Parkwood Leisure takes a customer-centric approach to swimming, as Judith Wojtowicz reports…

SWIMMING LESSONS… for all ages and abilities to improve skills and technique

Investment and innovation go hand in hand at Parkwood Leisure, the first leisure operator within the industry to commission a detailed social value report to better understand the impact of its activities on the communities it serves.

The impressive results from this 2020 research with Sheffield Hallam University have been reinforced by a new programme introduced across 24 pools, to further support Parkwood’s mission of creating healthier, happier communities.

In association with UK Active, Parkwood has set up specialist musculoskeletal (MSK) hubs offering rehabilitation in a water environment. Available to anyone from those with a bad back through to sports injuries or someone recovering from a stroke, people can self-refer or be referred by a GP or other health professional.

Initial pilot data indicates the social value per person (SVP) is £583 measured not only in terms of physical and mental health benefits but also NHS healthcare savings, especially pertinent in today’s challenging economic conditions. Subjective wellbeing benefits score highly while reduced GP visits and other health indicators show impressive results.FLEET OF FOOT
Strategic director Andy Farr explains: “As a family-owned business responsible for a range of leisure facilities, we are more fleet of foot when it comes to adapting to changing circumstances and making decisions. Our experience and understanding of the wider leisure market drives a more customer-centric, holistic approach of which swimming, and our MSK hubs programme is one example.”

With many public swimming pools under-utilised and constant talk of pools having to close, initiatives such as this are helping to attract more users. Staff are specifically trained in management of chronic pain, arthritis and the many other health conditions that can have a negative impact on quality of life.

The benefits to MSK Hub participants, and the positive knock-on effect to their local community, are evident and the plan is to roll out the programme during 2024 after full evaluation has been completed. As well as market-leading schemes such as this, examples of community engagement can be seen across all 30 of the pools managed by Parkwood Leisure, mainly in partnership with local authorities.

Swimming lessons and water safety programmes are key, working with Swim England, Swim Wales and the Royal Life Saving Society. Collaborative work with schools and sports clubs is helping to widen access to swimming, reflecting the company’s commitment to promoting a healthier lifestyle. Casual swimming, artistic aquatics and family fun days are also part of the timetable.

GROUP EXERCISE to music with a qualified instructor leading the session.

Demand for swim lessons continues to rise and head of aquatics and sport Ally Zell is re-designing pool programmes where necessary to better manage pool time and offer more opportunity for swimmers to move from bottom/entry to top level if they wish. She paid tribute to her team at Bexley, the most recent launch, where 500 more weekly users were added in the summer as a result.

The challenge of course, as with other operators, is recruiting qualified instructors to meet this demand. “We have implemented a planned approach to recruitment, helping newcomers to gain qualifications if necessary and appealing to people who may have transferable skills, such as working with children, who might like to have a second part-time job,” she said.

Age is no barrier and with adult learn to swim booming, retired people can make good instructors, too, she added. “Our primary goal is to provide as many opportunities as possible, in the highest-quality and best-run facilities for people to learn to swim and enjoy their pool time,” she said. One unique Parkwood offering sees all children receive additional instruction on how to be safe, not just in a supervised pool setting but in all bodies of water.

FUN FOR ALL THE FAMILY… giant inflatables create an assault course including running, jumping, sliding and swimming.

Ally swam competitively from a young age but gave up as she didn’t enjoy the monotony of up and down lane swimming. Later she became a volunteer beach lifeguard which she found more rewarding and eventually drew her back into the water leisure sector. “I learned so much and that is why I am a strong advocate of being able to swim, enjoy the water and be safe,” she said.

Making sure Parkwood’s pool facilities are run and maintained to the highest standards is the responsibility of operations director Alex Godfrey who also oversees the company’s leisure centres, health and fitness clubs, golf courses and more. He is very hands-on, travelling around the country to ensure the ethos and culture of this family-owned business is consistently maintained.

He is also conscious of the focus on sustainability and the need to manage costs effectively especially when it comes to utility charges. “We have to keep our pools heated and treated 24 hours a day, so it is no surprise that utility costs are our biggest challenge,” he explained. “We approach this in two ways, through capital investment in state-of-the art technological solutions and by changing employee behaviour across every single site.”

This ranges from using the correct dosage of chemicals to switching off lights, better temperature control and using equipment efficiently. A simple change such as investing in a pool cover to retain heat overnight will see pay back in just two years. “We know we have a growing and satisfied customer base, and my goal is to balance the social and commercial impact of swimming to achieve the best of both worlds,” said Alex.

With that in mind Parkwood constantly reviews options to improve energy efficiency and currently has six sites which have applied, or are in the process of applying, for funding from the government’s Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS). “Of all the facilities at any local authority-owned leisure centre, the pool is the biggest emitter of carbon,” said Alex.

WELLBEING SESSION to support and strengthen mobility.

While decarbonisation of heat is a key requirement to help meet net zero targets, the business case to electrify heat rarely stacks up, he added. Government incentives help drive uptake as can be seen in Parkwood’s first PSDS leisure centre in Torbay. Having secured a grant of almost £2m, an existing gas boiler system was replaced with an air source heat pump and solar panels alongside secondary technologies to mitigate against increased running costs.

A smart building control system was installed along with full LED lighting replacement and upgrades to ventilation and pipework. A detailed case study of this project, which was recognised at the 2022 Energy Awards, states the total CO2 saving was equivalent to 60 per cent of annual carbon emissions across the centre which includes a well-used 25m pool.

In the same year Parkwood was also presented with Operator of the Year in the prestigious UK Active Awards, and National Centre of the Year for its site in Towcester, Northamptonshire. Alex, who admits to enjoying playing rugby more than swimming, says pool operators must work ever harder to attract users and make sure every hour of pool time is cost-effective.

“In the UK we need to think about pools differently. “For example, taking the kids to the park is free; we have to create an exciting product and increase awareness of the benefits in order to compete with so many other leisure options these days, as well as people’s time and budget.”

Parkwood Leisure
Tel. 01905 388 500

RECOGNITION FOR PARKWOOD AND PARTNERS when Towcester Centre for Leisure was awarded UK Active’s National Centre of the Year 2022