NIRSA Conference Touches on Strategy and Sustainability

During my visit to Tampa, FL, last month for the 2012 National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) Conference and Recreational Sports Exposition, I found university recreation is pulling its weight on the sustainability front, and NIRSA is doing well after its recent change in executive directors.

I spent my first day at the NIRSA conference with Gene Grzywna, director of campus recreation at Northeastern University, who told me that construction on several new recreational facilities is running ahead of schedule due to the mild winter, and students can expect to see facilities at Brown University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Tufts University opening sooner than their scheduled dates.

With facility directors promoting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings at their new facilities, I became curious about the sustainability efforts that are in progress. I found that schools such as Arizona State University, Santa Clara University, Purdue University and the University of Kansas (KU) are all spearheading the sustainability trend spreading across the nation. From attaining LEED ratings for their facilities to adopting energy-saving practices such as dual-flush toilets and low energy light bulbs, these facilities are doing their part to achieve zero waste.

Mary Chappell, KU Recreation Services director, told me her facility implemented water filling stations to help cut back on plastic water bottles and that the facility encourages students to bring refillable bottles when they work out. In 2009, her facility filled 13 million 8-ounce water bottles.

Next, I headed to NIRSA's annual meeting and found Pam Watts was no longer an interim but instead the official NIRSA executive director. Watts has been with NIRSA since 2000, serving as the association's chief operating officer and chief finance and strategy officer before taking on the role as deputy executive director last June.

According to the NIRSA website, its Board of Directors appointed Watts to ensure operational stability through its 2013 co-located conference in Las Vegas with the American College Personnel Association (ACPA), a comprehensive student affairs association. NIRSA is contracting with Gaylord Hotels to hold its show at a Gaylord facility for the four years after the 2013 show. This arrangement allows NIRSA to afford four consecutive tier-one conference sites for its annual conference, the association said. In addition to the immediate financial benefits of pairing with Gaylord (the pairing eliminates rental fees for convention centers), the staff said this multi-year agreement will save it time and money that would otherwise be spent searching for and negotiating with individual venues.

The locations and dates for the 2014-2017 conferences are as follows:

Gaylord Opryland (just outside Nashville, TN) - April 22-25, 2014

Gaylord Texan (just outside Dallas) - Mar. 29-April 1, 2015

Gaylord Palms (Orlando) - April 3-6, 2016

Gaylord National (just outside Washington, DC) - Feb. 20-23, 2017

This time-saving move allowed the NIRSA staff to work on strategic initiatives such as updating its mission, vision and tagline in an attempt to better articulate who NIRSA is and what it does. The mission, which was approved by a nearly 95 percent vote, is, "NIRSA is a leader in higher education and the advocate for the advancement of recreation, sport and wellness by providing educational and developmental opportunities, generating and sharing knowledge, and promoting networking and growth for our members." The new vision for NIRSA is, "NIRSA is the premier association of leaders in higher education who transform lives and inspire the development of healthy communities worldwide." And, the tagline that was unanimously approved by NIRSA's board is "Leaders in Collegiate Recreation."

The financial panel offered more insight into the inner workings of NIRSA. NIRSA's financial model is pretty basic yet broad with income sources of dues, education events, and exposition and sponsorship sales, according to the NIRSA board. NIRSA uses funds for member services and initiative investments, such as sustainability and strategic planning. However, NIRSA is lacking a consistent revenue source to replenish initiatives reserves, and relying on educational events for income can be tricky since higher education travel budgets are not always consistent, the board noted. NIRSA will face another income deficit when the tenant in the NIRSA National Center, Corvallis, OR, vacates the building in June. The association does not have an immediate replacement tenant for the rental space, which means $63,000 in lost rental revenue. However, the association paid off its mortgage on the building last year.

With operating reserves of $2 million (72 percent of target goal), building reserves of $881,483 (89 percent of goal) and initiatives reserve of $377,500, Tom Kirch, recreational sports director at Oregon State University, says the association is very healthy. Conference attendance is back up after it dipped fairly low from 2008 to 2010, no doubt due to the recession and rising costs of travel. The NIRSA Foundation awarded more than $10,000 in scholarships to NIRSA educational events last year.

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