Gym contracts have been a hot topic of discussion as the fitness industry has grown and matured. In this article, we’ll explore how contracts have evolved, member expectations, and key need-to-knows.
A gym contract outlines the terms of membership between your club and a member. These terms are essential to protect both your business and your members.
Over the years, the terms of specific gym membership contracts have come under scrutiny. And consumer expectations of memberships are everchanging and influenced by other industries. So, there’s a frequent need to adapt the gym membership types and contracts you offer.
For many gyms and fitness clubs, it’s necessary to offer a variety of different gym memberships. We look at how you can take a friendly approach that’s win-win for you and your members.
Evolution & growth of the fitness industry
The fitness industry emerges & blossoms
The growth of gyms and structured fitness can be traced back to ancient Egyptian and Greek cultures.
In the 1960s and 1970s, local authorities across the UK invested in sports and leisure centres to get the nation in shape. While many started out as sports halls, more started adding ‘fitness gyms’ or ‘fitness rooms’ to cater to growing demand.
This demand grew out of the commercial gyms and fitness clubs that started gaining popularity in the 1980s. These clubs often had roots in privately owned tennis, squash, and racquet clubs. Customers would pay a monthly subscription to be a member.
Private gyms & gym memberships boom
The fitness industry boomed into the 1990s. And, by 1998, there were over 2,000 private gyms and health clubs in the UK. Gyms of the late-1990s boasted state-of-the-art equipment, trendy classes like aerobics, saunas, and spa services.
Belonging to a gym was a lifestyle statement and an investment. Even those clubs thought of as no-frills were not low-cost by today’s standards.
The Independent reported that in 1998 joining a Fitness First group gym could set you back up to £100 to join and then between £30-£40 a month for membership. In 2023, that’s equal to around £184 to join and £55-£74 a month.
The late-2000s saw the emergence of low-cost gyms like PureGym and The Gym Group. From 2011 to 2018, the number of low-cost gyms grew from 58 in March 2011 to 598 in March 2018.
With this growth, gymgoers became accustomed to low fees (under £25 a month) and ‘no contract’ options.
Gym contracts & memberships – a mixed history
The industry has grown and evolved. And so have gymgoer expectations of memberships, contracts, and payments.
Many gyms that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s had routes in sports and country clubs. Business models often reflected traditional ways of operating.
A membership would be required. And paid upfront or in monthly instalments over a specified period. Memberships could last as long as 3 years.
Members would sign up in club (online joining is a recent innovation for gyms). And pay a joining fee by cash, cheque, or credit/debit card. Then either set up a standing order or sign a Direct Debit Mandate for monthly payments.
Lengthy gym contracts
By 2011, around 7 million people held a gym membership at one of the 4,850+ clubs across the UK. Many signed up to lengthy fixed-term gym contracts. Often without realising the terms they were agreeing to. So, complaints to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and Citizens Advice rose.
- Difficulty cancelling
- Charges for cancelling early
- Contract lengths
- And automatic renewals onto fixed-term contracts
A fairer deal
Following a significant court case in 2011, the OFT set about investigating gym contracts and the Consumer Protection Act. The resulting guidance saw contracts re-evaluated to make terms fairer for consumers:
- Making it easier to cancel due to injury or serious illness, as well as because of financial difficulties
- Limiting the length of contracts to a maximum of 12-months
- Making sure that when a contract ends it can’t automatically renew for the same fixed term. And that contracts explain if the member will switch onto a rolling monthly contract (with clear details of notice periods to cancel)
- Allowing members to cancel if gym facilities/services change significantly
- Making sure that prices can’t change substantially mid-contract
The rise of flexible subscriptions
Just as workout choices change, so do consumer expectations and preferences of how they access gyms.
In late-2021, research found that 23% of gymgoers were looking for competitive pricing when choosing a gym. And 13% wanted a flexible membership.
This research also found that of those who’d cancelled a membership during COVID, 35% wanted to save money. And 21% didn’t want to be locked into long-term agreements.
