SINGAPORE — UFC Gym Singapore members were shocked when they discovered that Anytime Fitness had taken over the CityLink Mall space despite being informed that the gym would be temporarily closed for renovation.

The email sent by the gym management on 28 February stated that the gym would be upgraded over the coming months and closed during the upgrades, with memberships placed on hold but would return to normal upon reopening.

The announcement contained the email address of the gym’s managing director, Barnabas Huang.

Channel News Asia reported that when queried, Mr Huang declined to comment and claimed he was bound by a non-disclosure agreement but did not provide further details.

According to Mr Huang’s Linkedin profile, he stepped down from the position of Country Managing Director of UFC Gym in February this year.

Following the gym’s sudden closure, gym members have filed reports with the police and the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE). Police have confirmed that a report was made, and investigations are currently ongoing.

Mr Melvin Yong, CASE president, has confirmed that the association received two complaints regarding UFC Gym Singapore’s sudden closure from 1 February 1 to 9 May this year.

As the gym is no longer operating, CASE has advised consumers to file a claim at the Small Claims Tribunals.

“While consumers may enjoy savings per use over time for longer term memberships, CASE advises consumers to consider shorter term memberships or pay-per-use options as it is generally challenging for consumers to recover their monies for prepaid memberships in the event of sudden business closure,” said Melvin Yong, who is also People’s Action Party Member of Parliament for Radin Mas SMC.

Closure of City Square Mall outlet in November 2022

UFC Gym Singapore, which opened its first outlet at CityLink Mall in March 2019, offered its members mixed martial arts classes and personal fitness training.

While the firm later opened another outlet at City Square Mall, but it was later closed down in November 2022, citing “challenging market conditions and losses from the COVID-19 pandemic”.

At that time, the gym claimed they could not refund unused memberships or personal training services in cash and instead offered to transfer memberships to the CityLink outlet.

Gym users bought membership packages ranging from $1,200 to $3,800 in 2022

According to The Straits Times, some gym users had purchased membership packages ranging from $1,200 to $3,800 in 2022 and signed up for personal training sessions.

Mr Tung, one of the users, paid $1,296 for 12 personal training sessions after signing up during a year-end promotion.

However, he only attended three sessions before the gym closed. The last update he received from the gym was an email about the renovation.

He mentioned that the last person he was in contact with was gym owner Mr Huang, who is the founder of the parent company NutriFirst and Huang’s Jewelry.

Mr Tung filed a claim on the Community Justice and Tribunals System portal, after which NutriFirst responded. Still, he said NutriFirst has declined to refund the remaining amount and instead offered UFC merchandise in exchange. Mr Tung refused the offer.

Netizens voiced suspicion long ago

In fact, several netizens became suspicious after UFC Gym announced its renovation. Some even commented on the gym’s official Instagram page in early March, urging the gym to provide updates.

One netizen commented on the gym’s Instagram page on 31 March, stating that emails to the gym were being bounced, and she received a notice that an 18-month contract was starting in April, which she did not wish to have.

One of the members already raised her suspicion in early April, noted that if the closure were part of a planned renovation, the gym’s PR and marketing team would have communicated this effectively, which did not happen, adding that the gym’s social media accounts had not been updated for a while.

Past lesson of California Fitness

Netizens have taken to social media platforms, including AsiaOne and The Straits Times Facebook posts, to express their concerns over the sudden closure of UFC Gym Singapore.

Many people have pointed out that these issues have been a longstanding problem and have criticized the government for not acting enough to regulate businesses that offer prepaid membership packages.

Many comments pointed out the similarities between the current incident and the abrupt closure of California Fitness gyms in 2016.

In the California Fitness case, members were left in a similar situation, with over $20 million in prepaid fees going to waste, which highlighted the risks associated with prepayments, as nearly 27,000 members were left stranded with unused gym access fees and unredeemed training sessions.

In this particular incident, CASE received 331 complaints from affected members seeking refunds for their prepaid membership fees.  At that time, Members of California Fitness were also told by CASE to file claims via the Small Claims Tribunal after approaching the consumer watchdog for assistance.

Netizens criticize CASE for its failure to address the recurring issue

Despite previous cases of consumers losing money due to sudden closures of companies and calls for regulating membership offers by certain sellers, the problem persists in the community.

Netizens have criticized CASE for its failure to address this issue.

One of the comments pointed out that the ability of businesses to sell subscriptions and then shut down, leaving consumers with no recourse, is a recurring problem.

This has been observed in the time-share, beauty parlour, and gym membership industries over the past 20 years. Despite numerous complaints to “CASE” or other government agencies that claim to fight for consumers, nothing has been done.

“It is no wonder the same ploy is used to entice and swindle consumers hard-earned money, ” the netizen wrote.

Long overdue regulation needed

Other comments agree that the government needs to establish more strict rules and regulations for these selling methods, which are long overdue, to protect consumers’ rights.

A netizen highlighted a common sentiment among commenters that consumers are being unfairly blamed for the situation, and that the real issue lies with the lack of regulation and enforcement in the fitness industry.

By signing a contract, consumers should be legally protected and covered, and the absence of such protection is a worrying issue.

‘Buyer beware’

Several netizens went as far as ridiculing CASE, calling it useless. Instead of taking concrete actions, they suggest that CASE only asks buyers to beware and uses moral persuasion to convince businesses to do the right thing.

Consumers reported more than $645,000 in prepayment losses in 2022

In February 2023, CASE reported that Singapore consumers suffered more than $645,000 in prepayment losses due to sudden business closures in 2022. This was a 24% increase from the $520,000 in prepayment losses reported by consumers in 2021.

Mr Yong, concerned about the sharp increase, reiterated the organisation’s call on the government to consider mandating prepayment protection in industries which collect large sums of prepayment.

“In the meantime, CASE is working closely with industry partners to explore the possibilities of extending prepayment protection to businesses accredited under the CaseTrust Storefront scheme for better consumer protection.

Certainly, UFC Gym Singapore and California Fitness are not the only high-profile businesses that have caused consumers to lose their money in recent years.

For example, tour agency STA Travel reportedly collapsed in 2020, leaving customers and former staff owed more than $1 million.

In the most recent case, Genius League, an enrichment centre, unexpectedly announced its closure on Monday (8 May). Parents of children enrolled with their services were abruptly informed that the centre would be “winding down operations,” but no specific dates were given.

Despite persistent issues over the years, it appears that CASE has been unable to influence the government to draft regulations to tighten measures against prepayment.

Even the CASE president, who is also a ruling party Member of Parliament, seems to have been unable to bring about significant change.

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