Stef Nienaltowski recently met with John Cooke, CEO of Canoe Lake Leisure, at his wonderful facilities in Southsea.
John spoke about how he came to be involved in preserving the tennis courts for the future, and how that developed and expanded into the services they provide today.
Stef Nienaltowski: Good morning, I'm sat with John Cooke, the CEO of Canoe Lake Leisure, here at the wonderful facilities in Southsea. Good morning John.
John Cooke: Good morning Stef.
SN: John, before we get in to talk about Canoe Lake Leisure, what is your background, and how did you become involved in this operation?
JC: Well, my background is I graduated from Nottingham University in Economics, and I did the normal type of thing. I got employment on a graduate training scheme as a production engineer. But, I didn't like [being] sat in an office, staring at a computer screen 8-hours a day, and I was already a qualified tennis coach, which I did during my studies just to earn some pocket money, it wasn't a career choice, I just did it simply to get myself through University. And because I lived at home, I didn't have much to lose, so I thought I would take a risk and become a self-employed tennis coach. Professionally, it was probably the best decision I ever took, because it went very well, and I found that I had plenty of work quite early on in my career, which was very pleasing.
SN: So, and here you are now, as we sit and look out at this, as I said earlier, this excellent set of facilities. How have you managed to do so much so quickly?
JC: Well, this is not all down to me, so what happened was, I coached a family that happened to be very resourceful, and we became family friends, and this coincided with a time where Council funding was very tight and had been cut, and these courts that you can see before you, these 12 Victorian grass tennis courts in the public park, their future was very much at risk, and we thought we could safeguard their future. So, we actually set up a private company to facilitate this philanthropic project, myself and the family, and things just expanded and expanded until we've developed what you can see today.
SN: So, you've got this balance about right. You've got the wonderful tennis courts you've mentioned in terms of the grass, you've got the hard tennis courts, you've got the cafe, you've got a state of the art meeting room and also workout centre downstairs. So, are you looking to attract a balance between businesses and the public, or what's the plan?
JC: Well, at first it was simply very tennis centric, and to keep tennis players dry when it rained, and give them some cake and some tea. But as you can see, we became more ambitious and other opportunities arose where we could expand adjacent sites as well. In terms of our objectives, we think we've got the facilities to offer a lot of things to everybody. So, you're correct, we are still a tennis club, and we have this facility where we can host private events, and that we can host certain tennis-centric activities as well.
But, we want to do all we can for community groups, and for charities, that perhaps couldn't afford to, or wouldn't have the opportunity to, hire facilities such as ours. At the same time, we want to balance that with perhaps corporate smaller conferences, which would perhaps subsidise the other events we do as well, because we have got a great offering for them here in terms of studio space and a licenced bar, and a cinema with state of the art sound systems. And we're affordable as well, so we think we're versatile enough to offer a lot of different people what they want.
SN: And, I know that Shaping, NatWest Bank and ourselves had a recent event here, and I have to say the feedback was excellent from all the people there. We're going to talk in a minute about the next two or three years, but I think you've got some events coming up in the next couple of months? What type of events could our local public come and see here?
JC: This is a busy season for us now, just passed the Bank Holiday now, so this is the time where the tennis events take over. So, we have the International Tennis Federation ladies' international tournament again this year, which is great, we had it last year. The feedback and response from the LTA, the Lawn Tennis Association, and from the players and the community, was unanimously positive. It was great, we've never done anything like that before, so we have ladies ranked between 50-100 in the world, playing in a public park in Portsmouth, on some of the best courts in the country, and using this brand-new pavilion, which is great.
We also have the County Cup a few weeks after that in July, where all the best players nationally represent their counties, and we have Hampshire Ladies in our division, so I'm hoping people will come down and support the Hampshire Ladies, or indeed any other county. And we also have the Road to Wimbledon, which is a junior tournament, where all the best juniors of the region play, and the winners of that tournament will go on to play at the All England Club, the Wimbledon Courts. So, it's a very exciting time for us with these events, and we also have to fit in all the private events here at the pavilion itself, so we've got a lot of private hire, a few conferences and celebrations, in terms of birthday parties and things, so it's a busy time for us, but we've got the staff in place, and we feel we can provide a great environment for all these activities.
SN: Brilliant! And for any or all of those, where do people go to get tickets, is it on your website, or where?
JC: The tickets for the International Tournament, there's a link on our own website, www.canoelakeleisure.co.uk but the tickets are available from the LTA's ticket partner which is The Ticket Factory, but there's links on the LTA website under Coco Fuzion 100, that's the new sponsor for the LTA, Coco Fuzion 100 Southsea Trophy, and the tickets in keeping with the rest of our project are the best value tickets in the UK to see international tennis. We've put the prices very low, so that we keep up our ethos of affordability and accessibility for everybody to see world class tennis.
SN: And I can vouch for the fact that last year's event was so well received, wasn't it, hopefully people come out in their droves this year. So, I talked earlier about looking forward, is there a kind of master plan for the next two or three years? You talked a lot about community, charity, support for the less able people in that sense, but obviously you're a tennis club as well, and you are a business centre, so what's the plan over the next couple of years?
JC: Well, if you'd asked me that a year ago, I would have said to become the best tennis facility in the region, but I think we're almost there already in all honesty! Our membership has grown far beyond our projections. We wanted 350 approximately members in 10 years, and we've got nearly 400 in 2 years! And we've also got 400 social members, just to use the pavilion now, the activities in the pavilion, and the licensed bar and lovely terrace with panoramic views of the site. So, the tennis is going really well. I do want to extend our offering for smaller conferences. We can host up to maybe 120-130 people upstairs and down, so we can put on a good event, and a good environment for smaller conferences, and I want to establish ourselves as an affordable and accessible facility for small to medium companies to have team bonding, and team building sessions. We have a lot of outdoor space, we have some great facilities, and I think they would really appreciate doing some work here.
SN: Wow, it's fascinating always to listen to you and what you guys are doing. So, if anyone wants to get in touch, anyone wants to join or whatever, what's the best way of doing so?
SN: John, thank you very much for putting your trust in Shaping and becoming one of our partners, we look forward to working with you and the team over the coming years, and thank you for today, it's been a fascinating insight into the operation.
JC: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.