Monday, September 20, 2010

Good Economic News - Parks

Because the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority self funds over 80% of our operating expense (a remarkable deal for the tax payers) we are very focused on making our parks and programs appealing to the public.

Every four months we do some detailed analysis of exactly how we are doing compared with similar periods in previous years and compared with our current budget, a higher level of analysis than our monthly financials. Since our park offering change by the season, this methods works well for us.

We just finished this process for our key summer season May -August. And the bottom line was that we were up in our Enterprise Fund by 4% compared with the same time last year. Some of the notable differences between the summer of 2009 include:
  • Pools/Waterparks were up by 13.5%
  • Golf was down by 7%
  • Cabin rentals in our campgrounds were up by 10%
  • Overall campgrounds were down by 2% (but historically near the high water mark)
  • And most other areas up slightly including:
    • boat rentals
    • picnic pavilions
    • Event venues for weddings and receptions
    • Large outdoor festivals and concerts
    • And overall attendance at all of our parks from gardens to museums, nature centers, and natural areas.
Part of this success story has been our business like management of parks. We do not just assume the public will find our facilities and use them. Over the last few years we have put a concerted effort into upgrading and improving our facilities, and we have then worked to market what we have to offer. We are competing for peoples leisure time.

With much bad economic news on the headlines it is nice that people are still getting out and having fun in  parks, engaging with nature, getting exercise, and enjoying themselves. Good stuff!!

The other seasons:
Not too many years ago, most of the parks would be quite during the non-peak season, but now we are busy all year. Now that the pools have closed we put a lot of our attention to the fall activities at the Temple Hall Regional Farm Park near Leesburg. We host the annual Corn MAiZE, a 23 acre maze that features the theme of 100 years of Boy Scouts this year. In addition to the maze you can bounce on giant bouncing pillows (like a trampoline) shoot pumpkins from two pumpkin cannons, go for a hay ride, see farm animals, and have a great time with family and friends.

After the fall season our attention again shifts to the Bull Run Holiday Light Show (the largest all LED light show in the universe - as far as we know). With each of these different seasonal events we are able to efficiently pull in staff from other part of the park system to help make each of these a great experience for the public.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kayaking and Canoeing on Pohick Bay

The following is the first two paragraphs of a great blog post about Pohick Bay that appears on Lorton Patch blog. For the full story see:

"On the north side of the Mason Neck peninsula, the mouth of Pohick Creek enters into a body of water known as Pohick Bay. Adjacent to this bay is Accotink Bay, the mouth of Accotink Creek. These tidal estuaries—bays receiving fresh water from rivers and salt water from the ocean—are home to an amazing array of wildlife and flora, accessible for exploration in kayak and canoe.

Pohick Bay Regional Park offers rentals by the hour or day of Jon boats, pedal boats, sunfish sailboats, canoes, single kayaks and double kayaks. From the boat rental beach, paddlers may choose to stay in the open bay waters, or venture back into the wetland areas closer the mouth of the creeks. The kayaks and canoes are best for an up close and personal look at the diverse offering of flora and fauna throughout the park."

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Are You a Viking or a Farmer?

Below is an article I wrote that was published in Park & Recreation Magazine, September 2010.
Legendary Norsemen didn't conquer the known world by doing things the way they had always been done. Nor should park and recreation administrators.

The Park and Recreation field is undergoing great change. With state and local government budgets in great distress, a business as usual attitude is not a strategy for success. With many economists predicting that an end to the current recession will not come until sometime in 2013, what will parks and recreation look like at that point? Almost certainly, the agencies that survive and thrive will be those that chart new areas. These will be agencies with lean overhead and an entrepreneurial spirit. Agencies that show their value to the community in new and exciting ways and are less dependent on traditional sources of tax revenues will succeed. They will be Viking agencies.

From the late 8th into the 12th centuries, Vikings from Scandinavia were a dominant force in the world in and around Europe. They conquered vast areas and promoted trade. In the east, they set up the nation of Russia, and in the west they were the first Europeans to explore North America. Then, over time, they stopped exploring to become farmers, and the age of Vikings came to an end.

Most larger park agencies went through a Viking era, a period of time when leaders with foresight and a “can do” attitude created opportunities which resulted in rapidly expanding lands and operations. Over time, any organization can become so focused on managing what they have that they forget to grow.

Management is much like farming. You have a set of operations, and you tend to those like a farmer tending his fields. There is a great tendency to do the same thing every year. It seems to work and it becomes “how we always do things.” There is nothing wrong with being a competent manager or farmer, so long as external forces do not change too rapidly. But, when the way things have been done no longer addresses the changing circumstances, it is time to take to the “long boats” again.

While the farmer is focused on the management of a certain set of fields, the Viking is looking to the horizon for new opportunities. Successful Vikings were willing to take strategic risks and stretch themselves and their group to find the new opportunities. While they were seeking these new opportunities, they were not alone. Leif Ericson did not row to Newfoundland by himself, he had a team of Vikings willing to try new things and take risks together for a shared reward.

So, “Going Viking” is not a matter of becoming an individual maverick, but a process of adopting an organizational culture of growth and exploration. The stronger your team of Vikings, the more successful you will be at thriving in an era of change.

Thinking beyond your field is more than a catchy theme for this article. We need to think beyond the traditional park and recreation field to find new opportunities and achieve excellence. If you want to take the best of business principles and apply them to your world, you need to study the best in the business world. I would strongly suggest reading Harvard Business Review to get a handle on what the leaders in management, marketing and strategy are thinking about. For practical knowledge that will help the bottom line of your park agency, send your agency’s best and brightest to NRPA’s Revenue Development and Management School at Oglebay. This business school for park and recreation has been instilling entrepreneurism in park officials for over 45 years, with constantly updated course material.

Think about what Richard Louv and his book Last Child in the Woods did for outdoor/nature experiences. He changed spending time in nature from a nice thing to do for some, to a social imperative for all. And, as a result, nature programming and acquisition of open space have bloomed.

Think about new ways of positioning your park agency. If you are just considered the “fun” agency, you will be the first to be cut in economic hard times. But, if your facilities and programs are a big reason why tourists spend money in your community, or businesses locate there, you are no longer discretionary but have become essential.

These are examples of thinking beyond your field, looking for new markets and new worlds to explore. You can think like a Viking in looking for new revenue sources, new programming opportunities, new financing options and new marketing methods. And, to thrive in an unsettled world, you need a strong team of Vikings to row that long boat to new opportunities.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Final beam goes into Korean Pavilion

On Saturday, the master craftsmen from Korea that have been carving each piece of wood to make the traditional pavilion that will house the large bell at Meadowlark Botanical Garden finished their work. The final step for the carpenters was to hand paint in Korean "Bell of Peace and Harmony" and the date, and put the top beam in place.

Master Carpenter Lee did the honors of painting the bell's name on the beam, before it was lifted by cloth ropes up to the top and set in place. Except for the concrete foundation, the entire pavilion was constructed by hand with each piece of wood being carved from raw lumber. It all fit together tongue and groove without any nails or screws.

The bell is being cast in Korea by another master artist, and will be shipped here in early 2011.

When complete this unique feature of Meadowlark Gardens will be a tourist attraction, a symbol of the partnership between our two countries, and a cultural hub for the Korean American community in the Washington Metropolitan area.