By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
I skipped my spinning class at the former Eastern Hills Buffalo Athletic Club Saturday and fought traffic to get into the Walmart Plaza and the year-old LA Fitness instead.
I’ve been one of the BAC holdouts who has used the Eastern Hills club since LA Fitness bought the four Buffalo BAC coed clubs just before Christmas, along with two RACs in Rochester.
The Eastern Hills club hasn’t been the same since. Many of the female members fled to the class-heavier BAC for Women and many of the older members – who loved that the BAC took care of their Medicare supplemental health insurance paperwork, while LA Fitness requires members to handle much of it themselves – have scattered to several clubs, including the more senior-friendly YMCA Buffalo Niagara.
Middle-aged guys like me, it seems anyway, have a murkier way forward.
My plan includes workouts at LA Fitness, the Independent Health “Northtowns” Family YMCA in Amherst and Hive: The Lifespan Center, all fairly close to where I live.
I have my doubts the old BAC Eastern Hills will be open much longer, since the far newer – and nicer – LA Fitness is about a half-mile north along the same stretch of Transit Road, so I started with LA Fitness. My BAC membership transferred along with the sale, but LA Fitness has given members until Jan. 31 to decide where they’d like to land.
Lloyd, the general manager, told me the West Coast-headquartered chain plans to keep all the former coed BACs open as part of the LA Fitness WNY repertoire.
He offered me a three-year rate for $750, and told me if I took it, I could pay $249 a year after that – a better deal than my annual $299 renewal rate at the BAC, which I paid the night before the BAC notified its staff of the club sale.
Lloyd also let me take a trial run at the Clarence club to see how I liked it, gave me a tour of the place and asked me to stop by and see him before I left. All he knew when I walked in was that I was a former BAC member.
Here’s what I experienced:
- The place was clean and the equipment barely a year old. But the men’s sauna and one of the drinking fountains were out of order.
- The locker rooms were more spacious than the BAC Eastern Hills, and someone had left a copy of the Saturday Refresh section in a bathroom stall. And yes, it did appear it was being used for its intended purpose – reading. Clearly, at least some members had good taste in their newspaper preferences. There were plugs next to every sink but there were no hot water spigots and the water got slightly warm at best; tough for shaving.
- There were 42 spinning bikes in the four-tiered cycle room and I was told I was welcome to ride one anytime, not just during cycle classes. That was not the case at the BAC. Spinning classes are the main reason I belong to a fitness club and I was impressed with what I experienced. While riding, I talked with two other male ex-BACers who also liked the room but expressed some reservations that their instructors might be required to use uniform LA Fitness cycling music and routines. I suspect they’re right, but at this point I’m unaware of what other WNY gyms open to men might rival what LA Fitness does. I’m told the JCCs in Amherst and Buffalo might be options. If you know of others, please let me know.
- The front counter person was nice when I arrived and so was the GM. None of the other staff looked at me, said hello or asked how my workout was going in the 90 minutes I was in the cycling room or on the gym floor.
- There were no spray bottles or white towels, mainstays in BAC gyms for cleaning equipment. Paper towels and disinfectant were available in several parts of the gym but very few members used them after using equipment. At least two of the paper towel dispensers were empty while I was there late Saturday afternoon, though a staffer told me that would be taken care of ASAP when I mentioned it.
- The lap pool was nice, but with only three lanes, I wondered if lap etiquette sometimes goes down the drain. The hot tub was very nice.
- While in the cycling room, I could only see the back of the gym floor, the free weight area, and at first blush, it seemed the male-to-female ratio was about 9-to-1. It was more like 50/50 when I started using an elliptical in the cardio section.
- The demographic was much younger, and slightly more fit, than the BAC. There were very few senior citizens and a smaller percentage of overweight people in the gym.
- There are no TV screens or WiFi on the gym floor, but cardio machines each have their own small TV screens and iPod ports. Three TV sets in the men’s locker room were out of reach to club members and were showing ABC, ESPN and CNN.
