Feature Article - January/February 2003
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Bones of Contention

Exploring peeves and improving the conduct of your patrons and employees

By Margaret Ahrweiler

The letter came from a country club director, looking for help with a stinker of a problem. Nonsmokers comprised the vast majority of her club, and she and the majority wanted the club to become a nonsmoking facility. But a core of older members (read: ruling caste) refused to extinguish. What to do?

Smoking may be the most obvious—and smelliest—of a group of issues that dog facility managers everywhere. These bones of contention, as they are, throw a wrench in otherwise smoothly running recreation machines and cause strife with users across all age and income spectrums. More often than not, the big and little irritants of facility management can be attributed to a generation gap of behavior and norms that just take a little sense, a dollop of sensitivity and, occasionally, a lot of signage to manage. Survivors of these subtle facility wars share how operators can find a common ground and come out smelling like roses—even when smoking is concerned.

While smoking historically has been the 900-pound gorilla of conflicts, state and municipal legislatures across the country have virtually solved it for facility managers. Most states and large cities now bar smoking from any public buildings, which includes publicly funded recreation facilities.

"Because we are a city-run building, it's a given that there's not smoking inside," says Tom Frame, general manager of Full Blast, the "entertainment mall" recreation center in Battle Creek, Mich. "We are zero tolerance and very clear on it. If you smoke in the building, we are going to ask you to leave."

Outdoor smoking does not comprise much of a problem, either. The butt disposal units at Full Blast are offset at least three feet from the entrance, so smokers do not interfere with patrons. Frame says he rarely finds cigarette butts on the grounds.

"To be honest," he says, "I have more of a problem with chewing gum that with cigarettes."

At many facilities, smoking has been self-regulated by members with healthy lifestyles, such as at the East Bank Club, one of Chicago's top see-and-be-seen fitness clubs. Open since 1980, the club originally allowed smoking in parts of its restaurant, banquet and conference room areas but has been smoke-free for more than a decade, according to the East Bank's Gina Rossi.

"It's a non-issue," she says, with no signs of smokers even outside. The club's clientele, mostly affluent urban professionals, does not fit the smoker profile, and those closet smokers rarely show their bad habits near their fitness center.

Regulation and enforcement of smoking issues get a little trickier in the great outdoors, but public opinion and dropping smoking rates have created an atmosphere of moderation. Most rec managers interviewed said they rarely receive complaints about smoking at outdoor events.

"We do allow smoking in our parks and in shelter houses, and there's not any written policy about smoking at recreational sports leagues, but we don't really hear about it," said Bob Beverlin, community relations operations manager for the Johnson County Park and Recreation District, which covers suburban Kansas City, Kan.

Smoking has been as much of an employee as a client issue, Beverlin says, noting conflicts arose among employees who drove department vehicles. Now, the district applies the Kansas state law barring smoking from public facilities to its vehicles as well.

With smoking among the general population still dropping, complaints come mostly from managers dealing with cleanup issues.

"I used to deal with adult softball leagues where we had to rake and shovel around the dugouts after every day they played," recalls Pamela Wetherbee-Metcalf, director of recreational sports at Loyola College in Maryland, noting a previous recreation job. And at Loyola, smoking is even limited outdoors: The college restricts it to at least 30 feet away from school buildings.