Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Secrets of the Private Sector: How Parks and Recreation Agencies Can Flex Their Marketing Muscles

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Secrets of the Private Sector: How Parks and Recreation Agencies Can Flex Their Marketing Muscles

Article excerpt


IF YOU RAN A BUSINESS that controlled hundreds of millions of dollars worth of prime real estate, scenic walking trails, elegant gardens, boating basins, ice rinks, outdoor performance venues, forests and fields, you'd probably want people to know about it. But scores of institutions with this kind of resource wealth do almost nothing to promote what they've got. They are America's big-city park-and-recreation departments--from Boston to Los Angeles to Honolulu.

According to a survey by the Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence, almost half of the nation's largest park departments do not spend any money on public outreach. Counting those that do, the average amount spent on marketing comes to only 46 cents per resident per year.

"Here we've got an obesity crisis of huge proportions, and we've also got amazing recreational resources right among us in our cities, yet we aren't aggressively promoting them to the general public," says Geof Godbey, emeritus professor of recreation, park and tourism management at Pennsylvania State University.

Why the missed opportunity?

For starters, the issue is fraught with confusing political and economic cross-currents. Is it appropriate to promote parks? Aren't they just "there" for the using? Aren't some of them already overrun? Is it weird to advertise something that is already perceived as fun? Should the government be spending taxpayer money telling people what to do? Can an agency justify promoting something that's not an obvious money-maker?

But the economics of park promotion are subtle and complex, particularly when they intersect with the economics of public health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 percent of Americans are fully sedentary. They are not all obese, of course, but lack of exercise is certainly a risk factor for being overweight. On average, an obese American racks up nearly $1,500 more per year in health care costs than an American of normal weight, for a national total of $147 billion in direct medical expenses.

Urban park facilities are a resource for city-dwellers to be active. They can be amplified with programming that increases intensity, maintains continuity, builds a supportive community of participants, adds a feeling of safety, and much more. As Jason Cissell, administrator of community relations of Louisville Metro Parks puts it, "we're the largest gym in the city, and we're free!" But the system only works if people know about it. Although the best vehicle is word-of-mouth, a 2002 study for the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that community-wide fitness campaigns also help, by succeeding in encouraging, on average, 4.2 percent of residents to begin engaging in regular physical activity.


If even one in l0 of those newly active persons transitions from obesity to a healthy weight, medical costs would fall by $6.30 for each man, woman, and child in that city per year. In Washington, D.C., with 600,000 residents, that translates to $3.7 million-an amount that dwarfs what is spent on park marketing in Washington. In fact, that is more than the country's largest park marketing budget, the $2.7 million spent by the Chicago Park District (for a city of 2.8 million people). Compared to expected benefits, every city park marketing effort in the country is underfunded.

Think Like a Gym

Gyms, which are the private-sector counterparts to public park systems, have become increasingly popular in the past two decades. Capitalizing on the market for physical activity, gyms have steadily increased their advertising expenditures. As a result, the number of American gym memberships increased by 40 percent between 1998 and 2008. Bally Total Fitness, which is among the largest of publicly traded gyms, spent 8 percent of its annual revenues on advertising in 2007. …

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