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Leisure Trusts: Trust Innovation

Facing funding cuts and ageing facilities, Rossendale Leisure Trust was struggling to generate a surplus. But an innovative overhaul has transformed the organisaion, encouraging locals to get active. Steph Eaves talks to CEO Ken Masser to find out how it was done

by Steph Eaves, Health Club Management and Sports Management | Published in Sports Management 2019 issue 2
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The trust’s Marl Pits centre was extended in 2013, adding a gym and fitness studio
The trust’s Marl Pits centre was extended in 2013, adding a gym and fitness studio

Rossendale is a mill town in South Lancashire with a population of under 70,000 and some areas of severe deprivation.

Health inequalities are a significant issue, but so are resources, and with ageing leisure centres, and pressure on council budgets, the outlook was relatively bleak for community leisure.

The local leisure trust, originally established in 2004, had achieved a great deal in its first few years, but by 2014 it was struggling amid council funding reductions. Over the last five years, however, the trust has been completely transformed, demonstrating just what can be achieved by an innovative, agile leisure trust with the right strategy.

In 2014, Rossendale Leisure Trust’s total turnover was just over £2m, which included a £700,000 grant from the local council. In 2019, with zero public funding, the trust’s revenue is forecast to be £1.9m; generating an operating surplus after accounting for investment in facilities.

Here we tell the story of how this came about.
In September 2015, the trust developed a three-pronged transformational plan for the business;

Reconfiguration of facilities
In order to improve sustainability, while also staying true to the trust’s core principles of health, fun and happiness for everyone, it was important to develop additional business segments that could help subsidise the higher cost, but also offer social value initiatives to support those people most in need. Haslingden Sport Centre was adapted to include Grip & Go: a family adventure climbing facility, and some disused changing rooms were converted into District A Laser Tag. To finalise the change, the centre was renamed ‘Adrenaline’ and has become a regional adventure destination.

Reorganisation of team structure
A large scale reorganisation was carried out, which included a management restructure and the introduction of a revised structure across operational teams. This change was key to defining roles and creating a greater sense of accountability among the team.

This structure improved the efficiency of the business, linking line managers to operational staff, improving communication, accountability and understanding. A key part of the reorganisation was the development of an apprenticeship programme, which created a motivated, career-focused layer within the operational team.

Transformation of culture
In recent years, a culture built on giving teams a sense of ‘cause’ has created a clearer sense of purpose and direction. The final piece of the jigsaw was the introduction of a new staff development programme that involves supporting the team to find happiness for themselves and to help customers to find it too. A person-centred and principle-centred approach to staff development and customer engagement has seen the leisure trust, and the community, go from strength to strength.

Q&A with CEO Ken Masser
Ken Masser is CEO of Rossendale Leisure Trust, in South Lancashire

Tell us about the facility developments
There were a range of facility developments, including Grip & Go and Laser Tag. At Adrenaline, we also introduced roller skating and, more recently, archery tag to complement the other elements.

At our other centre – Marl Pits – an extension was built in 2013, adding a gym and studio to an existing swimming pool.

How important were these facility changes?
The facility changes, although relatively small investments, have played an important role in the trust’s turnaround. Not only have they given the trust new revenue streams, and a broader appeal, but also energised the staff and given the teams a sense of excitement and purpose.

I think it’s fair to say that we would have made progress without the facility changes, but not to the same extent. The developments have been a real catalyst for culture change within the organisation.

Are any more facility upgrades or developments planned?
We’re consistently reviewing facility developments all the time and assessing options. In the last 12 months we’ve looked at adding escape rooms, inflatable play zones and more climbing elements, like bouldering. We haven’t got any plans set in stone, other than a pre-programmed refurbishment of our gym and studio space at Adrenaline.

Why was the team restructure so crucial?
Looking back, the reorganisation was even more important than we realised at the time. Before the restructure, we had a management and leadership structure that had grown organically over time, but that had become so complicated, with so many overlaps, that it was hard to establish ownership of any particular part of the business. We didn’t really know who was responsible for what and there was quite a lot of passing the buck when things didn’t go quite right.

