27 Sep 2021 World leisure: news, training & property
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Health Club Management
2021 issue 6

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Leisure Management - Stuart Martin & Diane Vesey, Active Nation


Stuart Martin & Diane Vesey, Active Nation

Active Nation is on a mission to change lives for the better – and prove it. The charity’s MD and commercial director talk to Kate Cracknell

Martin and Vesey are invested in Active Nation making an impact by getting people more active by whatever means works for them photo: Active Nation
Martin says the National Leisure Recovery Fund emphasised support for gym and swimming at the expense of all other activity photo: Active Nation
Active Nation has invested in its own budget fitness clubs and is open to collaborating with franchises photo: Active Nation
Fifty per cent of the south coast contracts are for oudoor activities, such as sea kayaking which has been booming since the end of lockdown photo: Active Nation
Running leisure centres is part of Active Nation’s core mandate and the aim is for customers to feel thoroughly engaged photo: Active Nation
Running leisure centres is part of Active Nation’s core mandate and the aim is for customers to feel thoroughly engaged photo: Active Nation
Active Warrior events were conceived and are run by Active Nation, with potential to grow photo: Active Nation
Active Warrior events were conceived and are run by Active Nation, with potential to grow photo: Active Nation
Vesey and Martin are looking for creative ways to get people active – with or without facilities photo: Active Nation
Martin reports that adding the word ‘happiness’ to any marketing sees engagement going off the scale photo: Active Nation
Alpine Snowsports in Southampton is part of the Active Nation portfolio photo: Active Nation
Active Nation runs its own budget gym and trampoline park photo: Active Nation
Active Nation runs its own budget gym and trampoline park photo: Active Nation

What’s the Active Nation elevator pitch?
Stuart: Active Nation is a campaigning charity whose mission is to persuade the nation to be active. We don’t even care how you do it – just get moving! We want to become influencers of activity.

We’re very purpose-and value-led and are all about encouraging people to live healthier and happier lives.

We’ve found the inclusion of the word happier in our mission statement to be really important, particularly during the lockdowns. Whenever we’ve used this – in social media posts such as ‘WARNING! Exercise can cause health and happiness’ – engagement has gone off the scale.

How has the charity changed?
Stuart: When I joined Active Nation in 2011, it was already working to do things differently, focusing on persuading people to be active, however they chose to do that.

We won a couple of big contracts after I joined, but by 2015 the marketplace had changed and became dominated by two or three big players. I’d be at sector events, chatting to industry colleagues, and people would ask: ‘Are you winning any business?’ My response was always: ‘Well, first define winning.’ Because the way things are now... the market appears to be based on price, not social impact.

Leisure centres and leisure contracts remain important to us, but it has to be good business. If you’re going to be paying extortionate amounts to secure contracts and the margin isn’t there, quite simply that isn’t good business. Especially because – as a charity – we want to be left with enough of a margin to reinvest and be able to do good.

We still have three large leisure contracts – Lincoln, South Derbyshire and Southampton – but our diversified growth strategy has also seen us acquire our own small budget fitness clubs, a studio and a trampoline park. We now own around 30 per cent of our facilities, and the commercial operations enable us to generate greater surpluses, which in turn allows us to do even more good in our communities. 

Even in our leisure contracts, we’re positioning ourselves away from where all the noise is in the sector. We don’t want to fight over the same pool of people. We’re about the 85 per cent, not just the 15 per cent who already belong to gyms.

We have an alpine leisure contract in Rushmoor, for example, including skiing. And in our leisure contract in Southampton, 50 per cent of what we do is outdoors: sailing, sea kayaking, hockey and football fixtures and so on – even climbing trees! There are 75 acres of outdoor space, so this is also where Active Warrior, our obstacle course race, was born in 2016.

We’re now looking to kick things on further still, and Diane is already looking at new initiatives.

We don’t just manage facilities in the communities where we work, either. We’re a key partner in delivering health, wellness, nutrition, activity and sport on behalf of our local authority partners. 

How important is diversity?
Stuart: Slightly more people come to us for fitness than for other activities, but those who do other activities are more engaged. In a piece of research we did a few years ago, we found 70 per cent of gym-only subscribers had left 12 months later. Meanwhile, 70 per cent of those doing multiple activities had stayed.

That’s why I got really riled by the National Leisure Recovery Fund: the £100m made available via Sport England to support publicly-owned leisure facilities through the COVID-19 crisis. The fund classified sport and exercise into primary and secondary activities, and none of the secondary activities – which is pretty much 50 per cent of what we do – qualified for any support from the fund.

