Find Your Niche

By Chris Chamberlain

It’s an easy rut to fall into--someone pulls the file from a drawer, changes the dates and times, and the same programs run year after year or season after season without much thought.

Sure, the community loves the program, and evaluations are good, but it may be time for a full, comprehensive programming audit of your facilities.

And who knows--you might even identify holes or downtimes for niche programs--things you didn’t even realize were possible.

Coordinating Programs And Resources
Getting everyone to the table to conduct an audit is difficult, but vital to align the most coordinated use of facilities. Attendees might include agency staff members who have programs in the facility, maintenance staff and perhaps contract users.

The purpose is to acquire a complete picture of programming, as well as any available space and time (including downtime for maintenance, field rest and repairs).

For example, an audit of an aquatic facility with two pools and an indoor classroom requires a conversation among contract swim-team coaches, fee-class coordinators and aquatic personnel. A complete audit of programs might reveal an extra hour in the facility for non-traditional programming, such as a ballet class in a classroom or a robotics class that uses the pool deck or pool for testing.

A separate audit might reveal an area in a park where a summer lawn-bowling league might be feasible if the mowing height is adjusted.

The idea is to think differently about available space, which might lead to new ideas or niche uses.

Identify Trends
A niche program is designed to be “wedged in” to an existing program to create additional revenue and give new life or a different identity to a facility. Niche programming can create or sustain a spotlight on a facility or program--making it a powerful tool for future marketing efforts.

It is important to remember, however, that a niche program is not one that runs every year; it should be synonymous with the most recent trends so there is a constant flood of new programming ideas for specific target markets that may not regularly use a facility.

Instead, niche programming should attract a new clientele. For example, a playground might get a shot of new life by hosting a regional sidewalk chalk-art contest.

Non-Traditional Marketing
Understanding how an audience likes to receive information is the key to successful niche programming. Flyers, e-mail blasts, Facebook, online review pages and rewards programs are typical methods of marketing to various target markets, but many times unconventional marketing--such as being on-location with sponsors/partners, handouts, free stuff, poster campaigns--is necessary.

It is also important to connect with what will attract the audience’s attention. In one California agency, for example, a rewards card was developed that allowed members who registered, for a fee, to sign up for programs early and receive points for every dollar spent; they were also given “members-only” two-for-one deals on classes and “members-only” appreciation parties.

This program spread from residents to non-residents, and was used as a test-marketing focus group for new niche programming at a free or discounted rate before it was released to the public.

Another agency worked with a local pharmacy that catered to older adults to market their senior-fitness program by printing ads on the folds of the paper bags used for medication. The result was a three-fold increase in program registration.

A third organization put membership information to good use by marketing program specials through text messaging to members.

All of these ideas involved outside-the-box thinking--a requirement for niche programming.

Courage And Investment
Examining programs and stepping outside of normal marketing practices takes courage, as it can be seen as too risky or counter to the culture of the organization.

One avenue to consider is consulting younger staff and even part-time employees, who may see programming from a different point of view. Nothing helps engage staff members more than the ability to turn a “what if” question into a “why not” answer with upper management’s approval.

Before you know it, younger employees can turn a video camera and a little guidance into a promotional video that may become viral on the internet overnight. Undoubtedly, this type of promotion is risky, and must be planned and handled carefully, but the rewards oftentimes outweigh the risks.

Sell It And Celebrate It
Part of the overall success of a department involves everyone pulling in the same direction, which means that everyone--from front-line staff to the director--has a role in selling programs and services. In today’s tough economy, each person must be actively engaged in selling the entire department--not just a particular area.

And don’t forget: celebrating success is important. Allowing employees to celebrate the wins--no matter how big--encourages them to break through the habits of the same programming routines.

Allow customers to share in success as well--through focus groups, “member-only” recognition events or gift certificates toward future programming. The celebration atmosphere attracts others to future events and makes the spotlight even stronger.

Celebrating failures might be equally important to the process. It’s a great practice to hold a “Failurefest” or “Failurepalooza,” where employees who took a chance on a new program are able to share what they learned from a niche programming risk they tried but didn’t go well. The “lessons learned” help decrease the potential risk with the next attempt.

Chris Chamberlain is an assistant professor and recreation management coordinator for the Department of Hospitality, Recreation & Tourism at California State University, East Bay. He can be reached via e-mail at