We’ve reported on the pandemic-inspired skateboarding boom from the supply and demand side, with accounts from many different retailers, brands and distributors confirming the trend. Now we’ve spoken with the UK’s leading action sports academy, Graystone who confirm from the front line that their return from lockdown has been a prolific one. Fuelled by a strong local community and with reports of fully booked beginner coaching lessons (of all ages), Graystone Co-Founder Kevin Gray and company Director, David McCabe give us the inside track on what’s powering this phenomenal surge in action sports.
Please tell us how your business was affected by the lockdown.
Well, we had to close of course. We had been making great progress at the start of the year and experienced our best two months to date in Jan and Feb 2020. We were finally on track to meet our ambitious targets and have our most successful month ever in March when the message about staying home came out. It quickly became clear that we were going to have to close down and we got started cancelling some of the events we were scheduled to host, like the National Skateboarding Champs. A huge disappointment but… c’est la vie! We then had a few days of nothing happening at all, which was weird, and then the instruction to close.
With the doors closed we were able to make a few adjustments and improvements to the park, like our new access ramp for WCMX users. It was mainly about trying to stay in touch with our community through competitions like the incredibly successful design a deck competition we ran with Skatehut. Our community have been phenomenally loyal and supportive throughout. When we got a hint of being able to re-open, the community and a group of parents in particular, were right there with offers of help to get us started again. It is something we are incredibly grateful for and will never forget.
What procedures did you have to put in place for reopening?
There were many. We are fortunate that we have almost 40,000 sq ft of really well-ventilated space to play with, but we still reduced our capacity by half. We introduced a one-way system in and out of the park. Restricted all users to a 2 hour session and we clear the park out completely before a new session begins. This was in addition to all the spending on cleaning products/sanitizer/face coverings and extra staff time for cleaning touch points. Even then, you have to look at how things work in practice and make adjustments. Sometimes the guidelines were incredibly unclear. At one point we worked out we could’ve had 40 customers in the bar/restaurant, but not 40 users in the park, where they would’ve had 1000 sq ft of space, each!
How has consumer appetite been since reopening?
It has been remarkably strong. With the reduced capacity we are filling lots of sessions completely and there has been a bit of a scramble for places at popular times. Customers have needed to get used to booking online, well in advance, which has actually been a goal of ours since opening; online booking allows us to plan sessions better and capture data, ultimately allowing us to deliver better service. There is also a general feeling of support and of our customers wanting to help us get through, which is really very cool. They have been totally happy to comply with new measures and just generally stoked to be back at Graystone.
Can you break it down by demographic, or user type – Age, sex, ability, coaching etc.
Coaching has really taken off, skateboarding in particular, especially at the absolute beginner level and with real youngsters around 3-7. Consistent with what Nic Powley said in BSS last week, we have seen an increase in girls coming for coaching and sessions too. The demand for total beginner coaching in all our sports, but particularly skateboarding, has gone absolutely off the charts during last couple of weeks. People are even booking intensive 5-day courses to get them up riding as quick as possible.
Our adult beginner coaching has gone crazy too. Such a cool group of 22 last week with most staying for a beer and a chat afterwards. It is becoming one of the best evenings out in Manchester and so popular that we are giving them a second night on Mondays.
And your Camp Graystone product has been popular too…
Sold out! It’s a great product and really good value. With great childcare being at a premium, there has also been a scramble for places and our families are so grateful for the service. It’s also just been so much fun to see kids back in the park.
Do you have any takeaways / thoughts on trends arising from the lockdown?
I read your interview in BSS last week with Nic Powley from Pharm and thought it was excellent. One thing I really liked was the way Nic pointed out the way companies behaved towards each other during these difficult times. We generally experienced an excellent response from other SMEs that we are involved with. There was pretty much an understanding that we were all in this together and payments would be made when they could be. Of course, not all businesses were as understanding and forgiving. We generally found that the bigger/wealthier the company or individual was, the more likely they were to demand their payment.
Clearly there is the demand there … do you have any advice for action sports brands and retailers on how to capitalise on this?
I am not sure we are in a position to offer advice to anyone yet. After all, we are still just a young start-up. I would say though that with skateboarding in particular, it feels like there has been an Olympic effect, even without the Olympics, so we are massively excited about the next few months and the first half of next year. As for advice for action sports brands, our closest partners are Stance… we’d suggest everyone tries to be more like Stance. Please see the next question…
Finally – the Graystone Foundation has been a really admirable project of yours. Can you talk us through it and plans for the future.
So, STANCE have been phenomenal with this and given us the tools (money) to allow us to make some great projects happen and ultimately to deliver some exceptional social value in Salford and Gtr Manchester. We can’t thank Rich, Nathan and Laura (before she moved on) at STANCE enough. We are talking to them again really soon about what the next couple of years could look like, but we certainly want to expand and develop the range and reach of the projects as soon as we can. Action sports are brilliant for physical and mental well-being, we see it every day, but there are so many young people who simply can’t access them because they haven’t got the equipment, basic skills, encouragement or even a safe space to practice. There is a certainly an even greater need right now for projects that bring young people into action sports communities like ours.