Growth within a Group
“It’s been nearly seven years since we were acquired by Places for People and it’s worked well for us,” says Sandra Dodd, CEO of UK-based management contractor Places Leisure – formerly DC Leisure. “It’s great to have the support of a large placemaking group which believes so strongly in what we do, and that provide access to capital and procurement advantages.
“But just as importantly, the Places for People Group is the perfect home for our business: we’re doing more and more work with the Group. For example, we opened our first gym inside one of Places for People’s housing developments, in Edinburgh, a few months ago: a Places Gym, which is the affordable, community gym brand we own and operate and which we launched five years ago.
“The Edinburgh club only opened in November 2018, but it’s already exceeding expectations in terms of member numbers. It’s essentially the same model as our other Places Gyms; the only real difference is that – alongside memberships being sold to the general public – discounts are offered to residents of the housing development.
“We’re hoping to do more of this, collaborating with the Group from the early planning stages to look at incorporating gyms and even pools into new housing developments. Places for People is very keen on the idea as well: the company exists to create places that work for everyone, whatever their background and whatever their needs, and health and vitality is key to this. This is where Places Leisure plays a vital role.
“So, this is definitely something we all want to do more of.,” she says. “However, we won’t open Places Gyms where the local market is already saturated with low-cost and local authority competition. Each gym has to be commercially viable as a standalone business, which is why we haven’t done more already. We’re selective about where we invest in new facilities.”
Scaling the commercial division
“We now have six Places Gyms,” says Dodd, “Two within Places for People developments and four standalone – and they’re performing well. The other collaboration with Places for People is a gym next door to its support office in Preston, which is great for employee health and wellbeing, as well as being open to the general public. We’re keen to do even more in the area of employee wellbeing – it’s such an important priority, and one we’ve set up a working group to explore.
“We currently operate 119 facilities, of which six are private gyms owned by Places Leisure; the remainder are centres we operate on behalf of local authorities. So, at the moment, Places Gym is quite a small part of our £158m turnover business. We’re trialling it, making sure we have the right model – including the right technology – and it could grow to be important, but there’s a lot of low-cost competition out there so we’re treading carefully.
“We do see it as an opportunity to diversify some of our business away from the local authority side of things, but it’s not as if we’re going to stop bidding for local authority contracts and only concentrate on Places Gyms. It’s just something we’re exploring, and certainly our preference would be to grow Places Gyms within Places for People developments wherever possible.
“Being able to control the membership offer also helps on the rare occasion when we operate a Places Gym in the same area as we operate the local authority leisure centre. At the moment, this only happens in one location, and we’ve been able to create two quite different offerings: the local authority offering is a premium membership that includes swimming, classes and the gym; Places Gym is a more limited proposition at a value price point. You can also pay to access both the leisure centre and the gym. It all works out nicely.”
Places Leisure COO, John Oxley, takes up the story: “The advantage is that what we offer doesn’t have to be a low-cost or community gym. It could be a fitness or physical activity proposition of any nature, designed to suit the particular local demographic and priced accordingly.
“We have a different membership structure in Edinburgh compared to our other Places Gyms in Preston, Telford, Sheffield, Hinckley and Chesterfield, for example. Meanwhile, one of the opportunities we’re looking at with the group at the moment is in London. The location doesn’t suit a traditional low-cost gym, but it would suit more of a boutique-style model. Doing it in partnership with our group and with them getting involved from the outset in determining space requirements and so on, gives us that flexibility.”
On public sector dynamics
“The core of our business, therefore, remains local authority contracts,” continues Dodd. “We have a very good relationship with our 36 local authority partners, who I think all understand that we’re not just about the bottom line. We genuinely want to make a difference. It’s why we’re so proud of the social value of our business: we generated £180m last year through improvements in physical and mental wellbeing, educational attainment and reductions in crime.”
“But the public sector generally has become a very challenging market,” says Dodd. “There’s still a margin to be made, but local authorities now expect so much more from the operators of their leisure centres. Operators are expected to make a large payment to be able to operate facilities, as well as taking on greater liability for councils’ assets.
“Tenders remain skewed more towards price than quality. We hope this will change over the coming years, but we haven’t seen any sign of that yet.
“So, when I say it’s a challenging market, it’s not about there being more competition. In fact, it tends to be the same contractors who turn up for the tenders, and my perception is that there are fewer of them these days. It’s more about the pressure to meet local authorities’ expectations in terms of what we should pay them.
“Meanwhile, our margins are being squeezed by the national minimum wage, pension auto-enrolment, the apprenticeship levy and energy prices. Everybody has struggled with that. I think we’ve done a good job of finding ways to make savings to balance out the rising costs, and we have areas of success that we can exploit: swimming, for example, is a strong growth area in our centres, and family is an important focus for us. But it’s a tough market – and of course the ever-increasing number of low-cost gyms has really hurt local authority operators as well.”
