Being able to listen to other people’s advice without seeing it as criticism helped Martin Wilkes, a partner at Futures Sports Limited discover new ways to help his business grow.

In fact, he says it is his ‘thick skin’ that has helped his business come out from the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic after he was prepared to take on the advice he received from like-minded business owners from across the region as part of SEMLEP’s Peer Networks programme.

Like many other business owners COVID-19 put a stop on the services he provides. The world class hockey camps that his Northampton-based company had been organising for young people for more than 30 years suddenly came to a standstill.

He explained: “Since 1991 our purpose has been to create world class hockey camps that excite, challenge and inspire young people. We have grown from offering one camp during the summer holidays to hosting four, five or six weeks’ of activities. Suddenly we were down to zero.

Having grown from hosting just one seven-day resident hockey camp in the summer holidays to offering Foundation Camps, Talent Camps, Performance Camps and Elite Camps at venues including Oundle School and Bisham Abbey in Marlow, Martin enlisted the help of SEMLEP’s Peer Networks Programme to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

He explained: “It was always our plan prior to the pandemic to have 12 months of operational costs in reserve but it wiped us out pretty much completely.

When we re-started last year, we were extra rusty, working on quite a sophisticated web platform, which we had paid a lot of money for and it was not turning in the results. So we ditched that and started again.

Signing up for SEMLEP’s Peer Networks programme provided Martin with a fresh approach.

He added: “We realised we had made a few mistakes on the new platform, they were highlighted by the other participants on the programme who reviewed the site during a one-to-one session and came up with lots of areas that needed fixing to make and improve results. I dedicated some time to making the suggested changes and it actutally turned into a positive return – bookings increased.

Taking on board the advice and dedicating time to carry out the tweaks and changes soon resulted in us being ahead. The Peers look at it from a different vantage point – our social media presence ramped up.

A major issue Martin faced was that 20 per cent of Futures Sports Limited bookings were generated from overseas. Suddenly the company faced extra pressure due to changes in the rules of air travel meaning airlines could no longer take unaccompanied minors.

Martin added: “As well as this, we would bring in coaches from overseas. COVID wiped this out, suddenly no one was able to travel to us.

Martin’s groupmates worked with him to come up with different ways to expand UK operations.

Starting with offering larger residential camps, they also suggested introducing a day camp opportunity.

So in those camps that we were offering longer stays we introduced taster days. Having enjoyed a taster, we then found people booked for three or four day camps and then transferred to even bigger residential stays,” Martin said.

He continued: “Without Peer Networks we wouldn’t have recognised it. Our experience proved to be a strong critique of our current operations, and you have to be open to hearing it and taking those messages on board. If you can do that, you will gain more out of it.

Since his one-to-one Peer sessions, Martin continues to work on small aspects of the business that he has learnt.

Issuing some advice on how to get the most out of the programme, he said: “I would definitely recommend Peer Networks to others, if you’re open to listening to other people’s views about your business that are not the same as your own and you have a thick skin and are prepared to listen and not see it as a criticism.

It’s really important to sign up for the whole thing, it’s not something you can dip in and out of. That aside you also have to really put some time into it. It really is a case of the more open you are to taking the advice and setting aside the time to action it, the more you will get out of it.

For me the webinars were a real success, in that they are less disruptive. Yes, it takes two hours of your time but you gain from not having to travel. It also means you are less distracted by other things and if you properly set aside the time to take part and focus on the advice you will benefit.

“Just like hockey, it’s about working together, being better together, and making dreams become a reality together.