Why Vanessa Hall is learning to master Gravity

Before she took up her new role as non-executive chair of Gravity Active Entertainment, Vanessa Hall made a sneak visit to one of its sites at Bluewater shopping centre in Kent.

Saturday, 4th September 2021, 12:00 pm
Vanessa Hall, non-executive chair of Leeds-based Gravity Active Entertainment. PHOTO: Nic Crilly-Hargrave.

What she saw helped make up her mind to leave the hospitality sector she had worked in for 25 years and set a new course in the leisure industry.

“The teams in the Gravity parks are young, fresh-minded, eager to learn, and energetic – there are a lot of smiles. They’re part of the family and the journey, so it’s a very nice culture from that point of view,” she told The Yorkshire Post.

“I’m very much a people-centric person – that’s what I enjoy most about business – so that culture is important to me.”

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Based in Castleford, Gravity has a chain of indoor entertainment parks offering over 30 activities, including trampolining, e-karting, climbing walls and even augmented-reality bowling.

Founded in 2014 by childhood friends Harvey Jenkinson and Michael Harrison, along with ex-KPMG partner Simon Whicker, it launched a franchise operation in 2017 and, backed by Guinness Asset Management, has grown quickly. In 2019 it was included in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100, and this year was a finalist in the Global Franchise Awards.

The company has 16 sites in the UK and Saudi Arabia, and is aiming for another 10-12 in the UK in 2021. New centres will open soon in Luton, Birmingham and Leipzig, and talks of more in the United States are at an early stage. Most recently, Gravity has opened a giant 100,000 sq ft site in Wandsworth – complete with street golf, digital darts and a Japanese noodle bar.

“Mike and Harvey literally built their first site in Castleford themselves with their toolbox, from the bottom up. That spirit is fantastic, and I think it has proven successful for the business so far,” she says.

“It’s not only attracted me – that combination of the founders and the investors and the culture they have – but it’s attracting landlords now. We’re in an exciting position where we’ve got a great pipeline, and that’s a lot to do with relationships and this can-do, hands-on approach.

“I also think there is something about northern values. You’ve got loyalty, trust, an understanding of personalities. I do think it makes a difference.”

The leisure industry may be new to Ms Hall, who comes from Harrogate, but she’s far from being a novice when it comes to parting people from their disposable income. Originally trained as a chartered accountant, she spent 20 years with hospitality giant Mitchells & Butlers, becoming brand operations director and launching the All Bar One pub chain. She followed that with a stint as CEO of YO! Sushi and a couple of years at the helm of Vapiano SE, a German chain of Italian restaurants. What she doesn’t know about the hospitality game would probably fit on the back of a beer mat.

Gravity has brought her in to “help take the business to the next level”, so what will she bring to the boardroom table?

“Part of my job is to bring an element of third-party viewpoint. I’m not pure leisure/entertainment, so I can add a different dimension from my experience in finance, hospitality, and general business. That’s a bit about processes and procedures and people, but of course it’s also about property, pipeline and location strategy,” she says.

Ms Hall would like Gravity to become a household name – the ultimate triumph in branding – and she thinks she knows how to get there.

“You have to start a brand understanding your target consumer,” she says. “All the brands I’ve been involved with have known exactly what they’re trying to target and deliver. You can flex for different locations or different tastes, but really you have to be very true to your brand’s originality, and not compromise.

“It has to be a little bit different and it has to have some personality about it. But it’s about being consistent – making people feel safe, secure, positive and attracted to the brand.”

As a brand development expert whose insights are in high demand, Ms Hall has come a long way since she left school at 16 – at her father’s insistence – to train as an accountant. But what makes her so commercially minded?

“Probably my financial back-ground,” she says, “but perhaps also the way I was brought up – every penny counted, and you had to make your money work. But I was also really eager to learn, and part of my make-up is a real drive to learn.”

So what has Ms Hall learned so far at Gravity? It’s a different company, with towering ambitions, in a new industry – so there must be a lot to pick up?

“I’ve already earned a lot – a new business model, a new culture,” she says. “There’s quite a lot to juggle at the same time. Wandsworth has been a massive thing for us. You can learn a hell of a lot from this opening, but it can also distract you. So I think one [challenge] is about ensuring we have the time and commitment to concentrate on all the balls in the air.”

Keeping all the balls in the air – mastering gravity, if you will – sounds like another of the company’s activities, so is the place already rubbing off on her? Will she be bouncing, shooting, karting and climbing with the kids?

“No, no,no. I spent lots of my motherhood in trampoline parks at children’s parties,” she says. “To be honest, I enjoy the activity of sitting, having a coffee and watching!” And learning, of course.