‘Recovery Planning: Remobilising Leisure Services – the next challenge’

25 June 2020

Summary Report


The Sport, Leisure and Culture Consultancy (SLC) facilitated an online Think Tank – Recovery Planning: Remobilising Leisure Services – the next challenge’ for Local Authority Clients, Sector Stakeholders and Public Sector Leisure Operating Partners on 25 June 2020 from 3pm-4.30pm.

Facilitation was provided by Toby Kingsbury, Director at SLC, supported by Judith Schrenk, SLC Research Consultant.


  • Mike Worsnop (Parkwood Leisure, Business Development Director)
  • Michael Shepherd (Slough Borough Council, Leisure Development and Client Manager)
  • Martyn Allison (Leisure Management Solutions)
  • Mark Tweedie (Community Leisure UK, Chief Executive)
  • Su Cumming (Newcastle City Council, Assistant Chief Executives – Public Health)
  • Jamie Fenton (Peterborough City Council, Culture and Leisure Development Manager)
  • Christopher Fennell (Watford Borough Council, Head of Leisure & Environmental Services)
  • Robbie Bratchell (Stevenage Borough Council, Corporate Events Officer)
  • Ivan Horsfall Turner (Freedom Leisure, Managing Director)
  • Carl Bennett (Gedling Borough Council, Head of Service – Leisure Transformation)
  • Gemma Ryan (Sandwell Council, Business Manager – Sport & Leisure)
  • Charlotte Leonard (Westway Trust, Director of Finance and Resource)
  • Laura Hendi (Chorley Council, Leisure Contracts Officer)
  • Denise A. Irving-Lang (Stockport Council, Active Stockport Manager – Culture & Leisure)
  • Peter Ashworth (Stockport Council, Head of Culture and Leisure)
  • Paul Baker (Crawley Borough Council, Senior Leisure Officer)
  • Graham Rowe (Crawley Borough Council, Partnership Services Manager)
  • Ann Hill (Warwick District Council, Sports and Leisure Contracts Officer)
  • Donna Cresswell-Duly (Nottingham City Council, Business Manager – Sport, Leisure & Business Management)
  • Ian Harkins (GLL (North), Head of Service)
  • Andrew Pearson (Sport England, Capital Investment Manager)
  • Duncan Wood-Allum (SLC, Managing Director and Founder)


Key themes explored in the session were:

  1. What approaches are leisure operators taking to remobilisation?
  2. What are the key risks in remobilisation and how can they be mitigated?
  3. How have Councils and their Leisure Partners prioritised which facilities, or parts of facilities should re-open?
  4. How are Councils and their leisure operating partner approaching the commercial aspects of reopening?
  5. What changes to programming, memberships and pricing are expected and what insight has been used to shape it?
  6. How are the needs of the most vulnerable groups in society being met?
  7. What are the organisational and staffing implications for Leisure Partnerships in recovery?
  8. How should the client monitoring role adapt in recovery and what are other local authorities doing?
  9. What are the longer-term implications on contracts and service specifications?



What approaches are leisure operators taking to remobilisation? What are the key risks in remobilisation and how can they be mitigated?

Whilst the government’s announcement that leisure facilities cannot open on the 4th of July has disappointed many in the sector, it does give operators and Councils more time to plan for a safe reopening and to better understand the likely financial implications. While facilities were largely ready to be opened to the public from this date, bringing back staff from furlough and training them on new health and safety and operational requirements will present a significant challenge in a short period of time.

The lack of clarity on an opening date is a key risk. There is a fear amongst sector colleagues that the date will be announced at the last minute and the process of reopening will be rushed. Operators are continuing to work on remobilising services in anticipation of the announcement in order to mitigate this risk.

The postponed reopening of leisure facilities has given operators more time to develop and refine their strategies. Staff were preparing to return to their workplace on the 4th of July and are now left with a sense of insecurity – continued dialogue with staff has therefore been key to provide reassurance where possible.

There was some discussion across the group on the government’s reasons for further delaying the re-opening of leisure facilities. It was generally understood that this was primarily due to the environment of gyms, pools in terms of micro droplets, general levels of exertion (heavy breathing and sweating etc.) and multiple ‘touch-points’.

Operators noted the risk of losing customers to local competitors in the event they are not ready/able to open at the same time. If the reopening of public sector leisure facilities is delayed then this is likely to worsen the financial position through a reduction to core income streams. This is especially true for urban areas where the competition is typically higher, whereas the lower level of competition in rural settings means this risk is lower. A recent survey has shown that 53% of GLL’s Manchester customers are willing to return to leisure centres as soon as they reopen. This places pressure on operators to re-open as soon as the government gives the green light in order to avoid any loss of market share. If public leisure sites are not in a position to reopen, members will be likely to seek the services from private operators instead and cancel their memberships.

