Before March 2020, memberships at Duke Recreation were built around access to gym and pool facilities, equipment rentals, and group activities like fitness classes, IM sports, clubs and outdoor activities. When the pandemic forced Duke Recreation to shut down facilities and in person activities, we immediately began to reinvent ourselves. We started asking all our staff to rethink activities to utilize a virtual component, but also to imagine new options never considered previously.
Instead of memberships granting physical access to facilities and classes, we created digital memberships offering unlimited access to virtual content. Knowing the success of concepts like Peloton, we were able to tackle virtual fitness classes confidently. Fantasy sports were already popular long before virtual events were part of our vocabulary. So, to satisfy members’ thirst for competition, we launched bracket challenges and weekly pick’ems. But we also tried new ideas, some more successful than others. Team trivia had a strong start in the fall, but less so this spring. Our development officer created a webinar series called RecTalks, discussions with experts in their industries of sport, recreation, physical education and wellness. They are free and open to anyone, and have been really well received! People are tuning in from all over the country, the world in fact, to watch! And that was a whole new game for us! Register here to check out our upcoming RecTalk on May 12.
In recent months we’ve undergone further transformation, as we have started to reopen some facilities and resume services. Much of our full-time staff was reassigned or redeployed, so everyone is working in shifts. Some basketball courts aren’t available, because they have been temporarily converted to classroom spaces. Locker rooms are off limits. Red Mango café is open but only for takeout service. The biggest adjustment for both staff and especially students is that the facilities are by reservation only, made possible by a new software system. Time blocks are shorter than many would like, and only six days a week. And at the same time, we continue to offer virtual classes and activities.
How did going virtual impact your goals?
Our mission at Duke Recreation & Physical Education has always been to provide exceptional and diverse opportunities that promote healthy active lifestyles in a safe, inclusive environment. Going virtual just helped us think differently about safety and environment. The pandemic has really hit the students hard. It became even more critical to keep students active, not only for their physical health, but also for their mental health. More than ever, people recognize the connection between physical and mental health. We surveyed the students and learned that our programs have been critical for helping them feel connected to Duke, regardless of whether they were on campus or elsewhere. By creating and maintaining a sense of community, and providing healthy outlets, we’ve been able to help folks have some sort of normalcy.
How were you able to engage the students and members in the virtual space?
We really had to switch up our strategies here. Print material and word of mouth marketing weren’t going to be effective options in a pandemic. Instead, we completely rebuilt old sections of our website, added new ones. Information was changing so rapidly that staff had to work feverishly behind the scenes to keep up. We also had to leverage social media platforms like never before. Through Instagram and Facebook, people were also able to connect and stay informed.
How did you measure your success with virtual programming?
You really do have to think about what defines success. We’ve given ourselves some good grace in this new virtual world of wellness. Numbers do matter on some level, but more so for in person events. With our work during COVID, we’ve come to appreciate that the experience of any participant is essential. Even if it’s just one person that is smiling and having a good time, that program has been successful.
There has been one unexpected benefit we have experienced, as we have carefully transitioned back into facility operations. Pre-COVID, when you greeted a student they might say hi back but always kept going. Now, the students are so hungry for social interaction, they eagerly engage with the staff. Nathan even encourages them with the opening line “I like your shirt!” to see what the students will stop and share.
What has been the most satisfying about your pivot to virtual, and even to this more recent hybrid environment?
It was so motivating to see how our team responded to the total disruption of our industry! They were adventurous, taking risks and being okay with that. (Nathan)
It’s really satisfying to me to think about who we can be for the students after this. We will never be the same, but we will be so much better! (Felicia)
When we think about the future, we imagine how excited everyone is going to be for the climbing wall, Zumba classes, sports clubs and all the things they haven’t had for over a year. It’s going to be madness, but in a really, really good way!
So what life lessons do you want to share from this entire experience?
Don’t be hard on yourself if you have to walk away from something. It’s not failure, because there’s something to be learned, and it might just have been the timing. (Nathan)
Be patient, be nimble, be creative. Get out of your own way, and try something different. You don’t have to stay in that same box you’ve always been in. (Felicia)
I’m with that entirely: be adventurous. Don’t be afraid to jump into something you never imagined before. It might end up being much more than a temporary fix, and you would never have discovered it if you hadn’t tried. (Nathan)
Felicia Tittle, Ed.D
Executive Director of Recreation & Physical Education
Managing Director of Recreation Programs
Duke Recreation & Physical Education
Kathy Wright and Kaitlin Briggs, Editors