Leveraging Technology

Parks and recreation facility managers have increasingly been leveraging technology to help run their facilities and enhance their marketing efforts. From recreation management software to social media tools, parks and recreation facilities are improving the way they operate and how they get the word out about programs, special events and more to the public.

"There are many exciting technology options for recreation professionals to use in running their organizations today," said Landon Schenck, solution director for a company in Manhattan, Kan., that specializes in parks and recreation management software. These tools, he said, tend to fall into four main categories: recreation management solutions (RMS), a one-stop shop providing well-rounded capabilities to serve most needs; dedicated module tools that provide specific functions like event ticketing or volunteer management; niche tools, such as background check products or field light management tools; and non-recreation tools, like Instagram, survey monkey and other social networking, communication and marketing tools.

To simplify operations, "When the right tools are in place, once-tedious tasks can be automated or even crowdsourced to the public," Schenck said. "Those weekly finance reports that used to require manual preparation can now be scheduled for automatic e-mail delivery.

"Citizens," he added, "can self-service and perform many of the capabilities that were previously open only to staff (e.g. viewing/printing past receipts).

"Having the right tools in place will free up time for recreation professionals to focus on high-value things like enhanced programming, park maintenance and development, environmental initiatives, community outreach, special populations, and more," he added.

The new solar-powered trash-compacting units help us reduce our carbon footprint by enabling us to make fewer trips to the landfill. They have the ability through compaction to accommodate an estimated five times the quantity of garbage than a traditional garbage can. These 'smart' units also send notification to let us know when they are reaching capacity, taking the guesswork out of when to schedule pick-ups.

— Metro Parks Tacoma

Metro Parks Tacoma uses technology to help run its facilities and turns to social media to get the word out about upcoming events.

For example, Metro Parks Tacoma uses a special technology to conserve irrigation water. Information from Metro Parks revealed that "Awareness of the need to conserve prompted Metro Parks managers more than a dozen years ago to invest in a weather-based irrigation control system. With money from the district's 2005 capital bond issue, the first installations took place in 2009. Now, Metro Parks irrigates nearly all of the sites that use the most water with an automated system, and manages most via computer and smart phone or tablet. System upgrades and additions are continuing, using $170,000 from the bond issue approved by voters in 2014."

Metro Parks Tacoma completed a sustainability plan in 2015. "The three-year plan set a water-use reduction goal of 9% by the end of 2018. As it turned out, Metro Parks was able to cut water consumption by 9.5% in just the first year. Some of the improved efficiency can be attributed to irrigation controls."

Other technology that Metro Parks Tacoma uses has enabled maintenance staff to get things done faster.

For instance, interactive mapping software is used in certain parks to locate buried sewer or water connections that lack above-ground, visible landmarks, quickly. According to information from Metro Parks, "This sophisticated software is so effective that a person carrying a connected smart device can pinpoint his or her location on an interactive Metro Parks map. By loading that map with the detailed whereabouts of underground utilities, the person can use the device to hunt down specific points on those utility lines without breaking ground. This avoids accidentally breaking lines when digging holes to plant new trees, for example."

A few years ago, new recycling and garbage units were installed along Ruston Way and at headquarters, as part of a pilot program that was conducted in partnership with the city of Tacoma.


"The new solar-powered trash-compacting units help us reduce our carbon footprint by enabling us to make fewer trips to the landfill. They have the ability through compaction to accommodate an estimated five times the quantity of garbage than a traditional garbage can. These 'smart' units also send notification to let us know when they are reaching capacity, taking the guesswork out of when to schedule pick-ups."

What's more, in 2018, Metro Parks' social media efforts resulted in 12.4 million impressions and 148,000 engagements. This led to an 18.4%increase in followers.

