To Better Serve Those Who Serve
How Recreation Managers Can Support Military and Veteran Audiences More Effectively
By Chris Gelbach
As park districts and recreation facilities look to better serve their constituencies, they sometimes struggle with how best to meet the needs of military service members, their families and the veteran population. But departments that build the right partnerships, create programs that meet the unique needs of these communities, and truly commit to serving these audiences can achieve long-term success.
"This topic is complex and difficult," said Matt Enoch, community program coordinator of the directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) at Fort Riley, Kan. "I know that recreation professionals want to serve the military community, but they don't understand it … they feel like it's almost a completely different world. And in some respects, it's different, but it's also the same."
For some recreation departments located near major military installations, a focus on military patrons is particularly important. But even small towns 1,000 miles from the nearest military base will likely have residents with military connections, and prominent military or veterans' organizations worth partnering with.
"You need to be able to look at your community and your resources and what you have in your town, and you need to be able to build and maintain relationships with people," Enoch said. "It's not going to come to you. If you really want to support the military community in your town, or if you're near a military facility and want to reach out to them, you've got to get out and make it happen."
In communities that aren't near a military base, Enoch recommends building relationships with other local organizations such as the USO, the local VA hospital, the American Legion and the VFW. And he recommends that recreation managers who are near a military base not only reach out to the local installation, but also visit the base.
"You might have to get a tag [to get on the base], but there's nothing that keeps you off the military installation and seeing what's going on there in terms of recreation service," Enoch said. "You've got to see what's going on—that's how you're going to find out what people in your community need and want."
This is important because military bases can vary greatly in what amenities they offer. Some installations are vast and offer tremendous recreation opportunities on base. And the majority offer state-of-the-art fitness centers because of the natural emphasis that the U.S. Armed Forces places on the fitness of its service members.
Filling in the Gaps
By building the right partnerships, local recreation managers can successfully identify the right options to support existing MWR offerings and supplement the often-impressive recreational offerings that already exist for service members and their families.
"We work locally, so the local parks and rec directors need to reach out to the local MWR directors," said Josh Gwinn, chief of community recreation for Army MWR. "We're definitely emphasizing [those partnerships] here at headquarters, but sometimes it just takes a reach out from the local parks and rec director to the MWR director, and you will see a lot of great things happen between the two."
Andrew Stack is senior director of membership and business development for YMCA of Florida's First Coast, a 14-facility local YMCA association that serves roughly 150,000 members in the five-county area surrounding Jacksonville. When he created a strategy for better serving the veteran and active-duty military communities, he was aware from his own military experience of the great facilities and programs that MWR often offers. He also made a point of stressing that the First Coast YMCAs were interested in supporting, not competing with, MWR offerings.
"We specifically introduced ourselves and got ourselves in face-to-face meetings with the base leaders and the MWR leaders to say, look, we are not your competition. We are not a threat to you," Stack said. "We want to fill in gaps where you either have a demand that's too high and you can't possibly provide it, or maybe it's something that's not in your wheelhouse. Where can we provide additional opportunities that you don't have the staff or the funding or the capacity to deliver on? And out of the gate, the MWR offices here in Jacksonville have been very welcoming to that."
First Coast YMCA received additional insights by creating an outside advisory council made up of military leaders and former military leaders as well as community leaders and partners who serve the active-duty and veteran communities. Stack noted that among the council members are a one-star general, the city of Jacksonville's military liaison officer and the CEO of the USO, in addition to additional junior-ranking active-duty personnel. "We let them steer us," Stack said. "They tell us what they need—the things that MWR or other service organizations do not provide."
In the case of First Coast YMCA, one opportunity appeared in providing various camp options that could support single parents whose spouses were deployed in caring for their children, from day camps to summer camps and resident camps.
