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Adam Shilling shares his Y’s outdoor programming lessons learned while pivoting during mandatory closures as a result of the pandemic.

As of August 19, exercise facilities in the state of Michigan have been closed for more than five months. Since these mandatory closures of our membership facilities, one of the biggest adaptations our Y has made to continue serving the community has been to offer outdoor group exercise classes.

If your Y is considering offering outdoor classes, here are a few of the lessons we learned:

Have Plans to Accommodate Weather

In the hot summer sun, this could mean offering classes in shaded areas or under a tent. In the cooler fall months, this could mean avoiding early morning classes when the weather is too cold. If you plan classes to avoid the hottest times of the day, remember to factor in the humidity. Often the late afternoon or early evening can be the highest times of day for the heat index. Also, be sure to have solid communication plans in place should inclement weather present itself and classes need to be cancelled on short notice.

Be Selective With Instructors

Instead of finding classes that best fit into your instructor’s schedules, find the best instructors who can accommodate the schedules that work for your members. Hiring instructors who can easily adjust their class plans based on the many unknowns presented by outdoor classes will help ensure members have a great experience.

Guard Your Expenses

For our YMCA, this means conducting classes without any equipment. This saves us the added expense of setting up for class, cleaning equipment and putting it away once class is completed. This may mean your instructors will need to be creative with their exercises, but we have found members to be very understanding of having little to no equipment available for classes.

Multiple Marketing Channels are Important

Emails to all our members and a few social media posts did not get the attention of many of our former participants. And since our facilities are still closed, members are mostly unaware classes are being offered. Since the group exercise community is very well connected, it was important for us to have instructors who are active on social media. This helped spread the word for classes within their existing online communities, and motivated members to become part of a larger external exercise community again. Local news and radio stories/interviews are also a great way to raise awareness.

Turn Participants into Advocates

The attendees at our outdoor classes are some of the most committed members we have at our Y. Our teams have been working diligently to not only understand the needs of the members who have been attending classes, but also sharing how they can continue supporting our Y. The more they can spread the word to others about the Y needing their continued support, the more potential support the Y has across our community. Our marketing team is currently creating short video testimonials from class participants about what it means for them to have these group exercise classes offered.

These are just a few of the outdoor programming lessons we have learned from the past 10 weeks of outdoor fitness classes. Please reach out to us with any feedback you may have of learnings you have experienced or with any questions you may have.

Adam Shilling

Adam has worked at YMCAs since 2005 and currently serves as the Executive Director of Membership and Program at the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. Having worked at an independent Y association, multiple large associations, and Y-USA, Adam brings a well balanced perspective for the many ways that YMCAs work with their communities. He has a passion for using data to inform conversations and partnering with other organizations to address community needs.  

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