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“What were all these people doing before this place was built?”

This question, posed in 2013 by John Curtis, the previous mayor of Provo, Utah, represents how important the Provo Recreation Center (Provo Rec Center) is to the surrounding community. Since its grand opening in 2013, the Provo Rec Center has been the hub of health and wellness activities in the local community.

“Roughly 7,000 of our 125,000 residents come here every single day — and that includes Group X classes and outdoor leisure aquatics,” said Bryce Merrill, the recreation center manager. “Plus, it serves as a gathering place. It’s a significant community hotspot.”

The 162,000-square-foot facility was an instant hit when it opened, and with a full suite of recreation services, it has remained a popular destination for fitness enthusiasts and families alike.

“The Provo Rec Center provides a lot of different ways for people to be active, whether that’s in a more playful setting or more structured workout setting,” said Lauren LeDoux, a fitness coordinator at the Provo Rec Center. “It’s a fun and safe place for people to go at an affordable cost.”

Despite being planned during a poor economy and experiencing much higher usage than expected, the Provo Rec Center has been thriving as the standard for health and wellness in the community.

Sweat Equity

The Provo Rec Center, from its initial planning to construction to daily operation, has been a labor of love for Scott Henderson, the director of parks and recreation in Provo. After growing up in Great Falls, Montana, and serving in a variety of community recreation roles before moving to Provo, the chance to be part of such a big project has been a great experience.

“When I was hired in 2001, the director at the time, Roger Thomas, said, ‘Scott, you’re going to have a golden shovel in your hand in one year, and we’re going to start building a new rec center,’ which was exciting,” recalled Henderson. “It actually happened 10 years after that.”

Although there was a need for a rec center in Provo, the approval process moved slowly. “One thing you develop in municipal recreation is patience,” said Henderson. “Sometimes, the right idea, when it’s balanced with other community needs or whatever else is happening, doesn’t always make it to the top.”

The Provo Parks and Recreation team actually had to do two additional feasibility studies during this 10-year gap after rec center plans were first made to get updated information. According to the study results, building a rec center to the scale they were hoping would be nearly impossible.

Not to be deterred, they decided to ask the citizens of Provo to vote on using a general obligation bond to build the rec center, which would require the city to later repay the debt through revenue from the facility itself or higher taxes. Given the U.S. was in the middle of a recession at the time, it was “a tough pitch,” according to Henderson.

“Even though things were financially difficult, our citizens wanted it so badly that we passed with a 60% vote,” said Henderson. “Then the good part happened: we were building this facility in the middle of a poor economy. All of a sudden, our construction cost per square foot was way down, especially compared to now in a booming construction economy.”

In fact, if the Provo Rec Center were built today, it would cost 1.5 times more, according to Henderson. Not only were they able to keep construction costs down, the department was also able to have several amenities added with the money they were saving.

“I could do a tour of this rec center and only point out the things we added or enhanced with the extra money we had to work with,” said Henderson. “We built the outdoor skate park at twice the size we wanted, and we added two tennis courts, an indoor playground, two racquetball courts, a deep-water pool, a twist diving area and an aquatics climbing wall.”

During the planning stage, Henderson and his team also did their due diligence in visiting other facilities across the country to find out what did and didn’t work in the design. “We took all these elements and brought some ideas back with us, because we knew we needed a ‘larger than what we need right now’ studio,” he said. “We’re lucky we did that with the numbers that came in.”

At the end of the planning, research and construction stages, the Provo Parks and Recreation department had a state-of-the-art facility with which it could improve its residents’ quality of life.

“My saying was, ‘We’re going to give the citizens what they wanted, and a ton of other things they could have only dreamed of,’” shared Henderson. “And I think we’ve delivered on that.”

Intentionality

Every aspect of the Provo Rec Center is intentional and meticulously in place to provide a great experience for members. This is something the organization prides itself on.

“Our entire design — from the physical facility design, amenities and fitness equipment to the way we operate and decisions we make — focuses on removing barriers from the membership experience,” said Merrill. “There’s no magic pill or silver bullet to make it easy or popular for residents to want to use our facility. Instead, it’s a series of decisions that all speak to that experience.”

According to Merrill, each facility decision is filtered through the lens of eliminating pain points members have experienced or could experience. The organization also stresses the importance of “wowing” members when they walk in. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” explained Henderson. “The experience-based design of our lobby sets a tone right away and lets them know they’re about to walk into something exciting.”

When you pass through the front door of the Provo Rec Center, you can see everything in the facility from the lobby. The fitness spaces have cardio and Hammer Strength equipment from Life Fitness, free weights from Troy Fitness, and equipment from Advanced Exercise. There is also an indoor Orca Coast Playground, an aquatics area with WhiteWater West water slides and a running track built by MONDO. With all of these offerings combined, Henderson said it opens up a menu of services to the community.

