Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hemlock Overlook

Recently George Mason University who have been operating the Experiential Learning Center at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park since 1986 announced they would be ending operations there this summer. The state budget crisis has put a great deal of financial pressure on all branches of state government.

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority is actively seeking a new partner to operate this wonderful facility. The function of this program over the last 23 years has been to offer a program for 5th and 6th grade field trips focusing on team building and environmental education. The site has also been used for corporate and organizational teambuilding.

The programs at Hemlock have had a positive and lasting impression on thousands of people over the years that have had a great experience there. We are very hopeful that we will find another partner that can have a similar positive impact into the future.

Those interested in giving NVRPA a proposal to operate this site can see all the information on this request for proposals at:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Blue Ocean Strategy for Golf and Picnics

Following up on the previous post about Blue Ocean Strategy by Kim and Mauborgne ( and how it applies to parks, below are two further examples of how this strategy has been applied at the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Again, the basic idea is that to win you need to play a different game than your competitors. Instead of the red ocean of fierce competition, is you come up with a different value proposition for the customer. By doing this you can carve out a new niche in the market.

Building on the previous post about how Pirate's Cove employed a blue ocean strategy, this example of blue ocean strategy has been what we are doing with our larger picnic shelters. We use to just rent the shelter and did not think about the other issues that someone renting a space for 50 – 250 people faces. Now when someone rents one of these shelters, we ask if they would like us to cater the event for them, and would they like to have a moon bounce set up next to the shelter to entertain children. By bundling these services that this kind of customer might be looking for, we are helping the organizer of the family reunion, or company picnic do their job in an easy way. While we offer all the services at a hard to beat price, we capture much more total revenue for the park than if we left them to their own devices to arrange food and entertainment. The experience has been so good for the customer that most want to secure the same site the next year for a similar event.

By offering all the key services that the event planning customer wants in a one stop cost effective option, we carved out a unique niche that someone offering any one of the services can not easily compete with.

A third blue ocean strategy was the golf membership program we rolled out a few years ago at our three golf courses. Up to that point we had just offered daily fee 18 or 9 holes of play. With this model there was no reason for golfers to make our courses their primary course other than location and price. And when the weather turned bad we could loose most of our revenue until the sun shined again.

The blue ocean strategy was to offer an affordable unlimited play option for frequent golfers. We rolled out a membership program where for a fixed price ranging from around $1,000 to around $2,500 golfers could play at any of our three courses as often as they want ( This remarkable value attracted many takers. By having these golfers pay in advance for their yearly golf privileges, we gained both customer loyally and a degree of insurance against poor weather. We created a high value for a certain customer, and created a blue ocean space in the market.

The Regional Park Authority generates over 81% of our operating income from enterprise operations like these, and to remain healthy over the next few years we are going to need to continue to be leaders and innovators in our field, creating high value for our customers in blue ocean markets.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Blue Ocean Strategy for Parks

One of the top selling books in business strategy right now is Blue Ocean Strategy by Kim and Mauborgne, published by Harvard Business School Press. The basic idea is that to win you need to play a different game than your competitors. Instead of the red ocean of fierce competition, is you come up with a different value proposition for the customer you can carve out a new niche in the market.

To be successful parks must also seek blue ocean strategies, to attract new customers, offer high value and generate the enterprise revenue that is become more key than ever in our difficult economy.

One example of blue ocean strategy is Pirate’s Cove Waterpark at Pohick Bay Regional Park. On of NVRPA’s five pools/waterparks, the pool at Pohick Bay Park was one of the largest on the east coast when it was built in the early 1970’s but for the last decade it had been underperforming. Fixed costs and fewer users resulted in an annual operating loss of around $50K per year. A few years ago we nearly mothballed the whole facility.

Then came the blue ocean strategy; instead of just adding a big pay feature in the pool, like slides, dumping bucket, or other common waterpark feature, we decided to create a unique and imaginative experience. And instead of trying to build a waterpark with a little something for every possible age group, we decided to focus our efforts on making a fun place for children 2-10, with the understanding that those children will influence where the whole family goes to have fun in the water.

By creating an imaginative pirate themed waterpark that was the perfect scale for small children we carved out a unique niche in the market that is different than either the community pool or the large waterpark (some of which we also operate). By combining some features of each and some features that neither of the competitive models has we are able to offer our customers a great value and experience that they can not get anywhere else. This made it a popular destination site last summer and made lots of little buccaneers happy, and helped us find more treasure than we have seen at that operation in decades!

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Business Paradigm For Parks

With the current recession, local and state tax dollars are tight, and the public is considering purchases with a new sense of caution. These factors are adversely affecting park agencies. In just the last week I have heard of one local park closing and significant cut backs in many park agencies in Northern Virginia. No one can remember a time when budgets were tighter and for forecasts for when the economy will recover are not encouraging.

In this environment a new paradigm or model is needed to think about the park agency of the future. The new model will be of park agencies that are largely self sufficient with lean staffs that are mostly supported by enterprise revenues. While basic experiences like using a picnic table or hiking on a trail will be free, programs will need to be self supportive, and agencies will need to be entrepreneurial in offering value added services that the public are interested in buying.

The wisdom for this new model is not likely to come from park and recreation curriculums, but will come out of business schools. It is no longer enough to open the door and unlock the gates and assume the public will seek out the facilities and program offered. We need to compete for the limited leisure time and market our products and services like any successful business does.

In the early part of this decade we saw a significant decline in park usage. For an agency that generates over 80% of our operating revenues through enterprise activities, this had a significant affect on our bottom line. To correct this we reinvested in our facilities to bring them back up to a high quality, and then focused on real marketing. We launched a new web site, revamped on old brochures with a new fresh look and distributed them widely through visitor centers as well as our own parks. We increased our use of print ads and experimented with radio, and TV adds. We are also proactively reaching out to the blogging community to get our word out. The result has been double digit growth in usage over the last few years.

In 2007 the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority won recognition in Pioneer Institute's Better Government Competition for our Entrepreneurial Service Delivery:

As difficult as the next few years are going to be in the park field, in the long run making park agencies look at their operations in a more business like manner will make agencies stronger in the long-run. Since we do not have a choice in what economy we would like to be in, we might as well embrace this challenge and grow from it.