GET HCM
magazine
Sign up for the FREE digital edition of HCM magazine and also get the HCM ezine and breaking news email alerts.
Not right now, thanksclose this window
Premier Software Solutions
Premier Software Solutions
Premier Software Solutions
Health Club Management

Health Club Management

Follow Health Club Management on Twitter Like Health Club Management on Facebook Join the discussion with Health Club Management on LinkedIn Follow Health Club Management on Instagram
UNITING THE WORLD OF FITNESS
Get the latest news, jobs and features in your inbox
Health Club Management

Health Club Management

features

Interview: Sandra Dodd & John Oxley

Commercial diversification, standing up to the competition, and the challenges of operating in the local authority market. The senior management team at Places Leisure offer Kate Cracknell an overview of their business

Published in Health Club Management 2019 issue 10
Sandra Dodd, CEO and John Oxley, COO
Sandra Dodd, CEO and John Oxley, COO
One of the opportunities we’re looking at is in London. The location doesn’t suit a low-cost gym, but would suit a boutique-style model. - John Oxley

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.”

Jamie Brown Commercial activities director
Jamie Brown

Tell us about the Places Locker app
Places Leisure launched the Places Locker app in 2017, created in partnership with Technogym and powered by the mywellness cloud. The original remit for the app was to boost the visibility of activity levels, both for customers and for the fitness teams at the sites they were visiting – and it delivers.

Members can track gym activity, follow guided exercises and workouts, monitor outdoor activity – using apps and wearables such as MapMyFitness, Strava, Polar, FitBit and so on – access fitness challenges and book classes.

However, in the end the solution delivered so much more than that.

The Places Locker app offers a shop window for all the great things our centres can offer, helping customers discover new products they may not have thought about trying – or even have been aware of – that match their motivations and interests.

How do your teams use the app?
The insights from the app allow instructors to interact meaningfully and relevantly with each customer, which means members benefit from a more personalised service.

Specifically, the ‘Who’s in’ software – featured within the mywellness platform and fed in to by the Places Locker app – is a fantastic retention and engagement tool. It enables colleagues to know who is in the gym, when they last visited, their preferred work out details and other activities they have undertaken at the centre. This enables us to tailor the customer experience, as well as engaging with those who are rarely in the gym or classified as at risk of leaving. Ensuring customers have multiple interactions with different gym staff helps create more of a welcoming environment.

What impact has this had on the business?
A recent Technogym study demonstrated that sites using the mywellness platform are achieving a higher level of member interactions, and those interactions are having a positive impact on members’ frequency of visit and overall length of stay.

The study focused on 14 Places Leisure sites, using membership data from the centres’ 2.34 million visits across a six-month period. The research found that Places Locker app users visited 50 per cent more often than non-users: an average of 7.5 visits a month, compared to 5.0 a month for those not using the app. Additionally, the research discovered that those engaged with the app retained their membership for 20 per cent longer than those who didn’t engage.

The opportunity for the business now is to continue to maximise usage of the platform to achieve even greater engagement and retention.

What are your plans for the app?
We’re now working to introduce new functionality into the app, to further increase member engagement and to build an audience on the platform. This will enable us to send personalised information and guidance based on customers’ own personal journeys, as opposed to blanket communications that don’t enable them to get the best out of their experience.

It’s about using the new information we have available to build personalised, insight-driven customer pathways that allow members to control their own journeys.

Sign up here to get HCM's weekly ezine and every issue of HCM magazine free on digital.
Places Leisure recently opened a Places Gym within one of Places for People’s housing developments in Edinburgh
Places Leisure recently opened a Places Gym within one of Places for People’s housing developments in Edinburgh
Places Leisure recently opened a Places Gym within one of Places for People’s housing developments in Edinburgh
Places Leisure recently opened a Places Gym within one of Places for People’s housing developments in Edinburgh
Places Leisure will launch a new concept this year for those new to exercise
Places Leisure will launch a new concept this year for those new to exercise
Places Gyms are a way for the group to diversify
Places Gyms are a way for the group to diversify
Swimming is a strong growth area within Places Leisure centres
Swimming is a strong growth area within Places Leisure centres
Dodds says local authorities now expect so much more from operators
Dodds says local authorities now expect so much more from operators
Newly built leisure centres can compete well with low-cost competitors
Newly built leisure centres can compete well with low-cost competitors
Oxley and Dodds are putting a strong focus on measuring the customer experience
Oxley and Dodds are putting a strong focus on measuring the customer experience
Deeper insights have enabled better interactions with customers
Deeper insights have enabled better interactions with customers
The Places Locker app is helping to increase member engagement and retention
The Places Locker app is helping to increase member engagement and retention
http://www.leisureopportunities.com/images/imagesX/787329_113508.jpg
'Alongside memberships being sold to the general public, discounts are offered to residents of the housing development.' – Sandra Dodd, CEO, and John Oxley, COO, of Places Leisure talk about commercial diversification
Sandra Dodd, CEO and John Oxley, COO, Places Leisure ,Sandra Dodd, John Oxley, Places Leisure,
People
HCM people

