Every day is a big event day at a venue like Lee Valley White Water Centre. General Manager Paskell Blackwell and his team welcome a steady flow of guests on all seven days of the week. These paddlers, rafters, diners and walkers all need to be kept safe and looked after during their stay. After all, there are 13,000 litres of water per second powering through the site. The flow could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in a little over three minutes.
These visitors pay for white water packages, food and drink and merchandise. An occasional televised canoeing competition raises the centre’s profile but it’s the daily visits and income that enable the venue’s operator Vibrant Partnerships to keep it solvent.
This world class centre has 25 acres of landscaping and car parks, an all-round security fence, a 330 metre Olympic course, a lake the size of two football pitches, boats, rafts, gates, blocks, hotel-level finishes, lockers and bathrooms.
Rafting for the people
Rafting is undoubtedly exciting and fun – take this writer’s word for it. It also looks a bit daunting. “The guides are key to matching the level of excitement with the participants’ appetite for it,” explains Blackwell.
The raft guides – professionals, some also athletes in training, with qualifications and experience to match – engage with customers to understand what they are enjoying, or not. It’s an itinerant profession, with guides moving between southern and northern hemispheres to match demand and Vibrant Partnerships trains apprentice raft guides from among the local population.
It all starts with safety. The guides provide an equipment briefing and show how to be safe in and out of the rafts. After that, it’s fun all the way and plenty to talk about in the café afterwards, together with digital action photos to take away.
“Vibrant is a new company finding out how it wants to do things but the name tells you we want to make our venues exciting for customers,” states Blackwell.
The centre remains open all year round, serving walkers and cyclists using the Lee Valley Country Park. Blackwell concedes that this is not profitable business in itself but is an important part of keeping the centre at the heart of its community: “Getting people on site is important, especially to get families and young people to experience what we have to offer.”
Breaking down barriers to encourage people to visit is a constant part of the centre’s marketing initiatives, for example family rafting and March Mayhem discounts.
Weekends tend to be booked up so the centre encourages students and schools during the week and is also focussed on getting corporate customers on weekdays. The centre hosts an annual schools festival when thousands of children from across London, Essex and Hertfordshire experience white water rafting.
“We are available to host big events and support British Canoeing’s bids, but we need frequent attractions so we are also inventing our own. We’ll have outdoor cinema and Free summer activities and games during the school holidays at the pavilion in the park on the white water course side,” explains Blackwell.
In 2014 Lee Valley White Water Centre spent £6.3 million to extend the main building with the Terrace Bar & Café, including a huge decked terrace which extends to the edge of the white water course. The café hosts live entertainment in the evenings.
A ground floor extension was also built to incorporate British Canoeing’s High Performance Centre which is the base for the British Canoe Slalom squad and all UK Sport funded Podium athletes. The budget also paid for a separate pavilion with café and terrace, adding to the hire options Vibrant Partnerships can offer to customers.
The original building built for the London Olympics in 2012 has performed well. Green credentials include grey water recycling, solar panels and a heat recovery system. Energy use is equivalent to a large leisure centre.
Lee Valley White Water Centre – by the numbers
- 2012 London Olympics – 82 athletes, 55,000 spectators
- 2014 ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup – 300 athletes
- 2015 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships
- 2011-2016 – more than 600,000 visitors, including more than 100,000 rafters and more than 50,000 canoeists