At the same time, the subscription economy boomed. As many as 81% of UK households were signed up to at least one subscription service by the end of 2021. These subscriptions range from streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney+, to food, cosmetics, and pet boxes.
Many of these subscriptions allow members to cancel with ease at any time. Members often simply lose access at the end of the period they’ve paid for.
Now more than ever, members are looking and expecting to be able to access gyms in a similar way. Xplor attrition research found that 41.7% of members who cancelled in 2022 did so indirectly. These members cancelled their payment at the bank or experienced a failed payment.
Is it time to rethink gym contracts and cancellations?
Short answer, yes. There’s a place for a range of gym membership types and price points in an effective gym pricing strategy.
Many gyms and fitness clubs offer a variety of membership options, including:
- 12-month contract memberships, paid upfront –
- Typically, this is the most cost-effective option for gymgoers who are willing to commit
- Usually paid via debit or credit card
- Gives income upfront
- As the membership term comes to an end, a proactive renewal strategy is needed to avoid losing the member
- 12-month contract memberships, paid in monthly instalments –
- This is usually a little more expensive than paying for the whole period upfront
- Usually paid for using Direct Debit and in some cases recurring card payment
- Gives predictable income each month
- As the membership term comes to an end, it typically switches to a rolling monthly membership – making it easier to retain the member
- Shorter term contract memberships, paid upfront or in monthly instalments – some clubs choose to offer shorter term deals for 3- or 6-months
- ‘No contract’ rolling monthly memberships –
- If offered alongside fixed-term contracts, this gym membership type will typically be more expensive
- Usually paid for using Direct Debit and in some cases recurring card payment
- Income is less predictable as members can cancel at short notice (or with no notice)
- Suits members who don’t want to be locked into a fixed-term contract (a contract of some sort with terms and conditions is still required)
- Casual/pay-as-you-go memberships, passes and bundles – increasingly gyms and fitness clubs are making it easier for anyone to visit on a pay-per-use or short-term basis. Typically, this is the most expensive access option
Fixed-term gym contracts offer you benefits as a gym owner or operator. Cashflow upfront. Predictable income. And VAT exemptions in specific circumstances.
Even with a 12- or 6-month contract in place, members still cancel their payment. Or ask to cancel before their contract term is up.
Is it time to scrap fixed-term gym membership contracts?
For some clubs, the cons may outweigh the benefits of fixed-term gym contracts. But the answer isn’t always clear cut.
For some clubs, it’s best to add flexible rolling memberships, to complement fixed-term options. For others, offering only flexible rolling membership contracts may be more efficient.
A starting point for most fitness businesses, is to look at how you reduce and manage cancellations.
There are simple ways to reduce the number of members who ghost your club by cancelling their Direct Debit or failing to pay.
This article is full of tips to help you cut silent cancellations (and more insights into why members quit the gym): 5 reasons why members quit the gym & how to cut cancels.
Above all, build a culture that welcomes and values gym member feedback. So, you’ll encourage dissatisfied members to speak up before an issue becomes cause for cancelling.
Make sure members know how to update their payment details (and let them do this online). So, it’s less tempting for them to step away if a payment fails as they’ve switched bank accounts.
Also, make it easier for members to freeze their membership for a specific period.
“A freeze or suspension may be an option for members who aren’t visiting right now, especially if injured or finding it difficult to visit.
Limiting the freeze term and communicating constantly during a freeze (encouraging an early return and maintaining engagement) is critical to get a member back after a freeze, otherwise, you’re just delaying the cancellation.”Guy Griffiths, GGFit
Solve member headaches before they cancel. Make it easy to keep payment details up to date. Strategically offer freezes. And you’ll be on the path to reducing cancellations.
Some members will want to cancel. If a member is locked into a contract for a specific number of months, make sure they can cancel without hassle in certain circumstances.
Whether a member is on a fixed-term or flexible contract, make sure the cancellation experience is positive. That means making it clear how to cancel. Members should be able to end their membership online. And tell you why they are leaving, in a discreet, non-confrontational way.
