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  • Marc Iturriaga

Virtual Belonging in Recreation: Turn Virtual Programs Into Virtual Engagement

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Virtual programming has been around for decades: Jane Fonda made a fashion statement with legwarmers in the 80s, Billy Blanks made Tae Bo a fitness sensation in the 90s and Richard Simmons had us Sweatin' to the Oldies for 4 decades, all via the miracle of VHS tape and DVD. Today there are over 250,000 health and fitness apps available for download. Video game systems like the Nintendo Wii have developed games and accessories for yoga, dance and Zumba. Access to virtual programming has never being more convenient. So why, during this current pandemic, is there a rush by Recreation Centres to get virtual programming out to participants to fill the void that has resulted from facility closures and program cancellations?

Who are you connecting with?

Let's say you have the resources and willingness to provide virtual programs - who are you hoping to reach? Most likely, it will be participants you are already engaged with. Those who were not participants prior to the pandemic won't really know about your services or opportunities, therefore won't be looking to you for virtual programming. Of those previously engaged participants, we then need to account for them having the proper equipment, a physical space to do the program, and the motivation to continue the modified and possibly different programming they were doing (outside of their mounting priorities during this pandemic.) What was once 50-100 participants in a program may now be closer to 5-10.

Why were participants coming to the rec centre in the first place?

Maybe it was the convenience, the location, the cost, or the equipment. Though these factors play a part, participants were coming to your rec centre because they had a sense of belonging. They felt invited, welcome and included in your facilities and programs. They knew the instructors, felt comfortable with the environment, and knew what to expect from the activities. Participants had trust in your organization and felt like they were part of your community. People previously engaged will come back to you when it is safe because virtual programming cannot replace that sense of belonging.

We got to do something, right!?

I get it, you want to connect with your members during this time of isolation. Rushing to provide virtual programming in not necessarily the answer. More importantly, measuring any level of success is not only impossible, but won't matter when we get to a new normal. Now is not the time to put massive amounts of energy and resources into building new programs and initiatives, let alone the added stress to staff. We are in a powerful storm. You can't begin building until the storm has been weathered and we can assess the damage to see the best ways to proceed. So what can we do?

  • Reach out to your engaged community to let them know they matter

  • Provide resources to help them stay healthy - that might include simple videos you produce, links to activity resources (you don't have to reinvent the wheel), and social services that can help

  • Create low cost, high impact programs for the sole purpose to help you stay connected. Maybe that's a Word with Friends competition, a trick shot challenge, or sharing of photos of pets.

  • Plan for the future: Once the damage control has been done, its time to go slow to go fast. Take this time to evaluate, restructure, and prioritize. Look at your Mission, Vision and Values - do they still hold true? Are your actions and outcomes aligned with them?

That's all well and good, but this post was supposed to be about turning virtual users into physical users - how do I do that without virtual programming? By focusing on PEOPLE over PROGRAM and the reasons they come to your rec centre to begin with!


I love basketball and have played regularly for over 30+ years. I have run basketball leagues, captained many teams and played both competitively and for fun. When I moved to a new part of the country, I looked everywhere to find a place to play in my new community. I tried many rec centres who advertised basketball programs, but after a few weeks of joining, I came to realize that I couldn't find a skill level, competition level, or social focus that I was looking for. I didn't feel like I belonged and was tired of looking for a place to play, so I gave up.

Eventually I came across a group called The RUN - a community basketball group that rented a gymnasium each week for what they called a Drop-In Basketball League. The gist of the league was that you could pay a weekly fee to secure a spot in an semi-organized game. The logistics aren't important (though I will be doing a future post about their innovative way of programming in a culture that relies less and less on weekly commitments) - what is was what they did before I even got to the court. I saw actual video footage of their games. I got to see the size, shape, skill and personality of the participants. I read testimonials from participants about how the league made them feel. There were posts about social outings, information about how to join, a quick share of the rules and expectations of participants. They even had motivational posts and links to drills to help develop skills. Though the league was a bit more expensive than I would have liked, and a lot further then I wanted to drive, the basketball experience looked exactly what I was searching for, so I registered for my first game.

What happened next surprised me - I got a text from the organizer, who introduced himself, asked me if I had any questions, and told me my first game was free to make sure that I don't pay for something I didn't like. He also asked me to see him in the gym when I arrive to ensure I felt comfortable about the game and process. Finally I showed up, was given introduction to the players, and was organized onto a team - and I played for 2 hours of fairly decent basketball. I mention this because in my previous search, I often entered facilities that advertised drop-in basketball where I was either the only person there, it was too packed to play, or couldn't get into established games. Essentially I felt INCLUDED.

The RUN did something virtually that the other rec centres didn't do physically - that was make me feel INVITED (they showed me what the experience was going to be that met my expectations) and WELCOME (they personally made me feel like part of their community and took care of my needs). I knew WHY they existed (their purpose), WHO they were, and WHAT to expect from their program. The RUN was all about PEOPLE playing basketball, not about a basketball program.

Transform virtual users into physical users

How can you virtually show that your rec centre is a place where people belong? Virtual programs can do that, but only by focusing on PEOPLE over program. Here are some great ways to engage virtually:

  • Videos of your ACTUAL programs: Show the participants, instructors and facilities in an authentic way. Show them the different skill levels, the feel of programs, the variety of activities, and the diversity of the members. Create virtual tours that have personality so that prospective members can feel like they have been to your facility before. Remember if your video doesn't reflect the actual experience, new members won't be fooled and most likely will not stick around for long.

  • Connect: Social Media is misused as an advertising platform when it's greatest strength is in connecting. Offer a way for prospective members to ask questions? Show pictures or short video clips of your actual staff. Show off your rec centre's personality and why people want to be a part of it.

  • Participant Testimonials: Before I go to a restaurant or plan a vacation, I read reviews about other's experiences to see if this is a place that will meet my needs. A rec centre is no different and a positive review from a current member will go a long way (as will a negative one).

  • Registration: This is often the first experience a new member may have with your organization. For goodness sake, do not make the experience a challenging or painful experience!

Instead of rushing to create virtual programming to fill a temporary void, take this time to see how your current and future virtual engagement with potential participants can improve, so that you are prepared to rebuild when the pandemic subsides.

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