You’re going to get me on my soapbox now, but I think that’s an absolute disgrace, because it’s basically saying gym and swimming is more important than any other activity. This mentality is why we’ve only engaged with 15 per cent of the population over the last 30 years.

Tell us about your social good mandate
Stuart: We genuinely want to make a difference, so when we speak about ourselves, it isn’t with a focus on price. We focus on people’s stories, showing how we’ve made a lasting impression on them and helped change their lives for the better.

Diane: We need to be better at communicating to the public at large that we’re a charity, so I’m currently working on how we can bring more attention to this. We want people to realise their ‘donation’ can make a big impact.

Ultimately we want to shout about the fact we’re a charity, then be able to turn round and say to all of our supporters: ‘Look what we’ve been able to do with your backing.’ We want to make it clear we don’t have shareholders to pay, and show how the surpluses we make are reinvested to do good for the wider community. 

Stuart: Our supporters already understand our cause, but we want to ramp this up to a new level.

Football would be a good analogy – fans’ loyalty and passion for their team runs through their veins and that’s the kind of response we’re working to create with Active Nation. 

People will drop in and out of our activities, they’ll choose their payment terms and how they support us across the years, but our aim is that they’ll always understand our purpose and will continue to support what Active Nation stands for.

How has the pandemic affected you?
Stuart: Looking at the positives, Active Nation has weathered the storm pretty well, working with our partners and opening all venues at the first opportunity. That in itself is a success, I think.

We’ve also had record months in some of our activities. Sea kayaking, for example. We’ve managed that contract for 10+ years and £10,000 was the highest ever monthly revenue – until August 2020, when it hit £35,000. We couldn’t get boats on the water fast enough. Donutting down our ski slope was similar – totally booked up. And at our trampoline park, we’re not just inundated with this year’s birthday parties, but also the catch-up birthday parties from last year.

All our numbers have been 300 per cent better coming out of the third lockdown than coming out of the first. Even with April 2021 only starting on 12th of the month for us, it was record-breaking.

Our problem has been catering for the demand with the restrictions we have in place – we could fill our space two or three times over. People just want to get out and get involved again with the social aspect of what we provide.

So while COVID has been horrible, I’m always keen to look at the opportunities. I see this as a catalyst to be flexible and do things differently, so we’ve been looking closely at what to accelerate, what to introduce and what to dump.

What have you accelerated?
Stuart: Active Nation on Demand, created in partnership with Wexer, is a good example of something COVID-19 has accelerated. Digital has been on our radar for a while, so this complete at-home, at work, in-school, any time, anywhere solution – with hundreds of different activity options – wasn’t just done as a bolt-on to help us ride out the storm. It’s central to our hybrid in- and out-of-venue model. What COVID-19 did, though, was bring the launch forward.

Interestingly, COVID-19 also did a lot of the hard work for us in terms of changing consumer behaviours: it has altered the way we live, the way we work, the way we move – and it’s done so for good. On-demand isn’t going to simply disappear now facilities are open again.

We had up to 1,750 people taking part in a single online session during lockdown, but we expect on-demand to get even bigger and better. The heights to which we plan to take Active Nation on Demand... I can see it having even more registered, active users than any of our venues.

And what have you introduced and dumped?
Stuart: Here’s an example of ‘introduce’. Throughout the lockdowns, restrictions meant we had to introduce booking across all our activities, including gym sessions. The transformational idea now is that we’re planning to maintain this moving forward. We’ll have a few free sessions where you can just turn up, but generally everything will be booked.

Normally, that level of change would meet with a lot of resistance, but once again, COVID has done the difficult part for us. Our supporters have already realised – and told us – they get a better experience when they book, with better service and a higher likelihood of achieving their goals, because they’ve committed to their activity. They feel safer, too. We just need to keep communicating these benefits, so booking is seen not as a hassle but as a benefit and even a selling point for Active Nation.

Booking is good for us, too, because it allows us to manage the business more efficiently and effectively. We don’t need receptionists or access control any more, for example. Now, we can have a maître d-type set up, where we’re ready with our iPads to greet supporters we know will be coming in. We can resource our team and open our venues based on supply and demand, rather than just waiting for people to rock up. 

And then ‘dump’ – the best example is our KPIs. We’ll still have them, but if we’re seeing COVID-19 as a catalyst for change, I don’t want us to be getting the same results as we were pre-COVID-19. We’re, therefore, working with our local authority partners to review all our KPIs. How will we measure participation now? What type of membership does the end user want if we’re all living differently, working differently, exercising differently?

