We’ve been incredibly impressed with the way so many Co-ops and Community businesses have managed through the Covid-19 situation and lockdown. The commitment to serving their communities and the resilience and ingenuity they have shown has been amazing!
We’ve spoken to a number of our clients about how they have managed – here we share the story of Sencio Community Leisure , one of our larger borrowers, after speaking to CEO Jane Parish about their Covid-19 experience.
This interview was undertaken before Lockdown 3 came into effect. At the time of publishing, all leisure centres are closed under national lockdown restrictions.
What was your immediate challenge when the first lockdown came?
The biggest challenge was that we had five hours notice – the closure of leisure centres was announced at 5pm and we had to close at close of play that night. We had three sites – plus a golf course which could stay open at that time – so it was all hands on deck, communicating with customers, cancelling the next membership direct debits that were due, making sure people couldn’t book online, contacting all the clubs who used the spaces, the regular hires etc – we had things booked for the very next day that we had to cancel. One of the hardest was dealing with people who had birthday parties for children, that was tough. The staff were amazing – they really rallied round, even all those who were due to leave at five stayed on so we could get it all done.
We were fortunate in that I’d had a meeting with one of the amazing swimming pool engineers we work with, about ten days before, and we’d planned what to do – you can’t just mothball a leisure centre. If you empty a swimming pool, all the tiles fall off as the water pressure is part of what holds them on. We were able to put that plan into action from the 21st, which was fantastic.
From there we had to arrange building checks on a daily basis – we had to keep the water moving, so we arranged to do things like flush the loos, run the taps and do water safety tests to make sure legionella wouldn’t become a problem. We have a no lone working policy so we had to find a way to have two people in safely.
Then very quickly, we were trying to get our head around furlough – we had to explain to our team that we were putting them on furlough when we didn’t really yet know what it was. We have 343 staff and all but 13 essential workers, went onto furlough. As we had to maintain the buildings during the lockdown, we had to utilise some of the essential staff to help carry out building checks, even though it was not part of their normal job to keep the buildings operational. Usually, they would work in a specific site but we changed things so our rotas allowed them all to work, across all sites, at different times.
Very quickly, the council contacted us and asked if they could use one of the centres as a hub for a food bank and food parcels, from 7am-7pm, 7 days a week. We were glad to help facilitate this by utilising the staff not furloughed to ensure the centre was opened for the hours required and helped take food deliveries in, when council staff were not present.
As soon as we could, we started planning for reopening.
It was announced that golf courses could reopen from the 18th May 2020. We reopened ours from the 1st June as we needed to do a lot of ground maintenance work. People had been using our golf course as leisure space – everything from walking and jogging to horse riding, and using the bunkers as beaches! There was a lot of anti social behaviour that we had to sort out, to get the courses up to scratch.
On the 9th July, the government announced that leisure centres could reopen from the 25th July. We decided to reopen to the public on the 3rd August, and from the 25th, we let the swim clubs in the week before at our leisure centres. We did this for two reasons.
One – The swim clubs don’t need lifeguards and as our lifeguards hadn’t swum for four months, that was an opportunity for them to get back into the swing of things and ensure they were still compliant in relation to their lifeguard qualification.
Two – We’d introduced a number of new Covid safe systems, including one way systems, distancing of both people and equipment in the gyms (and put a lot of equipment in storage as we no longer had the space), and we wanted to make sure the systems were robust, staff had been fully trained and ensure that they worked with a smaller group before opening it up to a larger number of people.
Sadly, due to the restrictions we had to comply with, we had to identify some activities we could not offer. We had to control numbers so we moved to having pre booked slots at the gym, swim and fitness classes, and limiting certain timed sessions to certain groups.
We then had a phased programme of what we could reintroduce. We started by approaching schools and our own swim school, and then some of the sports clubs. Unfortunately, the restrictions meant we could not open spectator areas, which meant parents couldn’t come to watch their children learn to swim ,so we had to look at how we were going to overcome this. It was hard and a lot of work and planning went into it but worth it, to work with our customers and staff to make sure they were all aware of our Covid safe procedures – it was like putting together a jigsaw to make sure we didn’t have people coming in and out at the same time and through the same corridors
For us, I think the main things have been feeling like guidance was changing so fast and so often that we were just responding constantly. Every sport has their own governing body, so we had to read all of them, each time anything changed, and work out what we could safely implement.
What support did you access, including from CCF?
Initially, we only received, £10k business support grant for the golf centre as the rateable value of the leisure centres were above the then threshold of £51k. Our local authority gave us a grant of £35k towards our utility costs so we could reopen in August. Following the second national lockdown in November, and then Kent being placed into tier 4 in December, we received £64k business support grant covering November – February. Our local authority awarded us £300k grant in December 2020 to enable us to reopen and then we went into lockdown three.
The furlough has been a lifesaver – it was extremely difficult and without that, we wouldn’t have managed.
Co-operative and Community Finance were really good, and got in touch asking if we were ok, if we needed a capital holiday – at the moment, we’re only paying interest.
We applied for a CBILS loan from our bank – the bounce back loan was only £50k which wouldn’t be enough for us so we put in for £1.5m from our mainstream bank. Unfortunately, we were not successful, and being not for profit was a big part of that. It felt like the sausage machine had very strict criteria which we – nor any other leisure trust – could meet. We applied for another CBILS through Big Issue Capital following a webinar on resilience and recovery loans for leisure trusts. Unfortunately, we did not get that either.
What are you doing now?
This interview was undertaken while Kent was in Tier 3 and before Lockdown 3 came into effect. At the time of publishing, all leisure centres are closed under national lockdown restrictions.
We’re in tier 3 in Kent so as part of that we cannot offer fitness classes. There are also even more restrictions in, eg, badminton – people can only play from a single household. From reopening in August, the gyms can only have 15 pre-booked in a session, swimming can only be pre-booked lane swimming with 24 people in the pool, fitness classes might have seven participants when previously it was 20.
We offer an all inclusive membership and I could not get my head around how we would manage this when we could not offer fitness classes and ensure fairness to all our members. We made the very difficult decision on 30th November not to reopen on 2nd December. From August 2020, we’ve only been bringing in 30% of usual income and we’ve lost over 50% of our members. We’ve offered members the option to freeze free of charge and quite lot of people have done that – we can’t wait to see them back here.
What are your plans moving forward?
We’re creating a reopening strategy and plan to reopen when we are allowed. Most of the sessions we have planned are fully booked which is great, but it means we can’t invite new members as there are no sessions available for them. We are also looking to launch online fitness classes for both our customers and our local communities to help with their health and well being and feelings of social isolation .