‘You have to work closely with people to get them to exercise,’ says Gareth Kirk
Linda Stewart talks to Gareth Kirk of Belfast leisure centre operator at GLL
Never say that Gareth Kirk doesn't put his money where his mouth is.
The 36-year-old is Northern Ireland director of GLL (Greenwich Leisure Limited), the charitable social enterprise that operates leisure facilities, libraries, children's centres and sporting venues across the UK and has spent the last year overseeing leisure facilities across Belfast.
He admits growing up as something of a sports enthusiast ("multi-sports, football, basketball … I'm a bit of a jack of all trades") and has completed 10 marathons in the likes of Dublin, New York, Paris and Belfast ("I like to combine travel and sport").
Most impressively he has recently got into triathlon in a big way and has even completed a gruelling Iron Man event in Nottingham called The Outlaw. If you complete the marathon event in fewer than 17 hours, you are allowed to call yourself an outlaw.
"That's a 2.4 mile swim, 112 miles on the bike and then a 26-mile run. It's a good day out," Gareth says, nonchalantly. "It took me 11 hours and 29 minutes to complete the whole thing."
Gareth's other great passion is social enterprise. He picked up the bug working in an aquarium in Hull called The Deep, then went on to work for GLL, a not-for-profit organisation that reinvests surpluses directly back into the business for the benefit of its customers and local communities.
He says he focuses on a Robin Hood approach to social enterprise to ensure price is not seen as a barrier to physical activity.
Since its origin more than 25 years ago, GLL has re-invested more than £100m back into the service to improve the lives of customers and staff.
Gareth has worked in virtually every role on offer in the firm, from reception to lifeguard to sales adviser, sports coach and assistant manager, rising through the ranks to be appointed local director three years ago.
At one point he was running around 50 facilities across east London. He says delivering the service in such a diverse inner city region and in Belfast is not as different as you might think.
"There are different community needs, but Belfast is similar. You've got to be aware of people's desires, people from the different areas of the city, and adapt your offer to fit that," he explains.
"The bottom line is to get the people off the sofa and into activity, so you have to work closely with them.
"I constantly work in different parts of the city and the key thing is to listen to what different communities want and do that.
"Whether it's kabaddi in east London or Gaelic sports here, you try to accommodate them and listen to what the customers are saying."
Belfast's leisure offering is going through an exciting phase as the city council has invested more than £105m in assets across the metropolitan area.
"There are now more than double the amount of children enrolling in swimming lessons every week across the leisure centres compared with two years ago," says Gareth.
"This is such an important life skill and is a key focus area in improving the lives of Belfast residents.
"There was a 20% increase in participation in leisure in the second year of operation, which has been driven by the investment in four new gyms, a focus on stronger community engagement and the introduction of technology across the service."
One new sport no one had heard of 10 years ago is danderball, a form of walking football aimed at older people. There are now a number of teams across the city and even a league.
"It gets really heated because everybody takes it really seriously," says Gareth.
He has also led on taking on Better Gym Connswater and opening the Girdwood Community Hub in north Belfast to provide a key venue for arts, events and festivals alongside mainstream leisure activities.
At the start of the year, GLL also launched the new Olympia Leisure Centre with state-of-the-art spa and a stunning gym with great views.
It is about to launch Better Gym Belfast on Church Lane (formerly In Shops), which will offer a high-tech and digitally advanced city centre gym.
GLL has also signed a partnership with Macmillan for a Move More programme, with dedicated staff working with people living with cancer who may find that physical activity helps them to manage their condition.
This only started a few months ago, but more than 100 people have already been through the 12-week programme.
One interesting approach by the firm is that each leisure facility in Belfast should have a unique selling point.
"Back in the 80s, the council built four or five leisure centres that were exactly the same. Now our goal is to encourage people to move around the city," Gareth says.
That means Andersonstown Leisure Centre will be transformed into a family water park with a standing surf wave, drop slides and flumes, while the Robinson Centre in Castlereagh will become an aquatic centre tailor-made for gala events, complete with a diving pool.
Twinbrook Leisure Centre, meanwhile, will become an outdoor sports centre with 3G pitches for football and rugby.
"We want to get away from replicating the same thing in every corner of the city," Gareth explains.
Gareth attributes his success to a proven track record in leisure operations across the UK, but also an excellent team in the city that puts the customers first and welcomes change as leisure services move forward.
"I will challenge the status quo to ensure we continue to see increased activity across the whole of Belfast," he says.