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In Pursuit of a Vision

10 March 2022

Peer Network participant, Stuart Fraser, talks about Leicester Outdoor Pursuits Centre, its challenges and the future he would like to secure for it.  

If you were a child in the 1960s or had children in the late 1990s, chances are you are familiar with Leicester Outdoor Pursuits Centre (though it only got that name in 1997).  Generations of cub scouts, brownies and school children have paddled their kayaks up and down the canal, enjoying a taste of the outdoor life and that tradition continues to this day.  There are photos going back to the 1900s and it celebrates 25 years as LOPC in June next year.

It’s a fully independent charity that not only offers paddle sports but archery, shooting and a high ropes course and it’s fully accessible for wheelchair users.

The charitable aims of LOPC are to provide ‘adventurous activity experiences designed to educate motivate and stimulate young people and others at an affordable price’, noble but challenging when costs continue to rise and the main building really needs replacing.

At the heart of this much-loved centre, is manager Stuart Fraser whose passion for outdoor life is impossible to miss.  He sees the potential of the centre to contribute to the social, physical and mental wellbeing of the local community – particularly post-COVID and with the rise of mental health issues among so many of us.  He has recently joined the Peer Network scheme where he can discuss business challenges with his peers under the guidance of consultant Maria Peggs.

What’s your Peer Network experience been like so far?

I’m part of a mixed group of companies with 25-40 staff and these include Marketing and IT companies.  I joined because it’s important for us to reach out and create some better networks with people locally.  The sustainability of this place depends on that. I want to link up with people who can help suggest a future direction for the Centre.  Our Board of Trustees, for example, has reduced from 12 to 6 members so we need to find some really useful people to build that up again.

What are the business challenges that you have faced in the last two years?

In a normal year we get 30,000 people through the centre and that has grown year on year.  We have great links with local schools, the scouts, uniformed organisations like the cadets.  I am passionate about it – I love the environment and I love what we do for people. Having said that, during COVID all our staff were furloughed except me and that was very tough.  The site still needed maintaining, we had a couple of break-ins and I just couldn’t switch off from it.

It sounds like in many ways you’re very similar to a lot of small business owners.

I guess so.  I am involved in every aspect of what goes on here; I even made the wooden signs for our toilets because I wanted them to look right.  I know all about the risk assessments and safety regulations we need to follow, I’m involved in the operational side but also need to find time to think about longer-term issues, like realising the potential of this place.

What are the future challenges as you see them?

We’re at the stage now where our iconic A-frame building really needs replacing and that’s going to be a major investment for a charity of our size.  Although we’ve invested in making our site fully accessible for wheelchair users, we still have lots of improvements to make including upgrading the high ropes course in a few years.  So, lots of investment to find and that’s not something I feel I can do on my own; I don’t have the depth of experience.

But you see that as an opportunity?

Very much so.  We have a unique facility here, right on the doorstep of the city.  We’re half a mile from the Space Centre, between two parks (Abbey and Watermead) and well connected by roads and cycle paths.  There is a lot of focus right now on wellbeing and the importance of balancing screen time with healthier activities.  A lot of families rediscovered walking during the pandemic, there is a massive cycling boom and I think people are looking again at alternatives to sitting at home watching tv on demand for their own physical and mental well-being.

I want to see how we can engage the business community in supporting and using the Centre more.  We already provide team building days for corporate clients and we’re a great alternative to some anonymous conference room.

The Peer Network approach often encourages some self-analysis. How do you rate your own capabilities given the challenges you face?

I’m a fairly rounded business manager with a good overview of all the activities we offer. I’m very much a jack of all trades.  I have a reasonable level of financial ability – I can manage a budget well.  But in terms of managing financial investments, that’s beyond my knowledge.  Legal issues are similar so if in the future we find ourselves dealing with architects and planning permission, I could be a good client but nothing more than that.

My background is as a store manager in retail, so people management is something I know.  I’m not strong in marketing, particularly in social media.  We tend to share that out.  It’s good but there’s not a plan behind it.

How has the Peer Network been able to help you?

I’ve shared a couple of challenges with the Peer Network; the Centre has grown from the ground up and we still manage all of our bookings, finances and reporting using Excel spreadsheets.  I wanted to explore some level of automation through a new system that might integrate these things with a booking system and online shop.  The other members felt that there would be benefits in terms of better understanding which products perform best.

On top of that, we’ve got a bespoke website which was a huge investment and is now 6 years old and IT has moved on a lot.  If we wanted to change it, we’d have to start from scratch so that’s a challenge I’m looking for advice with.  And there are things we need to look at about how we market ourselves.

What about your vision for the Centre?

I would love the idea of a building here that’s an educational site and also the most environmentally friendly building in the county, with rainwater reclamation, solar, ground source heat and so on – a net zero building.  We could have a café for people to use even if they’re not doing an activity here and a great panoramic view of the river.  We’re working on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with DMU to look at a blue-sky concept for a new building here so that’s very exciting.  We’re also considering adding a zip wire to run the length of the site as a new attraction.

Lots of the future vision for the site comes from speaking to users and staff, but most of the plans are in my head.  I’m not great at actually putting them down on paper and I am naturally quite hesitant about making big decisions because I don’t want to get it wrong.  For our next stage, where we could be looking at an investment in the millions, it will need the support of some very senior stakeholders.  That’s why I spend time on networking because I’m looking for some trustworthy mentors or partners who can help guide us to the next stage in our development.