Group X classes are also very popular among members of all ages. HIGH Fitness, Zumba and Insanity are just a few of the many options available at the Provo Rec Center. “We have dance fitness, core classes, strength training and classes for seniors,” shared Ledoux. “We also have broader programs people just walking into a gym would enjoy more casually.”

To offer a healthy variety of activities for members, the Provo Parks and Recreation department also allows rec center members to access two of its other facilities — the Peaks Ice Arena and East Bay Golf Course — through a package called the Triple Play Membership.

With the Triple Play Membership, the Provo Rec Center has been able to add ice skating and golf to the list of available services for members. It was initially brought about by a need to accommodate a high volume of usage.

“As we were working toward ways to be more efficient, we were getting to the point where — and we were amazed this was the case — 162,000 square feet was beginning to feel a little tight,” shared Henderson. “Who would have ever thought? What came together was a way to expand the membership, and get people introduced to other facilities in our community where there are activities and amenities that are attractive to them.”

No element has been left to chance at the Provo Rec Center. Every design element, program and membership add-on was carefully considered as a crucial part of delivering the best possible member experience.

“Know your community and then deliver for them,” advised Henderson. “We’ve had the attitude in our department — and we talk about this a lot — that we think our citizens deserve the best in parks and recreation services, and they deserve the best rec center. That shapes every single decision we make, and I think we’re delivering on that.”

Consistency

Since the Provo Rec Center opened its doors, the facility has maintained very high usage numbers. In fact, the facility had doubled the amount of members it had anticipated before opening, and was soon offering over 100 classes per week after planning to offer only 40.

According to Henderson, it’s likely due to a lack of quality services beforehand. “I think we starved our community for recreation services for many years,” he said. “I think they knew a community of 125,000 should have better, so when they got something nice like the Provo Rec Center, they really responded well to it.”

Seven years later, the facility’s daily operations are far less hectic than when the staff weathered a sharp incline in membership and usage early on. “There were a lot of policy decisions being made on the fly after opening,” said Henderson. “We had to be nimble enough to make those changes right away, while making sure people enjoyed their experience and kept coming to the rec center. We changed our perspective and expectation, and it’s become our new normal.”

In fact, that steep learning curve helped set the tone for the operational excellence the Provo Rec Center prides itself on today. “I feel like we’ve hit our rhythm now, because we’ve been at this intense usage level for quite some time,” said Henderson. “We see somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 people a day, so if we have a day where 4,000 come, our staff will call that a slow day.”

During peak season, the Provo Rec Center staff grows to over 400 between full-time, part-time and seasonal staff members. But no matter what the role is, each staff member is dedicated to maintaining the same level of excellent service.

“We look at our staff members as our best brand ambassadors,” said Merrill. “They actually build those relationships, help members feel welcome and help them find a friend when they’re here so they feel that sense of community.”

In fact, this effort from the staff to build relationships makes all the difference in maintaining high usage. “People value and trust this successful recreation center in their community, and it’s a place they want to go,” said Merrill. “These residents have made it a priority to regularly visit the rec center. That’s a sign of a healthy relationship between us and our residents.”

Growth Mindset

Even with its consistent success over the past seven years, the Provo Rec Center is still growing. The organization is constantly looking to improve and innovate, especially in using technology to enhance programming and operations.

Through software offerings like ReCPro, MINDBODY, Exercise.com and FitMetrix, the Provo Rec Center has been able to automate many interactions in the facility. In fact, according to Merrill the facility’s registration system replaces over 45,000 in-person transactions each month.

“We’ve also developed an app that allows people to control their experience,” explained Henderson. “For example, a member can reserve a slot — for their child in child watch and in a fitness class — and they’re able to know their experience is under their control. Technology has been a major factor in allowing us to serve this high volume of citizens without having a call center taking reservations.”

This level of convenience goes a long way in creating a great experience. “You have a much higher chance of having your expectations exceeded by your experience when you get here,” said Merrill. “That’s the formula we’ve done for our servicing.”

This formula of committing to the member experience has carried the Provo Rec Center since it opened. And this dedication to the community will help the organization reach new heights in the coming years.

“The Provo Rec Center is special because of the citizens of Provo,” said Henderson. “They are an active, healthy community that values quality recreational and fitness activities. We produced an amazing product, but if our citizens did not support it, we would not be experiencing the success we have now.”

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Bobby Dyer

Bobby is the editor of Community Rec Magazine. He can be reached at bobby@peakemedia.com.

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