Dave Courteen

MD and co-founder of Mosaic Spa and Health Clubs
I set myself the goal that if I found someone famous to write the foreword and a publisher, then I would write the book
People
HCM people

Debra Wein

founder and CEO, Wellness Workdays
I’ve always felt that if individuals had more education and understanding of nutrition and healthy lifestyle principles, we could literally change lives
People
Operators should start with the home fitness journey, working out how to gain a competitive advantage here, before working out how to dovetail physical visits into this
Features
Strength
Fitness enthusiasts are on the hunt for new ways to elevate their workouts. Fusion fitness is fitting the bill by making strength training more accessible
Features
Finance
Change is coming, with consolidation likely in the market – especially in the boutique sector. Nadim Meer advises operators how to position themselves for investment
Features
US stats
New research from the US shows Millennials and Gen Z may be slow to return to gyms, while women are more hesitant than men. Club Intel’s Steve Tharrett reports
Features
Statistics
IHRSA’s Kristen Walsh gets a briefing from Blair McHaney on how operators can use gym member insight to inform reopening decisions and practices
Features
Accessibility
Sport England has teamed up with 15 health and social care charities to find ways to support people living with 10 different health conditions to be physically active. Kath Hudson finds out more
Features
Insight
As some of the UK’s top gym operators unveil their reopening videos, insight specialists, Paul Roberts and Mike Evans, analyse members’ reactions on social media
Features
FIBO Awards
Although the show has been rescheduled, the six winners of the FIBO Innovation and Trend Awards 2020 have still been announced. We take a look at the companies whose developments help motivate people to live healthier lives
Features
Latest News
Industry body, ukactive, has questioned the decision to close gyms and health clubs as part ...
Latest News
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has paid a surprise visit to a branch of The Gym ...
Latest News
Planet Fitness' share price on the New York Stock Exchange has remained steady at between ...
Latest News
Two of the largest health club operators in the US have announced that members and ...
Latest News
If you're a personal trainer working in the UK, you can now get online PT ...
Latest News
A member of SAGE, the government’s independent group of scientific advisers, has said gyms, pubs ...
Latest News
Following approval to build a £250mn wellbeing resort in Manchester, Therme Group has revealed plans ...
Latest News
Europe's largest gym chain, Basic-Fit, has provided the European fitness sector with some optimism, after ...
Opinion
promotion
Data-driven businesses are some of today’s greatest global success stories, providing blueprints for success.
Opinion: Up your ‘data game’ to successfully relaunch your fitness business
Opinion
promotion
Evidence suggests that over many years personal trainers have been forced to leave the fitness industry because employment patterns are erratic, earnings are inconsistent and it is difficult to build up value needed to secure an appropriate lifestyle.
Opinion: Personal trainers need support as employment opportunities diminish: FREE on-demand webinar
Featured supplier news
Featured supplier: The rise of the training pod
Belfast based gym equipment manufacturer BLK BOX designs, engineers and fabricates a range of rigs for the most elite, performance-driven organisations globally.
Featured supplier news
Featured supplier: Digital education: TRX trains more than 14,000 professionals for free using live virtual training
In response to the pandemic, TRX, the global leader in functional training equipment, world- class training content, and app-based training technology, transformed its TRX Suspension Training Course into a free, live virtual edition via Zoom.
Video Gallery
BMF with Bear Grylls - Mission to reboot the fitness industry
British Military Fitness
BMF with Bear Grylls has put up a £1m fund to get personal trainers, fitness instructors and class instructors back to work and earning money. Read more
More videos:
Company profiles
Company profile: Matrix Fitness
Matrix strives to offer equipment that will captivate your members, is easy to maintain, and ...
Company profiles
Company profile: TVS Group
The TVS Group supply and install sports and fitness flooring to a wide range of ...
Catalogue Gallery
Click on a catalogue to view it online
Directory
Fitness Software
FunXtion International BV: Fitness Software
Flooring
Total Vibration Solutions / TVS Sports Surfaces: Flooring
Spa software
SpaBooker: Spa software
Trade associations
International SPA Association - iSPA: Trade associations
Wearable technology solutions
MyZone: Wearable technology solutions
Locking solutions
Monster Padlocks: Locking solutions
Design consultants
Zynk Design Consultants: Design consultants
Skincare
Comfort Zone - Davines S.p.A: Skincare
Independent service & maintenance
Servicesport UK Limited: Independent service & maintenance
Whole body cryotherapy
Zimmer MedizinSysteme GmbH / icelab: Whole body cryotherapy
Property & Tenders
Waltham Abbey, Essex
Lee Valley Regional Park Authority
Property & Tenders
Diary dates
21-24 Sep 2020
Loews Coronado Bay Resort, Coronado, United States
Diary dates
21-24 Sep 2020
Messe Stuttgart, Germany
Diary dates
22-23 Sep 2020
Heythrop Park, United Kingdom
Diary dates
17-23 Oct 2020
Pinggu, Beijing, China
Diary dates
03-06 Nov 2020
Online,
Diary dates
27-28 Nov 2020
Athena, Leicester, United Kingdom
Diary dates
23-26 Feb 2021
IFEMA, Madrid, Spain
Diary dates
03-04 Mar 2021
NEC, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Diary dates
03-06 Jun 2021
Expo Centre & Riviera di Rimini, Italy
Diary dates
16-17 Jun 2021
ExCeL London, London, United Kingdom
Diary dates

