Marc Loomer wouldn't trade what he does for anything.
"I've got the best job in my company," says the national sales manager for the campus recreation division at Matrix Fitness. "I've been in the fitness business since 1989, and I've called on other markets, but there are no people like campus rec people. I've made countless connections that turned into friendships as a result of working in campus rec."
Number of NIRSA associate members
One-year associate membership rate
Number of higher-learning institutions NIRSA serves
Percentage of NIRSA Campus Rec & Wellness Expo exhibitors reporting that the NIRSA Annual Conference captures their target market
He's not alone among professionals working in multiple segments of the fitness, recreation and athletics industry who recognize campus recreation's distinct identity.
"Most campus recreation professionals know they're leaving a legacy that will last for decades, and they take that commitment very seriously," says Colleen McKenna, a principal at CannonDesign, a firm behind many facilities on college and university campuses across the country. "Campus recreation people also are tireless in terms of their commitment to students and the campus as a whole. They work extraordinary hours and do extraordinary things."
Matrix Fitness and CannonDesign are NIRSA associate members and thus have access to key campus recreation decision-makers and influencers — a vantage point that Rich Gray, executive vice president of sports flooring manufacturer PLAE (another NIRSA associate member) claims is invaluable. All three companies lean into the campus rec market by also supporting NIRSA as corporate partners.
"Campus recreation provides tremendous opportunities for young people, enhancing overall wellbeing and providing valuable work experience," Gray says, adding that becoming a major sponsor of social events at NIRSA's Annual Conference + Campus Rec & Wellness Expo was a top priority when he joined PLAE in 2013. "It also represents a massive unit of business for practically every company out there."
As campus recreation professionals settle in for another academic year, Athletic Business checked in with Loomer, McKenna and Gray to gather insights about an important segment of their business.
What makes campus recreation unique?
"Every campus is different, obviously — not only in size and scale but also in personality," McKenna says. "I'm always inspired by how vastly different every single project is."
Indeed, most municipalities and health club owners don't invest as much into recreational facilities as colleges and universities do. But college recreation decision-makers realize that providing a welcoming and diverse place for students might be the final opportunity to introduce young people to an active lifestyle and sound wellness practices.
"College is a time of reinvention, and a campus rec center is a perfect opportunity to branch out," Loomer says. "Hesitant students stepping into their rec center need an inviting space, or they may be discouraged from exploring an active lifestyle moving forward."
No wonder campus recreation professionals are so invested in their work. And once they enter the industry, many don't leave. Annual job turnover is much lower than in, say, college athletics.
Says Loomer, "They are there to promote overall wellbeing during a formative time for students, driven by passion rather than profit."
How have campus recreation centers evolved over the years?
From the increasing number of power racks available to the amount of space dedicated to functional training and CrossFit activities to the establishment of napping pods, campus recreation centers today look nothing like they did back in the late 1980s at the start of the facility building boom.
"No other facilities are doing all that," Loomer says. "Architects today excel at making the facilities the focal point of campus. When I entered the campus recreation segment 13 years ago, the rec center might not have even been a stop on tours for prospective students."
"Those early recreation centers were trying to maximize every square foot of space, cramming in as much equipment as possible and keeping corridors tiny," McKenna says. "Every space was programmed, and the mindset was, 'Go there, exercise and leave.' Now there are many more intentionally unprogrammed spaces."
Gathering areas large and small encourage socializing, studying and post-workout decompressing, and they have led to enhanced design approaches.
Take the University of California, Riverside's Student Recreation Center, which CannonDesign originally drew up in the early 1990s. When CannonDesign took on the facility's 80,000-square-foot expansion in 2017, the new space included several open areas and unprogrammed spaces, while also allowing for enhanced collaboration across open recreation, intramurals, student health services, counseling, housing, dining and other student resources.
What's your design advice for both existing and new campus recreation spaces?
Two major mistakes commonly occur when planning new or expanded spaces, NIRSA associate members say. One, facility operators don't do their research and end up outfitting spaces with equipment that doesn't match the spaces' needs.
For example, Gray sees the incorrect application of PLAE surfaces in training areas more often than he'd like, and he blames failure to consult with design and equipment professionals.
That points to a second mistake, which is how often campus-wide steering committees made up of representatives from various entities — such as recreation, facilities, athletics and administration — are not on the same page when it comes to consensus about a recreation facility's mission and objectives.
"I'm always encouraging clients to do their homework prior to engaging a firm — and even prior to issuing an RFP," McKenna says. Benchmarking tools like NIRSA's Institutional Data Set can really help prepare campus rec professionals for the early phases of a project. "Sometimes, it's much more powerful if those conversations happen without us, because it gives people the ability to speak freely with each other. It's so much easier to talk about priorities objectively when you're not in the middle of the design process."
And facility operators shouldn't be afraid to extend their thinking beyond the facility's walls. "Those who might not be able to expand their building are doing the next best thing," Gray says, "and taking their training outdoors."
What emerging trends in campus recreation have crossover potential?
While facility operators in other sectors are less open to exchanging ideas because of the competitive environment in which they exist, campus recreation professionals operate within a tight-knit community and enjoy sharing with and learning from one another.
"I think campus recreation can be the leader in a lot of things," Loomer says, pointing specifically to the way campus rec professionals are working with other departments on campus to help students who are struggling with their mental health by offering an increasing number of wellbeing opportunities. "It would be great if more high schools could do that," he says, suggesting school districts consider encouraging school psychologists to incorporate using the weight room or other forms of physical activity when making recommendations for students seeking assistance.
Gray, meanwhile, likens campus recreation programming to that of Morale, Welfare and Recreation departments on military bases. Both segments serve a diverse and designated community whose members are confined by spatial means.
"The only major difference is that the age range is more limited in campus rec," Gray says. "To me, there could be massive value in those two groups sharing information."
AB Show is a good place to start, he adds, because the event encourages crossover networking. He also suggests that campus recreation leaders with facilities located near a military base reach out to local MWR officials about potentially partnering in some way.
"Recreation facilities, just like athletic facilities, are recruiting tools," Gray concludes. "The more you adopt and change and make improvements, the more you positively affect your student population."
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "What makes campus recreation different?" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.