit looking 30-year-old who started out at a big city gym chain, but got put off by their approach.

Setting up in a garage knocks down overheads, and is a popular trend in New York.

"It's good value for money, and people are more conscious of signing up for contracts at big gyms where there's not much personal attention."

McConkey charges €90 per month for more than 12 classes at his Combat Workshop on Kenilworth Lane in Harold's Cross, and says the smaller groups make training more intense.

"People enjoy the camaraderie. You don't wander in and get overwhelmed like you do in a big gym."

The martial arts (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) expert regularly travels to the US to update his skills, and says although his new business has encountered a few teething problems, he'll stick with it.

And with more than 50 members already, he has only one main complaint since opening earlier this year.

"I have to get a bigger garage -- I can't even use it to park my car."



  • The Irish Sports Council has a network of 32 fitness programmes across the country.


Details: http://www.irishsportscouncil.ie/Participation/ Local_Sports_Partnerships/LSP_Contacts/



  • Gym members can contact Irish Consumers' Association with questions on their rights:


National Consumers Agency -- 1890 432 432, www.consumerconnect.ie

Consumer Association -- Tel 01 497 8600, www.consumerassociation.ie



  • Combat Workshop: David McConkey, Tel: 086 864 9732, Email: info@combatworkshopdublin.com



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