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Health Club Management
2016 issue 6

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Leisure Management - David Stalker


David Stalker

During his seven years as ukactive CEO, David Stalker was never short of opinions, but often found himself duty bound to hold his tongue. Now, as he leaves the fitness frontline to scale up Oxygen Freejumping, he sheds the shackles of responsibility and tells Jak Phillips why the sector should ditch its old guard, embrace big business and scrap SkillsActive

Jak Phillips
Too many people are still in the sector when they should be off doing something new - David Stalker PHOTO: PAUL McLAUGHLIN
Stalker: “Only the sector itself can fail CIMSPA now” PHOTO: PAUL McLAUGHLIN
If school sport can be sponsored by soft drinks via the sugar tax, why shouldn’t the fitness sector work with Coca-Cola? PHOTO: Shutterstock.com

What were the biggest changes to the fitness sector during your time at ukactive?
In the past four years, the industry’s been caught in the cross hairs of the confluence of health, technology, sport and popular culture (including fashion and music).

Ours is one of the few sectors able to straddle these mega trends, as relevant in grappling the costs of an ageing society as in appealing to new generations demanding everything on individualised terms.

We’ve seen the borders of our sector smashed down, with new entrants dominating in all spheres – from Apple leading its prime time TV advertising with activity, to Pure Gym becoming the largest UK operator from a standing start. At the same time, we’ve seen both public sector austerity and a belief among VCs that there was a quick buck to be made from providing no service at high fees.

This has all come crashing together in the past four years alone. We’re seeing new business models and investments in service to meet new demands and expectations. I’m proud that ukactive was laying the path for this during my time there: we’ve helped transform CIMSPA, won national awards for lobbying and raised millions for physical activity.

Why isn’t the sector making faster progress?
This is still an industry largely based on gut feel; we do things because that’s the way we’ve always done them. It’s why concepts such as the old LIW run by UBM survived well past its expiry date. All too often there’s a reliance on habitual decision-making in the sector, as opposed to a genuine consideration of the value things bring.

Too many people are still in the sector when they should be off doing something new, and they’re preventing a new generation from coming in who are more in touch with the future direction of the sector and the changing demands of consumers. We have a whole gaggle of so-called ‘gurus’ striding around the industry – gurus of data, retention, behaviour, marketing and so on – who make a great living running the industry down and contributing very little to its progress. I should add that the exception to this is Dr Paul Bedford – a true guru of retention with valuable advice to offer.

But I believe change is coming. We’re now moving into an era of data, science and fact, beyond this first generation of the sector where we were doing everything for the first time.

We now have things like GYMetrix, which can scientifically show us how to design gym floors to meet consumer need. We have the ukactive Research Institute bringing world-class academic expertise and insight to ukactive members.

We also have outstanding people joining our industry from outside – The Gym Group’s Jim Graham and Pure Gym’s Humphrey Cobbold being just two examples. We have genuine innovators driving change in the public sector, such as Malcolm McPhail at Life Leisure. And we’re breeding a new generation of Future Leaders who are as comfortable talking to the board of a CCG as they are in securing investment from the City. They’ll sweep away the gut-feelers in the course of the next few years – and that needs to happen.

Another area we must focus on is diversity. We recently had a Parliamentary Dinner with the Conservative Party, where there were more female Tory MPs than female fitness industry representatives. We have events where Steve Ward is the most ethnically diverse representative, and he’s just a little bit Greek. We have to become more diverse at a senior level, and that may prove a major challenge.

How do we improve the credibility of fitness professionals?
The vision for CIMSPA is clear and I feel I’ve done my bit there. The major employers are behind it, DCMS has backed it to lead the transformation towards having the workforce we need, and Sport England is hugely engaged and ready to support it through lift-off.

But now we need to rally around this and get on with it. If operators don’t step up and respond to the institute they shaped, via the consultation I undertook in 2013, they will have nothing. I hear operators are all aligned, willing and good to go, but the ‘gut feelers’ are waiting to see who else goes first. Time to show some leadership. The job is done – only the sector itself can fail CIMSPA now.

It would also help dramatically if SkillsActive accepted its time has come and slip away into the night. It has no purpose and is simply not needed. The industry set out where it wanted to go explicitly in the SPELG process, gave SkillsActive five years to deliver and it failed. Rather than recognise that its time is up, the organisation has flopped around like a fish on the deck of a boat having been lifted out of the water – gasping for life and spraying everyone in the process.

The risk of collateral damage is real and we’d be better off listening to the major employers, training providers and awarding organisations, getting behind our one professional Chartered Institute and driving the sector forward. In Tara Dillon, we now have a dynamic CEO at CIMSPA with the skills to drive this agenda forward; the industry must make it a priority to support her fully.

What’s holding the sector’s major bodies and associations back from closer collaboration?
It’s an area of regret for me that relationships with Sport England weren’t better during my time at ukactive. I think there was a lack of fundamental trust in the partnership, as Sport England was running a strategy that believed ‘how do we get more people playing sport?’ was the question and that 49 National Governing Bodies were the answer. At ukactive, we knew that was ridiculous and we said so.

While we were able to do lots of great work together, this lack of trust and fundamental disagreement on strategy undermined our mutual chances of success.

I’m delighted to see this is changing and I’ve no doubt the governance review of ukactive is a major part of that. Sport England can now see a very strong, independent, independently sustainable organisation with a unique network and genuine expertise that can enable Sport England to achieve the big tasks within its strategy. ukactive is run by a world-class board and an outstanding chair in Tanni Grey-Thompson – who personifies the level of integrity needed – while in Steve Ward, Sport England has someone to work with who knows its pain and wants to help.

The new Sports Strategy will be key to closer collaboration between Sport England and ukactive, as it’s now all about more people, more active, more often. Movement is the goal, not sport, and the wider set of outcomes play to the abilities of ukactive and its members.

The DCMS strategy was a major step in the right direction and Sport England is now following suit. It would have been very easy to retreat to its comfort zone, focus on NGBs, and say it would get to the rest. But Sport England has recognised, with the DCMS mandate, that the time is now.

Where do you stand on big brand partnerships? Does the industry really need to work with the likes of Coca-Cola?
Ask the Treasury: it’s just announced plans to have school sport sponsored by soft drinks through the ‘sugar tax’. My view on this is simple: big brands have a marketing reach and ability to influence consumers in ways our sector can only dream of. Does it absolve them of the need to remove sugar from the national diet, educate consumers on portion sizes and create a country of nutrition-conscious people? No. They’ll be held to account for that.

What I think is interesting is that the sugar tax now gives these companies a fundamental right to have an opinion on all of this. They’ll be individually writing cheques with nine figures on them. They’ll want to know what they’re getting for that and where the evidence of impact is. At the same time, you’ll have the nutrition lobby stating that you can’t outrun a bad diet, with some truth in it. So, if there’s going to be £500m coming the way of our sector, we’d better get our house in order to avoid a situation where these two powerful lobbies point out the lack of impact they think we and their funding are having.

Does the rise of the ‘mega-trusts’ mean reduced competition or a stronger sector?
Whoever said mega-trusts are reducing competition is wrong. It’s fiercer than ever and that’s great for local communities.

Originally published in Health Club Management 2016 issue 6

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