Since the start of 2014, residents of the West Midlands borough of Telford & Wrekin have welcomed two new fitness facilities: Oakengates and Newport Leisure Centres, which are the fourth and fifth sites to be opened by Telford & Wrekin Council in the last two years alone.
But with competition nearby from some of the health and fitness industry’s well-known brands including Nuffield Health, DW Sports Fitness and the budget chains Simply Gym and Pure Gym, how do five local authority-run health and fitness facilities really stand out from the crowd?
Creating a network
Abraham Darby Leisure Centre, the first in this series of new-build sites by Telford & Wrekin Council, opened in February 2012. Comprising a swimming pool with moveable floor, sports hall, health and fitness suite, aerobics studio and outdoor tennis courts, the leisure centre is adjacent to Abraham Darby Academy, a renovated establishment funded by the government’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) Scheme.
The region remains one of the success stories from the BSF Scheme, an investment programme for secondary schools in England. As one of the first local authorities to secure funding, Telford & Wrekin Council continues to use this to support the development of the new sports facilities across the borough. “By 2015, three of our leisure centres will be partnered with secondary schools, and we’ve worked closely with schools and local clubs to identify complementary sports and activities to shape the new facilities,” explains Sophie Griffiths, group service development manager for Telford & Wrekin Council.
Now two years on from the opening of this flagship site and the local authority is operating five gyms across its borough, each offering its own unique specialism.
“With our diverse client base, it’s important our gyms cater to a range of training requirements. Managing multiple fitness facilities in a small geographical area provides us with the opportunity to specialise within this network, giving members the flexibility to use different sites depending on their training needs and preferences,” explains Matthew Newens, operations team leader (south) for Telford & Wrekin Council.
“We wanted to ensure that, through our network of centres, we were maximising the provision of sport and leisure within the region.”
And the sites do just that. Thanks to the membership package – Aspirations – the gyms’ members have access to all five of the leisure facilities located within a 10-mile radius. Priced at just £27 a month, Aspirations gives members access to all five facilities with no restriction on day or time of use. In addition, the council recently launched Aspirations Plus, an extended membership package which incorporates access to the fitness facilities as well as the borough’s other leisure facilities, which includes an indoor tennis centre, the 18-hole Horsehay Golf Club, Ski and Snowboard Centre and the Telford Ice Rink – all for an additional £7 a month.
Working in partnership
Central to the appeal of the new gyms is the range of equipment. Cybex International UK was awarded the contract following the installation at Abraham Darby Leisure Centre.
The key challenge was to determine the unique focus for each site – a process that’s been aided by the council’s close working partnership with Cybex. “We provide Cybex with a brief for each gym, consisting of our members’ feedback, site specifications and knowledge of nearby competition. We then work closely with Cybex to design the new facility and come up with its USP,” says Griffiths.
“Each gym requires a core set of cardio equipment, including treadmills, bikes and Arc Trainers, but what we do with the surrounding space is what makes each gym stand out,” says Paul Steel, Cybex UK’s regional sales manager. Rob Thurston, commercial director for Cybex UK, understands the manufacturer’s shared responsibility in getting this right: “We need to ensure we’re choosing the right mix of equipment to keep the members engaged, training varied and to support the council in its delivery of inclusive and accessible sport and leisure.”
Setting the USPs
Oakengates and Newport Leisure Centres – the most recent additions to Telford & Wrekin’s gym portfolio, and located eight miles from one another – have both been designed with a focus on strength training.
“Oakengates is the largest gym in our network, so we decided a focus on strength and resistance was the best option,” explains Stuart Walker, operations team leader (north) for Telford & Wrekin Council. “The floor space available meant we could incorporate bigger pieces of equipment, such as Cybex’s Big Iron lifting platforms and a larger functional training area, without jeopardising the space dedicated to core cardio pieces that are still essential to the gym’s offering.
“Our research showed that the distance between Oakengates and Newport meant both sites were targeting different catchment areas. We therefore made the decision to tap into one of the industry’s most popular trends and open two strength-focused gyms within the network, and they’ve been very well received.”
He continues: “It’s very important that we don’t isolate our existing users, and we’ve proven that we can introduce training specialisms while still retaining our wide-ranging membership base. The new strength equipment isn’t changing our demographic, but is adding value for existing members and attracting new ones.” Indeed, both sites have already seen an influx of members demanding a well-equipped strength training facility.
Specialising without alienating
The portfolio of facilities now delivers a wide range of training options to the council’s growing membership base: Abraham Darby specialises in cardio training, with more equipment, a group cycle studio and aerobic-focused classes; Phoenix Leisure Centre attracts those demanding a larger space for workouts, concentrating on core strength and functional training, and includes a dedicated area with punch bags and suspension training; Wellington Civic Leisure Centre delivers an equal balance of strength and cardio equipment; and Oakengates and Newport incorporate more equipment from Cybex’s VR1, VR3 and Eagle selectorised strength lines, alongside heavier weight increments for both dumbbells and medicine balls.
But it’s not just the range of equipment that members are benefiting from – it’s the chance to train across multiple sites too. “Training in a different environment, interacting with new staff and fellow members helps keep clients engaged and our offering varied and exciting,” says Newens.
Schemes and programmes
Thanks to the diversity of the leisure centres, Telford & Wrekin Council is able to dedicate facilities and funding to a wide range of sports and age-specific training programmes.
For example, NRGIZE is the council’s health and fitness programme aimed at 11- to 15-year-olds; part-funded by the NHS, the scheme delivers fitness activities specifically for younger users. “At each of our sites, we’ve made allowances for younger gym users by incorporating NRGIZE rooms: a dividing wall creates a separate area to train in,” explains Griffiths. “The space still houses a mix of cardio and resistance equipment, but means that NRGIZE instructors can lead private sessions in a quieter space – an area that younger users can train in without feeling intimidated by other members.”
The sites’ flexibility also means that during peak times, the dividing wall can also be removed to create a larger workout space.
All of the council’s gyms are also home to an extensive range of stage 2 IFI-accredited equipment from Cybex’s Total Access range. The equipment is designed to be accessible to the physically impaired without excluding other exercisers; the council runs its Inclusive Leisure Scheme to encourage volunteers to support disabled adults in the gym.
Other initiatives include the GP referral scheme, Tackle Your Health, Sportivate and Street Games, all of which are plans dedicated to improving the health and fitness levels of the borough’s residents.
While improved fitness for all remains the council’s key focus, the new sites have attracted attention from a number of elite sporting bodies.
Abraham Darby Leisure Centre received funding from Badminton England to enhance the sports hall. Similarly, a grant of £1.5m from Sport England’s Iconic Facilities fund assisted the renovation of Phoenix Leisure Centre and provided a sports hall, 3G synthetic turf pitch and national standard BMX track; this site is now a Centre of Excellence for netball, table tennis, BMX and also home to Rugby League National 3 side Telford Raiders.
“For our facilities to be recognised on a national level is a fantastic achievement and is something we’re very proud of,” comments Newens.
But it’s the residents of Telford & Wrekin who remain at the heart of the local authority’s approach, as Newens concludes: “What we offer is an all-inclusive, well-packaged product – our facilities are outstanding, our staff are excellent and our strategy to adopt gym-specific training specialisms is proving a great success.”