An Australian perspective of leisure

A little while ago a group of Australian leisure professionals arrived in the UK as part of an international study tour. The Leisure Review spent some time with them during their hectic schedule to see what they had learned and what lessons they would be taking home with them

Aussies on tour
left to right: Bruce Fordham, Arden Joseph, Brett Lavale and Andrew Whittaker with the Roger Bannister plaque at the Iffley Road stadium

For a two-week study tour, they had packed plenty into the itinerary. Starting in Dubai with visits to the Wild Wadi water park and Ski Dubai, the 22,500 sq metre indoor desert snow facility, the four-member tour party headed for Glasgow and a couple of days with Edinburgh Leisure before basing themselves in Buxton for visits to Manchester and Loughborough University. Switching their base to Oxford, they then included some London sites, K2 at Crawley and the Oxford University facilities before heading for the airport.

At the helm of the tour was Andrew Whittaker, chief executive of Aquatics and Recreation Victoria, the industry professional body for the state of Victoria. Born in Manchester with many years of experience of the swimming and recreation field in Australia under his belt, not to mention several previous study tours to the UK from down under, Andrew was also well-equipped to offer his charges some of the background to a number of the finer cultural points. Those benefiting from Andrew’s guidance and his detailed knowledge, particularly, as it turned out, of the history and attractions of Buxton were Arden Joseph, director of community sport and recreation with the Victorian government’s sports agency, Sport and Recreation Victoria; Brett Lavale, site manager with Monash University Sport; and Bruce Fordham, manager of leisure services with Hume City Council and president of Parks and Leisure Australia.

By the time The Leisure Review had caught up with them in Oxford, the group was towards the end of the tour and ready to try to bring out some of the key messages from the huge amount of information they had taken on board along the way. With everyone settled into the Angel and Greyhound just across the road from the Oxford University Iffley Road site, where there had been a demonstration of the university pool’s drowning prevention system, Arden Joseph set the ball rolling.

“The things that have hit me quite impressively are the multi-purpose facilities,” Arden said. “I’m thinking particularly of The Bridge at Easterhouse in Glasgow. This had a very good connection of school, public library, performing art centre, 50m swimming pool, a number of sporting halls, all virtually under one roof. It presented a pretty good model.”

With his background in facilities, Brett was also struck by the examples of mixed-use sites. “I think there’s been a lot of good facility co-location,” he said. “Even when we were in Dubai where we were looking at the more tourist-based facilities, they were co-located with premium hotels or premium shopping outlets. Over here, as Arden mentioned, The Bridge was a really good example of arts, culture and sport. Co-location is a theme that I’ll take away.

“Also that there’s a variety of management approaches and models over here which is not dissimilar to what we’ve got back home. There’s everything from trusts and in-house local government management to private contract management arrangements, and the balance between the commercial outcomes and the social outcomes is something that’s been really interesting. There’s all different balances under those different models and different approaches from the owners of the facilities.”

Bruce Fordham recognised a number of issues for local government that were already familiar to him from his work at home.

“The challenges are, I guess, physical activity and engaging people in physical activity,” he said. “It’s a really interesting worldwide phenomenon about engaging people in activity and I’m intrigued that we see the need to organise people as a way of engaging them. I’m not convinced that it’s always right because I think a lot of the engagement is not organised activity. It’s unorganised activity that will be the greatest participation opportunity and I don’t know that I’ve seen the focus during the tour on that. I’ve seen facilities and I’ve talked to people about how their strategies engage them through facilities and programming but I haven’t heard the other part about how the environment and the physical environment encourages people to be active. That’s about being safe and about building the shared pathways and the like to encourage that. I think that this other capacity and opportunity needs to be complementary to the development of facilities and programming.”

While in Edinburgh, Bruce had been struck by the use of open space for improvised recreation of all kinds, even golf.

“We were impressed by the green and open space without [sports] fields necessarily being designated on large tracts of open space,” he explained. “I guess I was encouraged by that. What we observed was them being used for a whole lot of different purposes and that was great. I think one of the things we’ve done in Australia is that we get large tracts of green space and put a [sports] field on it. We don’t necessarily have land that we don’t designate for a reason. The contrast could be seen in the different activities people were doing on uncharted green spaces, like the notion of chip-and-putt. Fantastic idea but from the risk management point of view in Australia at the moment it would be seen as something extremely difficult to without multiple signage about being killed by an errant golf ball.”