Leave the door open for a future return. As the member leaves, make it clear if there will be any further payments taken. And exactly when their access to the club will end.
The easier you can make it for joining members to understand how cancellation works. Then, the easier it will be for members to cancel how you want them to. Causing you fewer headaches down the line.
Handling payment failures
When a member misses a payment, traditionally some gyms have chosen to charge the member an extra fee.
Many members cancel payments because they weren’t aware they needed to cancel in a certain way. Or didn’t know about specific terms they’d agreed to. And payments often fail if a member is experiencing financial hardship.
So, these fees for missed payments can negatively impact both businesses and consumers.
Forward-thinking gyms and fitness clubs often choose not to charge these fees.
When a payment fails, top priority should be automatically attempting the collection again. And letting the member know what’s happening and how to resolve the issue and/or get in touch.
Payment issues can be an emotive topic for affected members.
That’s why it’s important to choose a gym billing software partner with the technology and highly trained team to support your members. This takes pressure off your team. And makes it easy for members to manage and catch up on payments, as well as accessing help and advice if needed.
Adapting to changing expectations
“Change is the only constant in life.”Heraclitus, Greek philosopher
As we’ve seen, gym membership contracts have evolved as the industry has grown and matured. Member expectations have changed. Influenced by experiences with other industries and the wider world.
As a gym business, you’ll need to continue adapting to meet member expectations. That might mean:
- Offering rolling monthly memberships that can be cancelled at any time at lower price points to cater to a shift in demand for flexibility
- Increasing focus on gym member motivation and engagement throughout the member journey. Use connected technologies and personalisation to create experiences that keep members coming back
- Expanding payment options for members to cater to changing preferences
The wrap up…
The fitness industry continues to evolve and expand. And so have gymgoer expectations. This means making sure you offer members the right access options for their needs.
Above all, contracts need to be in line with current consumer protection laws. And with consumers more accustomed to highly flexible subscriptions for all sorts of products and services, members expect similar of their gym.
Engage and motivate members. Proactively reduce the risk of cancellations. Making leaving a positive experience. And you’ll drive lasting business success. Retaining more members for longer and encouraging former members to return.
Gym Contracts: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What are gym contracts?
A gym contract is a legally binding document. It defines the terms of an agreement between your fitness business and your members. Typically, it’s signed when joining your club, this can be in a digital format.
Gym contracts should benefit and minimise risks for both parties. Your business AND your members.
Why do you need gym contracts?
It’s important to have gym contracts in place to protect your business from liabilities and lessen the risk of losses. Written and signed membership agreements serve as proof that everyone has understood and agreed to the terms laid out.
Other reasons for having a gym membership contract in place include:
- Setting clear expectations and summarising these
- Avoiding disputes – should disagreements occur, your contract becomes a reference point for a resolution
- Establishing specific terms of what’s allowed and not allowed in your facility
- Defining when and how you’ll be paid by the member
- Protecting you from liability (for example in the case of an injury while a member uses your equipment, your contract can limit liability)
Offer rolling monthly memberships and/or casual access options? You’ll still need members to agree to certain terms within a gym agreement or contract.
What is in a gym contract?
A gym contract will include a list of terms and conditions. These explain the exact requirements of both your gym and a member.
If terms are broken by a member, they can be banned from your gym. And their membership taken away. Likewise, if your business breaks the terms, a member can end their membership.
Gym contracts should include:
- Payment details – payment options and obligations of members. For Direct Debits, include details of what a member should do if they decide to cancel or stop their payments. How they can dispute Direct Debits. And what happens if a payment fails. If a membership renews to a rolling monthly contract make this clear
- Suspensions/freezes – explain how members can pause their membership, under what circumstances, and for how long
- Terminations/cancellations – you need to include a termination clause. This should clearly explain notice periods and charges. Take care as there are certain laws covering what’s allowed around cancellation fees. You can also outline the circumstances where you may to end a membership. For example, if a member breaches rules in their membership contract
- Refund policy – give your members the option to receive a refund based on breaches of your terms and conditions. Members are also often entitled to a cooling-off period when joining. This should be explained in your contract terms
- Personal injury – it’s very important to cover member safety in your gym contract terms and conditions. With equipment and physical activity comes the risk of injury. A personal injury clause should specify that you and your employees won’t be liable for any loss or injury suffered if a member doesn’t read health disclaimers provided. Drafted well, this clause can protect you if a member chooses to sue your business for personal damage, they’ve experienced due to using your facilities and services
Are gym contracts legally binding?
