Being a Badger alum, I spent many hours in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Southeast Recreational Facility (affectionately known by students and fellow alumni as "the SERF"). From participating in intramural sports and putting in miles around the track to taking a course for credit and even living across the street for a year, the current SERF renovation project is near and dear to my heart.

I had the honor of sitting down with John Horn, director of the Division of Recreational Sports at UW-Madison, to learn about this exciting renovation project and to gain some insight into best practices, lessons learned and the process of planning and programming a new facility.

As the rec director, Horn plays a major role in the project by leading the coordination and engagement between all stakeholders: students, the State of Wisconsin, the university, the board of regents, campus officials and the community. With the project already several years in the making (since 2012 to be exact), and after more than 200 presentations to students, student organizations, campus representatives and the community, Horn has a solid understanding of the complex process of renovating a campus recreation facility.

From the beginning, student interest and input has been the driving factor in many important decisions, and campus engagement has been a constant throughout the project. Fortunately, Horn was able to attend AB Show, a leading educational event and expo for facility owners, operators and directors, at the pivotal early design phase of the project. The event allowed him to "discuss with people living and breathing the same kinds of projects to see what they were incorporating into their facilities and programming, and bring new ideas back to the students."

When he wasn't in a session, Horn says, he was having a sidebar conversation as a result of a session, either with a peer or with the speaker. The seminars, he adds, were "a deep dive into concepts and ideas that helped to guide and influence the project." AB Show also provided a platform for Horn to make some important connections. "From vendors to peers, AB Show had it all," he says.

Horn says, the biggest challenge he has had to overcome is navigating such a complex process — more than 240 steps and approvals were needed — in conjunction with a constant battle for a bigger budget. It's a process he has chronicled at athleticbusiness.com/uw-building-blog.

These challenges are present in any project of this magnitude, but Horn overcame them them by arming himself with countless hours of research, by prioritizing spending and space allocation based on the needs of the students, and by making connections at industry events like AB Show. Ultimately, the design reflects those elements, and the new SERF will allow for enhanced programming across the board with multifunctional spaces designed around wellness and accessibility. These spaces include a larger track, an Olympic-size swimming pool, additional studio space and fitness space that is five times larger than the previous space.

In the end, Horn cannot wait for the day they cut the ribbon and the doors open. He says his daily motivation is the students' reactions to the new, state-of-the-art facility and the positive impact the updated SERF will have on their lives and wellbeing during their time at UW.


This article originally appeared in the July | August 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Your Rec Facility Success Starts Here" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.