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Mark has big plans for the Herongate Club

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Director outlines vision for community-based, not-for-profit leisure facility

2018 was quite a busy year for one local man. And he has big plans for this year too.

Mark Ranson took over the reins at the Herongate Club, Hungerford, in May 2018.

The whirlwind relaunch has consumed so much of his time that he didn’t even manage a honeymoon until months after marrying long-term partner, James Byng, in August.

For someone who admits that he is “not a natural sportsman,” Mark has enjoyed a successful career in the leisure industry, but he puts it all down to “being in the right place at the right time, hard work and a bit of luck”.

Born and bred in Basingstoke, he attended Basingstoke Community College before studying countryside management at Plymouth University.

And it was during his time in the Devon city that he developed the skills and interest in a sector that now sees him at the helm of a local family-owned community facility.

“I decided to change my degree in the last year, to adventure tourism management,” he explains. “I ended up with a degree in leisure.

“It was while I was doing this that I undertook my lifeguard and swim training qualifications with the university at the Royal Marines’ base in Lympstone.”

During his university holidays, Mark worked as a summer camp councillor and lifeguard in Massachusetts, before taking up his first full-time role as assistant manager at Club Motivation at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Caversham, in 2002.

From here he moved to the Basingstoke Aquadrome as a senior lifeguard, where he helped with the fitting out and launch of the swimming complex.

He then began working at Basingstoke Sports Centre, which was the first sports trust in the UK.

He spent six years there, describing it as his “best job”, but in 2009 he decided to have a complete change of direction and left to volunteer for Projects Abroad in Peru.

“I spent three months doing archaeological maintenance with Projects Abroad and learning Spanish, which was entertaining,” he says.

“I was very fortunate to be selected to work as a volunteer archaeologist for the INC [the Peruvian archaeological society] and undertook work at Choquequirao, which is a sister site to Machu Picchu.

“It was a true adventure. We trekked for a week by donkey to get there; taking a cow that was then slaughtered to sustain us.

“The return trek was equally as long and uncomfortable.

“Peru was such an amazing country that I extended my stay and travelled throughout Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, as well Paraguay and Uruguay.

“I took James back to Peru last year, as I still keep in touch with my host family, and it has changed so much since I was first there.”

Mark returned to the UK in November 2009 and took a job at Romsey Rapids, where he stayed for a year, until he was made redundant.

This was followed by a year back at the Basingstoke Aquadrome, before, Mark says, he “got his first break”.

After initially missing the voicemail message, he was invited to an interview for the position of centre manager at Kennet Leisure Centre, Thatcham.

“It was not my best interview and I had almost given up hope of getting the position,” he admits. “I was really pleased to be given the opportunity to manage my own centre and set about with the changes I felt it needed to grow.

“There were a lot of highs and lows, but we grew the membership from 600 to more than 1,000.

“I sat on the Thatcham Vision group and I really felt part of the community.

“It was challenging because there was initially a lack of money, so we undertook the grounds maintenance and redecoration every year by ourselves.

“We got the staff involved too; we couldn’t spend the money so we did it ourselves.”

Mark left Kennet after five years to try his hand at retail, working briefly for John Lewis in 2016 before returning to leisure as the operations manager at David Lloyd in Newbury.

“Then in December 2017 I received a text from an unknown number,” he explains.

“It said that there was a potential job opportunity and would I be interested in discussing it.

“So I said yes and met Tom Bennett for the first time.”

The Bennetts are a local family who own the Herongate Club.

They had leased it to Nuffield Health, but its location no longer suited the health club’s long-term plans and so had been handed back to the family.

In February 2018, Mark, who lives in Hurstbourne Tarrant, joined the Herongate Club and since then has been renovating and relaunching it as a community-based, not-for-profit organisation, which is a key wish of the Bennett family.

He will be applying for charitable status for the club this month.

“Our aim is to promote health and well-being in the local community,” he says.

“We have spent more than £500,000 on the updates so far and that is the family’s commitment to the town.

“They love being in Hungerford and they want to give something back.

“We want to be a community hub and any money we do generate will be reinvested into the club.

“This is the biggest project yet for me and I am excited to be working with the family.”

The club, which has seen membership grow since Mark took over, has a spa pool, sauna and steam room, alongside a brand new interactive 20-bike spinning studio and a state-of-the-art Life Fitness gym.

It has the added bonus of designer lighting systems that create different zones within the gym area.

It has two squash courts, with a retractable wall so a full-sized doubles court can be created.

Wendy’s café also offers a warm welcome, as well as steaming mugs of tea, coffee and delicious cakes.

“What is next? We have many plans and ideas,” Mark says.

“It is very organic and we try to be proactive not reactive in terms of maintenance. Here investment in the business is key.

“In the coming years we will start revamping the pool area and creating treatment rooms.

“It has got real potential to just keep growing. It’s all very, very exciting.”

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