Oxley adds: “And it isn’t just the low-cost market. The sector is so broad now, with so much choice, from premium to mid-market to low-cost, boutiques to aggregators, digital platforms and online resources to runs in the park and apps to measure your activity for free… the quality has never been better and the cost of exercising never cheaper. It’s an increasingly complex area that we’re navigating our way through, taking on-board learnings to shape our own way forward.”
Competing with budget clubs
Dodd explains: “For me, local authorities have to come round to the idea that – with budget clubs and all the other activity opportunities attracting a lot of the customers who previously would have used local authority leisure centres – operators are not going to be able to continue paying the level of subsidies they’ve done over the past 10 years. It’s about managing local authorities’ expectations in the future.
“In return, we believe a sharing mechanism with the local authority is the best model for the long term: enabling the local authority to share in any excess surpluses that are made from the operations.”
She adds: “All that said, we’ve consistently found that, when we have new leisure centres – either built by ourselves or invested in by local authorities – we do very well. When it’s a new facility that’s been built with the modern-day consumer in mind, we can stand up to the low-cost clubs and other local competition: we have so much data to prove the value of new builds in terms of increased participation and revenue.”
Oxley explains: “When our new Dover facility opened, for example, visits quickly soared from around 15,000 to over 56,000 each month. The new Sparkill Pool and Fitness Centre attracted over 2,000 members and 97,000 visits within its first three months of opening. And in Waltham Abbey, gym memberships doubled – up 120 per cent – in the first eight weeks, with group exercise attendances also doubling, up 108 per cent. The number of casual swims also rose by 66 per cent.
“We just completed an NPS report on Dover and it’s sitting at 48, which is well above the national average. It just demonstrates the degree of satisfaction that can be derived when, as Sandra says, you have the opportunity to introduce a new, purpose-designed facility into a community.
“Not only that, but our experience means we can also help the authorities design them from an operational perspective, so as well as being more appealing to the local community, the build and operational costs are also lower.”
Dodd concludes: “Sport England stats suggest that 40 per cent of the UK’s leisure centres are over 20 years old, and really need to be rebuilt. With such a strong case to show for the impact of new builds on driving participation, I’m keen to see more of these opportunities come to market, including community hubs designed to house leisure and other community facilities under one roof.”
Creating a consumer-facing brand
“We’re now known as Places Leisure, rather than Places for People Leisure – it’s more consumer-friendly,” says Dodd. “As a continuation of that, in 2017, we were presented with an interesting opportunity to brand a new leisure centre with our name: Places Leisure Eastleigh.”
Oxley continues: “We came to an agreement with Eastleigh Borough Council for the naming rights, which we saw as a good marketing opportunity. It’s enabled us to get our consumer-facing brand out there, so that physical activity in the Eastleigh area is now synonymous with the name Places Leisure.
“From a brand engagement point of view, that has significant benefits: brand presence and recognition is enhanced, which in turn drives attendance.”
Says Dodd: “We have plans to introduce further Places Leisure-branded sites over the next couple of years.”
On meeting consumer needs
“One of the most significant things we’ve done in the business recently has been around measurement of the customer experience,” says Oxley. “The fitness industry, famously data-rich, yet information-poor, has for too long relied on instinct rather than insight. Soon after Sandra and I started in our roles, we, therefore, appointed a customer experience manager – the company hadn’t had one of those before.
“We’re now collecting an unprecedented level of insight. We do 200 mystery customer visits every month, as well as NPS in a much deeper, more sophisticated way than we’ve done before: we’re able to extract different NPS scores for different types of customer, and we’re getting close to being able to do daily NPS. We’re doing a lot of work on gathering insights through our app too [see Q&A with commercial activities director Jamie Brown, overleaf].
“All of this is proving invaluable in truly understanding what our customers think, feel and expect, which is enabling us to make smarter decisions.
“It’s led us to review our membership structure and tariffs, for example, factoring in insights around what matters to a premium member – gym, swim and classes – versus what a gym-only member wants. Because they’re different, yet we didn’t fully appreciate the significance or the nuances of that before.
“We’ve been able to fine-tune the way our front-of-house teams interact with customers too, because now we know what’s important to them, we know how to communicate with them. Crucially, we’re also able to do so at an increasingly individual level. In my mind, this – using insight to segment your audience and communicate in a personal and relevant way – is the secret to business success.”
He continues: “Our new insights are even starting to shape the product itself. For example, some of the feedback we got was that, while we were well geared up for those who knew they wanted a membership, for those who weren’t quite sure – who just wanted to dip their toe in the water and get comfortable – we didn’t really have anything. We didn’t really have a starting-out product – one that would appeal to the large proportion of the population who could be physically active, but just aren’t – so we’ve developed one now and will launch it this autumn.
“We’ll use different language to talk about it, we’ll have videos on our website so people know what to expect, we’ll train our colleagues differently. And most important of all will be customer referral. Every one of our customers will know somebody who could be physically active, but who’s currently inactive. When they see our new product, they will think to themselves: ‘That’s just right for my friend, my partner, my mum…’ I think we’ll see significant growth in participation through recommendation and word-of-mouth.”