Harlow Leisurezone 2016

The new centre at Harlow was brought on line in May 2010 and has proven to be very successful.

To understand today’s success at Harlow Leisurezone is to not only acknowledge everything that has gone before, but to pay homage to it! HDST since its early conception back in 1957 has benefited from many individuals particularly on the board and at senior management level who have been both highly skilled and professional in their particular fields. These individuals have brought drive, passion and an undying commitment to providing first class facilities for the people of Harlow. Without this level of dedication (8+ years of battling for the gateway scheme), Harlow Leisurezone would never have come to fruition. It is also important to recognise that the HDST Board, is a long established stable, high performing Board. Most of the Trustees have been on the Board for many years and it is those skills that they brought with them and how those skills developed as a team over the years, that have shaped the opening of Harlow Leisurezone and supported its continued development over the past 6 years.

In terms of present day leisure provision I think it is important to recognise how HDST fits into the national picture. The first very striking difference is that HDST operates its provision in its own right. By this I mean it has not had to undergo a tender process to operate its sites and it does not operate on a contractual basis. It is also not bound by a detailed specification of how to operate its facilities and all the constraints that go with that type of approach. Therefore instead of worrying how you will win your next tender and all the costs and man hours associated with that process, the organisation is free to focus on what it believes really matters. It also gains from having the freedom and security of being able to plan the organisations long term success. (Again, this set up reflects an entrepreneurial and very savvy Board)

Quote from Leisure Industry on site Quest report 2016:

“Leadership is strong and the team of staff willing and able. For the most part the team is home-grown and they are a very good advert for local trust delivery”


Operationally the main challenges over the years remain the same in 2016, and that is how to avoid operating at a deficit. This requirement has never been more to the forefront than now, as operators struggle to try and cope with the required savings due to local government austerity measures either removing or reducing subsidises. Operational costs are significant particularly around running swimming pools and energy costs. For new builds there is now the added cost of managing a more sophisticated technical building, whereupon much of the maintenance can no longer be carried out in house and therefore has to be outsourced to specialists at an additional cost.

Getting it right before a brick is laid in terms of the overall size, scale, location and mix of the facilities has a direct correlation to how successful you can be in today’s highly competitive market. It’s no longer enough to just offer opportunities for leisure, you need to be clear from the onset exactly what your position in the market place will be and ensure that the build and everything else you do is aligned accordingly. (HDST also took the opportunity at this stage to provide additional areas under the one roof for complimentary businesses to become leaseholders, and charged rent accordingly) HDST was also very fortunate to have a high calibre property expert as one of their trustees who was able to see the build through from start to finish. He took the lead on the project build on behalf of HDST and effectively managed the architects in order to ensure that the end product was exactly as required. His great work and success in relation to this project cannot be overstated. It is the reason why today, nearly 7 years later the building still looks like a new build and we are able to sustain our market position.

Operationally overall I would say that whilst in the past management teams had to be able to manage to a lesser or greater degree a range of business activity ie finance, marketing, human resources, property management etc. Being adequate at these skills is no longer a recipe for success. Today’s operator needs to be able to perform well in all business related activity and excel at finance. Much of this is due to the increase in competition but more significantly because the bar to determine “success” for operators is now much higher. It has moved over the years from:-

  • how much of a subsidy annually do you need?
  • to can you break even annually?
  • to can you control operational costs in the long term?
  • to can you control both operational costs and capital costs in the longer term!

Whilst public leisure in general has always been a marginal business, at least for the best part as an operator in the past you felt reasonably in control of most of your large scale expenditure costs, the exception being utilities. Today as well as having the continual threat of big increases in utilities, you also have to manage (usually with very little warning) legislative changes made by central government. Most of the changes relate to either health and safety (some of which has now gone way too far) and employees costs. For example the minimum wage, minimum wage of 25 yr olds, minimum 28 days leave and paternity leave etc. It has not gone unnoticed that during these times of austerity measures, central/local government seem to be targeting the business world in order to off load some of their own costs.

At this stage, it is probably worth recognising the fact that customer expectations have also risen massively over recent years. They now reflect that many customers are exposed to high quality service standards in other aspects of their life and they now expect the same for the their leisure experience.

In terms of staffing, Harlow Leisurezone, operates with a very flat staffing structure and all the management team have some element of a “hands on” approach encompassed in their role. This not only helps to keep our staffing costs down but it also helps to keep everyone at the centre of what our customers really want. Harlow Leisurezone strives for continuous improvement and as such is accredited to “Quest” the industries quality assurance scheme.


