Vardon whips its health clubs into shape

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The Independent Online
Vardon, the leisure group that runs the London Dungeon and Sea Life Centres, yesterday announced plans to rapidly expand its health and fitness division. The group is launching a pounds 20m capital expenditure programme on its health clubs over the next two years and has earmarked another pounds 20m for acquisitions.

Vardon also plans to expand into continental Europe by building a Dungeon visitor attraction in Amsterdam and opening more Sea Life Centres in Germany.

However, Vardon has turned its back on the UK market. David Hudd, chairman, said: "The market in the UK probably has too many visitor attractions already and we are not looking to build any more over here." Visitors at London Dungeon have been disappointing, despite a new water ride called Judgement Day, due to the strong pound which has deterred overseas tourists from visiting the capital.

Vardon has also postponed new investment in its bingo business, which has been hit by the National Lottery. However, the group said it had no plansto dispose of the operation.

Vardon acquired its health and fitness business just over a year ago when it bought Dynamic Leisure for pounds 40.5m. Since then it has revamped the clubs it acquired and is now keen to grow the chain.

Vardon recently opened a pounds 30m Courtney's leisure centre in Croydon. It hopes to open another two sites in York and Wembley by the end of the year and another four centres next year. It is also expanding its Metropolitan chain.

Nick Irens, Vardon's chief executive, said yesterday: "The health and fitness market is growing strongly. We hope to make it a national business. We are also in talks to buy clubs from other operators."

Vardon announced a 75 per cent rise in underlying pre-tax profits to pounds 5.1m despite a pounds 500,000 currency hit.