Throw Away The Old Playbook

Few recreation professionals would claim youth programming is an easy component of their job. Local markets are more crowded than ever with school districts, churches, YMCAs, fitness facilities, non-profit organizations, and individual recreation departments competing for the same children. Furthermore, it seems that every sport and/or activity no longer has a season. A person interested in soccer can play year-round in many areas of the country and increasingly in northern climates as indoor facilities continue to pop up. Oversaturation of programs, coupled with increased government regulation, create a perilous landscape, and sadly many recreation professionals continue to use the same old template instead of taking progressive steps to improve. It is time to throw away the old playbook and build programs that are valuable for patrons.

What Does The Research Indicate?

When someone asks, “What is the most important element of a successful program?” many people will immediately think of customer service. Customer service is a buzz word that has been enshrined in the industry (and quite frankly every sales industry) as the gold standard in building a program. But customer service is not clearly defined, nor does it encompass all of the variables important to patrons. I will do my best here to synthesize four definitions paramount to understanding programs.

  1. Customer service: The level to which a patron is satisfied with staff interactions. These interactions can be in person, over the phone, or electronic, and are typically conversational or explanatory in nature. To be clear, I am not talking about the cleanliness of the building, the structure of a program, or the aptitude of instructors. 
  2. Customer satisfaction: A measure of how the products and services supplied meet or surpass the expectations of patrons. For example, within a dance program, a parent will likely expect a daughter/son to progress towards established goals (typically outlined by the program and/or developed in the mind of the patron). Meeting or exceeding said goals leads to a satisfied customer.
  3. Perceived value: Measurement between actual costs and perceived benefits of a program. Does the service or instruction provided meet or exceed the monies paid?
  4. Behavioral intention: A patron’s intention to re-enroll or drop out of a program. This measure is typically based on evaluation of the above three measures.

Take note that each of the first three definitions provides a different point of view of a program, but at the same time the definitions are inherently intertwined. Depending on the program, a patron will likely have positive or negative views on each measure independently (even if not consciously realizing it). By studying these variables, researchers have been able to draw a number of significant conclusions, but the strongest thread has consistently been perceived value as the single-most important variable for producing re-enrollments.

Yes, findings suggest that even in situations where service and satisfaction were subpar, many patrons continued to enroll if they felt the value was high. I liken this concept to an all-you-can-eat buffet. When I go to a buffet, the service can be bad and the food can be wanting, but if I get a lot for my money, there is still a strong possibility I will return. Now, before jumping to any conclusions, value does not always mean cheap. To the contrary, in most cases programs with higher value may be more expensive but contain side benefits that extend beyond the basic intention of the program. The concept of perceived value can be compared to buying a pickup truck. I can buy a two-wheel drive, standard-cab truck with no bells and whistles, or I can purchase a four-wheel drive, extended cab with heated seats, and power everything. Sure, the second truck is going to be more expensive, but the value built in with the added features is more popular in the marketplace. Seriously, how many two-wheel drive standard-cab trucks are seen on the road? Therefore, I argue that costs can be increased slightly or diverted within a budget to add value to programs. Model 1 illustrates perceived value as the largest piece of the pie in a patron’s mind.

Focus On Retention

Many industry professionals focus on the immediate upfront numbers of a program. They dump money into advertising and promotional campaigns with the hope of attracting large entry numbers. While great in theory, it would be more intelligent to spend some resources to build a program with elevated value and a goal of higher retention rates. Over time, a high-retention rate has a stronger possibility of large numbers and more revenue than a low-retention program. I am not advocating that recreation professionals discontinue advertising, slack on customer service, or hire unqualified instructors, but retention must be taken more seriously. For example: Program A is focused on new enrollments, but fails to effectively retain patrons—10 enroll and only two return for a second program. Program B focuses on new enrollments but also retention by either a diversion of resources or a slight cost increase—eight patrons enroll but six patrons return for a second program. Assuming each program has the same number of enrollments for a second session, Program B will be slightly larger than Program A (12 in Program A and 14 in Program B). Assuming the same number of enrollments and retention for a third session, Program B is growing quickly compared to Program A (14 in A and 20 in B). Therefore, in just three sessions, program B is really growing while Program A has made only marginal gains. The ace in the hole in this scenario is always the best form of advertising when positive—word of mouth. Program B produces a better product (more value), and the voices of returning participants may turn the snowball into an avalanche.

Increase Program Value

The following are some ways to increase program value:

  1. Add layers to a program. Create a program with several levels of achievement that are attainable for the average patron. For example, in an ice skating program, build structured levels based on learned skills, and test patrons throughout the program. When applicable, this may be the best value-added tool. 
  2. Give awards to patrons at the end of a program or based on the level of testing outlined above. Children and parents love recognition for achievement. (Note: I am by no means advocating for undeserved or unearned awards.) 
  3. Increase instructor-to-child ratios: If one wants a perception of both value and satisfaction, the best way is to provide workable instructor-to-child ratios. Children will progress faster, and the visual perception will be much improved for parents.
  4. Take pictures during a program and provide them to patrons as an unexpected gift. Polaroid has a modern version of the old, rollout, self-developing photos that works great. Parents love nostalgia!
  5. Organize a player-parent game at the end of a program. This gives the parents a chance to participate with their children, and there is no extra cost for instructor fees.
  6. Give discounts for peripheral products. Provide parents merchandise and apparel at a break-even cost, and make it publicly known they are getting a great deal!
  7. Provide a jersey or group-identity article of clothing. Looking alike builds comradery and social inclusion. Nothing is more valuable for children than a feeling of belonging. 
  8. Use the power of social media. Use it to praise students and their achievements.

It’s time to stop using the old program playbook in oversaturated local markets. Empirical research indicates that the perceived value of a program is the single-most important element within youth programming. Increase the costs slightly or divert them from advertising or other budget items, and find creative ways to add value. With value comes higher retention. The numbers at the start may not be as robust, but once a program gains momentum, one will never again do business with the old playbook. 

Ryan Shaffer is the Recreation Director for White Township Parks in Pennsylvania. Reach him at (724) 465-2665 or