In many ways the marketing of a centre in 2016 differs from years gone by, albeit the key critical success factors of marketing have remained consistent.
As stated previously operators must be clear on their market position. This has become even more paramount now with the onset of the budget gyms. Since opening Leisurezone, there have been four budget gyms move into a one mile square radius of the centre! Leisurezone now not only competes against these centres but as our customers are time poor, it also competes against all other leisure time pursuits.

Significantly, customer expectations are changing constantly as well as rapidly and therefore there is no successful formulae that you can rest your laurels upon. One of those shifts that can help improve profits, is to recognise that people are very time limited and therefore they may want to cram in as much activity as they can during the one visit. This could be anything from the children are swimming whilst dad plays squash to individuals doing a range of different activities whilst on site.
The vast majority of customers now using the centres are not so bothered about sport. They are interested in health, fitness and wellbeing. Many visitors will now see coming to the centre as a bit of a chore and something that they must do in order to maintain wellbeing. From the marketing perspective the more enjoyable that you can make this chore, the greater the likelihood of repeat visits there will be.

There is very little scope in today’s operation to carry out what is traditionally known as “sports development” and phrases such as “grass roots to elite athlete” are rarely heard, and left to the individual sports governing bodies. As stated previously leisure is a marginal business and therefore it is important for operators to understand which activities generate a profit as by default these will be given priority in the marketing plan.

The good news is that customers know what they like to do and they do not mind telling us! Exercise is now a bit like fast food. They want the maximum amount of reward (usually calories burned) for the minimum about of effort. The challenge for marketers is to keep finding products that stimulate and fulfil this need. Most of the products/services offered to customers need to be changed or updated in some way every 18 months, otherwise attendances can start to dip.

There is also a greater emphasis on the marketing of secondary sales/cross selling as for many organisations this can be the difference between success or failure.
There have been in recent years at least two big shifts in marketing. The first is the introduction of technology and this has changed the way in which we:-

  • interact with our customers
  • our customers can interact with us
  • how our customers can track their fitness
  • virtual classes on offer at the centre and at home (not home for HDST)
  • social media opportunities as well as problems
  • customer feedback/research in real time

The second very noticeable change has come about as the result of hard economic times. During these years many operators (not specifically leisure) have struggled and in order to survive offered massive discounts. The net result of this a few years down the line is that customers now expect large discounts. In fact you are unlucky to attract their attention (based on discount alone) unless you are offering at least 25% discount.

Overall the need to operate at a profit, in what is a highly competitive market means that as well as having to adopt a more commercial approach, you also need to have a very sophisticated approach to marketing as raising general awareness is unlikely to be enough.


Programming is a bit like painting the seven bridge, by the time you have it finished, it’s time to restart it back at the beginning again.

In general more traditional sports such as badminton and squash etc do not attract the same numbers that they use too. It is important to try and keep pace with the new activities that the generations coming through are interested in doing.

Of course we also have an aging population and we need to fully met these needs as well through our programming and with time pressures and aging in mind we are seeing an increase in wellbeing classes such as balance, pilates, yoga as these become more mainstream.

In order to be successful you need to have a wide and varied programme and look at health and well being in its widest context and put something in your programme for everyone. Shifts in recent years is the recognition of the amount of money in the market place, that parents are prepared to spend on their children. Birthday parties being just one example of a large and growing market, as well as specific purpose built children’s recreational activities such as climbing ropes and trampoline centres.

Generating income from the swimming pool, as it eats into your resources is critical and therefore the programme is now full and the balance is not just club or casual swimming, it is crammed with other classes such as swimming lessons, aqua aerobics, aqua zumba, aqua spinning, aqua jets and so on.

There is very little opportunity unless it is funded externally to do what would be called project work ie dedicating resources to go in search of those that do not do activity and do not want to ie teenage girls. Harlow does fund some community work on site and this is targeted around obesity.

The virtual market is only in its infancy and it will be interesting to see how this develops over the coming years. What it does have the potential to address is,

  • Keeping prices very low for those on low income
  • Allowing those people who are time poor to exercise at home if they were unable to get to the class

Tonia Gosling

What we know for sure about programming is :-

  • that your programme will need to be a comprehensive and commercial one
  • it will need to attract a significant footfall through the centre.
  • The more enjoyable you make the activities the greater the likelihood the customer will return.

Realistically nowadays programming is about using community assets to improve people’s quality of life (health and wellbeing) and we do that through a variety of service offerings that are aimed at increasing peoples activity and social interaction. At last, it is good to see that after many years, the government’s strategy for sport has caught up with the rest of the nation and is now talking about engaging the community in physical activity as our main goal!

Tonia Gosling General Manager, Harlow Leisurezone 2016

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