A Wealth of Options

Getting Programming Right for Multipurpose Facilities

By Dawn Klingensmith

In 2007 the Parks and Recreation department in Boulder, Colo., produced a document that would capture the attention of recreation professionals across the nation. The division's first-ever Recreation Program and Facility Plan made it easier going forward to make decisions about program offerings, facility management and allocating financial resources. It provided a model to systematically and consistently determine whether to offer a new program, and whether existing programs should persist or perish.

"Everyone does master plans, but they're not so much geared to determining how you're going to offer programs and which ones you're going to subsidize," said Teri Olander, recreation administer for the City of Boulder.

By and large, "We're trying to get it so each program carries its own weight," Olander explained.

She expects more and more cities to do the same as tax bases decrease across the nation; indeed, after the plan went into effect, she started getting calls from near and far. After all, a good Recreation Program Plan enables departments to make programming decisions that are defensible to the public.

Guiding Principles

According to Recreation Management's June 2012 "State of the Industry Report," the most popular programs at facilities of all kinds include holiday events and other special events; fitness programs; educational programs; day camps and summer camps; youth sports teams; sports tournaments and races; and mind-body/balance programs such as yoga, tai chi, Pilates and martial arts.

However, one of the more prominent trends in recreation programming is to look not only at the types of programs offered, but also at how they are offered.

"Service provision strategies are a trend to watch," said Stacy Turner, a consultant with the Lafayette, Colo.-based parks, recreation and open space consulting firm GreenPlay.

For example, "We're seeing more creative ways of providing services through partnerships with universities, the YMCA and other organizations," she said.

Community assessment is an important precursor to programming. Before jumping on the bandwagon, "It's really important when you're looking at trends to look at your community profile—how it's made up and what the issues are—in order to identify which trends are applicable," Turner said.

Reviewed annually and fully updated every five years, Boulder's Recreation Program Plan presents critical issues and trends in the community, and identifies guiding principles for programming decisions.

To assess community needs, desires and opinions, the recreation department in 2009 conducted a Recreation Plan Survey, convened public meetings and focus groups, and considered program evaluations and other input. Survey respondents placed special emphasis on recreation offerings for youth and indicated the department should also serve disabled and low-income residents who might not otherwise be able to participate in recreational activities. Respondents also placed a high priority on active physical recreation and introductory-level programming.

The plan requires each program to address a "demonstrated community need" and align with the department's Guiding Principles:

  • Champion diversity.
  • Contribute to personal health and wellness.
  • Ensure that youth are a priority.
  • Maintain and protect our facilities and programs.
  • Prioritize available subsidy to introductory-level classes and programs.
  • Pursue a sustainable financial model for recreation programs and facilities.

Plantation, Fla., also looks at the unique makeup and needs of the community to guide program decisions.

"I do believe our trends in South Florida are a little different than the rest of the country. We have a lot of cultural diversity and a large population of active seniors," said Superintendent of Facilities Shannon Ryan. "A few trends in the last few years have been programming for active seniors, adult athletics and environmental education. We are programming a number of classes for healthy living directed toward seniors," including nutrition classes, balance seminars, water aerobics and yoga.

"We will need to continue to offer programming that is attractive to this group and meets their social and fitness needs," Ryan said.

On the multicultural front, "We have popular Latin fitness classes like Zumba and classes offered in Spanish," she said.

Partners in Programming

In Boulder, if a proposed program meets a community need and supports the Guiding Principles, the department then decides whether to outsource instruction or implementation, or both. "We're trending toward more contracting because staff resources are so stretched," Olander said. "We can hire an instructor for a city-run program at a city facility or put up to bid to see if someone will implement a program in a city facility."

In Plantation, "We contract with outside instructors for almost all of our classes," Ryan said.

Having built an outdoor nature classroom, the parks and rec department partnered with a local nature center to offer programs with an environmental curriculum. "The program is well-received and the feedback is positive. We have also incorporated it into our summer camp programming," Ryan said.

When "trendy" programming requires a financial investment, such as a new outdoor classroom, "We ask the neighborhood for their input and determine if the investment is desired and likely to have longevity," Ryan said. "We are always looking for other sources of funding, such as grants, sponsorships and partnerships."

Boulder actively pursues partnerships to reduce expenses, increase revenues and provide additional recreation services. Recreation programs offered by outside organizations at City of Boulder facilities range from softball and soccer to synchronized swimming. The recreation department partnered with a local dinner theater to offer drama camps in a city facility. Participants act out a different fairy tale every week. In partnership with the senior center, the department offers cooking classes. The program rounds out the department's efforts to promote healthy lifestyle choices.

Boulder's Recreation Program Plan states that if a program is already offered in community, the department won't duplicate it unless there is sufficient, compelling demand. In addition, all programs must take place in a city facility, even those offered in partnership with an outside entity. While it may seem like a good idea to have, say, a professional photographer offer a program in his or her well-equipped studio, "it doesn't help expose people to rec centers," Olander said, "plus you lose quality control."

In Boulder, "We were getting all these calls from people wanting to partner, but what they meant is they wanted us to do their marketing" and take advantage of the rec department's reach, she added.

