Most of us have visited, or even worse, been a member out of necessity of an exceptionally bad gym. Nothing hurts more than not having a choice, and in the city of Hilo Hawaii, where I spend a lot of time these days, the choices are, with the exception of BJ Penn's, absolutely dismal. And that affects my workout goals negatively.
Of the 100-plus gyms I have worked out in and/or been a member of, the worst have always been coincidentally owned or managed by people who did not themselves work out, and that is your first clue: what do the manager/employees/owner look like, and how do they conduct themselves?
I quit World Gym in Glendale California because it was owned by an overweight elderly couple with no clue, and was staffed by a morbidly obese female relative whose disdain for the customers was overt. It was actually a good basic gym and virtually empty at midday when I worked out, much to my appreciation, but when I found a better gym, I had to move on. What made me stay as long as I did was a bond I had formed with some of the terrific members, which made leaving a harder decision to arrive at.
This is an interesting issue that I also experienced at the now-demolished City Gym in Downtown Los Angeles. I was the only caucasian member, and the gym was very basic with none of the latest equipment, yet other members were so supportive, inclusive and friendly that they kept me coming back despite much better equipped gyms opening closer to my house, until City Gym had to close its doors to make way for redevelopment.
Bally's in Hollywood was a complete chaotic mess and astonishingly crowded, making achieving a focused workout, and parking, impossible. Which reminds me, you do NOT want to sign a contract, or allow a health club access to your money via your credit card. Signing a contract just to work out is preposterous: think about it. Have you ever signed a contract for far more vital endeavors, such as going to school, or getting a job? Neither have I.
Gold's Hollywood has amazing equipment but is very crowded, and has a staff of cleaners agressively vacuuming around your feet as you are performing your exercises, with cords stretching above the floor, tripping members. Despite repeated falls, the owner insisted that round the clock vacuuming take precedence over the safety or comfort of members. One Sunday we showed up with men jackhammering-up the concrete floor, while the gym filled with members! We were astonished. The noise was deafening and the air so thick with dust that we literally could not see across the gym, yet the owners persisted with demolition and the idiot members didn't have enough common sense to leave and come back another time. We turned right 'round and walked out.
Spencer's in Hilo is in profound disrepair, and neither owner nor staff works out. Pointing out poorly maintained or incorrectly repaired equipment or suggestions for improvements have been met with hostility. Even the ceiling fans remain broken for years on end after they fail, despite steamy indoor temperatures hovering near 90 degrees, no cross ventilation and no air conditioning. The roof has leaked for years, and every time it rains, which can be daily in Hilo, buckets are scattered about to catch the drips, and to trip people up. However, on the bright side, Spencer's is cleaned continually.
Having problems, especially multiple problems, with any given gym makes me wonder why I have never had any problem at all with some others, such as the de Haro World Gym in San Francisco. I have worked out at this gym dozens of times since 1994, in every season, and I have never had any issue with it. It's a huge gym, very well equipped, with a staff that has gone out of their way for me more than a few times.
Gold's Gym in South Buffalo NY, now closed, was one of the best run and maintained gyms I have worked out in, with a staff that both welcomed and acted upon customers' suggestions. It is sad to see terrible gyms chug along year after year, while really fine gyms close down.
Every gym is filled with equipment that needs continual monitoring by staff who know how it all works and how it should be functioning, and who will listen to and consider customers' concerns, so obviously a gym whose owner or employees do not use the equipment should be seen as a giant red flag. Nothing will sabotage your fitness goals faster than equipment that is actually working against you, or worse, an injury caused by poorly functioning equipment. And don't count on other members' expertise either, as 95% of members have no idea when equipment is optimally functional. Worse, at the owner-ignored gyms, disregard for the customers' concerns about equipment always went hand in hand with their basic disrespect for the customer in general.
What the bad gyms also had in common were owners and staff who never thanked the customers for their business, and a few were actually hostile toward the customer, taking offense when any criticism was voiced, such as non-functioning equipment, improper repairs, or poor set-up and design.
Even with the best gyms there will be some give and take; things you love about it and things you don't, so you have to keep your main fitness goals in mind and decide if the things you hate are interfering in your overall process. Positive or negative word of mouth is important, but not all members have the same amount of experience, expertise, or goals, and may see the same issue in opposing ways.
What it ultimately comes down to is a choice between what you can live with and what you can't.