The importance of storytelling within the leisure industry

6 minute read

What next for the public sector leisure industry? The story waiting to be told…

Here’s a true story, courtesy of Salford Community Leisure.

An 81-year-old lady attending a 24-week postural stability course at Wardley Community Centre was initially reliant on her walking stick.

On week one she managed six sit-to-stand exercises thanks to some real determination. This increased to 13 in week 12, and 15 by week 24.

Rightly proud and pleased with her achievement, she said to her instructor: “You haven’t noticed that I haven’t brought my stick for the last few weeks.” To which the instructor assured her they had noticed – and it had been a lot longer than just a few weeks! “Has it!?” she replied.

Why are we sharing that anecdote you might ask? Two reasons – and both are extremely and equally important for the future of public sector leisure.

The first is that the lady in question was feeling the benefit of exercise brought about by social prescribing – when health professionals refer patients to support in the community, in order to improve their health and wellbeing.

Secondly, by sharing her story, we are highlighting the benefits of social prescribing, thus bringing to life the excellent work and accomplishments being achieved not just in Salford, but in public sector leisure and community centres up and down the country.

If you didn’t know of the great work that goes on to benefit all ages, abilities, disabilities, health conditions and fitness levels day in, day out, you now have an inkling. That’s the power of storytelling, so imagine the level of awareness that could be achieved if more anecdotes and examples of excellent, life-enhancing work were shared by the operators of the 2,727* publicly owned leisure centres in the UK. (*Local Government Association)

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Public sector leisure – the real story is in the telling

It’s no secret the leisure industry – public and private – is experiencing tough times due to the cost-of-living crisis and spiralling energy bills. At the moment, you are more likely to see and read about the financial implications for public swimming pools than you are about the water-based, Good Boost muscular skeletal programmes supporting those living with muscle and joint pain.

The lack of storytelling in the public sector leisure industry is actually undermining its unique selling point (USP) – that no one else is capable of providing the scope of wellness facilities and services currently being offered in our leisure centres and swimming pools.

So much so, that a leading figure in the leisure industry, Graeme Hinde, re-ignited the debate at the latest gathering of the LFX leisure industry networking group he founded, where more than 60 industry leaders were focused on the hugely relevant topic of ‘what next for leisure?’

Numerous topics and issues were covered but what came out loud and clear was that the sector has been, and still is, poor at telling the powerful stories that result from its work.

Telling those stories about how health and wellbeing is incorporated into day-to-day leisure and community centre activities can make a huge difference to the way public sector leisure is perceived. It prompted those LFX members present to make one simple pledge: to tell more success stories.

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Taking the leisure storytelling debate public

Following the LFX event, Graeme took to the LinkedIn social media platform to share the debate, prompting more insightful observations, especially about the industry’s readiness to share success as a team triumph rather than it being seen as a ‘look at us, aren’t we great’ moment.

One reply, from Malcolm McPhail, CEO of KA Leisure, says: “(Graeme) I know the importance of this message and I hear you! However, are we as an industry ready to embrace these stories and use them as a Team Trust approach, demonstrating the ability to bask in other peoples’ glory, replicate them or indeed better them? My experience is that we are not that cohesive, or mature enough, to explore joined up success.

Peter Kilkenny, Executive Director at PG Reviews management consultancy, agreed: “Malcolm is correct, that maturity is often lacking and when those in the public sector make a case it is often lost with discussions about costs / alternate delivery models.

It makes complete sense to better understand the complex world of the new (NHS) integrated care organisations (as) these will be pivotal and strong advocates when real sustainable change is required. Not sure if the sector generally really understands these health-related organisations.

John Oxley, currently Interim CEO at Life Leisure in Stockport, adds: “I wholeheartedly agree about the importance of sharing our stories – past and present. I’m certain that there are lots of people we need to influence who are not aware of the amazing things that are done and have been done. In fact, we probably should say less to each other and more to those that would love to know the impact we have and how we do it but aren’t aware. I also think that our stories should be about our future as well as our past and present – just a thought.