features

Interview: Sandra Dodd & John Oxley

Commercial diversification, standing up to the competition, and the challenges of operating in the local authority market. The senior management team at Places Leisure offer Kate Cracknell an overview of their business

Published in Health Club Management 2019 issue 10
Sandra Dodd, CEO and John Oxley, COO
Sandra Dodd, CEO and John Oxley, COO
One of the opportunities we’re looking at is in London. The location doesn’t suit a low-cost gym, but would suit a boutique-style model. - John Oxley

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.”

Jamie Brown Commercial activities director
Jamie Brown

Tell us about the Places Locker app
Places Leisure launched the Places Locker app in 2017, created in partnership with Technogym and powered by the mywellness cloud. The original remit for the app was to boost the visibility of activity levels, both for customers and for the fitness teams at the sites they were visiting – and it delivers.

Members can track gym activity, follow guided exercises and workouts, monitor outdoor activity – using apps and wearables such as MapMyFitness, Strava, Polar, FitBit and so on – access fitness challenges and book classes.

However, in the end the solution delivered so much more than that.

The Places Locker app offers a shop window for all the great things our centres can offer, helping customers discover new products they may not have thought about trying – or even have been aware of – that match their motivations and interests.

How do your teams use the app?
The insights from the app allow instructors to interact meaningfully and relevantly with each customer, which means members benefit from a more personalised service.

Specifically, the ‘Who’s in’ software – featured within the mywellness platform and fed in to by the Places Locker app – is a fantastic retention and engagement tool. It enables colleagues to know who is in the gym, when they last visited, their preferred work out details and other activities they have undertaken at the centre. This enables us to tailor the customer experience, as well as engaging with those who are rarely in the gym or classified as at risk of leaving. Ensuring customers have multiple interactions with different gym staff helps create more of a welcoming environment.

What impact has this had on the business?
A recent Technogym study demonstrated that sites using the mywellness platform are achieving a higher level of member interactions, and those interactions are having a positive impact on members’ frequency of visit and overall length of stay.

The study focused on 14 Places Leisure sites, using membership data from the centres’ 2.34 million visits across a six-month period. The research found that Places Locker app users visited 50 per cent more often than non-users: an average of 7.5 visits a month, compared to 5.0 a month for those not using the app. Additionally, the research discovered that those engaged with the app retained their membership for 20 per cent longer than those who didn’t engage.

The opportunity for the business now is to continue to maximise usage of the platform to achieve even greater engagement and retention.

What are your plans for the app?
We’re now working to introduce new functionality into the app, to further increase member engagement and to build an audience on the platform. This will enable us to send personalised information and guidance based on customers’ own personal journeys, as opposed to blanket communications that don’t enable them to get the best out of their experience.

It’s about using the new information we have available to build personalised, insight-driven customer pathways that allow members to control their own journeys.

