Helen Donnellan (Director of Business Engagement, De Montford University) speaks to sports and leisure professionals about how technology can improve accessibility to our facilities and encourage greater levels of physical activity.
With one in five children described as obese by the age of 11 and 64.3 per cent of adults in England classed as either overweight or obese*, encouraging people to be physically active is critical to the nation’s health and wellbeing.
However, much of the UK’s leisure stock is more than 40 years old and has seen little capital investment due to austerity cuts. Improving our facilities is key to engaging more people in activity and technology can help, says Nick Mennell, leisure lead at Willmott Dixon.
“The experience of design is starting to shift and smart building technology is being embedded early in the construction process to encourage business growth and adapt to the changing needs of the consumer.”
The introduction of smart technologies like ambient lighting and heating systems, which can adapt to each type of activity, can help to improve engagement and increase levels of comfort for end users as well as the obvious improved building efficiencies.
Craig Mulhall, a sports & leisure consultant at LK2, believes more must be done to break down the barriers of entry to sports and leisure facilities. The sector needs to better understand the journey people go through when making decisions about starting a new regime to create inviting, accessible and unintimidating spaces.
“It is important to retain human interaction within sports and leisure environments to support the customer journey, in particular for those who are nervous about getting involved for the first time. By encouraging informal interaction with staff members – replacing reception desks with welcome desks that offer information and advice about the activities available – we can start to break down the mental barriers that often block participation. We can utilise insights from exercise behaviour science to assist us to overcome this challenge.”
The sector must also utilise technology to break down physical barriers to entry, removing obstructions to entry and ensuring that spaces are adaptable enough to be used by everyone, he says.
“Innovations in access control mean that we are now able to remove traditional access gates and improve customer experience by speeding up entry and streamlining the admissions process. Facial recognition has been trialled in centres and the use of fasttrack kiosks are fast becoming the norm.”
But we cannot focus entirely on new facilities; the utilisation of current stock is something that must also be addressed. Introducing centre management systems that produce ‘real time’ data can give insight into the centre’s usage and maintenance requirements that will enhance existing facilities and boost community engagement.
“Having access to a dashboard of ‘real time’ data that tracks facility usage and maintenance enables centre management to increase efficiencies and identify areas of potential profit. Not only can this technology extend the life of new leisure facilities, but it can also help to maximise the assets already available in both the public and private sector,” says Amii Attard, global marketing director for Intelligent Play, which creates and installs smart sports field management systems.
“For example, by identifying gaps in the booking schedule or tracking which areas of the playing field are in need of the most maintenance, AI data gives management the information they need to maximise usage and extend the life span of facilities by ensuring they are properly maintained.”
Not only can AI help facilities reach their full potential, it can also help remove another barrier of access – the British weather. By increasing the quality and safety of properly maintained pitches, AI reduces the risk of postponed or cancelled sports practice and encourages regular use of centres without disruption.
In addition to the physical and mental barriers that can often prevent customer access, the sports and leisure sector also struggles with social barriers that can limit accessibility for certain demographics.
According to Fiona Dick, De Montfort University’s head of sport, with so many buildings no longer fit for purpose, many of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds have little or no access to adequate facilities.
“This inequality means that less young people are now participating in sport. This will have a direct impact on the use of university sports centres as young people progress on to higher education and neglect the leisure facilities on campus.
“While these health and fitness assets are predominantly being utilised by students who attended private schools, the ripple effect from outdated assets means that we now have the challenge of re-educating a large part of the student population on the benefits of regular exercise.”
Increasing universal accessibility by breaking down barriers of access – mental, physical and social – has allowed the industry to divert from longstanding traditions and implement forward-thinking solutions that open up facilities to a wider consumer base. Whether these solutions help to inform the design of future builds or the introduction of technologies to current assets, the sports and leisure sector will begin to benefit from a durable, high spec portfolio of facilities, which are able to evolve alongside the needs of the consumer and boost facility management and usage for years to come.
* Obesity statistics 2019