Examples of successful results include the Eastside Community Center grand opening. "In the two months leading up to the event, the Eastside Community Center Facebook page, which at the time had around 1,200 followers, had 160,500 impressions and 4,367 engagements. The average daily number of users on the page was 3,003. Total number of fans increased by 27% in that time, and the best success of all—there were more than 3,000 attendees at the grand opening," noted Anne Winters, digital media coordinator, Metro Parks Tacoma.

"We create and execute digital communication plans for every capital project, and master plan related public meeting," she said.

In 2018, for example, communications for eight meetings resulted in 372,211 digital impressions and 34,343 engagements, which led to above-average attendance at the meetings. Impressions increased over the previous year by 68% and engagements increased by 53%.

"We use social media to drive attendance at events and programs, but social media is also a way to connect with our community," she said. "The use of social media to get information and make decisions is an everyday part of life in the 21st century. Metro Parks' presence on social media platforms helps communicate organizational priorities, reinforce our messaging, support our partners and sponsors and enhance credibility. It also provides a great opportunity to deliver outstanding customer service by gathering input, answering questions and listening to feedback.

"With over 10,000 messages received from the public on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook last year," she said, "social media 'listening' and customer service are an essential part of our strategy and are critical pieces of reputation management for Metro Parks Tacoma."

Tech Tool Types

Recreation Management Solutions (RMS)

"The RMS is the closest thing there is to a 'one-stop shop.' While no single product can claim to do everything that an organization needs, an RMS will provide well-rounded capabilities that serve most of the needs within the organization," said Landon Schenck, solution director for a company in Manhattan, Kan., that specializes in parks and recreation management software. "Products in this space will typically have modules for each of the core activities within an organization such as program registration, facility management, point-of-sale, accounting and more. For a large number of groups, the RMS will provide all of the capabilities they will ever need."

Dedicated Module Tools

"While an RMS covers most of the core needs of an organization, staff may also find that they need enhanced capabilities in specific areas," Schenck said.

"For example, maybe the golf module within their RMS lacks some of the capabilities their pro shop needs. There are golf-specific tools that can nicely fill this gap. When a product/company is fully focused on a single module, it is typically going to offer more capabilities than what can be found in the RMS equivalent of that function. Other examples of single module tools might be event ticketing, volunteer management, and league scheduling. Most RMS's have these capabilities also, but it's great to have an option for those groups with advanced needs in those areas."

Niche Tools

Several niche products exist in the recreation space serving specific needs of an organization.

"They are not comprehensive like an RMS and they don't enhance core modules like some of the dedicated tools mentioned above," Schenck said. "However, they serve important functions and make a nice complement to those other products. Examples may include background check products, emergency contact management solutions, field light management tools, and more.

"So, while these functions are not always core to an RMS," he added, "these niche tools can be leveraged to serve important roles in the organization. And, some even allow integrations directly from the RMS."

Non-Recreation Tools

"Finally," Schenck said, "There are tools that, while not directly created for the recreation space, should be leveraged by recreation professionals. These are the names you've heard of like Instagram, Survey Monkey and Constant Contact, and exist in areas like social networking, communication, marketing and surveys. There are also tools for resource scheduling, project management, workflow management, and more. While these tools are not designed specifically for the recreation industry, they offer world-class capabilities and should be in every organization's toolbox."


Schenck said his company works with organizations of all sizes, and, "with communities ranging from under 10,000 in population to major metropolitan departments and districts that serve millions of constituents. This gives us great perspective on the benefits that solutions like ours provide," he said. "The savviest of these groups will use a combination of the tools listed above to cover virtually all of their workflow needs."

For example, at a high-volume aquatic center, RMS might be used for program registrations, facility rentals, point-of-sale, memberships and day passes.

"They may have a 'Fast Lane' at the front of the center to scan memberships, passes and tickets. By having patrons purchase passes in advance, not only does it improve entry flow, but it also reduces cash handling by department staff," he explained.

"Beyond the capabilities offered by the RMS, the organization might also use a dedicated time clock tool to manage the scheduling of their lifeguards," he said. "A background check service may be used to verify any personnel who will be working with children. And, finally, they will leverage tools like Instagram and Facebook to market their upcoming classes and events.