What’s next for leisure? The Pivot to Active Wellbeing

It’s not about fitness, it’s all about health and movement. That was the message to GM Active, which represents the 12 public sector leisure operators in Greater Manchester, from industry data expert and commentator David Minton when he joined one of its board meetings. He praised the collective’s objective to pivot from fitness providers to the vanguard of public health, saying it was ‘light years’ ahead of anyone else he was aware of.

Citing the term, a dose of activity, a phrase coined by a Harvard professor, David said the public sector’s next big challenge was to understand the needs of the individual – and in doing so the industry would grow ‘like crazy’.

Ask anyone from GM Active what’s next for public sector leisure and you will get one answer – the Pivot to Active Wellbeing.

This is a far-reaching change programme to create sustainable public leisure services working collaboratively within Greater Manchester to support improvements in the health of the wider population through active wellbeing.

The aim is to change how local leisure centres, swimming pools, fitness facilities and services are perceived and used, putting a greater emphasis on health and wellbeing instead of being purely focused on fitness. The future is wellness – physical and mental – and activity helps both.

Getting people through the doors of our leisure/community centres and swimming pools to be more active, potentially takes a burden off the NHS, especially if social prescribing and exercise referral schemes help patients prepare for treatment, recover from it more quickly and maintain healthier ways of living afterwards.

The Pivot to Active Wellbeing programme is something GM Active and its collaborators that include GreaterSport, the 10 Greater Manchester local authorities, Sport England, other partners such as GM Moving, and the 12 Greater Manchester leisure trusts, hope will create a blueprint for a nationwide shift of emphasis in public sector leisure.

It’s another story to be told and we’ve started by sharing information in a series of social posts on behalf of GM Active. Here’s a taster…

“What is the pivot to active wellbeing? For us at GM Active it means shifting the emphasis of our operations away from leisure and fitness towards a more health-focused approach.

Work began in earnest at the start of the year and essentially, our pivot has four areas of focus:

  • Assessing our facilities and services and repurposing them if necessary.
  • Academic rigour – our active academic partnership with University of Salford ensures everything we do is researched and tested.
  • Workforce development – Transformational Leaders Programme is leading the way on this.
  • Federal approach to the way we operate with collective and local ways of working.

As a collective of 12 health and wellness operators, responsible for 99 leisure and sports facilities across Greater Manchester, we are determined to transform our buildings, people and provision to bring a holistic benefit to the communities we serve.

We’ll be sharing more details throughout the weeks and months to come.”

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How do you spot a story?

In the course of researching this article, I spoke to a former employee of a Greater Manchester leisure trust who has seen first-hand the stories that very rarely get told.

In his own experience, he admitted, it was because the notion of the great things being achieved where he worked did not enter his consciousness as ‘stories’, and yet he said: “There are great things happening in every leisure centre every day all over the country.

So, how can you tell a story if you don’t know it’s a story? There isn’t a straightforward answer, although the simplest is to harness the knowledge and expertise of a PR expert. For example, the PR team here at Cornerstone is made up of former senior journalists with vast experience of every kind of media, from print to broadcast to digital and all points in between. When you’ve handled information for decades like they have, it’s instinctive to spot a story when you see it.

If you’re working in public sector leisure and don’t have access to a communications team, or someone with similar expertise in publicity such as a marketer, ask yourself if the work being done at your centre is changing lives for the better. An 81-year-old ditching her walking stick might not always make the pages of the local paper, or secure a radio interview, but it could fuel your social media output, form the basis of a poster, or a video on an information screen. People love to know about other people.

And share it for the right reason. Not the ‘look at how great we are’ reason, but the ‘look at what this can achieve’ reason. That might inspire someone else. If 2,700-plus leisure centres were doing this for all the right reasons, the future of leisure would look much healthier, and so would the future for the people benefiting from it.

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What can Cornerstone do for you?

If you are interested in harnessing the experience, expertise, professionalism and creativity of Cornerstone’s PR team to benefit your business or organisation, get in touch.

By Nigel, PR & Copywriter

Front view of PR Team member Nigel Wareing, smiling whilst using a computer

Nigel has been a journalist since the days of typewriters (not even electric typewriters)! He has edited several weekly newspapers across Greater Manchester, been the editor-in-chief of several more and edited a daily newspaper in Northern Ireland. He came home to work on the former Greater Manchester regional TV station Channel M. Having dropped the […]

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