When Hurricane Irma hammered Florida in September 2017, the Florida Gulf Coast University Recreation Center in Fort Myers — which at the time primarily consisted of a 10,000-square-foot fitness center — became a de facto pet shelter for Lee County.
Originally, the facility was intended to serve as a storage site for food and water to be distributed to hurricane victims. But when the power in a previously designated pet shelter failed, FGCU officials offered up the recreation center to dogs, cats, rabbits, reptiles, pigs and often their owners. For a week and a half, they occupied the facility, sullying its flooring to the point the blue and white flecks in the black rubber were no longer visible.
"It was probably the best place to have pets, because the floor withstood all of that activity," says Suzanne Ries, FGCU's associate director of facility operations for campus recreation. "But you can just imagine the mess and the smell that was created over a 10-day period. We did the best we could as a staff cleaning up, and we reopened in early October. But students kept telling us, 'It smells like a barnyard in here.' "
Enter Marc DiGregorio.
The Florida territory sales manager for Canton, Ga.-based performance flooring brand PLAE was new to the company in 2017 and met Ries and other members of FGCU's campus recreation team at that year's AB Show in Orlando, Fla. The FGCU staff shared their Hurricane Irma experience with DiGregorio and showed him photos of the dirty fitness center floor.
"I'd never heard of a university opening up its doors to pets," DiGregorio says. "So I suggested that PLAE come down and clean the floors. They did something awesome for their community, and that was the right thing for us to do for the university."
DiGregorio made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from St. Petersburg south to Fort Myers on Black Friday 2017. He spent the next two days working with an FGCU facility manager to deep clean the surface with a floor scrubber. PLAE did not charge the university, and DiGregorio did not receive any compensation for his efforts.
"I looked at it as a way to provide value to both my customer and my company," DiGregorio says. "That's how I explained it at the time. And it made me think, 'How can I keep doing things like this for my customers?' That's the real value of this."
Ries was moved by the gesture — and not only because she felt "the floor looked as good as it did the day it was installed."
PLAE is one of several NIRSA associate members whose relationships between the individuals working at those companies and campus recreation professionals often extend beyond those of the typical customer-vendor affiliation.
"We all talk about the 'NIRSA family' among our fellow collegiate recreation professionals, but that mindset extends to relationships with many vendors, too," Ries says. "This situation was proof that it really goes beyond the sale."
DiGregorio's restoration efforts played a big factor in FGCU's decision to cover all of the major activity surfaces with PLAE product in its new 50,000-square-foot University Recreation & Wellness Center, which opened in January. "Marc coming down here to do what he did — when he didn't have to — sealed the deal," Ries says.
"It deepened the relationship tenfold," DiGregorio adds. "We're on hugging terms now."
'The relationships you build'
PLAE was at the center of another example of the extended NIRSA family, only this time it involved a member of the manufacturer's team who was in need.
Following a site visit to Tulane University last fall, Brittany Barrett, PLAE's southeast director of sales, was en route to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport when she fell ill. "I had cold sweats and felt like I was going to pass out," Barrett says. "I was worried about making it back home to Atlanta. My fight-or-flight instinct kicked in, so I drove myself to the hospital."
While at Ochsner Medical Center, located just outside the New Orleans city limits, Barrett called her boss at PLAE and explained the situation. The boss reached out to Windy Windsor, Tulane's director of campus recreation. Within 40 minutes, Steve Leitch — associate director of facilities at Tulane — was sitting with Barrett so she wouldn't be alone in the emergency room. She was treated for a heart-related issue that she has managed without any additional incidents. "I wouldn't have gotten that phone call if there wasn't already a long-term relationship," Leitch says. "PLAE has been at our facility laying floor the last three summers in a row, and I have a couple more projects in queue for them."
Barrett agrees that seeing Leitch at the hospital eased her anxiety.
"I was a little embarrassed to have to call a customer, even though Steve and Wendy were great friends," she says. "But it was a reminder that people mean more to each other than simply what they are able to buy or sell. Ultimately, it comes down to the relationships you build and the effort you put into them. The more you put into them, the more you'll get out of them."
Here are three more examples of ways in which campus recreation officials and representatives of NIRSA associate member companies have taken their relationships beyond customer-supplier status:
• When Florida Gulf Coast University opened a new campus recreation facility in January, officials from Matrix Fitness led a weekend of training for about 100 professional and student staff members — emphasizing how to use and clean the equipment, as well as how to perform preventive maintenance.
• Todd Penley is a key member of the Mondo and GeoSurfaces team. When his team had enough excess material from previous projects, he was able use it to support a local track and field program in need. Through his relationship with Dave Frock, a longtime NIRSA professional currently at Clemson University, Mondo was able to provide high-quality surfacing for a community that otherwise would not have it.
• As COVID-19 unsettled campus recreation across North America, NIRSA associate members were quick to offer support. Life Fitness launched a new digital coaching service free to all exercisers during the crisis. The video workout provides a daily challenge and helps people stay in shape until they can get back to the gym.
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Facility-vendor relationships that go beyond the sale ." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.