Judith Wojtowicz takes a closer look at Serco Leisure, four-times winner of Water Leisure Operator of the year…
Despite phenomenal growth in the last two years, the ‘exciting stuff is yet to come’, according to Helen Bull, national commercial aquatics manager of reigning Swimming Pool Operators Of the Year, Serco Leisure. With swim lessons up by almost 150 per cent over pre-Covid levels and more teachers than ever qualifying via the company’s STA (Swim Teachers Association) Approved Training Centre, more opportunities are opening-up to develop new areas of growth.
“Across our pools there is still some capacity for lessons, while the biggest growth potential we believe is for parents and babies, and adults who can’t swim, perhaps due to a bad experience in childhood,” said Helen. As a non-executive director of the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) her prime motivation is to improve water safety and make swimming a fun activity for all regardless of age.
An inspirational role model to colleagues and pool users alike, she is the first wheelchair user in the world to hold both the RLSS UK national pool lifeguard and open water lifeguard qualifications. Under her leadership, Serco is thought to be the only national aquatics team where all instructors are expected to complete swim teacher or lifeguard qualifications.
Helen’s enthusiasm has led to the launch of an internal initiative where all adults across Serco Leisure, regardless of their role, can be taught to swim if they wish. A dedicated swimmer herself, Helen is proud to ‘live the brand’. She told us: “It makes me really sad that we have colleagues who can’t swim, and I am thrilled to have secured some funding which means we can teach them for free.”
While swimming is taken seriously there is also an emphasis on having fun in the water be it aqua aerobics, wave machines, inflatables or family fun sessions facilitated by one of Serco’s teachers. The team has embraced many Swim England initiatives designed to get more people into the pool, be it casual swimming, schools wishing to offer swimming as part of their exercise programme or learners wishing to overcome their fear of water.
Pool time is a common challenge facing school swimming and this year has seen the roll-out of a Swim England-funded scheme called Fit, Fed and Swimming Breakfast Club across four Serco-operated pools in Birmingham. This creative scheme sees those children most in need benefit from free swimming tuition and a healthy breakfast before going into the classroom.
Aquatic sports and rookie lifeguard training are areas being explored to keep youngsters interested, for longer. Having re-discovered her passion for swimming following a period of ill-health in her Thirties, Helen’s role with Serco Leisure combines her love of the water with a strong commercial focus, an approach that has revolutionised the aquatics offering and helped secure their 2022 title in the annual UK Pool and Spa Awards.
Commercial pool operators everywhere are facing challenges such as rising energy costs, supply issues and in some places, a fall in users worried about their own cost of living. Against this background Serco Leisure appears to be thriving. In fact, Serco Leisure is part of Serco’s UK Citizen Services business, which generates revenues in excess of £350m pa and employs more than 6,000 staff.
The Serco success is largely thanks to the commitment and expertise of a team that continues to find ways of maximising water-based activities, recognising that the ‘bottom line’ and customer service are inextricably linked. Helen explains: “Against the ever-increasing costs of running a leisure centre, in any hour of any day our team understands we must strive to earn our way.
While all our costs are going up extortionately, from chlorine and café supplies to cleaning materials and keeping pools heated, we recognise that our continued success goes hand in hand with sound business results. “Commercial results are important because that enables us to maintain and keep our centres running efficiently for the communities we serve.
But we are driven by something far greater as we each care about the importance of water safety and start every day determined to make a difference. While demand for lessons is slowing down a little, we have lots of ideas and the exciting stuff has not even happened yet!” According to Serco Leisure communications manager Alan Mitchell the last two years have been the biggest-ever in the pool.
“We have ridden the wave of latent demand that was locked away during the pandemic, overcome recruitment and training issues in innovative ways and provided industry-leading continuous professional development (CPD) opportunities for our swim teams,” he said. “Aquatics is now truly holding its own at Serco Leisure where previously it was sometimes seen as a poorer cousin of health and fitness (gyms and workout classes).”
Serco Leisure is one of the UK’s leading national operators of indoor and outdoor leisure spaces including 27 local authority swimming pools as well as gyms, event venues and prestigious Sport England centres including Bisham Abbey, Lilleshall and the National Water Sports Centre in Nottingham.
Working in partnership with a range of clients their mission is to encourage people to become more active by providing affordable world-class facilities for all, from local community leisure centres to facilities for elite athletes. When it comes to swimming, famous names include Ollie Hynd, multi-medal winning Paralympian who has qualified as a swim teacher and now works at the Water Meadows and Rebecca Adlington Leisure Centres in Mansfield.
He especially enjoys working with parents and youngsters, saying a child’s first experience in the pool can shape their lifelong relationship with the water. “If we can give them positive opening moments, they are more likely to become confident in and around the water.” Ollie lives with neuromuscular myopathy which affected the way he learned to swim initially.
He believes this gives him added empathy towards nervous learners and others who may benefit from a more individual approach. “If they see you having fun in teaching, they are more likely to have fun in their learning,” he says. Serco’s swim teacher training programme has received a further boost with approved training provider status from the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA).
As a medium-sized player in this market the company continues to lead from the front, investing time and resources to ensure they offer the very best service to its partner clients and their users. Last year alone they trained over 500 new swim teachers, far more than many of their larger competitors, with numbers continuing to rise.
Members of the senior aquatics team make regular visits to all their centres to support staff and ensure standards are maintained while a rewards and recognition programme has incentivised and motivated the entire workforce. An important recent addition to the team is Graham Munday, appointed to the new role of national lifeguard compliance manager.
His primary task is to ensure consistency across the business through a ‘train the trainer’ programme developed by the Royal Life Saving Society. Last word goes to Alan: “Retaining our Operator of the Year Award was testament to the quality of our swim teachers and the expertise of our senior aquatics team.
They have taken Serco Leisure to the next level with new ideas, new ways of working and a completely fresh approach to running our aquatics offering. The potential for growth is huge and we are maintaining that momentum.”
Tel. 0116 240 7555