Sign up here to get HCM's weekly ezine and every issue of HCM magazine free on digital.
Places Leisure recently opened a Places Gym within one of Places for People’s housing developments in Edinburgh
Places Leisure recently opened a Places Gym within one of Places for People’s housing developments in Edinburgh
Places Leisure recently opened a Places Gym within one of Places for People’s housing developments in Edinburgh
Places Leisure recently opened a Places Gym within one of Places for People’s housing developments in Edinburgh
Places Leisure will launch a new concept this year for those new to exercise
Places Leisure will launch a new concept this year for those new to exercise
Places Gyms are a way for the group to diversify
Places Gyms are a way for the group to diversify
Swimming is a strong growth area within Places Leisure centres
Swimming is a strong growth area within Places Leisure centres
Dodds says local authorities now expect so much more from operators
Dodds says local authorities now expect so much more from operators
Newly built leisure centres can compete well with low-cost competitors
Newly built leisure centres can compete well with low-cost competitors
Oxley and Dodds are putting a strong focus on measuring the customer experience
Oxley and Dodds are putting a strong focus on measuring the customer experience
Deeper insights have enabled better interactions with customers
Deeper insights have enabled better interactions with customers
The Places Locker app is helping to increase member engagement and retention
The Places Locker app is helping to increase member engagement and retention
http://www.leisureopportunities.com/images/imagesX/787329_113508.jpg
'Alongside memberships being sold to the general public, discounts are offered to residents of the housing development.' – Sandra Dodd, CEO, and John Oxley, COO, of Places Leisure talk about commercial diversification
Sandra Dodd, CEO and John Oxley, COO, Places Leisure ,Sandra Dodd, John Oxley, Places Leisure,
Latest News
Industry body, ukactive, has questioned the decision to close gyms and health clubs as part ...
Latest News
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has paid a surprise visit to a branch of The Gym ...
Latest News
Planet Fitness' share price on the New York Stock Exchange has remained steady at between ...
Latest News
Two of the largest health club operators in the US have announced that members and ...
Latest News
If you're a personal trainer working in the UK, you can now get online PT ...
Latest News
A member of SAGE, the government’s independent group of scientific advisers, has said gyms, pubs ...
Latest News
Following approval to build a £250mn wellbeing resort in Manchester, Therme Group has revealed plans ...
Latest News
Europe's largest gym chain, Basic-Fit, has provided the European fitness sector with some optimism, after ...
Latest News
DW Sports is going into administration saying it's working to save its 73-strong gym portfolio. ...
Latest News
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) is urging US Congress to pass a new law ...
Latest News
Equipment giant Technogym has introduced its new Excite line of fully-connected cardio kit that has ...
Opinion
promotion
Data-driven businesses are some of today’s greatest global success stories, providing blueprints for success.
Opinion: Up your ‘data game’ to successfully relaunch your fitness business
Opinion
promotion
Evidence suggests that over many years personal trainers have been forced to leave the fitness industry because employment patterns are erratic, earnings are inconsistent and it is difficult to build up value needed to secure an appropriate lifestyle.
Opinion: Personal trainers need support as employment opportunities diminish: FREE on-demand webinar
Featured supplier news
Featured supplier: The rise of the training pod
Belfast based gym equipment manufacturer BLK BOX designs, engineers and fabricates a range of rigs for the most elite, performance-driven organisations globally.
Featured supplier news
Featured supplier: Digital education: TRX trains more than 14,000 professionals for free using live virtual training
In response to the pandemic, TRX, the global leader in functional training equipment, world- class training content, and app-based training technology, transformed its TRX Suspension Training Course into a free, live virtual edition via Zoom.
Video Gallery
BMF with Bear Grylls - Mission to reboot the fitness industry
British Military Fitness
BMF with Bear Grylls has put up a £1m fund to get personal trainers, fitness instructors and class instructors back to work and earning money. Read more
More videos:
Company profiles
Company profile: Matrix Fitness
Matrix strives to offer equipment that will captivate your members, is easy to maintain, and ...
Company profiles
Company profile: TVS Group
The TVS Group supply and install sports and fitness flooring to a wide range of ...
Catalogue Gallery
Click on a catalogue to view it online
Directory
Fitness Software
FunXtion International BV: Fitness Software
Flooring
Total Vibration Solutions / TVS Sports Surfaces: Flooring
Spa software
SpaBooker: Spa software
Trade associations
International SPA Association - iSPA: Trade associations
Wearable technology solutions
MyZone: Wearable technology solutions
Locking solutions
Monster Padlocks: Locking solutions
Design consultants
Zynk Design Consultants: Design consultants
Skincare
Comfort Zone - Davines S.p.A: Skincare
Independent service & maintenance
Servicesport UK Limited: Independent service & maintenance
Whole body cryotherapy
Zimmer MedizinSysteme GmbH / icelab: Whole body cryotherapy
Property & Tenders
Waltham Abbey, Essex
Lee Valley Regional Park Authority
Property & Tenders
Diary dates
21-24 Sep 2020
Loews Coronado Bay Resort, Coronado, United States
Diary dates
21-24 Sep 2020
Messe Stuttgart, Germany
Diary dates
22-23 Sep 2020
Heythrop Park, United Kingdom
Diary dates
17-23 Oct 2020
Pinggu, Beijing, China
Diary dates
03-06 Nov 2020
Online,
Diary dates
27-28 Nov 2020
Athena, Leicester, United Kingdom
Diary dates
23-26 Feb 2021
IFEMA, Madrid, Spain
Diary dates
03-04 Mar 2021
NEC, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Diary dates
03-06 Jun 2021
Expo Centre & Riviera di Rimini, Italy
Diary dates
16-17 Jun 2021
ExCeL London, London, United Kingdom
Diary dates
Search news, features & products:
Find a supplier:
Premier Software Solutions
Premier Software Solutions