Marketplace Secrets Of Park And Rec Departments

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Summer officially begins in June, which means people everywhere are enrolling in local park programs and taking advantage of recreation areas for picnics, parties and a little pool time. Park and recreation departments across the country provide their communities with programming, services and facilities such as swimming pools, community centers, outdoor recreation spaces, tennis courts and more.
Though summer is the busiest season for these professionals, their operations actually run year-round. In my experience in the Park District of Highland Park, Ill., promotional products played a major role in several marketing goals. While I was the aquatic coordinator and served a stint in the marketing department, I saw four primary areas where the park district relied heavily on promos to help achieve these goals.

Staff uniforms

At the pools, we turned to promotional apparel companies to order staff uniforms. Each summer we clothed more than 100 pool employees. The annual budget for staff uniforms for the aquatic department alone was about $15,000. With $500,000 in budgeted expenses, this makes uniforms about 3 percent of the total budget. To give you a little perspective, Highland Park is an affluent community just north of Chicago, along the lake and with a population around 30,000.

Rewards programs

In the winter, I spent most of my time at the indoor recreation center, which included basketball courts, a pool and a fitness center. In the surrounding upper-class community, the market for fitness centers is extremely competitive; private clubs still receive the majority of business. The park district’s fitness center is relatively new, having just opened in 2005. After about a year, we were not happy with membership retention. (That being said, it is common for new clubs to have poor retention numbers for the first couple of years.)
To improve the numbers, we began an intensive membership-rewards program. It was set up so that members received communication each month via phone, mail or e-mail. We also incorporated prizes given at random or for contests. When new members joined the fitness center, for example, they received an imprinted lanyard to hold their membership card. Each lanyard cost between 85 and 90 cents.
Some months, the center ran promotions for members who scanned into the fitness center at least 10 times or those who participated in other contests. These included walking or running a specified distance, attending special events or classes, meeting with a trainer and participating in raffles. Prizes included earbud headphones with the recreation center’s logo and coffee mugs imprinted with “Happy Holidays” along with the logo and filled with hot chocolate.
Finally, members who renewed their membership received a logoed T-shirt. In addition to giving back to members, it was great free advertising as members wore their shirts while out and about in the community. Overall, the promotional program had a substantial impact on our retention in just a matter of months. The increase was well over 20 percent, while the average cost per member was minimal. I was surprised how much people appreciated the small tokens.


I can think of several times when the park district used promo products to expose the public to a new idea or information. For example, we launched an e-mail address to allow residents to anonymously report safety concerns or ask questions about anything in the park district. To promote it, we sent information along with pens imprinted with the e-mail address throughout our facilities. It caught on like wildfire. After several weeks, we saw the pens in local restaurants and in people’s homes. It became a big promotion.
Another major trend in park and recreation departments as a whole is the attempt to go green. In Highland Park, the cause received a major boon when one of our administrators was out at a football practice and noticed a huge pile of disposable water bottles in and around the field and garbage can. He then had the idea to give out reusable water bottles to all our athletic program participants.
So far, the bottles have only been disbursed to players of one sport, but it did cut down in the amount of plastic bottles left lying around the fields. Going green is a trend I expect to continue in park districts for years to come. With that said, it’s extremely important for park districts to promote which, if any, of their products are made from recycled materials. This is something park departments will consider, even if there is a small increase in price.

Event specific

The park district holds many special events during which time we use giveaways and items for purchase. One year we created a Polar Express for children and families to ride on a train with Santa. For that, we gave away teddy bears wearing a logoed shirt. At our 4th of July Fest we offered logoed hats, and all participants in the Firecracker Run for charity received a race T-shirt.

More advice

Be as flexible as possible with billing terms. As government entities, park districts run on different fiscal-year cycles. My district runs an April-to-March cycle, and most of the vendors I worked with allowed me to begin ordering as early as January for receipt in March and payment as late as May 1.
Park districts can be as loyal of customers as any corporate client. Depending on the municipality’s structure, the parks department may be required to solicit bids on larger orders. Generally, however, there are set limits on what any employee can approve based on his or her rank. For example, a supervisor may be able to place orders under $500 without anyone else’s approval, but the executive director may be able to place orders as large as $20,000 without a bidding process. Larger departments may have a purchasing agent responsible for all ordering, but with set limits.
Most park and recreation departments are extremely busy beginning April 1, and would prefer to get orders in as early as possible. On that note, I’d advise you to not cold call park district staff from April through the end of summer. It is the busiest season and most people will ignore you or be annoyed.
When you do call, dial the park district’s administrative office. Most park and recreation departments keep a list of companies that are interested in being contacted if a bid or quote is requested. Ask to be placed on the list so potential business will come to you. Also, let the staff know if you are local. As a tax-paying member of a community, you may be placed in a different category.
This article was written by Eric Eisenberg for Corporate Logo Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
Eric Eisenberg is a Chicago native who used to work for the Highland Park (Ill.) Park District. He currently resides in New York.

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