Our facilities were quite divided – there was very limited overlap and almost a sense of disregard for the teams at the ‘other’ site. As the trust was quite small, we were asking operational staff to manage some areas of the business, and asking managers to be very operational in some elements. It was all just very messy. All that combined to create an environment where it was hard for the teams to feel motivated and disconnected. We had no real sense of purpose or direction, and a lack of leadership throughout the business.

"Every member of our team is a unique person with their own talents"

How did you turn this around?
Coming from an organisational development and restructuring background, I knew that it was important to get the right people in the right places and create a structure that led to accountability and a sense of ownership. I felt that if we could give the teams confidence to explore their own ideas, to be creative and put their own personal stamp on their area of the business we could be successful, but the way the team has responded to the new roles has exceeded our expectations.

One of the biggest changes we made was moving away from the typical ‘duty manager’ model within the facilities. We felt that duty managers were stuck between administrative management tasks and overseeing the work of the teams on that shift. We moved all the administration elements out of the role, either to managers or to a new business administration team, and empowered new ‘shift supervisors’ to be on the floor, ensuring great customer service and motivating and inspiring the teams.

That focus on developing culture and a sense of purpose within the teams improved customer service. We don’t have duty managers sat in an office having an occasional walk around the building, as is the case in many venues. Instead we have proactive shift supervisors working alongside colleagues and leading by example.

What’s the Trust’s ‘one by one’ approach?
Our ‘one by one’ approach is an attempt to create a simple mindset to help our whole team understand what’s important and what behaviours are most valuable to our cause of promoting health, fun and happiness through charitable community leisure.

The idea is to focus on the ‘one’, or individual, whether employee or customer.

Every member of our team is a unique person with their own talents, and we value them in all our interactions. The same principle applies to the customers. In every interaction, we are a ‘one’ connecting with another ‘one’. We focus on great interactions, one person at a time.

And how have you extended this approach?
Our new staff development programme is an opportunity for team members to work with a mentor from within or outside the business. The mentor supports the individual in identifying experiences and learning opportunities that will help them to grow in their specific areas of interest. For example, this might be a PT visiting other PT studios and exploring how they operate, or it might be attending a social media course to support them to become more effective online.

Everything is about tailoring the experience to individual needs.

So far, we’ve seen staff really stepping up to make a case for being selected to be part of the programme. That’s been one of the biggest benefits so far – a greater sense of effort and focus from the team, as the programme is seen as a great opportunity for them.

Can you tell us about your partnerships?
In recent weeks we’ve formalised two partnerships, which will significantly enhance our reach. We’ve partnered with a private gym – Pioneer Community Health Club – which is situated in Bacup, one of the towns in Rossendale where we previously didn’t have a presence.

We feel this partnership is quite innovative, because we haven’t bought the gym, but we have merged it into our family of facilities and taken operational control. The Trust and the gym owner will share the profits from the business. Without significant investment we’ve been able to connect a whole new audience with the wider offer of the Leisure Trust, adding reciprocal membership access across all our facilities.

It’s a great deal for the owner and it’s an opportunity for the Trust to serve another section of the community.

Our other partnership is similar, but this one is with a local charitable group who had been running a swimming pool and civic centre in one of the more remote villages within the borough.

What have you done to specifically appeal to the demographic that lives in the Rossendale area?
Most importantly, we’ve tried to connect our teams with the ambition to help local people live happier, healthier lives. We’ve done that through a lot of storytelling and educating the team about the real impact of inactivity on peoples lives and what we can do to help.

"We’ve used pictures of local people in our marketing campaigns – it’s real and that’s important to us"

In terms of practicalities, we’ve used pictures of local people in our marketing campaigns rather than stock images, which has been a brave choice in many respects. We really wanted to show real people in our campaigns and felt that people would connect better with familiar faces.

You don’t always get that same polished look that you might get with professional models in highly edited stock images – but it’s real and that’s important to us. We also use lots of testimonials and encourage customers to share their own experiences.

What are your plans for the trust? How will you keep evolving and improving?
We’re really keen to make a big success of the partnerships with Pioneer and Community Leisure Association of Whitworth – that’s a key focus for the next twelve months. Alongside that, we’re working with the council towards opening a newly-built town centre spa, which will open in 2020. This will be an incredible new facility that will add something different to our portfolio.

Our top priority will be to continue focusing on developing our team, giving great customer service and making sure that we are doing everything we can to make the business as efficient and effective as possible.

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