Alliance Leisure celebrates its 20th birthday

This month, Alliance Leisure celebrates its 20th birthday. Here, Founder and CEO, Sarah Watts reflects on the company’s journey to becoming one of the UK’s leading leisure development specialists.

How did ALS get started?

Alliance Leisure Services was created after I realised that the there was a huge need for private sector investment into public sector facilities to enable them to compete with the newly emerging private sector health and fitness facilities.  It was at a time, when public sector stock had received little or no investment, so just couldn’t compete, provision was outdated and focused on sport rather than wellness and activity concepts. To bring such a concept to market, I partnered with somebody who had incredible experience in the financial sector and together we created a solution that addressed this market need.

Who was your first development contract with and what was the scope of works?

Hull City Council. In early 2000 Hull City Council decided to sell the telephone exchange which served Kingston Upon Hull. Part of the sale value, approximately £1 million was earmarked for the development of three community gyms but, at the last minute, the resource was reallocated. Life Fitness, the supplier who had been appointed to kit out the promised gyms were understandably disappointed and contacted me, having heard about our finance model.

Alliance Leisure Services provided the initial investment to create the three community gyms, supplied by Life Fitness, and this marked the start of a valued two year relationship, where Alliance Leisure Services worked exclusively with Life Fitness, providing a funding solution to local authorities looking to create or upgrade workout spaces. After this period, Alliance Leisure Services became independent, recognising that many clients preferred to make their own equipment choices. The rest, as they say, is history!

What challenges did you face in these early days and how did you overcome them?

Our finance product started to lose its appeal because it was unable to compete against a newly created Public Loan fund (PWLB) which offered incredibly low interest rates.

In response to these changes in market conditions, we began to position the company more as a development partner, helping local authorities present strong cases for leisure investment based on the far-reaching community benefits in terms of social engagement, cohesion, health and wellbeing.

We also focused on the potential to turn money pits into income generators, using a model which mitigated risk and created financial sustainability.

Have there been any ‘game changers’ or ‘Eureka moments’ in the ALS history

Being appointed as Leisure Development Partner by Denbighshire District Council on the UK Leisure Framework in 2017 has been hugely transformative. Of course, if we did not deliver great value and great service, the Framework would be of no value, but what it has enabled is for clients to appoint us to projects seamlessly. This speeds up the process, allowing clients to benefit from revenue increases much more quickly.

Are there any developments you are most proud of? If so, what makes them special?

Pendle Spa. This was a game changer for us. Back in 2006 we were commissioned by Pendle Leisure Trust to develop a public-sector spa facility in Nelson, an area of high deprivation. Such a project had never been undertaken before and was viewed by many as high risk. The project was an overwhelming success. The leisure industry and local authority interest around this project really helped to put Alliance Leisure Services on the map and enabled us to showcase what could be achieved by stepping outside of the box.

More recently, the development of SC2 in Rhyl. The £17 million visitor attraction opened in April 2019 and is expected to attract more than 350,000 visitors per annum.

Also, the success of our client support services, now rebranded TA6. In 2009 we appointed Paul Woodford to drive this side of the business. Woody has built an incredible team of talent to help leisure operators maximise revenue opportunities. Originally introduced to support our development clients, TA6 now also provides its services independently of Alliance Leisure Services.

What has been the most challenging/toughest part of the ALS story and how did you overcome this?

Balancing running a business and being a mum. This is a challenge for any working mum and my own experience has helped me to become a better manager. It is hugely important to me that the team feel supported both at work and at home. Alliance Leisure Services adopts a very flexible approach to work, allowing individuals to manage their own diaries to fulfil personal and work commitments. I have always found that if you give a little you get more in return. Most of our senior team have been with us for over a decade and I like to think this is because they regard us as a fair and flexible employer.

Can you give an indication of the investment value in build projects ALS has delivered to date?

£175 million

How many people does ALS employ today?

30 people and growing

Is Brexit impacting your business? If so, how?

Not yet. Alliance Leisure Services continues to enjoy year on year growth. That’s not to say that I don’t foresee challenges ahead. A withdrawal from the EU could have a significant impact on the UK labour market and the cost of build materials. Time will tell.

What are your ambitions for the future of ALS?

To continue to work with local authorities to deliver inspiring, innovative activity hubs which truly engage the communities they serve. Quality leisure provision, although still not mandatory, can have such a huge impact on a community from an economic, health and social perspective and we are working to evidence the ROI on our development projects based on much wider objectives than pure finance.

I also want to maintain year on year financial growth, creating a stable, challenging and fulfilling environment for our team.

Are leisure operators today more or less likely to be investing in their leisure stock than those managing facilities 10 or 20 years ago?

More likely. Our estimated turnover for this current financial year is around 10 times the turnover of just 9 years ago. This reflects the market’s general acceptance of a need to reimagine community leisure provision and a recognition of the far reaching ROI well placed investment can deliver

How bright is the future for our sector moving forwards?

