Building a Campus Recreation Department from Scratch

campus recreation department

Picture this: You have been hired to build a campus rec department from scratch. It’s your first day on the job. What do you do first? Where do you even begin?

I have had the opportunity to tackle this challenge twice in my career. First, taking over a campus activities department in its infancy – which included campus recreation. Then, starting a brand new campus recreation department from the ground up at a different institution. Both situations were very different, but as I reflect on these experiences, there are three things that I feel are absolutely necessary to operate a successful Campus Rec Department.

First things first, what do your students want? Most campus rec departments have the basics in terms of programs and equipment offerings, but great departments have a consistent understanding of the pulse of their students and adjust accordingly. Conducting a needs assessment once or twice per year provides you and your staff insight to what your students want. A simple survey can provide a ton of useful information and serve as a blueprint for your programming each year.

The second most important element to developing a campus rec department is good data. Personally I am a data nerd, but diving into an excel spreadsheet isn’t for everyone. However, it is important you are collecting data from each of your programs. Data as simple as traffic levels in your fitness/recreation complex or group fitness class attendance can tell you a lot about your students and their habits, which allows you to better plan future programs. In my department, we collect fitness center traffic in two-hour increments, seven days a week. This information alone allows us to plan more successful pop-up programs, improve timing and engagement of social media posts, and even adjust our heat/air conditioning throughout the day, among other things.

The final building block for developing a successful campus rec department, and the most complex, is marketing. A phrase that I have heard countless times when talking with students about a program or event is, “I didn’t know about it.” It drives me crazy every time. But, it means there are weaknesses in our efforts to reach as many students as possible. Marketing to students effectively requires multiple approaches. You can’t rely on a single format, whether it’s social media, flyers, announcements, newsletters, etc. It’s also important to think outside the box when trying to reach your students. Being creative in the delivery of your content and utilizing unconventional or “guerilla marketing” tactics can oftentimes lead to the broadest reach. Developing a comprehensive marketing plan is vital to building and maintaining a successful program. After all, if the students don’t know about it, how will they know to show up?

Obviously, there is so much more to campus rec and developing a department than I have mentioned. However, if you and your staff can stay engaged with your students, maintain a grasp of when, where and how students are engaging in campus rec activities, and advertise your programs and offerings well, you will have a department of which you, your staff and your school can be very proud.

Zach Churchill is a graduate of Georgia Southern University – Exercise Science – and Piedmont College (MBA), where he also began his career in higher education. Zach has a broad array of experience across recreation and athletics as an athlete, coach, official and manager. In his free time, Zach is an avid gardener and outdoors enthusiast. He is currently the director of campus recreation at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Reach him at


  1. Avatar

    Dale duncan

    November 30, 2017 at 10:45 pm

    Well written and very informative
    Enjoyed your experience it is very useful

  2. Avatar

    Mary Claire

    November 30, 2017 at 10:48 pm

    This is a great article! Very well written and informative 🙂 sounds like you are the right person to engage students in the school!

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    Alyson Hensley

    December 1, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    You’ve been a wonderful addition to our campus and I’m so sad I’ve got to enjoy your changes for only my last year attending college! Thank you for all that you do.

  4. Avatar

    Ethan Weeks

    December 1, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    Great article! It’s well written, concise, and extremely informative. One can tell that Zach has the experience and the knowledge to not only build a campus rec program, but ensure it’s growth and efficiency. Well done, Zach!

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