The fall 2019 semester began in style at East Carolina University with 2,811 students attending the third annual Raid the Rec event the during move-in week.
The record turnout, with 70% first-year students, was truly amazing. The Eakin Student Recreation Center boasted an electric energy with students lining up for free food, T-shirts and recreational activities. Sixteen months later you can almost count hourly visitors to our facilities on two hands and campus looks like a ghost town. Everything went virtual and the smiling faces of our first-year students were only visible through a laptop camera or on social media. Now, as we plan for a 50% return to campus in spring 2021, these important traditions need to be held, but modifications are making hosting a difficult venture.
A Risky Proposition
I find it hard to imagine attending an event tomorrow with 1,000-plus students waiting in close quarters for a T-shirt or slice of pizza. The same feelings are prevalent among many in our profession and especially in upper administration. Inability to socially distance, control crowds, ensure mask use and remain under government-mandated gathering limits are all concerns in need of mitigation to host large special events. The risk of disease transmission is high in these settings, but with proper safety protocols large scale events can be successful. At ECU, we eliminated our biggest hazards during special events including queuing in long lines, sharing of equipment, mingling in groups and food service. We achieved this through decreasing group size, requiring reservations, enforcing mask usage and closing our facility to walk-in participation during the event.
“Why” We Host
When deciding the future of any program — from flag football to adventure trips and fitness classes — the most important factor is the “why.” Do you host because of a tradition, innovation, demand or necessity? The past 10 months have forced many recreational sports departments to figure out the “why” to determine continued feasibility with tightening budgets, increased safety protocols and decreases in student participation.
Our “why” at ECU is different for each event but can be summarized in three major categories: marketing and promotions, tradition, and stress reduction. Large events are the single best promotional activity we host on campus as they introduce thousands to activities and facilities they may never enter without the help of a roommate or resident advisor. These offerings align with our departmental value of tradition, as some participants attend four or five times during their Pirate Career. The most impactful “why” is the ability to provide a relaxing atmosphere for our students to disengage from the stressors of academics, work or life in general and simply just have fun.
Special Events Set the Tone
The worldwide pandemic and subsequent decrease in on-campus enrollment created a budget crisis many in higher education were not prepared to face. During times of financial strain, extra services like large special events are often seen as not critical to your department’s overall mission and put on the proverbial chopping block.
ECU Campus Recreation and Wellness went through this budget evaluation process for special events and realized cutting one large event to provide an overall savings was essential for the continued success of other major offerings. The initial thought was to discontinue hosting these costly programs altogether, but a common theme emerged from discussions: these events set the tone for our entire semester. A well-attended August kickoff event exposes thousands to your facilities, your programs and serves as the best word-of-mouth marketing you can buy. A campus tradition hosted at your facility brings affinity from returning students which may serve as an anchor for future participation and alumni engagement.
A Tradition Unlike Any Other
The Eakin Student Recreation Center opened in January 1997 to much fanfare as the first dedicated recreational space for the general student body at ECU. The outdoor pool was clearly out of commission during the winter months, but the staff saw an opportunity to show their fellow Pirates how the northern tradition of a Polar Bear Plunge felt when it was just above freezing outside. The first jump saw only 35 participants, but recent events have seen as many as 1,200 take the plunge. January 2021 will bring the 25th iteration of the event with some significant modifications, smaller groups, reserved jump times, the elimination of ancillary activities like Key Log Rolling®, the spring student organization fair and the cutting of the award-winning Polar Bear cake.
Our staff went back and forth on the social responsibility of hosting upwards of 300 participants at the event, but ultimately realized the tradition hosting was important to the overall student experience on campus Events like this can be safely held, with significant modifications, and will remind students we are still the place to make memories on campus.
Gear up for 2021-2022
There are obvious reasons events were canceled in 2020 and may be canceled in spring 2021, but the fall cannot come soon enough. You may have missed your annual (insert event name here), but these events should return next fall and the time to start planning is near. Reach out to your local sponsors now to develop partnerships, secure finances and increase in-kind donations. Call your favorite partners on campus to begin discussions on collaborative opportunities and shared promotional ventures.
Most importantly, have hope things will return to normal. We all are tired of video chats, programming on Facebook Live and otherwise missing the energy of in-person interaction. Soon enough we will be buying too many T-shirts, figuring out how to get 2,000 students through our doors in an hour and wondering how we will possibly top this next year.