"As you can see, the benefits to leveraging technology within the recreation organization are immense. Technology reduces busywork and allows staff to focus on high-value (and rewarding) work," he said. "It also allows citizens to self-service and get the user experience they have come to expect, including instant feedback, informative and timely communications, mobile experience, etc. We always like to remind communities that their technology is a billboard for their department. What does yours say about you?"

In a case example, Cherokee Recreation and Parks Agency uses Schenck's company's recreation management software for registration, facility memberships, POS daily, facility rental and website management.

To simplify operations, the company's recreation management software "Allows us to integrate our registration with our website. Allowing our users to go on our page, find the program they [want] to participate in, and then from that, page click to enroll. This allows us to have our most up-to-date listing of classes without having to manage two programs," said Kim Whatley, aquatics division director at Cherokee Recreation and Parks Agency.

In addition, the technology is used for communications with users. "They have the ability to drill down to a single class or as broad as anyone who has ever registered for a program in our system," she said. "This function is great when we need to communicate about instructor illness, inclement weather or other types of information. We are able to e-mail blast our users with information that is relevant to them."

What's more, the software has a specific function that enables a programmer to "take a previous season of classes and update with new dates for registration timelines and class sessions in a way that our summer swim lessons now only take about two hours to create, a process that previously could have taken about two days of data entry," she added.

The agency also has its HVAC controls from one of the largest manufacturers of building automation systems.

Eastside Community Center, Tacoma

"This system allows us to control all of our air handling units, and pool boilers from one computer. It provides us with up-to-date real-time data and notifies us of system failures immediately, allowing us to get our equipment serviced in a quick and timely manner," Whatley said. "This system also allows us to set schedules and change temperatures from one location."

In addition, chemical controllers are connected through Wi-Fi. "With access to our pool chemical controllers via a webpage we can from our offices look at reading data on the controllers, change set points and check run times on our chemicals," she said. "This allows us to have easy access to information to help our team on duty to make decisions or correct issues so that we do not experience down times due to chemical issues."

Cherokee Recreation and Parks Agency also uses Facebook to communicate with users on closures, events, as well as when maximum capacity for the outdoor pools has been reached. "This tool is a great way for us to get our message out and in front of everyone," Whatley said.

Using Google My Business, Cherokee Parks and Recreation can provide information to potential users.

"The biggest limitation with this is that I cannot list the business hours for each of our pools. We have resolved this by making posts of our current hours to the information section. We are able to connect with potential business to answer questions about the facility," she said. "We get immediate updates on posted reviews allowing us to respond to issues immediately or revel in our numerous 4 or 5 star reviews. Through this we have also used Google ads to push marketing for our summer operations and special events."

Eastside Community Center

In addition, Facebook and Instagram are used to "put out to the world what we are doing. Via Facebook, we use the post boost to increase viewing across specific local areas depending on the information we are looking to get out to the community," she said.

"Our special events for programs [are] usually done in an area of no more than a 15-mile drive, where our posts about our summer pool are done as far as 100 miles away to draw people to our destination," she said. "When using our Google analytics, we are able to find where people are coming from to use our facility and this is what drives our marketing efforts to increase attendance at our special events and Oasis Outdoor pool."

With Facebook, all of the agency's events are posted as such, which allows it to track who is interested, who has said they are coming, or how often people are sharing with friends and making plans.

"This also helps us direct our marketing efforts by being able to see what might need more of a push," she said.

"We also engage with our users on Facebook by providing opportunities for discounts on programs or admissions, and free passes. One single engagement last year was to share and like our post about our season opening dates for the Oasis Waterpark and we gave away five season family passes. That one engagement had our post at 85,000-plus views, and over 1,500 new-page likes," she added. "We find that when we are able to post great pictures and great events, we get a fantastic return on our engagements." RM