Steady Cash Flow

Striking the balance in programming between engagement and revenue generation is difficult in campus recreation. A rec center’s primary directive is to deliver programs and services to help students live healthier lifestyles.

But like any organization out there, a rec center needs steady revenue to continually enhance its student experience.

“There is a fine line between achieving maximum participation and maximizing profit,” said David Leach, the associate director of athletics at the University of Pennsylvania. “Our aim is to provide programs in the most cost-efficient manner — being mindful of our participants’ ability to pay — while delivering high-quality. The ideal outcome is generating revenue in the process.”

The challenge for a rec center is generating revenue without sacrificing elements of student engagement. After all, the students are the first priority — but in the pursuit of more money, it’s easy for their needs to be pushed to the side.

“Students are changing every year,” said Kenny Moore, the director of recreation at Vanderbilt University. “We have to stay up with what their needs are, as ultimately that is why we are here. We want to provide them the best programs and services to help them not only through their college journey, but also in their development of lifelong healthy habits.”

Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt are two colleges that have found success balancing engagement with revenue generation in its fitness programs and services. We picked the brains of experts from each university to find out how they found that balance and their best practices for maintaining it:

University of Pennsylvania

“The primary purpose of our recreational programming is providing fitness, health and wellness opportunities to the university community,” said Leach. “This includes students, faculty, staff, alumni and their families.”

Working from that basic purpose, Leach and his team formulated a second directive for programs. “A secondary goal is providing programming opportunities which are cost-contained — covering all overhead — and the ability to deliver our programs without significant financial barriers,” he said.

Treating revenue generation as a byproduct of engaging, accessible programming for all students has allowed the Pennsylvania rec department to continually adapt and add the programs its students are asking for.

It’s a compounding effect that simultaneously creates more participation and revenue in your programs. “Generating more revenue enables us to invest in proven programs, thereby enhancing quality and increasing participation,” said Leach. “It also provides us with the opportunity to engage in new program initiatives.”

A specific success story for Pennsylvania involved the integration of yoga classes after evaluating the needs of its students.

“We recently incorporated yoga programming into our group fitness passes,” said Leach. “More ‘low cost’ or free yoga classes are available across campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods, which resulted in our classes being less-attended. So our assistant director of campus recreation, Janna Rothschild, suggested we add yoga to the existing group fitness pass option.”

In the short time since the new classes were introduced, the results have been encouraging. “Only a month into last fall semester, we saw an increase in group fitness pass sales and our yoga attendance has increased,” said Leach.

Another way the Pennsylvania rec center increases participation is through on-campus partnerships that help draw attention to their facilities and programming.

“We engage in many collaborative efforts, including partnerships with our undergraduate and graduate student governments,” said Leach. “These initiatives have included many free offerings, subsidized by our student government and student wellness groups. For these, we are very grateful.”

Because on-campus partnerships help Pennsylvania increase participation, revenue generation is also increased. “These partnerships have yielded good success in participation and have also created awareness of our program offerings,” said Leach.

Vanderbilt University

“At the Vanderbilt rec center, we look at our programs and services every year,” said Moore. “Often we are primarily making adjustments, but we do evaluate new program and service ideas every fiscal year. When creating programs and services, my leadership team looks at both our strategic plan and the goal for that particular program or service as it relates to our constituents.”

During that decision-making process, Moore and his team ask very specific questions, starting with these three:

  • Why are we adding this program or service?
  • Is it to make money?
  • Is it to break even?

Each and every potential program or service faces the same questions. And if it doesn’t meet the department’s mission, it hits the chopping block. “If the program or service fails to align with our strategic plan or financial model, it does not make sense to add that program or service,” said Moore.

Even long-standing programs and events aren’t immune to close evaluation. Because trends with students are so fluid, various exercises or class formats can go out of style year to year.

“The same approach for new programs applies to programs and services already established,” said Moore. “Sometimes programs and services are no longer relevant to your rec center’s strategic plan, and leadership has to make those decisions to move away from them to something new.”

Vanderbilt has introduced new programs and fazed out older programs from its rec center throughout the years, with each decision based primarily on what’s best for students. Secondarily, many programs still remaining today play a significant role in revenue generation for the department.

“Programs and services we offer that generate us additional revenue include memberships, swim lessons, space rentals, equipment rentals, massage therapy and personal training, to name a few,” said Moore.

At Vanderbilt, it’s been important not to allow programs and services to become stagnant. Just because a program makes money now doesn’t mean it will make money a decade from now, so it’s important to give your rec center some flexibility in its programming.

“Strategic plans are living, breathing documents,” said Moore. “We always want to be open to new approaches and opportunities that are trending, but we do not want to implement something that is short-term either. That is always a challenge leadership teams will face, asking if something is a short-lived program or something that is going to last.”

And you’re not always going to get it right the first time. But according to Moore, one can often learn just as much from a failure as a success. “Even in failure, we always learn something,” said Moore. “So do not be afraid to try something outside the box — be innovative. I like to be a creative, strategic risk-taker.”

Just as Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt’s teams do, have your leadership team run every new program idea through a basic lens and ask, “Is this program good for our students?” Doing so has allowed these schools to implement revenue-generating programs that also meet the needs of an ever-evolving student population.

“Be true to your university by letting your strategic plan, financial model, industry trends and the needs of your constituents guide you in making great decisions,” said Moore.  

Bobby is a former staff writer at Peake Media.

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