Recovery Planning – Key Considerations for Public Leisure Services’

Thursday 14 May, 3pm – 5pm 

Summary Report

The Sport, Leisure and Culture Consultancy (SLC) facilitated an online Think Tank – Recovery Planning – Key Considerations for Public Leisure Services for local authority client officers and leisure operators on 14 May 2020 from 3pm-5pm.

Facilitation was provided by David Rushton, Director at SLC, supported by Judith Schrenk, SLC Research Consultant.

The delegates who attended were:

  • Ryan Vittles (Southwark Council, Leisure Monitoring Officer)
  • Mark Heazle (South Norfolk Council, Leisure Business Development Manager)
  • Peter Ashworth (Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, Head of Culture and Leisure)
  • Peter Spendiff (Southwark Council, Strategic Development Officer)
  • Guy Fishbourne (Bristol City Council, Sport & Physical Activity Development Manager)
  • Carly Clarke (LB Newham Council, Commissioner (Community, Leisure and Legacy))
  • John Oxley (Places Leisure, Chief Operating Officer)
  • Jamie Fenton (Peterborough City Council, Culture and Leisure Development Manager)
  • Heather Travis (Barrow-In-Furness Borough Council, Community Services Contracts Lead)
  • Chris Fennell (Watford Borough Council, Head of Leisure and Environmental Services)
  • Steven Ward (Ingesport, GO FIT Managing Director (UK) & Chief Transformation Officer)
  • Alfonso Jiménez (Ingesport, Chief Research & Innovation Officer)
  • Duncan Jefford (SLM / Everyone Active, Director)
  • Geoff Caine (Stevenage Borough Council, Culture, Wellbeing and Leisure Services Manager)
  • Michael Shepherd (Slough Borough Council, Leisure Development and Client Manager)
  • Pauline Lawrence (London Borough of Ealing, Leisure Operations Manager)
  • Ann Hill (Warwick District Council, Sports and Leisure Contracts Officer)
  • Andrew Wilesmith (Ipswich Borough Council, Operations Manager)
  • Duncan Wood-Allum (SLC, Founder and Managing Director)


Key themes explored in the session were:

  1. What should clients be asking from their leisure operating partner as part of their recovery planning and proposals?
  2. How are leisure operators approaching planning for staff and customer health and safety and remobilisation?
    • Key risks and how to mitigate them
    • Scenario planning – sharing approaches and best practice
    • Managing the financial risks of recovery.


Key risks and how to mitigate them

In general, leisure operators have approached the crisis as a two-step process – firstly, the initial period of lockdown and secondly, the recovery phases as leisure facilities open their doors to the public. There is an agreement amongst both councils and their leisure partners that the recovery phase will present the sector with unprecedented challenges that need to be faced together. Key hurdles in the reopening of leisure facilities include creating a COVID-safe environment for the staff and customers, safe delivery of programmes and services, and delivery of increased hygiene and cleaning standards.

The provision of a safe environment at the sites will be decisive in the successful recovery of the sector and key for  the survival of leisure operators. It was agreed that caution is the best policy in reopening to the public. This can be achieved through partially reopening centres, re-structuring /purposing the gym offer to ensure  social distancing regulations can be adhered to for all service offerings supported by a COVID-safe approach to facilities management of  sites.

Adhering to social distancing will be especially challenging at facilities with pool areas. It was agreed that this crisis provides an opportunity to creatively repurpose leisure portfolios and sites to ensure a safe sport and physical activity offer. It was agreed leisure operators supported by their councils have to think way beyond the traditional leisure centre offer and use of space – otherwise they will not be able to reassure the public it is safe to return and / or deliver their services sustainably. Those leisure centres that have or are adjacent to outdoor spaces should consider utilising them for activities such as exercise to music as it will be easier to implement social distancing outside.

