If you’re having trouble maintaining strong participation in aquatics, it might be time to look beyond your usual programming. Hosting a special, once-a-year event is an effective way to engage students and draw their interest in your aquatics department.
Putting together a special event takes a lot of planning and legwork, but it should — if unique and executed correctly — garner strong attendance and give you a chance to expand your department’s reach.
In most cases, the combined efforts of not only different recreation departments, but many campus organizations, will lead to the most successful events.
“It’s all about working collaboratively with other departments on campus and planning ahead to make sure it’s a fun and safe event,” said Alisha Garcia, the assistant director of aquatics at Stanford University. “Plan ahead and get others involved — the more the merrier.”
For Penny Barkhurst, the outreach programs coordinator at Ohio State University, hosting special aquatics events for students is a constant learning experience. “Year over year, we learned what works and what doesn’t, whether it’s logistics, marketing or tweaking something by asking if an event is really drawing students and creating an experience,” she said.
According to Barkhurst, the most popular aquatics event on Ohio State’s campus is called Wipeout.
“Wipeout actually occurs during Welcome Week,” said Barkhurst. “The week students are moving back into the dorms, we open up McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion and put an inflatable obstacle course on the pool. Students are invited to come and either run the obstacle course or be a spectator.”
Wipeout is viewed very fondly across Ohio State’s campus and serves as a great outreach opportunity for the recreation department. It also helps students get connected with their peers.
“It’s very popular, especially with first-year or transfer students who are looking for that sense of community,” said Barkhurst.
Stanford draws its biggest crowd from its Dive In Movies events, during which the recreation department screens a movie at the school’s outdoor pool with snacks and drinks to go around.
“For our Dive In Movies event, the entire shallow end is filled with students and their favorite inflatable,” said Garcia. “We also have a grass hill for those who don’t want to get wet, and of course there are always free snacks available.”
This event has delivered strong attendance numbers for years according to Garcia — which isn’t that surprising when you consider how much college students love movies and free food.
Ohio State doesn’t forget about its adrenaline junkies on campus. Splash Day gives any prospective daredevils the opportunity to go flailing off a high dive.
“Splash Day falls around finals week,” said Barkhurst. “We invite students to come and jump from our diving platform. We have multiple levels, so they have to work their way up to the 10-meter diving platform, which is the equivalent of a three-story building. They have to successfully complete each jump before they can move up to a higher platform.”
And with any event involving college students jumping from a high dive, safety comes first. “We have diving coaches on staff who do an orientation on how to safely jump and overcome the fear of jumping, and watch them for form,” said Barkhurst.
The convenience of the event is also a major draw, according to Barkhurst. “We start it at 8:00 p.m. so you don’t conflict with students’ classes, and hopefully they’ve already had dinner,” she said. “They can finish their night with this.”
When all else fails, a good old fashioned pool party can pack in the crowds. Stanford hosts a giant pool party specifically for new students at the transition between summer and fall, all in the hopes of getting these students connected with the rec center and each other.
“The New Student Orientation Pool Party is the Sunday before fall quarter starts,” said Garcia. “We play music, open the shallow end, throw in fun inflatables, give away rec [center] swag and serve Dippin’ Dots.”
This event is the starting point for many students’ involvement with the recreation department at Stanford. “The pool party is the most popular event to end summer and kick off fall quarter,” said Garcia.
The aforementioned events, as well as other large events on any campus, require promotion to make the planning worthwhile. With a myriad of ways to spread the word about your special events, it’s important to stay updated on how your students find out about campus going-ons.
“[We] typically use social media and our rec [center] website,” said Garcia. “Depending on who our campus partners are, we’ll get fliers and posters out around campus, too.”
In some cases, you can just let your department’s good reputation speak for itself. Consistently host fun and engaging events, and your participation numbers will remain strong.
“Students predominantly learn about events through word of mouth,” said Barkhurst. “We put things out on social media and posters, and have rec sports ambassadors go out on campus and talk to students about rec programs. But at the end of the day, it’s about what they’re hearing from their friends and on social media, so we really try to be proactive about getting people to talk about it — that’s what will drive the numbers.”