26 Feb 2021 World leisure: news, training & property
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Health Club Management
2020 issue 10

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Leisure Management - Delivery partners

Local leisure

Delivery partners

HCM talks to policy makers, operators and decision-makers about the public sector and trust response to the pandemic

Fusion reports 10,000 families have taken part in special swimming sessions PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK/Wallenrock

To say it’s been a difficult year for local authority leisure trusts is an understatement; with many struggling to juggle the financial and logistical challenges of two lockdowns with the expectation of providing their community with health and wellbeing programmes.

In fact, a recent report from the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sports and Physical Activity (CIMSPA) found that, without meaningful financial support, almost half (48 per cent) of public leisure facilities could close by the end of 2020, resulting in the loss of 300,000 jobs.

Despite this, some community leisure trusts have found the positives in this pandemic. HCM talks to organisations making powerful strides.

Delivering against needs
Steven Scales, client services director, ukactive

The government’s £100m fund to support local authorities will help to keep more leisure centres open and we hope this grant is a turning point in the government’s long-term support for local facilities, as the pandemic has made us stop and think about what our sector means in a broad sense.

In order for public facilities to bounce back properly, we need collaboration with the government and private sector, so we can deliver against society’s needs, reduce inequalities and increase activity. Our sector can save lives and, ultimately, can save the government billions of pounds.

As the culture minister said, “It’s vital we keep ourselves fighting fit through the winter months and gyms and leisure centres are crucial to this,” and we look forward to working with government and partners to establish further support for the wider gym and leisure sector.

“It’s vital we keep ourselves fighting fit through the winter months and gyms and leisure centres are crucial to this”
First line of defence
Kirsty Cumming, CEO, Community Leisure UK

Leisure providers operate on very fine margins and many have depleted their reserves; there’s recognition that local authorities are continuing to work hard in difficult circumstances to support their leisure service providers and the UK government, along with the home nations’ administrations, have introduced or are planning to introduce supplementary funding to support leisure through the recovery period.

But government financial support needs to reach leisure providers most in need quickly, and more financial support will be required to ensure facilities can remain open.

The leisure sector has proven itself to be safe and effective, it is essential to increasing population activity levels, delivering the government’s national obesity plan and helping people build resilience to, and recover from, COVID-19.

The pandemic has brought the sector closer together. This collaborative ethos can be capitalised upon to help reset the sector around a common purpose, vision and set of objectives, in order to deliver a greater impact on improving population health and wellbeing.

Many leisure facilities are run-down and require investment, which will not only reduce the costs of operation, but will also better enable leisure to support the nation’s health and wellbeing. A coordinated approach, coupled with the capital investment required, will enable us to become a new, effective, first line of defence to protect our NHS.

A coordinated approach, coupled with the capital investment required, will enable us to become a new, effective, first line of defence to protect our NHS
The heart of communities
Jo Cherrett, COO, Trafford Leisure

We were so excited to launch ‘move Urmston’, the £7m redevelopment of one of our leisure centres, back in March. We had fantastic new facilities and equipment, a new brand name and engaged staff, but just five days after opening – 23 March 2020 – we shut the doors on move Urmston, along with the other venues we manage for Trafford Council.

We reopened in July, with an impressive 53 per cent rise in memberships, a clear strategy of customer engagement, open communications and a relatable marketing campaign; growing membership at a time we desperately needed income.

When lockdown happened, we gave customers the choice to continue paying their membership, to freeze or to leave.

We chose not to automatically freeze direct debits; instead we commenced an open dialogue, asking if they were in the position to continue making payments, their generous ‘donation’ would help pay staff salaries, local suppliers and sustain building and maintenance.

It was a risky move and took a delicate balance in our messaging, but during May, 40 per cent of members continued to pay. I was humbled by the support of the Trafford community.

We’ve also been financially supported by Trafford Council, which agreed to provide our community interest company financial support in the form of a monthly grant.

The council moved swiftly to re-designate a budget of £968,000, originally earmarked to compensate our leisure centres for loss of income during future refurbishments, to help us through the remainder of this year.

The key to our partnership is that Trafford Council understands the value of leisure, a completely open book approach and working together to ensure that no funds are sought unless absolutely necessary.

As we enter this potentially dark winter, a second lockdown and a recession, we need to position our offerings even better than before.

The Government, local authority and the community must see and value us as an essential service that can help level out health and wellbeing inequalities.

‘Leisure’ should go hand in hand with NHS and Government policies – we must offer the unemployed affordable daily purpose, support the lonely with meaningful interaction, be there to combat inactivity and be visible in reinvigorating the high street.

Leisure centres really are at the heart of our communities, and this pandemic should enhance their relevance and reputation.

The key to our partnership is that Trafford Council understands the value of what we do and of working together to ensure no funds are sought unless absolutely necessary
Joined up thinking
Steve Walsh, CEO, High Life Highland

Our services reach the Highlands community as a whole, from cradle to grave, through leisure, education and cultural services, including sports, community groups, libraries, music tuition and adult education.

The charity, set up in 2011, runs nine services for the Highland Council, including 26 leisure sites.

When we closed in March, we felt our customers trusted and supported us and we were thankfully proved right. We communicated clearly and regularly with them, explaining what would happen, what we could provide during lockdown and how we would reopen when the Scottish Government allowed us to in August.