The department also has developed and implemented changes to pricing and fee structures, aiming to become self-sustaining. Boulder recovers 85 percent or more of costs through fees and charges. Certain high-priority, or "core," programs are subsidized, but merely "desirable" programs must generate sufficient revenues to offset costs.

Let's Get Physical

Boulder's emphasis on fitness programming is part of a national thrust to address childhood and adult obesity and overly sedentary lifestyles.

In its annual list of Health Club Trends for 2012, The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) notes that programming reflects the fact that "exercise is not one-size-fits all." As such, clubs are providing "age-appropriate and population-specific programming."

It is recognized today that as people age, strength, balance and functional training become even more important, so clubs are providing specialized programming and trainers who are specifically trained and certified to work with older adults. Since baby boomers often have the time, finances and motivation to exercise, this trend will only grow stronger over the foreseeable future, the program forecasts.

Youth programming also is a nationwide priority. In Boulder, feedback on evaluations and surveys led to the development of a "sports sampling program" for young kids whose parents wondered why sports like soccer and baseball weren't offered to 3- and 4-year-olds. The community boasts "huge soccer leagues" already, Olander said, "so we have no intention of offering that. But we can offer the instruction that leads up to and prepares players for the leagues."

The sports sampling program grew out of the realization that "this age group needs to dabble," Olander said. "We wouldn't have thought to offer it if we hadn't had the feedback from the surveys."

Due to the obesity epidemic among children and the White House's focus on children's fitness through the "Let's Move!" initiative, more training programs and equipment will continue to be designed around children's unique fitness needs. Gradually, "Facilities are offering more youth-specific exercise equipment," Turner said.

The demand for sports-specific training for children from elementary school on up continues to be popular.

At the same time, though, the National Fitness Professionals Association has found it necessary to develop a new certification for Youth Fitness and Performance Specialists, partly in response to the misguided ways folks have attempted to combat childhood obesity. Rapid-results regimens inspired by "The Biggest Loser" have people of all ages and fitness levels running stadium stairs and doing plyometrics, said NFPA president Dutch Burns.

However, "You can't train a preadolescent in the same way you train an adult," Burns warned. "Their growth plates aren't fused. They're still developing, and some of the plyo jumps just aren't good for them. You can't train them as if they were small adults. It puts them at risk."

Strength in Numbers

"Socially based exercise" is another trend identified in IHRSA's report. People want to have fun and socialize while working out, so clubs are offering a wide array of group exercise classes. Based on IHRSA's Member Census of 3,024 clubs, group cycling and boot camp-style programs are still popular, and group strength-training classes are increasing. Again this year, Latin dance and nightclub-inspired workouts are cropping up everywhere. Fusion classes that combine yoga, Pilates, ballet, dance and even surfing continue to grow in popularity.

Barre classes utilizing a ballet barre for isometric exercises and other movements are also gaining in popularity, Burns said, as are "extreme" or "insanity" cross-fit workouts designed to cause "muscle confusion."

"The military is adopting (cross-fit regimens) for soldiers. So you have to ask yourself, if you're a 40-year-old mom who's never exercised before, is cross-fit for you? I'm not saying it can't be, but it's not for everyone," said Burns, adding that results come fast but at the risk of stress fractures and other injuries. "I personally like it, but it's not for everyone. It's not Step One if you're just getting started."

Small group personal training continues to be popular as it offers the benefits and motivation of personal training combined with social interaction and lower cost. In Plantation, "We are seeing personal training in the parks like never before," Ryan said.

IHRSA's fitness trends report notes that technology has merged with physical activity, whether on mobile devices or incorporated into a club's equipment. Technology tracks metrics such as mileage, speed, calorie burn and heart rate as well as delivering interactive workout programs. Tracking the effectiveness of workouts and a club-goer's progress over time is motivating. Many YMCAs use a Web-based program to customize workouts, track progress and generate meal plans.

Another noteworthy trend is the increase in "pick-up play" in team sports. In 2008, pick-up play exceeded organized or sanctioned play for seven sports: basketball, ice hockey, field hockey, touch football, lacrosse, grass volleyball and beach volleyball. It is believed that this is the result of folks "feeling the pinch" of the economy, Turner said.

Setting aside time for un-programmed use of facilities, including gymnasium courts and sports fields, is seen as important, particularly after school, Turner said. "Drop-in" programs remain popular as well.

In Boulder, the recreation department is offering more flexible programming because when people don't need to preregister or commit to a series of classes, participation "goes through the roof," Olander said.

People are willing to pay more per class if they can drop in when it's convenient for them, she added.

Have a Plan

Rather than fixating on what's trendy, rec departments would be better off focusing on what works, Burns said: "The problem with the fitness industry as a whole is they try to make everything trendy, but to get results the safe way, it's not really all that exciting."

Burns is calling for a return to science in fitness programming and instruction. A potential problem with military-style workouts, for example, is that "you're running them and gunning them," but not necessarily tapping into people's fat reserves. More likely, they're using carbs for fuel. "You have to have a game plan and not just run them until they sweat," Burns said.

It's important to have a game plan for programming in general, as Boulder's experience has shown. Available on the city's Web site to ensure "complete transparency," Boulder's Recreation Program Plan "makes communicating with the public so much easier," Olander said.

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