Jon Williams, chief operating officer at the Marlow Club, a privately owned health, fitness and wellbeing centre in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, remembers 20 March 2020 with painful clarity. That day, the prime minister was scheduled to make a key announcement on the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I had a meeting that ended at 4pm, and my aim was to get home to watch the prime minister’s press conference,” says Williams. “I ended up getting stuck in traffic and was listening on the radio when he said that, from that night, all pubs, restaurants, shops and health clubs had to close. I felt I’d been punched in the gut by Mike Tyson.”
There’s a painful irony to the inclusion of health and fitness centres among those restrictions: they have an obvious role in keeping people strong and resilient to illness. And Williams is, of course, far from the only one in the sector to experience this year as a crushing blow.
Navigating through the fog
In August, Community Leisure UK, which represents charitable organisations running sport and leisure facilities for councils, called for ring-fenced financial support from the government to keep them open, saying that 85 leisure centres and 24 swimming pools were at risk of permanent closure. A survey of its members found that 38 per cent would be non-viable or in an insecure position by the end of 2020, growing to 70 per cent inside 12 months. It also said more than 16,000 jobs in the sector were at risk. These facilities had a combined turnover of more than £1.2bn in 2019, and collectively employ more than 46,000 staff.
As such, project managers in the health and fitness sector have been left facing huge challenges – first in closing operations, and then in reopening them safely, against a backdrop of ever-changing announcements, unpredictable demand and the looming risk of future lockdowns.
Keith Gray is the owner of Risk Performance, a Northampton-based risk management consultancy, and a committee member of APM’s Risk SIG. When he saw his local gym undergoing such changes, he immediately drew parallels with his own project management experience – mothballing a South African power facility.
The fields may be vastly different, but Gray insists that the project management approach when closing gyms remains the same.
“The way to treat mothballing, whether a power facility or a gym, is as a project to be managed,” says Gray. “Closing is its own project, with its own strategic aims, plan and schedule, and risks that need to be identified, prioritised and dealt with. But opening back up is a project too, where you must keep a watching brief on everything that’s happening. And if you then have to close again, you repeat the process and treat that like another project too.”
A whole new ball game
The risks surrounding gyms reopening are manifold. There is, for example, the risk that customers fail to stick to government regulations, which could see a centre being shut down. Or the threat that customers lose confidence and fail to return in the first place, which may require the company to alter safety measures, membership deals and communications to lure them back. All while flying blind because there’s a lack of official guidance, and never-ending changes to legislation.
For Williams and the Marlow Club, reopening brought a raft of challenges. The entire building and health offering needed to be completely redesigned. Williams’ most recent project management experience lay in the development of the club’s multi-storey car park in 2019. That project had a set budget, a clear goal, a defined start and end point, and sharp milestones in between. Reopening the club was the complete opposite.
“We didn’t know how much it was going to cost,” says Williams, “or how long it would take, or whether the project we were doing would have to change by the time we’d finished. We knew we needed to do it very quickly, but we had zero guidelines as to what it had to be, how it had to work, or what we could or couldn’t do. And we were trying to share it with our members at the same time, to ensure they were brought along on the journey and not blind to what was going on, so they’d be confident when we were given the green light that we could open and they’d be safe.”
Williams’ project management plan for reopening began in earnest at the start of May – with a late-night light-bulb moment “after a few glasses of red”.
“At about 11pm one evening I started developing a plan,” he says. “This included a strategy of how we would operate, and how we’d change the building and the team to make our clubs the safest, most enjoyable and friendliest they have ever been.”
By 6am the following morning, he had a document of 30-plus pages, detailing how the centre would reopen with virtual bookings, one-way systems, outdoor sessions, sanitising stations, a new high-intensity interval training studio and personal training sessions offered online. Marlow is also building a bona fide film studio in which to take that virtual provision to the next level. The plan came to fruition very quickly. In late June, Marlow was able to show over 1,000 members around the new premises in just a few days.
Back in the saddle… for now
After much indecision, the government finally allowed health and fitness centres to reopen on 25 July. The club is now operating at a level that Williams says is “significantly past COVID-safe”, with a service that would still be able to run and generate money even if forced to close again in future. “I can now see how we’ll be operating in three to five years,” says Williams, “whereas pre-lockdown, I could only see [us lasting] couple of months before we’d have to physically close the doors and walk away.”
The sad truth is that many other health and fitness clubs aren’t in such a healthy position. And with the threat of a second lockdown now looming, those Mike Tyson blows are threatening once again. The hope is that the good practices that centres have demonstrated in reopening will leave them exempt from the impact of restrictions that are once again raining down on other industries.
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