The varying levels of consumer confidence across different user groups is a key consideration for operators. Some will be happy to come back straight away but others will be wary and will need convincing within the first few visits that the environment is safe and the operator (and other users) are implementing the right restrictions and regimes. Perception will be key here and the focus on customer care needs to be stronger than ever to build confidence of users.

There is an acceptance across the sector that the early period of re-opening will be a learning stage. Operators will get things wrong at times and will need to learn from this moving forward.


How will the change to a 1-metre+ rule affect the operators and Councils planning the reopening?

The majority of financial modelling undertaken by operators to date is based on 2-metre social distancing. Visitor numbers rely upon the demand for services and the capacity to meet that demand. Whilst capacity will obviously be improved by reducing to 1-metre rule, there remains a question mark over the level of demand and whether it will exceed the reduced capacity of facilities.

It is possible that the reduction to 1-metre will have a positive impact on consumer confidence as this increases the perception that the risk of Covid is lower.


Are operators and Councils clear on what measures will be required for reopening?

It was agreed that government guidance provided for other sectors, such as entertainment and hospitality has been clear on the requirements for the reopening of venues. Operators have been working to guidance from bodies such as UKactive.

Whilst measures will need to be tailored to the specific requirements of facilities, there does not seem to be a lack of clarity amongst the larger operators on the general operational requirements and they have been able to work up a group-wide approach. However, delegates noted that it seems to have been more difficult for smaller single site / contract operators to pull together a consistent approach.

Government is providing guidance, not regulations which places the onus upon operators to interpret this accordingly and put in place operational arrangements which comply with this guidance. It is accepted that the first month of operations will be a learning curve and it will be important to consider customer feedback and share learning across the sector in order to ensure a successful recovery period.

Uncertainty on customer behaviour in adhering to operational restrictions is a concern. While operators are confident in putting in place the necessary measures, the challenge will be the ongoing enforcement of these measure and for staff to have the confidence to intervene where necessary. Well- trained and competent staff will therefor play a key role in the successful reopening of facilities and in building consumer confidence. There is, of course, a balance to be achieved between ensuring safe customer and staff behaviour and maintaining a welcoming environment for customers to enjoy.


How can outdoor spaces be used to deliver a creative offer?

Some operators and their local authority partners are looking at using outdoor spaces to deliver activities beyond traditional leisure centres. This is recognised as a powerful tool to reach non-users of traditional leisure facilities and those who have made use of parks and open spaces to exercise during the lockdown period.

This presents an opportunity for outreach work to help less active residents transition to a traditional leisure centre and some Councils have identified outdoor offers to be a key part of their strategic approach moving forward.


Given the strong focus on the commercial position, how are the needs of the most vulnerable groups in society being met?

The provision of outreach work and interventions targeting less active and more vulnerable residents will be a major challenge to public sector leisure provision moving forward as operators and their local authority partners focus on the ‘bottom line’. With programmes for the most vulnerable under threat as a result of reduced income that would ordinarily be used to cross-subsidise such services, the question of the purpose of public sector leisure provision needs to be asked. If the service has to be redesigned to provide the ‘most commercial offer’ then why not just leave this to the private sector? The strategic priorities of local authorities should therefore not be lost amongst this crisis and there needs to be strong messaging and partnership working to ensure the gap in health inequalities does not get even wider.

For the sector to receive the support it needs to be able to keep engaging with the most vulnerable citizens, there needs to be a clear message on the role leisure continues to play in wider policy outcomes. Involving senior officers and members in those conversations can help promote the important role that leisure plays in communities, more so than ever. The sector has historically not been good at articulating this message but despite the immediate financial challenges, the Covid crisis provides an opportunity to be bold and market a new vision for the sector.

The social value of sport and physical activity is in danger of being drowned out by the financial challenge and the sector needs to work much harder to promote this. Informing and engaging with Members will be key to this to ensure the strategic priorities of local authorities for their leisure services continue to be delivered upon.


Do Members have sufficient information to make difficult decisions regarding the reopening of leisure facilities?

The political situation around the reopening of leisure facilities can be challenging for officers and operator partners. As a non-statutory service, political support for leisure can sometimes be marginal. A coherent argument of leaders in the sectors to lobby the importance of leisure and physical activity is key to receiving support. Chief Executives of Councils are faced with an unprecedented challenge of managing the current situation as well as planning for what the future might hold, mitigating the risks of another outbreak of Covid-19 and keeping their local political debates under control. Understanding and being sensitive to the political dynamics in a Council structure is therefore key in securing the support the sector needs.

It was agreed that including Members in planning the reopening is key. Members should be presented with not just the numbers but also a clear understanding of the strategic priorities and required outcomes of their leisure service in terms of health and wellbeing and wider social value.

The decisions Councils have to make in the face of this crisis will be difficult, so joining up conversations will be important.


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