To schedule various camp options effectively, First Coast YMCA looked at the schedules of local facilities. For instance, the Camp Blanding Joint Training Center is about five miles from the YMCA's resident camp, and hosts two-week summer training sessions and monthly weekend assignments for the Florida National Guard. This spring, First Coast YMCA will extend its resident camp options to allow service members to drop their child off on a Friday for the weekend while they're at Camp Blanding completing their monthly Guard duty.
A Focus on Childcare
According to some estimates, as many as 70 to 80 percent of military families and their members live off base. Those living on base are more likely to be single service members or higher-ranking officers whose families can get on-base housing. As a result, more of the off-base population interested in using community facilities are younger families who greatly value having childcare options when they attend recreational facilities.
"One of the things that we have heard over and over again is that the single greatest challenge our folks are facing is access to affordable childcare," said Chris Haley, chief of staff and vice president of marketing and communications for the Armed Services YMCA National Headquarters. "If they can go to a place outside the gate that has childcare and is affordable and safe and then they can go work out, that's what they're going to do. Because otherwise, they can't work out."
Just as the First Coast YMCA does, the Armed Services YMCA sees high enrollment from military families for half-day, full-day and overnight camp programs. "Summer camps serve as a proxy for childcare in the summertime," Ashish Varzirani, senior vice president for programs for the Armed Services YMCA National Headquarters. These programs allow military spouses who work during the school year the much-needed opportunity to still do so during the summer.
Providing Low-Cost, High-Quality Programs
Because members of the military are accustomed to high-quality MWR programs, it's important for local recreation facilities serving this demographic to meet this quality expectation. At the same time, however, many members of the military are also used to receiving these opportunities for free or at a discounted rate.
There can also be a tremendous difference between military families of different ranks in income and ability to afford various programs and services. "If you're a family of four and you're an E-3 or an E-4 [which are junior enlisted ranks], compared to an E-8 or an E-9 [senior non-commissioned officer], you might be making one-third the money they are," said Varzirani. "So you need to think about graduated scales on these discounts if you want to make it affordable."
That's exactly what First Coast YMCA has done. While the Y offers income-based pricing as a financial assistance tool, Stack felt that using different nomenclature and offering rank-based pricing would resonate more positively with active-duty military personnel. "Acknowledging that these are men and women who serve with honor and dignity, calling it financial assistance may not be in line with the values and principles that we want to convey to them."
After introducing the new membership plan, First Coast YMCA signed up more than 750 active-duty service members and families in the first four months. "For our association, that's astounding numbers coming out of the block."
Leveraging Sponsorship Opportunities
For recreation facilities, it may at first appear difficult to offer such low-cost opportunities to military families. But sponsorship opportunities can help defray the costs and enable recreation departments to support these communities while still staying within budgets.
"You may have more luck getting resourcing for military-related programs than you are for your other programs because people want to support the military," Enoch said. "People with money—foundations, corporations—they're always looking for ways to support the military."
To attract and sustain these sponsorships, Enoch stressed the importance of measuring the community impact of your recreation programs to build credibility. "There are a lot of really great opportunities out there where you can put your resources to support the military, but there are a lot of rip-offs, too," Enoch said. "So you've got to be credible."
According to Stack, First Coast YMCA has been able to find corporate sponsors and other community sponsors to cover the cost of some of these camp opportunities for military service families.
Popular Program Options
When creating program opportunities, certain programs are sure to attract military service members. Since running is a fitness requirement for service members, and races can also be a family activity, any kind of run is worth marketing to military communities. "Adventure runs like the mud runs and Tough Mudder and Spartan Races are really popular right now in the military community," Enoch said. "Also, anything that families can do at no cost, like festivals, are hugely popular right now. Families just want an excuse to get out and do something fun."
Because intramurals are well-funded by the military and viewed as an important team-building activity for military units, efforts to include military members in recreational sports leagues are also likely to be successful.
Outdoor recreation is also growing increasingly popular. "High adventure is one of our biggest-growing areas, whether it's rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, those types of things," Gwinn said. "Fitness is also a growing area—a lot of that is directed classes and functional fitness."
