Learning how to make play pay: John Shepherd looks at the leading lights who are surviving in leisure

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The Independent Online
'MUCH WORK is merely a way to make money; much leisure is merely a way to spend it.' Alas, that statement in C Wright Mills' Power, Politics and People can today be turned on its head.

There is not much work about, and those who do have jobs are not spending. Against that background, leisure has been one of the hardest hit of all industries by the recession.

Many companies have gone to the wall and the accountancy profession now finds itself in the unenviable position of being one of the industry's largest participants, owning scores of hotels, discos and clubs picked up from companies that have had to go into receivership.

The people and companies lured into leisure at the height of the property boom have been weeded out first, closely followed by established outfits that paid over the top for market share. The list of fallen names is long and star-studded; it includes George Walker at Brent Walker, Harry Goodman at International Leisure, Michael Ward at European Leisure, and the Forsyth brothers at Leading Leisure. Michael Guthrie is one of the few to have staged a comeback, having been ousted at Mecca when it was taken over by Rank. He now owns pizza restaurants and motorway service stations.

Among the surviving names, one who draws strong admiration is Hans Versloot, finance director of Center Parcs, the water-based holiday camps owned by Scottish & Newcastle Breweries. Mr Versloot is becoming well known in the industry, being revered for his fluency in the industry's dominant language of mathematics.

At a leisure seminar earlier this year, hosted by County NatWest, he impressively reeled off dozens of numbers for such cogs in the leisure machinery as occupancy rates, spend per head, bed-nights and advanced bookings. And he clearly demonstrated his understanding of how the numbers could be applied to leisure.

He even relates the concept of Center Parcs to a formula, which can be tinkered with and adapted to suit every country in Western Europe. The British, he divulged, spent more at the Center Parcs than did the Dutch and Germans, who, to his dismay, preferred to indulge in other leisure activities outside the company's control.

Among the pure leisure stocks, it has become clear during the recessionary fallout who the best competitors are.

Companies such as First Leisure, headed by the industry's wise veteran Lord Delfont, and the astute John Conlan stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Lord Delfont is due to step down as chairman at the end of the month, but will keep a hand on the tiller as president. He is also involved in Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, joint owner with First Leisure of the Prince of Wales and Prince Edward theatres in London.

For all of Lord Delfont's experience, John Conlan is First Leisure's leading light although his control is tightly governed by a boardroom that could well be a role model for the Cadbury Report. Seats are equally divided between executive and non-executive directors, who number Michael Grade and Lord Rayne.

The company is one of the few in the industry to get away with reviving a seemingly moribund leisure pursuit - ten-pin bowling. Mr Conlan not only knows the ins and outs of the mechanics of bowling as a business, but is also adept at knocking the pins over.

Richard Carr, head of Allied Leisure, has also proved himself at bowling and, at 33, is one of the names to look out for. Allied runs Megabowls and, apart from a disappointing foray into theme bars, has avoided most of the pitfalls of the boom years.

He has concentrated on building an asset base rather than buying over-priced and mature businesses. His eye is also firmly on the cash line, and he will not be deviated by short-termist shareholders pushing for dividend increases at the expense of cash flow.

Depth for the boardroom's experience barometer is provided by a non-executive, James Blyth, former finance director at United Biscuits.

Away from the low-ticket end of mass market leisure lies one of the industry's most exciting companies - Airtours. Not only did the company survive as a mere fledgling during the severe price wars among tour operators in the mid- to-late Eighties, but it has grown rapidly to stand second only to Thomson, the industry leader.

The main credit for the company's achievements has to go to David Crossland, chief executive, and Harry Coe, finance director. The mild-mannered, softly spoken Mr Crossland has won many friends in the City.

Airtours shares were one of the best performers last year, elevating it out of the ranks of smaller companies and into a different ball game, with its equity becoming a truly tradeable commodity.

Mr Crossland's empire was recently expanded by the purchase of the Pickfords travel agency business. That was perceived in the City to be a wise and well- timed move. Pickfords completed the vertical integration line of airline, tour operations and travel agencies. The scope for developing Airtours' tour operations has been widened significantly. At 45, Mr Crossland will undoubtedly be leaving indelible marks on leisure for quite some time.

Other names to track in the holiday business are Richard Atkinson and Tom Nevill, who have built up Eurocamp into a strong competitor in the highly fragmented self-drive camping business.

Their professionalism has been gleaned from first-hand experience at the grassroots end of the business. Dealing with customers' gripes face-to-face has put them in good stead to home in on selling points such as clean shower blocks and completely flexible holiday dates.

This week saw Vardon, owner of the London and York Dungeons, make its stock market debut.

Headed by Nick Irens, former finance director at First Leisure, Vardon is set to become a prime cog in low-ticket, mass-market leisure. It has already bought Sea Life Centres and, besides organic expansion, other purchases will almost certainly follow.

Among established companies, European Leisure has become a typical example of the effects of recession on businesses that made expensive acquisitions in the Eighties.

Despite thumping losses of pounds 56m for the year to June, European, under a reconstituted board, remains confident about its prospects. Ian Rock, chief executive who joined when the company bought Midsummer Leisure, is out to prove the doubters wrong.

The view from the outside looking in is starkly different to the one looking from the inside out, he says. As well he might, given the recent boardroom signings of Clive Bastin, deputy chairman of Frogmore, and Patrick Hooper from Pentos.

Mr Bastin and Mr Hooper should bring essential property and retailing experience to a group that has had trouble making its prime leisure venues, including London's Hippodrome and Camden Palace nightspots, pay their way.

Besides the up-and-coming names, followers of leisure stocks have to keep their eye on the established names in the industry, such as Michael Gifford, chief executive at Rank Organisation, and the wily Leonard Steinberg, chairman at the Stanley Leisure betting shops group.

Next week: the motor industry

(Photograph omitted)

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