Another key risk is the loss in revenue linked to an inevitable recession. Leisure operators represented have been undertaking  financial modelling to plan for recovery, albeit with considerable unknowns and variables. One idea being explored was a cross-borough offer to ensure a reduced range of facilities open, but good strategic coverage to meet core needs . Many leisure operators will be re-thinking the pricing structure in partnership with their councils. There was an agreement on the importance of government support, such as the furlough scheme, in providing much needed cashflow support for the operators whilst they generate very little income.


What will the reopening of the public sport and leisure offer in the UK look like and how are leisure operators approaching planning for staff and customer health and safety during remobilisation?

One of the key discussion points emerging was the approach to reopening with fragmented national guidance emerging from a range of national bodies. Some councils and their leisure partners are looking at reopening all of their sites in July at the same time, others are planning on opening their facilities through a phased approach. This will be entirely dependent on councils and leisure operators being able to agree on what level of financial support will underwrite the service in recovery. These costs are however, yet to be fully understood but are likely to be significantly higher than lockdown costs, particularly once furloughing support is reduced or ends. Facility closures are inevitable as some councils will not be able to afford to retain all of their facilities.

One of the leisure operators representatives suggested reopening of some of the indoor leisure offer will be phased at first – offers such as cafes, soft play and creches will be subject to closure longer than some of the core offers such as the gym and swimming pool if government approval is given on reopening.

The leisure operators shared their approaches to planning recovery and some of the key points:

  • One leisure operator was in consultation with epidemiologists and undertaking international benchmarking with other sectors on COVID recovery approaches including facilities management adaptations (e.g. air handling and filtration).
  • Research has been undertaken showing the positive impact exercise has on resilience against the virus – this should be used to support the messaging at a political level.
  • One leisure operator has taken four-stage approach to ensure facilities only open when they are ready taking account of: 1.) Workforce support, 2.) Communication with Customers 3) Customer Behaviour and 4.) Resumption planning
  • One leisure operator highlighted their five-stage approach to reopening: 1.) Staff retrained and engaged, 2) Recommissioning leisure facilities 3) Safety and Hygiene procedures in place 4) Development of post COVID proposition; marketing and communications with customers 5) Restructuring operational teams to support them in a more challenging operating environment including resilience and mental health support
  • Another operator shared their approach which included establishing their facilities as the safest place to exercise. Redesigning the customer journey and experience, booking systems, improved air handling and cleansing to medical standards, new cleaning protocols and additional resources deployed. They described their operation as an anti-COVID Army. They have also completely redesigned the layout of their facilities and gyms to encourage spacing and safe movement, installed barriers around CV equipment etc. Another key factor was the empowerment and re-education of customers to support the leisure operator in maintaining a safe environment.

The capacity of swimming pools will be significantly reduced and major changes in the programming priorities are expected to focus on the core needs of the community such as swimming lessons. There is currently cooperation between operators, UKActive, Sport England, Swim England, the government and their medical advisors to ensure that swimming pools are safe environments when they are reopened.

A key strand of work for leisure operators is supporting their workforce – there will be a necessity for re-training and re-engagement of staff at sites at the start of the recovery period. Staff wellbeing, such as mental and physical health and the creation of a safe work environment, will present key challenges to leisure operators. Staff availability and structures are likely to need to change to meet the needs of the emerging service with a greater emphasis on flexible and agile working.

Another key challenge discussed was customer engagement throughout both lockdown and the recovery period. It was cited as critical to maintain the conversation with customers and keep them engaged and supported staying physical active, but also to retain a high level of communication, engagement and confidence. Customers’ behaviours will have changed and their expectations for hygiene and safety will be significantly higher. It was agreed if public confidence was low – this could prove catastrophic for business recovery. It was agreed that the public had to be involved in informing reopening strategies.   The prevalent emotion that some operators have noted in conversations with their customers has been fear. The key challenge ahead for the public leisure sector is to provide reassurance and evidence that facilities and services are safe and that there is a joint responsibility and compliance embedded in the operation to achieve this.

