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Billy Garrett

The sports operations manager for Glasgow Life talks to Kate Cracknell about driving a culture of activity and making a difference at a population level

by Kate Cracknell, Health Club Management | Published in Sports Management 2013 issue 1
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Billy Garrett
Billy Garrett

It’s not about increasing our share of the pie, but about making the pie larger,” says Billy Garrett, sports operations manager at Glasgow Life – the independent charitable organisation that manages the culture and leisure services on behalf of Glasgow City Council. That’s a claim I’ve heard a number of times from within the sector, not always with much justification. In this case however, as Garrett elaborates on the broad range of initiatives being spearheaded by Glasgow Life, it rings true.

He says: “Our mission is very much reflected in our name: Glasgow Life. We want to enhance the lives of Glasgow citizens, creating a city which allows people to grow, develop themselves, and enjoy life in this fantastic, dynamic environment.

“It’s about delivering healthy lifestyles across the board. We operate 32 sports and leisure centres, with 27,000 direct debit members and 6.2 million attendances in 2012, but it’s not just about sport. We also operate arts and culture venues across the city – 50 sites in total – and research shows that going to a museum or the theatre can also bring about positive outcomes in terms of people’s health and wellbeing. We see ourselves as a health service in the broadest terms, looking to make a population-level impact in Glasgow.”

Consistent investment
But although Glasgow Life’s remit is a broad one, sport and physical activity is a key part of its offering. “Sports and leisure has always been a focus for Glasgow, with a massive investment over the last 10, 15, 20 years,” says Garrett. “That’s been a consistent strategy for the local authority, rather than simply a reaction to being awarded the Commonwealth Games in 2014.

“I’ve been with the organisation since the early 1990s, when we were still a department of the local authority, but since 2006 when Glasgow Life became an independent unit and I moved into the sports team, I can’t remember a time when we weren’t building new facilities,” he says.

The latest offering in the Glasgow Life estate is the £113m Emirates Arena, Europe’s largest dedicated indoor sports arena, which opened in the east end of the city in October 2012. Among its impressive list of facilities are the Sir Chris Hoy velodrome, a 6,500-capacity sports arena, and a 1,000-capacity arena that can turn into a suite of community sports halls when not hosting an event.

Indeed, community use is a key theme for Glasgow Life. Although the Emirates Arena is one of a number of its facilities that will be used as a Commonwealth Games venue, Glasgow Life’s belief is that public access is equally important. “We don’t see any distinction between facilities for elite versus community use,” explains Garrett. “All of our buildings cater for both audiences, and in fact the first people to use all of our Commonwealth Games facilities will be Glasgow citizens. We’re not building facilities, keeping them under wraps until the Games so they’re first used by elite athletes, and only then rolling out to the public. As soon as they’re completed, we’re opening them out to the community – I think we may be unique in doing that.”

And the community has responded extremely positively. In its first seven weeks of operation, the 600-membership target originally set for the Arena for the end of March 2013 had already been easily surpassed, not to mention all the pay-as-you-go usage. The venue has also already hosted elite events but, as Garrett explains: “The Arena is located in an area of real social deprivation, and 66 per cent of those who have joined up are locals. That’s just as important to us as getting elite use of the facilities.”

Fitness and spa
Alongside the sports facilities at the Emirates Arena is an 80-station gym equipped by Technogym and Jordan, which overlooks the velodrome and indoor arena. This is complemented by three group exercise studios, with additional sessions taking place in the various sports halls and outdoor spaces.

“We’ve placed a big focus on developing our health and fitness offering over the last five or six years,” says Garrett. “Most of our 32 sites include health and fitness facilities, all operating under our Glasgow Club brand – Glasgow Club members have access to all of our venues across the city.

“For us, the recent FIA rebrand to ukactive is very timely – we don’t see a division at all between sports and fitness. We simply have a commitment to creating a culture of physical activity generally across the city of Glasgow, whether that’s getting people into our gyms, our sports facilities, our outdoor boot camps, our volunteer-led city walks, or indeed into someone else’s community sports club.”

The Emirates Arena also offers a full day spa which uses Elemis and Murad treatments – a first for Glasgow Life. Operating under the Refresh brand, it is, hopes Garrett, a concept that will be rolled out to more sites. So how has a luxury spa concept gone down in what he’s already acknowledged is a community facing tough social challenges? “Very well actually. I think people’s perception of spa is changing – it’s a fast-growing part of the overall industry – and we’ve created this in response to customer demand. We’ve always offered steamrooms, saunas and so on, so really this is evolution rather than revolution.”

The spa has been made “as affordable as possible” – for example, a 50-minute, full-body massage costs £45 (Glasgow Club members receive discounts) while spa membership, giving unlimited access to the heat experiences, costs around £25 a month. But, says Garrett: “It’s still a touch of luxury. Why shouldn’t people here have access to that though?”

He adds: “From our perspective, spa also offers the possibility of bringing in new people to our facilities. The biggest challenge is always to get new customers – it’s then down to us to signpost new pathways to get them engaged in other aspects of our offering.”

