As our leisure centres in England and Wales have now reopened, thoughts turn to which of our services will return to pre-Covid levels first. While the health and fitness market will undoubtedly be a harder nut to crack due to more diverse digital offerings, changes in usage patterns and the home gym market being buoyant, we are confident that the demand for swimming and swimming lessons will be higher than ever. Our confidence is not misplaced as we’ve received more than 5000 enquiries for swimming lesson places since the start of 2021 and since reopening we have signed up 5000 new children to our schemes. While much of our marketing focus when we were due to reopen in January was understandably being focused on fitness memberships, we have made the conscious decision as part of our April and May reopening strategy to focus on swimming as well.
We have seen a higher level of pent up demand for outdoor activities such as golf, outdoor pools and country parks than we had imagined since they reopened. Inevitably there are a mixture of factors that affect this but perhaps most significantly the lack of leisure choice, Much of our strategy in these areas relates to the retention of those customers new to us over the past 12 months. Those new customers in many ways have been free to acquire!
Recently there has been lots of narrative about the health and wellbeing benefits of swimming and quite rightly so. Most notably, Swim England’s research shows that swimming saves the health system £357 million a year and is quite rightly very encouraging. I only expect that number to increase as we get back into the swing of things. It’s fair to say that there is a real pent up demand for swimming and that’s perhaps easiest to see by the number of enquiries that we are receiving about our reopening plans. Swimming lessons and bookings have accounted for 80% of our incoming enquiries since the Prime Ministers announcement on 22 February.
The mental health benefits of outdoor swimming have really been seen at Woodgreen Leisure Centre in Banbury where, working with our authority partner Cherwell District Council, it was decided to open earlier in the year than normal. More than 1000 sessions were booked in the first week alone at a time when the pool is normally dormant – the swimmers are braver than me as the pool is currently sat at around 14 degrees!
While swimming lesson numbers have reduced by 23% over the last year we are confident that in the medium to long term we will end up with swim schools increasing well above pre-Covid levels – our internal target is actually 20%. You may ask the question why? The reality is that a number of long term barriers such as programming have been removed. We have also invested heavily in our online joining journey and narrative for swimming lessons with the aim to improve customer experience and to reduce as many barriers as possible. The reduced administration required at sites will mean that our swimming managers can spend more time developing their schemes and shaping our aquatics strategy. All of our internal research indicates that getting children back into a routine is one of the highest priorities now that they have returned to school – swimming lessons is a staple part of the week for many children. There continues to be a huge demand for Stage 1 and Stage 2 lessons and all of our sites will be offering crash course lessons in holiday periods, the reasons for this are both economic and moral.
Being able to swim remains an important life skill for any child. The fact that one million children have missed out on school swimming lessons in the last year alone is deeply concerning. Often we see new joiners amongst those attending school for the first time so clearly there is further education required before the summer. In reality the RLSS drowning prevention week that starts on 19 June perhaps takes on greater importance than ever before. Drowning remains the third highest cause of death for children in the UK, despite all of the efforts that the sector has made in recent years. From a programming perspective we need to be more reactive than ever with additional classes added at stages one and two, blocks of intensive lessons and a greater level of water safety content in our lessons. A few years ago we decided to add dedicated safety outcomes into our learn to swim programme which are endorsed by the RLSS. It’s part of our motto ‘ Swim Safer, Swim Smarter and Swim Stronger’
Programmed events such as galas are, in our view, still some way away. For many of our centres home club open meets, regional and national competitions remain an important part of the annual centre programmes as well as providing clubs with an important opportunity to fundraise. It remains to be seen how these will return and when but for many clubs it can’t be soon enough. First of all, clubs need to get their swimmers back, conditioned to the right level and ready to race. Many have done a fantastic job of providing sessions via Zoom and other sources but nothing beats the feel of the water.
Ultimately, we are confident that our revised programmes, digital improvements and online joining portal will mean that swimming lessons in particular will be the first major line of income to recover post-pandemic. As much as the pandemic has negatively affected many of our communities over the past 12 months, we believe that our communities will bounce back stronger than ever.
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