Gym contracts are legally binding documents in the UK.
Members sometimes look for ways of exiting and breaking gym membership contracts. Sometimes members are entitled to cancel. For example, due to injury, serious illness or a change in financial circumstances. Likewise, if cancellation contract terms are unfair, members can cancel without penalty.
There may also be a cooling off period after signing up during which a member can change their mind and cancel.
Terms are there to protect both sides. It’s vital to make it clear under what circumstances a member can cancel, how to cancel, and any costs that will apply.
You should make it as easy as possible for members to review their gym contract.
How do I write a gym contract?
Make sure your gym contracts are in line with consumer protection laws. It’s advisable to work with a qualified expert when writing a gym contract. Write different versions of your contract to suit different gym membership types.
What different types of gym membership contracts exist?
There are many types of gym membership contracts on offer. And many clubs will have more than one on offer (check out gym membership pricing for more info). Typical gym contracts include:
Typically paid upfront for the period by card (and, in certain cases, by cash or bank transfer).
These memberships can be beneficial for business cashflow with payment received immediately. Usually, they are the cheapest access option for a member, and allow the member to commit for a year. So, they’ve already paid and don’t have to work out how to cover their gym membership as a monthly expense.
It’s easier to lose a member after their annual membership is up. So, clubs need to focus on engaging and motivating these members throughout the year. And it’s important to have an effective multi-channel renewal campaign in place.
Monthly fixed-term memberships
Lasting for 12-months (or a shorter period), members sign up to a fixed-term contract. And pay in monthly instalments. It’s very common for members to pay by Direct Debit. This offers favourable protections and control for consumers. Increasingly, clubs are accepting recurring card payments too.
Benefits of this type of membership include the stability a fixed commitment brings to your club with predictable income. The ability to automatically switch the member to a rolling contract with a specified notice period once the fixed-term ends (providing your gym contract allows for this).
There can also be VAT benefits in certain circumstances when offered alongside an annual paid upfront membership.
On the other hand, this type of contract isn’t always popular with members. Members tend to dislike the inflexibility of a locked in period of time. Clubs find members don’t pay attention to the terms agreed to and silently cancel their membership at the bank. And this can create admin headaches that take up time and money.
Rolling monthly memberships
Often marketed as ‘no contract’. These gym memberships let members cancel with no or short notice. Members typically pay by Direct Debit or recurring card payment. Members will still sign up to a short-term contract or agreement with terms and condition.
For members, rolling monthly memberships allow access to facilities and services. Members aren’t locked in by a fixed-term contract. So, they feel free to leave if they want to.
For clubs, these memberships cater to growing demand for flexibility. And create a gym contract that competes with many big chains and low-cost operators.
When offered alongside fixed-term memberships, rolling monthly memberships will usually be more expensive.
Income can be less predictable for clubs. Yet, with many members failing to meet fixed-term commitments. These memberships allows clubs to anticipate that income will not be guaranteed.
Clubs offering rolling monthly memberships must focus on engaging and motivating members. So, they keep visiting and using their membership. A solid strategy for re-engaging high-risk gym members is essential.
Why do gyms have 12-month contracts?
Gym contracts in the UK can last for up to 12-months. Gyms typically choose 12-month contracts to encourage members to stick around for longer. Often paid in monthly instalments, 12-month gym contracts offer predictable income for gyms. And are usually cheaper for members than rolling monthly memberships.
Article by Xplor Gym
First published: 11 September 2023
Last updated: 30 October 2023