Towards a revolution
It’s in the face of this challenge – breaking into new markets – that Glasgow Life’s diversity really comes to the fore. “There are a number of ways people come across us,” explains Garrett. “We might build a new sports facility in their area, of course, and we have a strong focus on our Glasgow Club brand through marketing and PR. We’re easily the biggest sports and fitness operator in Glasgow, and therefore arguably enjoy greater visibility than other public sector operators might do in their respective catchment areas.

“Being part of a large cultural association also means we have the opportunity to talk to customers using our libraries and arts centres, for example. Some libraries are actually incorporated into our leisure centres, but even where that’s not the case, we’re able to pool our resources to try and engage prospective new members.

“We also do a lot of community outreach work, including partnership projects with the NHS Health Board and the Glasgow Housing Association, for example. For me, if we’re going to take the sector beyond the 12 per cent penetration at which we’ve been stuck for years – if we really want to make a breakthrough to a wider population base – we need to do things very differently, and partnerships will be one of the keys to that being a success.

“Other sectors such as retail and the media have experienced genuine revolution over recent years, but the physical activity sector is more or less doing things as it’s always done. What’s going to be our revolution? I believe we could make a huge impact on the public health agenda, for example, but we’re currently only scratching the surface.

“As a sector, we must think beyond the bricks and mortar of our facilities. We can’t expect people to come to us: we have to take our offering to other locations in the community, going out to where the people we want to reach actually are. We have to use new technology to move beyond our centres and into people’s everyday lives. Again, partnership work is key.”

Partnership programmes
Garrett continues: “We’ve established a very close partnership with the NHS Health Board, setting up programmes designed to help prevent disease and reduce the cost to the NHS of treatment further down the line. Initiatives include our GP referral scheme, our Vitality programme – classes that have been designed to be suitable for people with a range of physical abilities and medical conditions – and weight-loss scheme Shape Up, to name but a few. We deliver those within Glasgow, but we also help the NHS to deliver them to people outside of Glasgow.

“Our GP referral programme is very successful, with about 4,500 individuals referred to us every year. A high percentage of those then convert to membership at the end of the scheme: we offer a discounted membership to encourage them to maintain their new, healthier lifestyle. When we launched the scheme, we visited every GP practice in the city – Glasgow Life and the NHS together, making a joint pitch to the GPs and the practice nurses – and we continue to work very closely with them. We’ve seen a significant uplift in the number of people being referred to us, including for mental health problems.

“There’s still work to do at a national level though, addressing the issue of QOF points, so GPs are recognised for referring to exercise, and ensuring the benefits of activity are incorporated into GP training in the first place.

“We also have our ACES programme, which works with about 26,000 children with serious obesity. As with our GP referral programme, it’s entirely bespoke to each individual, and encompasses sport, activity, nutrition and counselling. And at the other end of the age range, we work with Glasgow Housing Association to offer programmes like Silver Deal Active – a range of easy exercise and arts classes for older residents which are delivered in places like residential centres, church halls and care homes.

“Our aim now is to scale up these interventions so we can deliver outcomes at a population level, rather than just among a few thousand people. We never rest on our laurels – we’re always looking to move programmes on.”

Activity legacy
So returning to the idea of growing the pie, how has Glasgow fared in that respect recently? Certainly perceptions of the city among outsiders are, I venture, of a very sedentary population with huge health challenges and social inequalities. But as Garrett explains, the picture isn’t all doom and gloom: “We certainly face tough challenges. Glasgow has some of the poorest health indicators in the country, and the economic conditions have been tough – we’ve had to cut £10.5m from our budget in the last three years, and need to save about another £5m in the next two. But we’ve met these challenges without closing facilities or making any compulsory redundancies.

“Glasgow itself is also an exciting place to be at the moment, with a lot of new development and a real buzz about the place. It was even voted one of the top 10 cities in the world for sport recently, in the SportBusiness Ultimate Sports City 2012 Awards. This was based on a range of criteria, including not only provision but also participation.

“Off the back of the Olympics, we saw increased attendance and participation of around 10 per cent across the city – not just at our facilities, but also at local sports clubs. Some sports, such as those in which Scots did particularly well – Andy Murray in the tennis, for example, and Sir Chris Hoy in the velodrome – have seen even more of an uplift. Our velodrome coaching sessions at the Emirates Arena are booked up months in advance. We can absolutely track that back to the Olympics.

“We’re now focusing on the 2014 Commonwealth Games. We’ve been working on that legacy project for a couple of years, because it’s not just about increasing participation after the Games but also in the run-up. We’re focusing heavily on getting coaching standards up to scratch, making sure the capacity’s in place and so on.

“The experience of hosting the Games will build valuable competencies among our staff and others working in this sector. That skill set will be a part of the Commonwealth Games legacy, and we’re hoping it will help in Glasgow’s bid to host the 2018 Youth Olympics.

“The legacy’s not just about how many people come to our facilities, though – it’s a city-wide initiative, and this goes back to my comment about growing the pie generally.

“It’s about getting more people into local sports clubs, boosting school sport and so on. We’re very involved in sports clubs across the city, even if we don’t operate them: we work with them to source funding, improve coaching standards and create development channels for their youth sports setups.

“For us, it’s about improving the city’s overall physical activity offering – a key goal within the legacy is to ensure we don’t leave anyone behind.

We’re working hard to develop a cradle-to-grave offering that gets us out into the hard-to-reach groups, really driving the population-wide impact we’re hoping to achieve.

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