Are you moving away from contract management?
Stuart: Leisure centres remain very important to our business, and of course we want to grow subscriptions and participation. However, we know we can’t do it all within our facilities. There’s only so far you can take growth in that channel.

The good news is that Active Nation’s purpose – getting people moving in whatever way they choose – means it can exist without facilities. We’ve said that for a long time, but now we’re pushing it even further. Not only can we exist without buildings, but we now actively want to operate where we don’t have facilities. We want to operate where we will never have a facility. 

Diane: I’ve only been with Active Nation a month, but I already have some ideas around where we can take the charity. One of the ideas on the table would be for us to provide services, leaving it to each individual to decide how much they can afford to pay.

I’m still in the early stages of my thinking in this respect, but we’re already looking not only at how we engage more people – those who might never come to a facility – in the areas where we manage the leisure contracts, but also at how we can move into regions where we don’t manage the facilities and there’s no brand awareness.

Certainly digital will be at the forefront of this non-facility-based growth strategy, but I think we’ll need to look at some new partnerships too. We’re just starting to scope out who those partners could be.

With my experience in franchising, this could be an opportunity worth exploring. Are there franchises out there we could align with, take on, operate, help them grow via a ‘powered by Active Nation’ approach? We have a wealth of experience, knowledge and skill sets within the charity that can be built on to further our reach.

I also have experience in running large-scale events and this could get us some good traction. Active Warrior, for example, was already trialled outside of its home territory before COVID, and it’s easy to see it could become a UK-wide concept.

Stuart: Workplace wellbeing is also a big area of interest moving forward. I want to bring an Active Nation wellbeing solution to organisations. 

Has COVID changed government perceptions of our sector?
Stuart: We’re not close to being seen as an essential service yet. The fact that off-licences and garden centres could open during lockdown, but gyms couldn’t, just shows you where we are in the eyes of government. We need to educate them so they realise we’re part of the solution, not part of the problem. 

There was a brief moment, when prime minister Boris Johnson got COVID-19 then came out of hospital saying he needed to lose weight and get fit… I really hoped that would filter down. But we’re still stuck in the same group as hospitality. We have to get much better at lobbying.

We also need to get better at demonstrating our impact. We should be using industry conferences not only to share ideas on getting people active, but to challenge each other to credibly report back on the difference we’ve made in the previous 12 months.

At Active Nation, we’re creating a health score – one that covers physical and mental health – so we can do this. People will be able to ask me: ‘Stuart, you had 100,000 supporters last year and 50 per cent of them had a health score of 20. What’s the situation now?’ And I will be able to answer: ‘It’s now 200,000 people and 70 per cent have a health score of 25.’ 

To assist with all of our initiatives, we’ve ripped out our old CRM system and have worked very closely with Hedgehog and its Elan solution to ensure we can gather exactly this sort of credible data, all in one place.

We have to be better at working together as a sector, too, especially on the venue side, where we’re currently all competing with each other. It may be, for example, that we could partner with other operators, so our supporters could be on our digital platform but could also go to a facility that’s not managed by us – and vice versa. These are the kinds of things we should be looking at if we really, really want to help people. 

What drives you?
Stuart: If you want to persuade people to be active, you have to be active yourself. I get up at 5.30am every day to do a workout and in our organisation, everyone is active. You have to lead by example.

I know I give our HR department a headache, but if you aren’t active as an employee, you’re no good to me. When I first started at Active Nation, one of the stats I was given showed our most active leaders to be our most commercially successful, and our least active leaders to be the least commercially successful. None of the inactive individuals are still with the business today, by mutual consent. Active Nation just wasn’t a good fit for them.

I believe in this so much that we made ‘being active’ a business KPI – one we treat as seriously as surplus. Everyone who joins our team gets a Myzone belt on day one. They’re then given 30 minutes in their day – on me, every day – to be active, and they’re asked to hit the World Health Organization’s guidelines for physical activity. That equates to 1300 MEPs [Myzone’s effort-based measurement units] every month.

What are the five year goals?
Stuart: The danger is that we try to do too much. That’s always been my concern. However, I do think there’s a huge opportunity to meet the needs of the 85 per cent, and I’m trying hard to position Active Nation into areas that aren’t just about keeping the fit people fit. 
We want to make a difference to real people.

Originally published in Health Club Management 2021 issue 6

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