It's a numbers game. At least that's the way it panned out over the past year at recreation centers in Longmont, Colo., and Medina, Ohio. This particular numbers game was beneficial and challenging for both centers.
The benefit was obvious as people flocked to these relatively new recreation centers (Longmont's opened in March of 2002 and Medina's on Dec. 7, 2002) and the resulting revenues soared beyond expectations.
"Our original estimate was that we would bring in about $760,000 and year-to-date we're right around $1 million, which far exceeded what we hoped for. Our attendance was estimated around 225,000 and we'll be closer to 300,000," says Jeff Friesner, recreation manager for the City of Longmont.
Kenn Kaminski, Medina's director of parks and recreation, noting a similar experience, says the city's goal of selling 8,000 season passes was exceeded by 1,500.
"Our biggest challenge to start with was having the right number of staff during the right period of the day. We would have four people at the front desk when we thought we would be really busy, and it didn't turn out that way. Then we'd only have two people at another time when it was very busy," explains Friesner.
"Throughout the facility we've been able to identify what those appropriate levels are."
Kaminski says that opening Medina's recreation center during the winter probably brought in more initial crowds than a spring or summer opening might have. In order to compensate for that,
Kaminski hired more people at fewer hours per week. If he needed additional help it wasn't so difficult for someone who was scheduled for only 12 hours or so to add a few more to their schedule.
"You should compensate by hiring more people, especially the first six weeks. We know that from now to the middle of March we're going to be crowded," says Kaminski.
"And, because we weeded out the bad apples early, and everyone saw that we would do that, it kept the part-timers happy and pleased. Our two biggest areas for staffing problems are early-morning lifeguards, because we start at 5:30 a.m., and our snack bar is difficult."
Patterns of Use
An interesting trend that Longmont found was the intense amount of drop-in use. The center began with a relatively limited programming slate, anticipating an expanded programming schedule as time went by.
"We have found that the drop-in use is so high that we've had to offer very little in expanding our programs. Our pass holders and drop in use is so high that we can't invade their space," explains Friesner.
One programming area that has seen high demand and growth is personal training, says Sue Jacobson, recreation program supervisor for Longmont. "We never offered personal training in the past at other sites, and it has gone through the roof here," she says.
Jacobson and Friesner say that the fitness area is relatively small, which creates an organizational and space challenge. However, a smaller fitness area was a conscious design decision, given that local health clubs expressed their competitive concerns. The design Longmont settled on helped settle their fears and they did not raise an objection to the center at public hearings.
Kaminski says that Medina's fitness area is its most popular. It has a lot of space, which helps further accommodate the high-school that shares many of the recreation center's facilities.
The most important lesson about opening and operating a recreation center, says Kaminski, is to be flexible and adaptable.
The fitness center provides a good example of this philosophy as an unexpected trend emerged that younger children from 10-13 were interested in working out. However, the original policy effectively banned youngsters.
The answer was to provide a mandatory orientation. Now, in addition to an orientation, 12 and 13 year olds are allowed in as long as a parent is in the recreation center; 10 and 11 year olds need to have a parent with them in the fitness area.
(A rundown of general operations and facilities can be found in last year's profile of Longmont's and Medina's recreation centers in the January 2003 issue of Parks & Rec Business, beginning on page six. The article may also be found at www.parksandrecbusiness.com.)
Rentals for birthday parties and other special events have also been very popular in Longmont. The popularity of these events is due in large part to the center's climbing wall and expansive aquatics center.
"There was a time during May that we opened the building at 7 a.m. on Saturday and the building did not shut down until 8:30 p.m. Sunday, because we had six weekends of after-prom parties. We also have a special event every Saturday evening called Kids Night Out that goes until 11 p.m., and those after-prom parties would go from 11 until we opened the next morning," says Friesner.
"The other surprise, at least for me, is the amount of people who use our lobby and game room area. Kids have really turned that into the living room of Longmont where they hang out, watch TV and socialize. It's been a cool thing we didn't anticipate."
Jacobson relates that the high-school newspaper named the Longmont Recreation Center as the town's best first-date spot.
Friesner adds that the climbing wall's usage is "feast or famine," so the hours have been streamlined. It's open from noon to eight in the summer and 4-8 during the school year, since the primary users are kids 10-16.
Kaminski says Medina's swim lesson program has been its most popular. He says that much of that, beyond running an excellent program, has to do with the limited opportunity for swim lessons in the area.
"We do not have enough water safety instructors because our swim lessons are to capacity with waiting lists. You couldn't add up all of our programs to get to the numbers in learn-to-swim," he says.
"My recommendation for someone starting off new is to promote all the programs prior to opening. We didn't do that, and when we first opened our programs, they started off slower and then went uphill. I would have preferred to see them start off higher and continue to go uphill. I would have run some television spots or spots in the local newspaper highlighting the programs to give everyone an overview. It would create more interest, because someone who might not be interested in working out or the pool might be interested in a craft class or an aerobics class, then we might have gotten them at the beginning. We would have seen our programming and membership revenues increase."
Everything else, says Kaminski, is exceeding expectations. He says that "little things" like the café and the retail items -- like shirts, bags, towels, water bottles, batteries and headphones -- really add up.
Medina's Rascal Room, the child care room that was expected to run at a loss, has been so well-run and popular that it's actually generating some revenue. Kaminski says that its popularity has a lot to do with the parents' comfort level, as the Rascal Room provides various levels of security, such as wristbands, ID numbers and signature match-ups.
"People have never complained because they don't feel safe, or that the place is too dirty or expensive, and that's the three reasons people leave. I believe people will pay for service," says Kaminski.
Kaminski adds that the center's leisure pool -- with its water slide, current channel, zero-depth spray features, water basketball hoops and more -- is the second-most used space in the facility, behind the fitness area.
Longmont's Friesner says that its aquatics center is "by far, the main draw to the facility." He estimates that about 75 percent of the usage is in the leisure pool, specifically the zero-depth spray area, while the other 25 percent use the lap pool.
"For us the biggest challenge has been the hot tub and managing the number of people in there at one time, and educating the parents of young kids that it's not a good idea for kids five and under," says Friesner.
"Another challenge has been the HVAC and keeping the air temperature warm enough, but not so high that the lifeguards want to take naps because it's too warm. And, we have air quality issues during times of severe temperature changes, so we have to adjust and work with the system more often on days like that."
Friesner says the HVAC challenge is not a design problem, but an area that the center has learned to keep close tabs on given the extreme temperature and climate fluctuations along the Rocky Mountain Front Range. As Friesner points out, a beautiful 80-degree day can easily turn into an arctic deep freeze in the course of mere hours, particularly during transitional months like October and April.
Kaminski says that Medina's greatest challenge happened this summer when the field house floor was out of commission for 11 weeks because part of it deteriorated. It was a one in a million product failure, he says, that caused some angst among the users and some lost revenue for the center.
"Our programming manager was pulling her hair out because it's a huge area of revenue for us -- with classes, programs and camps that we couldn't do this summer. Our patrons handled it real well because we told them exactly what happened and how long it would be down," says Kaminski.
"Construction problems are bound to happen, and the best way to deal with them is that as soon as you find there's a problem and something has to be closed down and fixed, you immediately let the patrons know. We ran spots in local publications and on a local television station."