Think car dealers give you a hard sell? Walk into a health spa.
Actually, at most spas you can't just stroll around the lot and kick the tires. You have to be escorted through every inch of the premises while eager young athletes deliver a sales pitch in which they talk about everything but money.
I found that out when I dropped by 1750 K St., where the two largest health-club chains in the area have neighboring outlets. The doors to Holiday Spa and Spa Lady sit 10 feet from each other, and the sales talks aren't far apart, either.
At Holiday, Frank (employes' names were changed because they were not told they were being interviewed by a reporter) told me I couldn't just get a price brochure and walk away. In fact, he was horrified to hear I only had 15 minutes to look around and wanted me to schedule a second appointment. "How about Tuesday afternoon?" he asked as I signed the guest register.
While we looked over the gleaming weight equipment, Frank asked what I wanted. Lose weight? No problem. Tone muscles? Those machines over there. Cardiovascular? The track will do it, at 24 laps per mile.
It was with difficulty that I edged toward the door, promising Frank that if he didn't hear from me next week he could give me a call. Only then did I look at the prices on the flier he had given me and discover I couldn't understand them.
A phone call to Frank revealed that the price on one side of the flier offering 16 months of membership at $19.72 per month was no longer valid. The cheapest price at which I could go to the club any day I chose was $390 per year, or $32 per month with a $50 down payment, calculated with an interest rate of about 14 percent. That was $100 more than the flier promised -- its figures were only for a three-day-a-week membership.
A membership for more than one club was more expensive, and the variety too complicated to explain over the phone, Frank said in a tone considerably less friendly than he had displayed in person. He did offer to sign me up during the call.
At Spa Lady, which caters only to women, the decor was pink. The walls were pink, the rug was pink, and even the padding on the weight machines was pink. Martha, who wore a pink sweater, gave me a shorter tour than I had had next door, but the sales pitch lasted longer.
We spent 10 minutes filling out a detailed questionnaire that asked me how much weight I wanted to lose, what parts of my body I most wanted to change and why I had decided to join. When Martha asked me to sign the form, I pointed out I had not agreed to become a member, but she said the signature was not binding.
The price literature was as confusing as it had been at Holiday. I could get an 18-month membership for $525, but if I signed up on the spot I could get $100 off and a guaranteed renewal fee of $225. However, that covered only the K Street club.
The Diamond Club membership, on the other hand, would give me access to all the Spa Ladies in the area, including the "executive" clubs with the tanning rooms (actually, they looked more like tanning closets). If I signed up immediately, they would knock $100 off that $625 membership, too. The renewal fee was cheaper, and I would get a designer gym bag for free.
When I said I would wait a little to decide, Martha pulled out her ace: I could pay a dollar a day for 99 days. But the offer was expiring in two days.
Back at my office, I found I had other questions. But when I called the next day to talk to Martha, I was told she didn't work there. After checking, the person who answered the phone said Martha wasn't in and put me on hold for five minutes to find out when she was coming back.
I asked if someone else could help me with questions about prices. The appropriate person was first busy, then out to lunch. Two phone calls later, I reached an employe who answered most of my price questions (the offer on the other side of this flier wasn't valid either), but balked at a few of the details.
"Why don't I schedule you to come in for a trial workout and we can talk about it then?" she asked.