Military members living off base tend to be families who move often and want to integrate into their communities quickly and successfully. Youth sports and other youth programs are appealing since they give the children in military families a way to make friends before the school year begins.
In some respects, military recreation trends are dovetailing with those in civilian recreation, including a more holistic emphasis on health. "We're seeing that healthy eating is aligning more and more with recreation and fitness," said Tim Higdon, Healthy Army Communities program manager, Family and MWR, G9 IMCOM. "Having access to healthy food and beverages while they're at facilities and participating in programs is another thing that's starting to align outside and in our communities, as well."
While adaptive sports are popular among veterans with disabilities, they require specific expertise to administer and, for team sports, enough people interested in participating to form teams. But Enoch noted that other opportunities exist that might more closely relate to your existing programming.
"Beyond adaptive sports, there are other things you can provide that are just as effective," Enoch said. "What are you doing to drop military community members, veterans, families into your arts and crafts programs? A lot of our military population have disabilities you can't see. Arts and crafts, painting, stained glass, woodworking, music therapy, performing music, listening to music, equine therapy, walking in the woods—these are things that provide therapy to people who have experienced military service. They can be tremendously impactful to them in a positive way."
Marketing to Military Audiences Successfully
Whatever your program, it's important to reach military service families at the sources they use when seeking information. Building relationships with marketing contacts at the local MWR department can be helpful in this regard. "They know what's going on with the activities at the garrison, and they can help to promote local activities," said John Patten, chief of recreation and business programs for Army MWR. According to Patten, they can also help steer the right activities to the right audiences, since some Army bases are huge and border on multiple cities.
These are also good contacts to have because military MWR Facebook pages are an important source of information for military families. Haley additionally recommends the website mybaseguide.com, which accepts advertising and is a resource many service members refer to when moving to a new base.
Whatever your program, it's important to reach military service families at the sources they use when seeking information.
Because military families move so often, and are adept at quickly adapting to new environments, it's important to reach them quickly when they move to your community. The summer is the best time to do this since that is also the Permanent Change of Station (PCS) season for military families. One way to reach them is to work with local MWR contacts to get your facility included in welcome packets for these families.
"Our people are used to moving and they do a lot of web-crawling when they're transitioning in and out," Gwinn said. "So the better forward-facing marketing they have, and if they market toward soldiers, it will definitely have an impact."
Beyond the PCS season, learning about the schedules of the military personnel and how they differ from other patrons can also help you serve these audiences better. For instance, many may work early schedules and appreciate early-open hours for fitness facilities. Periods when local troops are deployed may cause a significant drop-off in patrons. And holidays can be an optimal time for targeted programs.
"[Recreation managers] need to be aware of what soldiers' holidays are," Patten said. "That's when soldiers and their families are looking for something to do. If they're off for a federal holiday, there's generally a training holiday on the back end of that, creating a four-day weekend. Which is a lot of opportunity for soldiers and their families to be in the community."
In marketing to military families, it's also important to remember that the primary audience doing a lot of this research work will be the non-serving spouse. This means a predominantly female audience that is interested in youth programs for their children, as well as programming that would appeal generally to a young female audience.
"They want to be part of their community, and if you don't get them fairly quickly, then it just doesn't happen," Haley said. "So to have a process for them to come in and be able to connect and plug in to a broader community is very important."
An Ongoing Commitment
When marketing to military families, it can also be helpful to acknowledge that the process of reaching out to new potential patrons is never over. While you may build relationships with MWR contacts and other partners on base, you will experience significant, ongoing turnover in your military patrons if you live near a military facility. Reaching these audiences and supporting their needs successfully takes ongoing hard work and bridge-building.
"It's worth investing time into. When it works, it can be extremely satisfying," Enoch said. "But nothing's going to happen unless you make the effort. And it's all about relationships. Nothing happens if people aren't connected and all on the same page and understanding what you're there for and interested in sharing resources."
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