Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.
I haven’t conducted a poll or even an unscientific survey, but I’d be willing to bet that there are many recreation departments--especially in smaller population centers with fewer than 100,000 people--that don’t have a separate marketing division. If someone has a source of empirical data that addresses this, please enlighten me.
Yet marketing recreation programs, classes and activities--especially in these fiscally constrained times--is more important than ever. What we do as recreation specialists is helpful to communities trying to cope and come out on the other end intact as viable and vibrant.
Study The Competition
For some time now, I’ve been researching and studying various aspects of marketing public services offered by governmental recreation programs versus commercial services offered in the private sector.
I’ve asked the question: If I was owner of this “business,” would I be marketing my programs differently?
There is no doubt that differences exist between the private and public sectors of leisure-services delivery.
Clearly, the private sector is all about the bottom line; without a profit, there’s not a business.
The public-recreation sector exists as a “service” that many citizens consider an entitlement because they pay taxes. Public recreation will rarely--if ever--make a profit, but revenue to offset expenses is important and desirable.
Therein is the challenge for both sectors. The private sector needs to maintain competitive fees that make enough revenue to pay the bills and still have at least enough profit left over to feed the family.
The public sector must balance on the thin line between providing a very low- or no-cost service to citizens while still developing revenue sources that can help offset costs.
In today’s world, public-recreation services are:
1. Totally or very heavily supplemented by taxes
2. Reduced to balance with the number of taxes available to recreation
3. Maintained at a reasonable level at a cost generally expected of public recreation while also finding ways to increase revenue recovery.
The last option is the direction that seems most reasonable.
Through my studies, I have found several reliable sources of marketing ideas to share with readers.
The first is a book titled Improving Leisure Services Through Marketing Action (Sagamore Publishing, 2002) by Ron E. McCarville. He is a professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Services and associate dean for undergraduate studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
The 276-page book essentially notes the differences and similarities between public- and private-recreation services and presents ways that the public sector can effectively market its services.
McCarville covers a wide range of topics, from basic marketing to training staff. It’s one of those books with so many ideas I know I’ll need to refer to it many times.
Another author I came across is John L. Crompton. He is the Distinguished Professor of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University, and has an equally impressive academic background.
As the author or co-author of 16 books, he is known as the most published scholar in the history of the parks and recreation and tourism fields. He focuses heavily on marketing and/or financing leisure services.
In a 2010 research paper titled “Measuring the Economic Impact of Park and Recreation Services,” Crompton explains how to measure the economic return residents receive from parks and recreation department investments. It provides statistical data with which to inform local audiences about the need for the services you provide.
Emulate Business Models
I am just beginning to delve into this subject in a serious way, but the limits of this column do not allow me to expound too much on findings. The point is that events--particularly in the last three years--have put the parks and recreation field into a very different economy from what most are accustomed to.
Instead of doing the same things over and over, public recreationists need to take some cues from successful business models, and find out what customers need in the current economy and how to give it to them with the resources available.
I am confident that there are some departments--especially those with marketing divisions--that are doing this quite well now. Then there are others (and I put my organization in this category) that can do much better.
If any of you have found successful strategies, would you share them with the rest of the field? Please call or e-mail me or the PRB editor.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.