The future is looking positive. The recent Leisure Database State of The Industry Report is quoting a record sector value of £5bn, plus growth in membership, number of facilities and market penetration.

The budget gym sector continues to drive investment in the public sector. Leisure centres are having to compete for members against high quality, affordable, private sector providers which is forcing leisure centre to create new and unique revenue generating opportunities. As a result, we are developing more and more family entertainment hubs which employ technological innovations to stimulate and motivate all ages to be more physically active.

The government agenda is also, finally, recognising the important role leisure facilities can play in the health and wellbeing of the nation. As the national health strategy moves closer to ‘prevention rather than cure’, local authorities will be under pressure to provide fit for purpose facilities capable to work on collaboration with health care service providers.

If you could go back and give advice to yourself as you started on this journey, what would it be?

Tricky one. I have made plenty of mistakes but the learning from each of them have contributed to placing Alliance Leisure Services where it is today so I’m not sure I would want to skip any of them. Everything happens for a reason and challenging times make us stronger. It’s been an incredible journey. I guess, if anything I would say ‘be brave and believe in yourself.’

In a nutshell, what has been the secret of ALS’s success?

Building an amazing team. I feel incredibly fortunate to have cultivated such a dedicated, hard-working team of individuals. Ultimately, we sell concepts and turn them into reality. This takes skill, passion and total belief that we can deliver what we promise.

On a daily basis the team inspire me. I am incredibly proud of all of them.

What will the leisure centre of tomorrow look like and how far away is tomorrow?

Traditional sports such as badminton, volleyball and basketball will be decanted to education and community sports clubs. This will leave leisure centres to  evolve more into family entertainment hubs. Co-located services such as cinemas and libraries will become totally integrated with a range of physical activity facilities from swimming pools to fitness spaces, from adventure parks to climbing zones.

Any plans to retire?!

Not yet. This is a truly exciting time to be involved in leisure development and I’m not getting off the bus just yet.

Haverhill Leisure Centre Transformation Punches Above its Weight

Abbeycroft Leisure, working in Partnership with Alliance Leisure, has achieved an incredible leisure centre makeover in Suffolk. The seven month transformation project has seen a tired and under-used facility reworked into a modern activity hub, all within the existing footprint, all within a budget of £1.5 million, provided by West Suffolk Council.

“The images speak for themselves”, says Tom Fairey, Senior Business Development Manager and project lead at Alliance Leisure. “Working closely with Abbeycroft Leisure and West Suffolk Council we have created a vibrant, modern environment which caters for the whole community and stands out as one of the county’s leading leisure destinations.”

Forming part of West Suffolk Council’s Indoor Sports Facility Strategy, 2015-2031, the investment has been provided to create a resilient, healthy and active community whilst also providing opportunities for economic growth. The project was managed by Alliance Leisure and procured through the UK Leisure Framework.

Tom Fairey, continues: “It is incredible what has been achieved through a reallocation of space across two floors of the 3,097 square foot building. We retained 2-courts in the sports hall and the rest of the space – equivalent to 3 courts, has been remodelled to create a vibrant XHeight Adventure Climbing facility and soft play zone like nothing else available locally. The community was lacking a facility where families could enjoy time together. This development has successfully addressed this issue.”

The development works have also incorporated the Self Centre Health and Wellbeing facility. This area is served by its own, dedicated waiting space and houses three studios, used mainly for holistic classes such as Pilates and Yoga, plus 5 therapy rooms. The facility’s main occupier is Allied Health Professionals (Suffolk) who are the NHS commissioned provider of MSK physiotherapy services. In addition to enhancing the community wellness offer, this provides a rental opportunity for Abbeycroft Leisure, creating a consistent, new, revenue stream.

The gym has been relocated, extended and kitted out with Matrix Fitness equipment plus a large, new studio space has been created which can be separated into two by a central, sliding wall. Space previously dedicated to two under-used squash courts has been reallocated to house a dedicated group cycle studio and modern ‘hot desk’ office space for staff.

Male and female changing rooms have been completely renovated to create a modern ‘changing village’ and a Paddy and Scott café has been incorporated to create a social hub where families and individuals can enjoy a wide selection of quality food and beverages.

Speaking of the development, Warren Smyth, CEO Abbeycroft Leisure, says: “The leisure centre has been completely remodelled to reflect the needs of our modern day community. Since the development completed in January, we have attracted a 32% increase in footfall and revenue is up 16 per cent for the first quarter. We are also seeing uptake from a much wider demographic.

“Based on our experience, I would encourage any Local Authority with an ageing leisure stock to explore opportunities. Tired facilities with a disconnect to the community are a huge drain on already limited resource but we have proved, even with limited capital investment, it is possible to create a sustainable environment which reengages the community and delivers economic, health and social benefits.

“In these times of austerity, we need to look for creative ways to better serve our communities and, working with Alliance Leisure and West Suffolk Council, this is exactly what we have done here.”