Features: November 20th, 2009

By Tim Dent

Helping people to be active is important for their health, for tackling social exclusion and for regeneration. The level of activity can vary from gyms and swimming pools to art galleries and museums. Local councils provide a whole range of these cultural activities and it is important that they give value for money to their customers. The author explains how quality and performance audits and facility ‘health checks’ can help ensure customer satisfaction.

Health: “There is now compelling evidence that regular moderate intensity physical activity is associated with a range of beneficial outcomes, including a reduced risk of dying prematurely from heart disease or stroke”. – Chief Medical Officer. There is a weight of evidence that demonstrates that active leisure can prolong life and prevent life threatening illness. A similar body of evidence exists that shows cultural activity can improve mental health, self esteem and confidence.

Social exclusion: The Scarman report into the Brixton riots in 1981 first identified the role that recreation could play in wider social policy, specifically addressing social disadvantage and exclusion, by attracting young people away from crime and anti-social behaviour. As well as enhancing quality of life and wellbeing for the most disadvantaged, leisure and cultural facilities and programmes bring people from all walks of life together and provides opportunities for all. They can also encourage participation, social interaction and volunteering among other benefits and can be the glue that strengthens and binds communities together.

Regeneration: The Olympic and Commonwealth Games are great examples of how sport can play a key role in regenerating depressed areas. At a local level new facilities can create jobs, stimulate economic activity and enhance the local environment. In addition sport, leisure and cultural events attract millions of visitors to Scotland every year and are a significant economic driver for Scotland PLC.

Why quality matters in the active leisure and culture industries

This is not rocket science. The public sector, active leisure and culture industries are service industries whose success depends on retaining customers; therefore, even though their objectives may be different to the commercial sector (social rather than profit) they still need to provide services that meet and exceed customer expectations.

The public sector is diverse and covers theatres, parks, sport and leisure centres, community halls, the arts and museums among others. Whether customers are paying £35 for a gym membership or using a museum free of charge, they will not return if they are not satisfied. Service expectations are constantly being raised by high street retailers and leisure operators, customers know good service when they see it and quite frankly will not accept anything less. Whereas once customers may have differentiated between different providers of services and accepted the public sector might struggle to compete, nowadays bad service is bad service no matter who is providing it.

The Sport & Leisure Consultancy introduces quality and performance audits or facility ‘health checks’ which cover financial performance and interviews with staff, RealityCheck™ mystery visits and service evaluations, and action planning via a programme of facilitated workshops to help clients maintain a high level of quality.

High quality means welcoming and comfortable facilities, enthusiastic and helpful staff every time and when things do go wrong there is a responsive and empathetic resolution. If we are to drive up participation in sport, physical activity and culture to bring about social improvement then operators must improve the quality of the experience and embed quality in all that they do – this is why quality matters. It is also widely recognised that those who invest in training and improve quality systems in a recession are more likely to emerge stronger during the upturn.

The Sport and Leisure Consultancy provides a variety of services to sports and leisure industries, to help organisations develop practical and innovative solutions, and become stronger, fitter and better at what they do. Services include:

• Project management – from inception to completion or assisting on existing projects if, for example, teams are overstretched.

• Facilities development – innovative and sustainable ways to refurbish, upgrade and replace facilities to cater for future supply and demand, facilities strategy, and one-off projects.

• Management advice – the best management option for an organisation, including pro’s and con’s of charitable trust status.

• Strategic planning – external funding, prioritisation, allocating resources, clarifying roles, anticipating future threats and opportunities, team solidarity, evaluation, mission and visions, and feasibility studies for new ventures.

• Tailored workshops – focus on a single issue, team-building, strategic reviews, focus groups, and development of new initiatives.

Why it’s important to invest in leisure and cultural facilities, even in a recession

If we accept that active leisure and culture can contribute to national government priorities and that these include among others: tackling social exclusion and disadvantage; addressing poor health; improving health and wellbeing; regenerating and strengthening communities – I would argue that it is more important to invest in these facilities and services in a recession than when times are good. A recession tends to exacerbate social problems; therefore arguably this is the time when the benefits of active leisure and culture can have greatest impact.

How should Britain prepare for the 2012 Olympics and 2014 Commonwealth Games?

Perhaps surprisingly, the evidence shows that no Olympic Games has resulted in a sustained increase in sport and physical activity participation. Plans for both Games’ should focus on how these Games’ will be different.

Planning should also focus on the cultural legacy. The cultural programmes that sit alongside the Games’ will provide a great opportunity for individuals and communities to participate in cultural activity and, if planned for, could encourage lifelong involvement.

On the whole I think that England is doing a very good job of preparing for the Olympic Games; however, the only disappointing aspect appears to be that it is difficult to see the economic benefit of the games filtering through to Scotland and the home countries yet. I am also unsure if the home countries have fully embraced and started effective and meaningful planning for the Olympics. A barrier to full engagement is the belief among some that grass roots funding has been reduced in order to pay for the Olympics

As far as the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow are concerned, there is much debate in Scotland about what the legacy will look like. My view is that these Games present an opportunity to make a bold and ambitious statement and once and for all give sport clout to ensure it receives sufficient attention and resources. A Sports Act which enshrines the opportunity to participate in sport for all and clearly sets out the roles and responsibilities of local and national government would be a fitting legacy and ensure that the social benefits of sport are delivered long after the final race has been run.

Tim Dent is Managing Director of the Sport & Leisure Consultancy.