Resort + Recreation

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Consultants & Other Industry Resources

Evaluating & Maximizing Your Recreation Program

Most busy resort general managers would jump at the chance to talk with an innovative industry leader who could provide them with a blueprint for evaluating their resort’s recreation programs. This month, Resort+Recreation brings you two such innovators. Debbie Regnone has served as president of Florida-based Resort Sports Inc. for 17 years. Her experience includes three years as recreation director at a five-star resort and three years as a corporate director of recreation, where she created and established new recreation programs and in-house recreation departments at 13 resorts in southwest Florida. Regnone has been an independent management consultant for resorts from Cape Cod to Puerto Rico, which have used her services to redevelop and improve their recreation programs.

Andrew Holdnak, Ph.D. is associate professor of the Hospitality, Recreation and Resort Management Program at the University of West Florida in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Prior to this position, Dr. Holdnak was associate professor of recreation, parks and tourism administration at Western Illinois University. Dr. Holdnak has been involved in the resort and recreation industry since 1974 and served as a resort recreation director for more than 13 years before moving into education. He has been teaching for over 15 years.

In this exclusive interview with Resort+Recreation, Regnone and Holdnak spell out the makings of a good recreation program, the concrete value of having such a program and how to avoid the pitfall of disappointing guests who expect much more than babysitting services.

R+R: What can a good recreation program add to a resort?
Regnone: A good recreation program adds a standard of quality and perceived value that translates into repeat business. When a guest goes home and talks up the great experience they had--often with the recreation program schedule in their hands--they create more business for the resort. When the kids are happy, they are more likely to prod their parents to return to the same resort. Both parents and children like to know what to expect and look forward to an enjoyable vacation. A well-executed recreation program results in repeat visits, often for many years in a row.

One comment I received years back when I was involved every day with preschoolers at a resort has stayed with me. I took the kids out for a beach walk with the goal of having them learn the name of one bird, one plant and one shell. We pointed out many things in the course of that hour, and the next day I got a call from a parent. “What in the world are you doing with the kids?” she asked. I was ready for anything, and the mother went on: “Last night at dinner we were bothered by a mosquito, but our daughter wouldn’t let us swat it. She insisted, ‘That’s food for a frog!’ We had to catch it and take it outside and release it before we could eat. Later, my daughter pointed out a plant to me and said ‘Mom, that’s an iris!’”
That parent knew--and clearly defined for me--the difference between a babysitter and a recreator.

Holdnak: In choosing a vacation destination, families frequently wonder: “Did we make the right choice?” Most parents would rather stick with a resort that shows them a good time each year, rather than risk trying new places that may disappoint. Think of time-shares – this is their market.

Most importantly, recreation programs create memories. Vacations are special times in the lives of families. They are more likely to be remembered than everyday life. A good resort recreation program helps build that sense of your resort as a “special place” that encourages guests to return.

R+R: How do you define a good recreation program?
Regnone: The best recreation programs are ones that offer well-supervised, educational programs that are fun, unique and safe.

Holdnak: I agree: The first concern is safety. Activities should be creative and relate to whatever is unique about the resort’s environment. The recreational activities available should help make the vacation special. The recreation staff should be trained and enthusiastic – they can make or break a family’s vacation. Children should be grouped appropriately and activities must be age-appropriate.

Regnone: I also look for programs that have options and incorporate the amenities, natural environment, history and unique opportunities of the region.

I pay special attention to how I am greeted by the recreation staff. What is the ratio of staff to children? Are the staff and the recreation areas neat and clean? What are the other children doing, what are they involved in, how are they behaving—how involved is the staff with the children?

R+R: What are signs of a "bad" recreation program?
Regnone: For me, the major signs of a “bad” program include:

  • An unsupervised game room
    Having just a few pieces of beaten up recreation equipment available for check out and use by guests
    Having a non-recreation professional acting as a “room attendant” for kids, who are dropped off and left in a room with independent play stations, board games, crayons, coloring books and videos and void of any interaction and play with the attendant
    Anything that a family could do on their own at the resort or that kids could do independently in their room with only a sitter to watch them

If any of these are part of your recreation program, you don’t really have a recreation program. Today’s guests are increasingly discerning, and their level of expectation is rising. You need to be sure you meet it.

Holdnak: I’d add to that list, lack of organization. A good recreation person is a good planner. Recreation professionals should have good “people-sense” as well as good business sense. Another pitfall is improper staffing–too many, too few, untrained or unmotivated, and worst, unenthusiastic.

If you don’t value your recreation program--the people in it and the equipment and facilities--you are implying that you don’t value the guests who use it. Keep in mind that the member of your staff most likely to be recalled by name by your guests is the recreation staffer who is in direct contact with your guests’ children. Make sure you know their names, as well.

