“Our sport is full of one-man band coaches for whom life can be tough, and very lonely,” says Jeff Hunter, Managing Director of Premier Tennis. “An individual sport like tennis teaches us from an early age to be competitive, but in business, the landscape is different and it is possible for people to win together.”
Hunter, a former professional player ranked top 500 in singles and 200 in doubles, invested in Premier Tennis in 2012. Since 2004 the company had specialised in delivering tennis camps in schools, but has in the last three years has expanded into providing coaching programmes at clubs, leisure centres and parks and participation hours have increased from 9,200 to 113,000.
“When we took over the business three years ago we very quickly saw we needed a much more flexible, efficient and scalable booking system to be applied to any venue, and any type of programme. Something like that didn’t exist in our sport,” said Hunter.
“We have built from the bottom up and we are very proud of what we have done – at significant time and effort – and now it is beginning to bear fruit. We have got 9,000 customers now and just did our 25,000th booking last week. We are beginning to see that we could get bigger without having to employ five new people.”
Predominantly based around Oxford and Guildford but with venues in Northampton, Bedford and Sheffield, Hunter is confident the model can be scaled up, but acknowledges the challenge will be to retain the quality of service.
“The dream is to be delivering tennis for tens of thousands of players in hundreds of venues but it has never been done before,” said Hunter. “The plan would be to deliver tennis programmes in a whole variety of local areas, partnering with a local community tennis managers and coaches in each area. Because if you don’t do a good job hour by hour, site by site, people notice pretty quickly.
“Our single biggest challenge is going to be growing and maintaining quality. How do we become really efficient, but still remain charming and engaging and welcoming?”
Hunter believes that having dedicated coaches who are passionate and engaged is the most important part of successfully expanding the business – but he faced resistance at first.
“Many coaches just assumed that a tennis operator like us is there to use them,” says Hunter. “But we depend upon our coaches to be our sales force and our frontline staff. We try to back that up by paying them well, putting on training, offering them kit and building a sense of team spirit. Unless you have got coaches who care, who are committed and who are reliable and punctual, ultimately people will go and play another sport.”
One new venture – The Coffee Shed – a café next to the courts in Witney – has proved successful on two fronts. Not only does it provide a healthy income stream, it also presents a new audience of potential players.
“You need a lot of hours of tennis coaching to make up for the income you can generate in a café,” said Hunter. “I’m not going to pretend that cafés are a piece of cake (pardon the pun), but with a strong management team and a bunch of seasonal staff we are making it work.
“We are proving that it is a good place to present an introduction to tennis. For example we have got over a thousand facebook friends – separate to our tennis database – to whom we can promote tennis.
“We haven’t done a full year yet – we are in our 12th month – but it is already an important part of our small but growing business. I don’t know if we will have 10 cafes but we will definitely have a few. We are seeing a tennis programme grow because we have a place to promote our sport.”