Lloyd banks on wealth of talent : ALMANACK

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The Independent Online
IT was feeding time at the David Lloyd tennis club in Finchley: broken-up digestive biscuits, little fairy cakes, warm milk. Nannies bustled efficiently around, wiping mouths, retrieving flung toys. David Lloyd and his brother John were recently p ut in charge of Britain's Davis Cup efforts, and the search for talent at David's clubs starts young: at about six months, apparently.

To be absolutely accurate, the 40 or so babies in the tennis centre creche were not there to play tennis. They were there because their parents were playing tennis. But there can be no doubt that as soon as they are old enough to hold a racket, one will be placed in their tiny paws.

David Lloyd has made a great deal of money from his tennis and leisure centres. He was a pretty average tennis player in international terms, but has proved to be a better than average businessman. Following a Stock Exchange floatation in 1993, the company is now valued at £130m. It has a simple winning formula: well-to-do people will pay a lot of money to play tennis in a warm, safe, clean environment. What is more, they will play at all hours of the day and evening, and while they are on the premises, they consume food and drink, visit the hairdresser, shop and look at the advertisements that local companies pay to place at court-side.

We visited the Finchley club in mid-afternoon, when it was populated almost exclusively by the young mothers of the north London suburb. The car park was crammed with Mercedes, BMWs and upscale Japanese sports cars. The salad bar was doing a roaring trade. The members are described by the club's manager, Richard Kingston, as "very wealthy": this is the most expensive of all the David Lloyd clubs.

The decor in the restaurant and lounge area is appropriately luxurious. A giant video screen relayed matches from the Australian Open; waiters in snazzy waistcoats and bow-ties circulated. Upstairs in the function room that overlooks both the outdoor andindoor courts, members who find tennis too exhausting enjoyed an afternoon of bridge.

Kingston is an ex-RAF pilot, dapper with bushy eyebrows and pronounced frown-lines. He is disarmingly honest about his customers - "they are demanding, and there are always problems to be solved" - and about his boss: "David is a businessman. His primaryinterest is getting money out of his customers."

Kingston gave us a spiel about keeping his 3,500 customers happy. He showed us a leaflet - intended for members - that explained First Service, the company's latest customer communication exercise. "The width and depth of the member satisfaction mission seems to be infinite," it said. "Club culture is a product of the effective interaction and relationship between staff and members." It is classic Nineties management gobbledegook, but it seems to work - probably because the members have worked out that what it really means is: "If you don't like something, complain."

Some complaining was going on next to court No 5. "Noooooh!" the little girl wailed as her mother crammed on her miniature tennis shoes. "Noooooh!" It was coaching time for Finchley's four-year-olds.

Most of the mites were enthusiastic enough, racing on to court clutching junior Princes, Donnays, Wilsons and Yonexes at least half as tall as themselves. "Where's the service line?" the coach asked. Ten little bodies raced to stand on it. "Where's the net?" Ten tiny forms zoomed up to, and into, the net, rebounding in a tangle of limbs.

The next exercise attempted to teach the children to bounce tennis balls on the ground with their rackets: this was beyond most of them, and there was chaos as the balls escaped and tiny figures raced after them. Inevitably, one little girl got smacked in the chops by a stray racket. There were tears, wailing, and she was off the court in the arms of a comforting coach. Nasty, rough game.

But this is the way to produce the Davis Cup stars of the future. It's a shame that, at present, you have to have fairly wealthy parents to benefit from this kind of early coaching. This is a touchy topic with David Lloyd executives. How about scholarships with local schools? Richard Kingston took a while to think this over. "The primary thing is that this is a business," he said. "But David Lloyd has indicated that they [scholarships] are something he would like to see happen." We rang head office. "There's something in the pipeline," the PR person Alison Pirie told us, "but until it's finalised we can't talk about it." Hmm. Is David Lloyd supportive of this kind of thing? More than that: "David is on a personal mission to find talented British players." Let us hope that his search has the same width and depth as the member satisfaction mission.

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FATUOUS news from the US, where Atlanta Olympic organisers announced that the television programmes Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune have been designated the official game shows of the 1996 Summer Games. This will, according to the waffly president of the Atlanta organising committee: "...create a unique way for those who may not have the opportunity to attend the Games to be personally involved." No decision yet on awarding Olympic medals to the game show winners.

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FINGERS are crossed at Highfield rugby league club, whose game against Whitehaven last Wednesday night was abandoned after 63 minutes because of the nasty weather. Whitehaven were leading 86-6 at the time. The board of the Rugby League will rule shortly on whether or not the result will stand.