R+R: How can a general manager audit his recreation program?
Regnone: To begin, general managers should personally review participation reports and quality assurance standards and how they tie into predetermined standards of performance. GMs can conduct informal guest feedback interviews on property. They can involve repeat guests with new guests in annual focus group retreats. In short, they should stop, look and listen. Stop by and observe programs in action. Look around at the facilities. Listen to guests and staff.

Mostly, just think with your parental instinct. What would I want for my kids? Would I be happy if my children were participants in this program? You need to think from your parental point of view at budget time, when you’re developing programs and when you walk around the grounds. Make sure it “feels” right.

Holdnak: Certainly, recreation programs should be value-added for the resort. Look for positive impacts in direct resort revenue, increased length of stay and a willingness to return. A good recreation program should show up well in guest comment cards. Look for excited staff--people who are always on the hunt for new ideas.

R+R: How can the recreation manager guide the general manager to better understand the recreation side of the resort business?
Regnone: Most GMs do not have the time to be actively involved or have the experience with a top-notch recreation program to know the difference between a mediocre program and a marketing treasure. That means the recreation manager must be an innovator.

As recreation professionals, it is our job to inspire and lead the department. First of all, make sure you are talking a language understood by any executive board--dollars and “sense.” Demonstrate the range of service and quality in numbers by descriptive line items; then, resort management understands the scope of recreation service as it relates to income and expense, as well as quality of services offered. They will understand that it is truly a case of getting what you pay for.

If you compromise staffing by hiring “attendants” at $7-$8 an hour instead of recreation professionals at $12-$15 per hour, you get babysitters--not innovators! If you budget $1,500 per year for basic recreation supplies instead of $1,500 per week for innovative, educational, well-supervised theme weeks for summer and holiday camps and special events, you get babysitting instead of quality recreation services that bring guests back again and again. You must work to create a tangible, marketable difference between your resort and neighboring properties you regularly compete against for business.

The bottom line is this: Why would a guest choose your five-star resort over the five-star resort down the street? If dollar for dollar they seem the same, the value of a quality, in-house recreation department becomes priceless. And, once the consumer knows the difference, the GM will either be doomed or delighted.

Holdnak: Recreation should not be an afterthought. It is an integral part of a successful resort operation. There are professionally trained people available who can run a quality operation. Hiring untrained people at low wages is a recipe for low performance at best and a disaster at worst.

R+R: What happens when marketing overstates what the resort's recreation program can deliver?
Regnone: As a parent and recreation provider, I can tell you there is no greater disappointment than when you show up at a property expecting a quality program and find nothing more than a glorified babysitting service. Remember, no one complains more loudly or more persistently than a child. If the program disappoints the child, it will also disappoint the parents. If the parents have planned an activity for themselves such as golf or tennis, and can’t do it because they aren’t comfortable with their children being in the program, then the parents are effectively cheated out of their vacation also.

Holdnak: When marketing overstates what the resort’s recreation program can really deliver, it results in lower satisfaction scores from guests and a decreased willingness to return to the property. Recreation and hospitality researchers often use the expectancy theory of satisfaction. This theory says that the greater the congruence between the expected experience and the actual experience, the higher the levels of satisfaction.

Marketing and operations should be on the same page so that a potential guest makes the right decision based on what you actually offer. In the end, not delivering what you promise will cause the business to suffer. Recreation is no different from food and beverage, conference services and so forth….don’t promise what you can’t deliver.

R+R: What trends do you see emerging over the next few years?
Holdnak: Parents are more interested in taking kids to do and see things they did as kids. A certain amount of nostalgia--especially in family activities--will become more attractive.

Keep in mind that kids today are heavily influenced by what they see on TV. For younger kids, activities similar to those seen on Nickelodeon will make things special. For older kids, try offering activities that they see on TV, such as X-Games and extreme sports--the more adventurous, the better.

From an operations standpoint, coordinating with local outfitters and other resource people to offer specialized activities makes a lot of sense. Seek out local experts for nature programs, adventure activities and other extreme options– remember, these activities don’t have to be led by someone in-house.

Regnone: The events of 9/11 have certainly brought families closer together. Resorts will always need recreation programs independent of parental involvement; however, more options should be created that bring opportunities for the family to participate in “experiences” together. I would never work at a resort where I found the parents “dropping” their kids at a program for daycare-type services like you would at home. After all, this is their family vacation!

Guests always have the option to participate or not participate. Most children do not participate every day, regardless of price breaks. There is always family time set aside to do things together, to go places and explore the area.

If you can capture that part of the market--activities for the parent and child to share--you will open up a whole new opportunity to better serve your guests.