After my workout, a few minutes in the hot tub and a shower, I bought a protein smoothie at the juice bar, sat down again with Lloyd and told him I was the Refresh editor. I told him I planned to try out a few more gyms before committing to LA Fitness in the long-term. He gave me three guest passes in case I want to try out the gym at a different time or day, and I was back off to fight traffic in the Walmart Plaza and on Transit Road.
I’m a firm believer that you should never make the good the enemy of the perfect. I’ve yet to find a perfect gym. LA Fitness seemed good. In hotel terms, I’d equate it to a solid Holiday Inn.
Since my first blog entry on the BAC-LA Fitness sale, I’ve heard from dozens of readers. Below are excerpts from some of them:
- Danielle Magiera worked the front desk and as a personal trainer at the BAC until she got a new job last October at M&T Bank. “I stayed with the BAC because I loved the community atmosphere and the workers,” she wrote me in an email. “When I found out the BAC was sold to LA Fitness, I was devastated. My heart broke. I walked into LA Fitness, once known as Eastern Hills BAC, on Monday after the takeover and saw changes. Old coworkers gone and the vibe of the gym was no longer the same. … My decision on what gym to go to still remains questionable, but I am without a doubt heartbroken by the change. I hope LA Fitness realizes Buffalo is a community driven city and the only way to keep people there is by welcoming members and giving us time to transition. If LA Fitness wants to keep us, they might need to re-evaluate the way they treat people. Otherwise, gym shopping might be on everyone's to-do list.”
- Michael “Mick” Miller wonders whether a legal case against the BAC for Women might force the new – wealthier – owners to open the clubs to men, too. I’m not sure such a challenge would work, or whether there was anything in the LA Fitness purchase offer that prohibits the BAC from opening any new coed clubs. The BAC owners are on record as saying they see more opportunity in women-only clubs, and it’s worth noting the chain hasn’t opened a coed club in more than a decade.
- At renewal time the past few years ($299 guaranteed; a rate LA Fitness says it will honor), Mary Stefano has been almost prophetic. A member of the BAC for 15 years, she signed up at Eastern Hills but spent a growing amount of time at the Evans women-only club. “I renewed at Evans and said they should transfer my Eastern Hills membership to Evans. They said it didn't matter. Guess what? Now it does. LA Fitness has been uncooperative about my ‘request’ for a transfer to the new BAC, claiming that BAC had to initiate it although the BAC website indicated I should ask LA Fitness to initiate the request. This has become like a divorce. BAC has grabbed the ball and had me fill out a form the other day. I am anxiously awaiting a new membership card so I can be assured I am a member of the BAC.” She also said the BAC for Women has an overwhelmingly greater number of fitness classes than LA Fitness. Check out their websites here and here.
- Bob Snyder of Clarence Center and Judy and Mike Hilberger are among the senior citizens despondent over the change. They’ve been BAC members for many years and are upset LA Fitness staffers have told them the chain will not honor Silver Sneakers and other supplemental insurance policies that the BAC handled for them in the past. These folks and others have told me it’s the difference between paying $20 a year and $29.99 a month out of pocket. “After the sale, we had these strange staff people telling us, ‘Sign this, sign this. Nothing’s going to change, nothing’s going to change, but we had to decide now’” to make the switch to LA Fitness. “Of course, everything’s going to change,” Judy Hilberger told me during a telephone interview last week.
I’ll have more from she and her husband in the coming weeks, and more on the challenges seniors face with the transformation, including the supplemental insurance issues. Lloyd told me Saturday that LA Fitness will make workout information available to members who can use their gym activity for insurance discounts, but it is up to members to deal with their insurance companies to secure the discounts.
I’ll also continue to try to connect with LA Fitness corporate officials in California. I’ve tried several different ways – giving my number to two LA Fitness corporate types who came into WNY from LA in the days after the sale, emailing the corporate communications office two weeks ago, and leaving a message on the corporate communications voicemail on Monday.
If I don’t hear from them soon, I’ll post the list of questions I have for them. At least some of you will be able to consider them as you go about your own gym hunt. Meanwhile, feel free to send me some of your questions using the info below.