Darren Bridgman: Operations Director of the Peter Ashley Activity Centres [Interview]

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The Peter Ashley Activity Centres run both Fort Purbrook & Widley and are a valuable service to the city and its community. Stef Nienaltowski met with Darren Bridgman, their Operations Director, to discuss the task of running within such a set of historic buildings and facilities.

Stef was interested to learn what Darren and the team do at the centres and once you've listened to the interview you may be a keen as he was to go and visit them.

Stef Nienaltowski: Good afternoon, I'm sat with Darren Bridgman, the Operations Director for the Peter Ashley Activity Centres, and you may know that they run Fort Purbrook and Fort Widley, two historic forts. Good afternoon Darren.

Darren Bridgman: Good afternoon Stef.

SN: Darren, before we talk about the forts, and the activities you have here, how did you get this great job?

DB: Yeah, it's a great job! By sheer luck I have to say. I'd been working in education for ten or so years, mainly in pupil referral units, working with guys and girls that were out of education, running outdoor ed'[ucation], because it seemed like a fun thing to be doing, and what I was looking for really was something different, something that allowed me to continue to do the outdoor education that I loved so much, but around evenings, weekends, holidays. Then I got an interview up here for an activity instructor, that moved on to being three interviews for activities instructors’ roles, which I thought was a bit keen, but they ended up offering me a full-time role as a Project Co-ordinator. So, yeah, I jumped at it with both feet.
Once we got embedded in the role, I saw the facilities, saw the buildings, saw all the fantastic things that we look to achieve up here, I was hooked and haven't looked back really. Going back now to November 2016, I was fortunate enough to be offered the role of Operations Director, I grabbed with both hands, and the team have been fantastic and the process of managing a team, and being part of that team, and now being the Director of the charity, is a fantastic opportunity.

SN: It's amazing as I say, because it's such a unique occasion. So, that kind of tells me how you got here, and how big is your team by the way now?

DB: We employ 30 staff here from full time admin, reception staff, centre managers, finance officers, and instructors alike.

SN: Turning to the two forts, what are the main challenges of running these unique operations?

DB: When I first rocked up and got involved in running the activities, it was quite clear that we weren't very well known, and for an organisation that had been here for 30-odd years, to know us you'd had to have been here, so I guess branding and exposure were the main hurdles initially. We found ourselves having the unofficial title of Portsmouth's Best Kept Secret, which at the time probably wasn't the best business model, and with such a prominent position, and such fantastic facilities, we really had to focus hard on improving our marketing and awareness. What was really good to see, that as we've started to push this forward through social media, printed advertising, editorials, there's been a real buzz about the charity, and we're getting people up know who have said "I've read about your organisation" as opposed to "what do you do up here?". A real turn-around, but still lots of work to do.

SN: And, I guess the age of the forts, and the upkeep of them, that must be a challenge as well?

DB: Very much so, the biggest challenge is the upkeep and the cost. We're sat in Fort Purbrook now, and to keep the lights on, and the heating up, at Purbrook and Widley, we're spending in the region of £65,000 per year, so it's a significant undertaking. And when you factor in the maintenance that goes on top of that, it can soon stack up. However, as we continue to start looking at what it is we need to achieve in the future, the costs will only grow, and the charity is sustainable, and it's doing well, but we need to start looking at fishing further afield for our heritage grants, and how we really look at addressing some of the issues here at the sites.

SN: As I was waiting for you to start the interview, I looked at your rolling video in reception there, great advert for what you do. Could you maybe take us through some of the main activities you do here, and particularly how often some of the more popular ones are run? Whether you do them once a year or more often?

DB: So, we've kind of got a bit of a split camp. Purbrook is our main activity centre, with Widley being our Equestrian centre. So here at Purbrook, you name it! We offer archery, rifle shooting, bouldering, rock-climbing, laser-tag (used to be laser quest but we can't really call it that anymore!), a bit of team building, orienteering, we've recently brought online bush craft and mountain biking, a bit of a relic from the past, we used to do it a little while ago and now we've rekindled it, and it's really nice to see how that's received by the service users that visit the centres. We also have our residential facility here at Purbrook, we've got a 126-bed residential accommodation block with a range of catering options.
What's been nice to see over the last year or so, is we've developed our adventurous camps for schools. So, we have schools come and stay with us regularly, camp out on the parade ground, even though we've got our barrack block and they can all stay in there, they stay under canvass up on the parade ground, it's an absolutely fantastic sight to see and an experience for the guys that come and experience it. With Widley and our Equestrian Centre, we're the only licences equestrian centre in the City, and we offer a wide range of activities from private lessons to group lessons, hacks out, lead walks out, what we're also looking for at the moment we've recently partnered with the Riding for the Disabled Association, so we've got a big provision that's growing around our RDA package, and being able to provide those for as limited a cost of possible, if not a zero cost, which is what we try to achieve. So, lot's going on!

SN: There is! And I know we're going to come and talk about schools and colleges in a moment, but before we get off the business and team building, and some of the activities, can private businesses book here, hire here, or run events here? Does that happen often?

DB: Very much so, we're a youth charity, but we have to diversify our provision, and working with businesses is key to that. So, and example is, we worked with Fat Face a few years ago, they held a conference up here at the training facility, and we then complemented that with our activity programme as well, did a bit of lunch, and it worked. You can just book those ad hoc, obviously give us a ring, don't just turn up, make sure all the booking processes are in place, and we can run a day to meet a range of needs.

SN: Brilliant. So, as I mentioned earlier, from your marketing materials and your videos, and the whole pictures I can see around the Centres, you obviously do a lot of work with young people. What value do schools and colleges get from your facility here?

DB: Value to me is an interesting concept. Of course, we provide fantastic value for money, I'm bound to say that, but part of our charitable aims is to provide young people with the opportunity to experience and participate in activities, and we feel that finance and cost shouldn't be a barrier to that. However, when you look at value in the wider context, we try to ensure we work with group leaders to make sure that we meet their requirements for their young people. There's a value you can pay for something, but if what you're paying for isn't meeting your needs as a leader or a participant, whether it's about you improving your climbing or your rifle shooting, or being able to communicate effectively with your year-7 colleagues or friends that you've just come away to this activity centre with, then there's very little value in paying for something. What we try to achieve here at the Centre is being flexible, approachable, and listening to what the groups' requirements are, and what the staff require from the visit, and ensuring we can tailor that to the opportunity to meet those needs.

SN: Fantastic! So finally, if anybody, business, school, college, anybody wants to get in touch with you, what are the best routes to do that?

DB: Yeah, so, very exciting, we've just pushed forward our new website, it's an amazing thing and growing by the day if the staff here have anything to do with it! They're constantly wanting to update it! That's and on there is a range of contact details, and social media outlets, all online now on our website, you can jump on that and it's absolutely fantastic!

SN: Thank you. Darren, I hope you're not going to be the best kept secret for much longer, and we at Shaping look forward to working with you in the coming months.

DB: Brilliant, thank you very much.

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