How to Negotiate a Gym Membership in China

By Connor Frankhouser, June 2, 2017

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So you've decided you want to get a gym membership and trade in Nestle Crunch bars for abdominal crunches; exchange queso cheese dip for weighted triceps dips. You have even typed in jianshenfang (健身房) into Dianping and found a nearby gym that you can go to 3-5 times a week easy. Great. 

In China there is one extra hurdle standing between you and that body you are dreaming of. We aren’t talking about RMB7 fried noodles or Tsingtao that is cheaper than water. No, we are talking about the hurdle of getting a gym membership in the first place. In China it is a needlessly obfuscated process in many cases.

Instead of getting frustrated, read our guide below and follow the simple steps to make bargaining for a gym membership as painless as possible. Remember, this is China so a bit of bargaining is to be expected.

Arriving at the gym

Here is what will happen. Someone in a bright fluorescent green shirt whose job it is to shill passersby into joining the gym will see you walk onto the premises and know you aren’t a member. They will show you the facilities in a cursory manner and then sit you at a table that has a calculator and a man who looks like the seedy car salesman dad from the 1990s classic film, Matilda

Expect no English to be spoken and for all numerical figures concerning how much you will pay to be typed into the calculator. It is kind of like shopping at the fake market. 

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At this point you should follow the steps below or risk getting the short end of the stick and being saddled with a membership you don't want at a place you can't stand.

1. Investigate the premises  

Leave the negotiating table and walk around the gym and locker rooms. Determine if the changing area meets your standards and be sure to ask if there are any extra fees for using the lockers. 

Try to visit the gym at the time you will be working out to make sure it won't be too crowded, if you are unable to do this, ask staff what the facility’s peak hours are. Even a great gym can be ruined if you have to wait 30 minutes to use the squat rack. Inspect the machines and free-weights and see if they are all operable.

2. Refuse the opening offer

Some gyms in China will outright fabricate their prices based on how much of a sucker they think you are. This is especially true in gyms located farther away from the city center. The prices for gyms are seldom posted, leading to even more confusion.

Many will also eagerly recommend that you sign up with a personal trainer or enroll in fitness classes at an additional cost. If you're not interested, be sure to decline right away and explain firmly that you prefer to negotiate the cost of a basic membership first.

Note that some of the more high-end gyms (i.e. in hotels or ritzy apartment complexes) will not negotiate the basic membership fee. The price they quote will indeed be the true price. 

Assume that all of the other gyms are out to take you for a ride. The opening offer the gym staffer quotes you is probably going to be way too high, which brings us to step three... 

3. Fire back with a reasonable offer on the low side

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All first-tier cities have different rates for a yearly membership, which is the de facto contract length the gym will try to sell you on. We recommend chatting with other expats in your city to get a rough idea what the price is like before going into negotiations.

In Guangzhou, for example, a nice gym near the CBD will range from RMB3,500-7,000 (depending on quality and location); RMB1,500-3,000 outside of it. If you are quoted RMB3,500 for a gym nowhere near the center of town, fire back with an RMB1,400 offer and work from there. 

4. Set up a favorable payment plan

Once you settle on a number for a one-year membership, pat yourself on the back. But don't relax, it’s not over yet – next you need to settle on a payment plan.

While many gyms will not go along with what we are about to encourage you to try, we recommend you try it anyway: avoid paying the balance for your membership upfront. If you negotiate and agree to RMB3,000 for a year, try to pay RMB750 for four months. If possible, aim to string payments out as long as possible. After all there is no interest accruing and you never know when you may move across town or find a new job that takes you far away from your current gym and precludes you from working out there. 

Many gyms will agree to do this, to what degree depends on your negotiation skills and the location of the gym. Ritzy places will be less likely to budge on payments, whereas seedier joints will probably let you pay off your debt in a combination of plasma donations and English lessons.

If you set up payments like this, you can leave the gym without feeling bad that you have already dropped RMB3,000 for a membership you only used for three months.

5. Before handing over cash, inspect the contract

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If your Chinese skills aren’t up to par, this is where you will likely need some help from a friend, as many contacts are written in Chinese. This part is really important, because lots of gyms will try and give you a bare-bones deal that results in extra fees for using the lockers, change room and pool and sauna area – if those are available. Some contracts will also contain an automatic renewal clause, which will result in you paying for a second year when your first contract is up. If you are handing over credit card information, be sure to check the last point.

[Image via Trevor Linden Fitness, imgflip.com, Giphy]

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