We supported isolated and rural people and families, with our museums providing engaging content for homeschool lessons, online tuition for learning an instrument, online fitness classes and support mechanisms in conjunction with other charities.

This level of service is our lockdown legacy; a legacy our customers continue to engage with and believe in. Our customers stuck with us, they understood we’re a charity, and we had a total of 7,500 members continue to pay their subscriptions throughout the first lockdown, which include services to leisure, libraries and access to online publications. We are currently ahead of the projections we made at the start of the first lockdown to take into account the impact of COVID-19, with our subscriptions now up to 10,000.

We had an amazing 2,447,989 online customer engagements between April and September. Because our services cover so many areas of our customers’ lives, this helps them to understand the real and true value of our offer. This joined-up approach delivers essential services the community trust, support and have readily returned to.

Our customers have stuck with us, they understand we’re a charity – we had 7,500 members continue to pay their subscriptions throughout the first lockdown
Come on, dive in
Anthony Cawley, director of operations, Fusion Lifestyle

The surprise for us, since reopening our centres, has been the resurgence of swimming. Understandably, in the summer our lidos were extremely popular and we’re looking forward to our Christmas and new year outdoor swims.

All swimming, including swim school, has been high in demand. Yes, the pool and chlorine-treated water might be the safest place, giving customers additional reassurance, but customers are seemingly enjoying the ease and speed of coming to the pool beach-ready.

Who could have predicted that having to book family swim or lane swimming would be so well received? Across our centres, 70 per cent of swimmers have returned to swim school, with over 20,000 children back in their lessons. Overall, swimming usage is healthy too, with around 100,000 swims booked each month and 10,000 families attending our family sessions across the business. Pools have largely been an area that struggles to be profitable, so we must plug into this enthusiasm.

COVID-19 has unfortunately impacted on both the participation and commercial performance of leisure centres; we are operating with new restrictions that limit our capacities and therefore customer footfall. While pleased the government has given £100m funding to local authority groups, this has arrived very late and it’s hard to see it will stretch far enough.

We’re working hard with our local authority partners to open as many of our centres as possible. We value the health and wellbeing of the communities we serve and know how important it is to keep the nation as fit and active as we can during this difficult time and into the future.

Swimming usage is healthy, with around 100,000 swims booked each month. Pools have been an area that struggles to be profitable, so we must plug into this enthusiasm
Growing partnerships
Martin Guyton, CEO, TMactive

We’ve built a strong and successful partnership with our local authority – Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council. The local focus of our trust has helped us to keep momentum through the pandemic.

Before COVID hit, TMactive was in a good place financially; we had a £7 million turnover and had reserves.

However, like so many other community trusts, the pandemic struck at both our immediate financial position and our ongoing business strategy, as our reserves were soon depleted.

In March only 18 of our 420 staff remained un-furloughed. We stopped all recruitment, made savings with suppliers and put a freeze on pay rises. We are fortunate to have a very open and transparent accountancy approach with our local authority. This trusted relationship has no doubt helped, as they soon came to realise that to make our services sustainable for the longer term, we needed financial support now.

Tonbridge and Malling Council agreed to two injections of income, now and in the financial year 2021/22. We know we can bounce back quickly once we’re able to offer a full service, but without a financial commitment our business model would quickly become unsustainable.

Just before second lockdown, our cashflow is improving, 75 per cent of our membership is back, our clubs, such as gymnastics and dance are back, and 95 per cent of our swim school have returned.

Predictably, our outside pool was extremely popular in the warm weather and we had a huge demand for tee times on the golf course. However, we’re balancing on a tightrope. We need to ensure our voices are heard. We need to deliver a clear and joined up message that leisure centres are COVID-secure.

I welcome the long overdue announcement of £100m of Government aid for public leisure sector, although I remain only cautiously optimistic pending an understanding of how and to whom this will be distributed.

It falls a long way short of the £1.57bn provided to culture and arts and doesn’t reflect the Government’s hyperbole around the importance of physical activity to the health of the nation.

Tonbridge and Malling Council agreed to two injections of income, now and in the financial year 2021/22
Lessons learned
Simon Blair, Head of business, Oldham Community Trust

Oldham has been hit hard by this pandemic and we’ve lived with restrictions for many months now. We were delighted to reopen in July, and even happier to stay open when the tier three restrictions were introduced to the Borough in October.

Remarkably, we’ve seen our Net Promoter Score (NPS) rise across our leisure centres since reopening in July.

In August we scored an impressive 73 overall across our leisure centres, with Royton Leisure Centre achieving an outstanding score of 79, outperforming companies such as Apple (65) and Amazon (69).

What’s even more remarkable is that our results are up on this time last year.

It’s clear to me our customers missed our services and the OCL team during the lockdown. Our customers have loved the new enhanced COVID-secure centres, including the meet and greet of all visitors, an overall greater staff presence, an increase in cleaning and an expansion in our timetable to compensate the reduction of class capacities. This level of service is something our customers want now, and something they’ll continue to want long-term, post pandemic and post-second lockdown.

Our customer feedback has been amazing, we’ve celebrated and promoted this to both reassure our community and to reinforce the value of our offer. There are lots of lessons we should be learning now to take us forward, which will continue to drive customer satisfaction, participation and ultimately revenue for the future.

Results are up on this time last year and customer feedback has been amazing

Originally published in Health Club Management 2020 issue 10

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