Another uncertainty for the industry is the changing market– how will the market react to the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and a global recession? It was agreed that there will be supply chain issues, which can lead to problems in the provision of safety and cleaning equipment, specialist equipment and fittings to support social distancing etc. A bottle of hand sanitiser and a few posters at reception will not cut it. The whole customer journey will need to be analysed and adapted for each site linked to a COVID-19 risk assessment.

Some leisure operators have already invested in specialist deep cleaning equipment in advance of opening and were introducing new cleaning procedures and developing staff training plans in anticipation of opening. It was agreed, if some operators had not started this process already, they would be very unlikely to be ready to open in July.


Risk of health inequalities

There is a real and evidenced risk of health inequalities widening significantly as a result of the COVID crisis. Where commercial sport and physical activity offers have cross-subsidised targeted community outreach work, concessions and health interventions in the past, this revenue generated is unlikely to be at a level to support this for the foreseeable future.  To deliver these interventions to support wider local outcomes, it was envisaged that further investment from the local authorities will be required. It was agreed that it will be key to promote the positive impact and the preventive role of sport and physical activity in supporting a community recover.  Having a clear understanding of the social value of the services to be delivered post COVID will be vital to communicate at elected Member level – otherwise leisure will just be viewed as a cost that cannot be afforded.


Managing the financial risks of recovery

The relationship between councils and their leisure operator has never been placed under so much pressure. Facilities are in lockdown; revenues are frozen, and councils are being asked to support their leisure providers through the lockdown period (which is relatively easier to calculate in terms of cost) compared to the support required for recovery. This is particularly challenging for those councils that previously had high positive management fees being paid for by the leisure operator  – and will need to move from a net positive financial position to one that potentially requires subsidy to deliver services for the foreseeable future. It was pointed out that councils have experienced a significant loss of income from multiple services and income streams and the response from central government to date has been tentative and not come close to closing the COVID-19 related funding gap.

It was agreed that the reopening of some smaller leisure sites may not in the current circumstances be commercially viable. The point was raised that the conversations should not be about which sites to reopen, but rather how to meet local needs and use the assets available (including the active environment) effectively to deliver safe services that are affordable. Outdoor sports facilities, such as tennis courts and golf courses are opening before indoor facilities. It was agreed that there is an opportunity to use outdoor spaces, such as parks and open space, to provide alternative sport and physical activity offers prior to a leisure centre fully opening. It was pointed out that these spaces can be a valuable resource for provision of offers for children and young people this summer.

The point was raised that these issues will arise, regardless of the management model chosen by the Council and that there is a need for commercial realism and pragmatism in future discussions between partners. SLC is firmly of the view that councils should not explore changing their management model at this time due to the risks and costs associated with such a decision.  This should be last resort.

Future provision and the survival of the sector can only be ensured through good communication, transparency and cooperation. Leadership will be key in the handling of the recovery period; the relationships between the leisure operator and council client are often good, however, stakeholder management will be vital to include corporate management team and elected members. There was a clear sense of determination and willingness to cooperate in the session.


What are the opportunities to re-shape the sector arising from this crisis?

There was a degree of optimism in the session with some attendees suggesting this was an opportunity for their organisation to come out of this crisis stronger. It is key to promote the importance of sport and physical activity in public health and the positive influence of exercise on resilience to the virus. This puts the industry in a good position to voice its importance and gather political support.

One leisure operator suggested there should be just two clear messages supporting recovery; safety and the benefits of sport and physical activity.

It was acknowledged it is essential for the sector to shift towards a more holistic approach to physical activity and wellbeing. The value of exercise is recognised more widely within the population now more than ever. This creates an opportunity to support vulnerable groups in society in being active and to generate significant social value through the wider sport and physical activity offer. The challenge is – how can this be funded?

This is the time for the sector to embrace whole systems thinking and develop creative solutions to create a healthier and more active society.


SLC would like to thank all Think Tank participants for investing their time and providing excellent insight and suggestions on how our sector can work through these difficult times.


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