The sight of dog walkers sharing space with informal sports of all kinds had clearly struck a chord with Bruce and he wondered about the relationship between organised and non-organised sports provision.

“I think the Edinburgh experience of that was very positive and I think there’s got to be a balance. If you’re talking about social responsibility, you also need capacity. You don’t always have to pay for recreation and leisure, and the majority of people don’t.”

So one of the key messages will be to go home and get disorganised?

“Go home and get your spaces right, encourage activity. I love the idea of chip-and-putt. I think it’s fantastic to be able to go down to the park and do it. That’s how you get people out. You make it attractive, you make it so people want to go. And in the majority I think the parks here have been well tended. There’s been comments from certain people that this wasn’t the case but I must say from what we’ve observed I think they are pretty well tended. They are attractive and that’s why people will go. If you don’t do that, they won’t go.”

From his perspective as an ex-pat and a regular visitor to the UK over the years, Andrew Whittaker had been slightly disappointed by the limited number of facilities that could be said to be truly innovative.   

“Our last study tour was about three years ago, so there was Doncaster Dome, Ponds Forge, all those facilities that had been built and we were interested in how they were surviving. It’s good when they’re new: how are they going ten years later? Further on there hasn’t been a great deal other than K2 Crawley. I can’t really think of much that’s new so it was interesting in the sense of what we could go and see if you wanted to look at something totally new.

However, other aspects of the UK leisure sector had caught Andrew’s eye.

“By the same token, I’ve been very impressed with the whole strategic planning, certainly by Edinburgh Leisure as an operation. They have a whole range of facilities –  the indoor rock wall was a good example – and just the whole professional approach to trying to make those things work. The other underlying thing is still this risk management control by insurance and liability of risk. Everyone seems to mention that this is something they have to keep thinking around, something that is dictating what they do. I hope it doesn’t end up stifling things, doesn’t stop things actually happening.”

Arden Joseph recognised some familiar issues when discussing strategic targets with his UK counterparts.

“From a state government perspective, there are two top priorities. Firstly physical activity: to make some inroads into sedentary lifestyles, diabetes and those sorts of preventable diseases. The other is optimal use of space, provision and use. The City of Melbourne has four million people and is rapidly running out of space, particularly in the inner suburbs. Schools are being sold because demographics change and the land is turned into housing. Once it is developed, automatically the greenspace is lost for sport. People then have to travel further and all the issues that go with that. Those are the top two for me but I will also be taking back the provision of more healthy food at sporting facilities. It’s something that seems to have been underway here for quite some time and accepted by the population and the users. We’re only at the start of the process in Australia. Schools have just started to cut back on fizzy drinks and I think the next step, certainly where I can have influence, is around sporting facilities.”

Brett Lavale was pleased to find some of his assumptions on leisure facilities as business centres demonstrated within the UK market.

“Having had a background as a strategic planning consultant and also a manager, there’s a few things that have been reconfirmed for me coming over here,” Brett said. “They are primarily: fitness facilities make money; you can’t get enough indoor sports courts and nor can we; pools generally cost money to operate but they’re a valuable community asset; crèche facilities are important for fitness users; and more and more, as we saw at K2 Crawley, the spaces in facilities are important: the corridors, the big areas for people to socialise, having meetings and conversations.”

Facility design was also on Bruce Fordham’s list of things to take away. “I guess if it’s one thing it’s certainly the design of new facilities, particularly the capacity to integrate the range of opportunities in the facility. Using the natural light is going to be very important and I think it reinforces the point about some of the practical parts of the design of a recreation sports facility that often our good friends in the architectural world forget. The other thing I think will be the co-location of outdoor opportunities with sports facilities. For me, that’s been really good to see. For someone who’s going back to develop a new facility and a significant one, that integration reinforces to me the need not only to have the built structure but also the external. I think seeing K2 has been really good and some of the other facilities, particularly in Edinburgh, have been pretty similar.

 “Another thing I think is worth saying is the positive reinforcement of the staff at the various sites. I have to say I was very impressed by Edinburgh Leisure and their ethos of ‘the customer’s right’, really getting the right culture in with the staff being community-minded and patron-minded. That was something that stuck in all our minds. Very much a culture from the top down about the expectations of service being first. Certainly not diminishing the technical aspects, but that was really significant and you saw it all the way. I certainly don’t think it was put on for us being there, I think it was just the attitude: very positive. So that’s something we’ll reflect on I think. At the end of the day, it’s what the customer wants.”

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