Conference 2023 Trends and Topics

Parks and recreation is a multidisciplinary field with a range of specialties, interests and areas of expertise. Our annual conference aims to cover the broad range of topics relevant to professionals in this field. 

Click the below to review each of the topical calls for proposals as you prepare to submit a session outline for review by our Conference Programming Committee. Successful sessions will aim to directly address the issues outlined below.  

Talent Recruitment and Retention

The Issues: Recruiting and retaining staff continues to be a significant challenge for park and recreation leaders in 2022, with no sign of improving conditions in the year ahead. Agencies are competing with private employers for new talent. Seasonal staff are particularly difficult to recruit, with ongoing shortfalls in everything from lifeguards to tennis instructors. Holding on to trained and experienced mid-level staff also has proven challenging, with calls for competitive wage increases, flexible work policies and more. At the same time, fewer applicants are coming to the field with park and recreation degrees, resulting in a need for more “on the job” learning at the start of many careers.  

The Call: We seek session proposals that respond to the current-day challenges of recruitment and retention head-on with clarity, honesty and humility. Conference attendees want to better understand the root causes of these seismic shifts in the labor market and explore likely scenarios for the future of work in parks and recreation. More importantly, they want to learn concrete and actionable lessons for managing these challenges from leaders with a track record of success in recruiting and retaining talent.  Successful sessions also will touch on knowledge management and succession planning in the face of increasing rates of retirement from the field.  

Change Management

The Issues: Park and recreation agencies are constantly changing — whether their leaders appreciate it and accept it, or not. Supervisors, managers and leaders at every level lack guidance and standards for succession planning. Recession planning, or “rainy day planning,” is easily put off until tomorrow while budgets remain relatively stable today. New staff trickle in while current staff resign in higher-than-average numbers. Public tastes change and demands for new programs leave old favorites by the wayside.   

The Call: Attendees are hungry for sessions that help them understand, accept and nimbly adapt to the changes happening all around them. From high-level strategic planning to tactical mid-course corrections, attendees want the skills and know-how to lead in a world where the pace of change seems to be speeding up by the minute. Successful sessions will walk attendees through the steps of planning for a range of issues. These sessions introduce individuals to the personal growth they need to experience and confidently manage change. They expose attendees to skills and concepts from other fields that have grown nimbler and more adaptive in recent years.   

Community Engagement

The Issues: Park and recreation agencies exist to serve actual communities — not some idealized version of a “typical” community, but the diverse flesh-and-blood, bricks-and-mortar communities that include big urban centers, little rural towns and everything in between. Local stakeholders are searching for meaningful dialogue with park and recreation leaders — opportunities to think and plan together that go far beyond the traditional one-way communication channel of a town hall, a public hearing or a survey. Diverse voices want to be heard, and they need to see their contributions show up in visible changes to programs, policies and facilities.   

The Call: We seek session proposals that introduce attendees to the fundamentals of impactful community engagement. Participatory planning methods, civic science protocols, public-art-as-engagement strategies — we’re looking for the tried-and-true and the latest-and-greatest ways to meet local stakeholders where they are. Successful sessions will help attendees appreciate the differences between box-checking engagement practices and authentic strategies for bringing diverse audiences into the fold. They cover innovative and actionable tips, tools and to-dos for getting engagement right.   

Operations and Facilities Management

The Issues: Maintenance, operations, public safety and facilities management are the tent poles of park and recreation agencies. Without these areas of practice, little else could happen. Yet these topics have gotten too little airtime at our annual conference in the past, to the exclusion of a great number of people working in this field.   

The Call: We seek sessions that shed light on maintenance, operations and facilities management practices in parks and recreation. How are “ops” teams constituted and managed at different agencies? What are “next” practices in maintenance? How can agencies choose between outsourcing services and building up in-house skills and knowledge? What are the baseline standards for site safety — and how can agencies reach beyond the basics? What are the latest practices in improving public safety and policing in parks to make everyone feel safe, welcome and included? Successful sessions will identify and address, these often invisible issues.   

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The Issues: We have only begun to make park and recreation programs more inclusive and equitable to a greater diversity of people and communities. Too many people continue to feel unsafe, unwelcome and uninspired by their local park and recreation programs. Well-meaning leaders at park and recreation agencies have taken constructive steps toward change but struggle sometimes to take the next step in their journey. Many agencies lack actionable equity action plans, which would help them get started with changes within their spheres of control and influence.  

The Call: We seek sessions that welcome more park and recreation professionals into the practice of making their agencies and facilities more inclusive, equitable and diverse. We also seek sessions that challenge those who have taken their first steps to keep growing. Successful sessions will unpack issues of structural racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other forms of discrimination in parks and recreation, making these problems visible and comprehensible. Successful sessions also will help attendees commit to making change and give them the tools to do just that — starting wherever they are. We specifically seek sessions that share insights and step-by-step tips for creating and implementing equity action plans.  

COVID and its Legacy

The Issues: The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to shape and impact the work of creating, maintaining and programming park and recreation facilities. Conference attendees have been forced to grow nimbler as well as more resourceful and resilient to disturbances resulting from public health emergencies. Yet despite all we have learned in recent years, park and recreation professionals need more strategies to prepare for future threats and stay flexible when they arrive.   

The Call: Successful sessions will focus on helping attendees take stock of their “lessons learned” throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and make sense of their experiences in a way that helps them meet the next “unknown unknown.” We seek sessions that continue to educate attendees about the role of parks and recreation in both preventing and responding to public health threats. Aligning with our call for sessions focused on change management, we seek proposals that focus on agility, resourcefulness and adaptation in the face of disturbances like COVID-19.   

Partnerships

The Issues: Budgets continue to be relatively small for many park and recreation agencies throughout the United States. Partnerships given agencies new and innovative avenues for doing more with less, from working with Conservancies and “Friends of” groups on capital campaigns to teaming up with local libraries, hospitals, law enforcement and business associations to launch high-quality programs. Yet many agencies have a lot to learn when it comes to strategically launching, maintaining and even ending partnerships.   

The Call: Successful sessions will continue to introduce the park and recreation world to the opportunities and the pitfalls of partnering with a variety of actors and stakeholders. Session submissions should focus on the politics, inter-personal dynamics, legality and coordination of partnerships. We seek session proposals that demonstrate an appreciation for the nuances of partnerships and help attendees work with — and within — the pros and cons of collaboration with outside groups.   

Programming

The Issues: Park and recreation agencies are programming powerhouses! Programming teams face a range of challenges that include staying on top of trends and changes in public tastes, serving a diversity of interests and needs, and working with tight budgets (especially in the face of global inflation and supply chain challenges). Programming reaches across areas such as sports, recreation, entertainment and continuing education offerings.   

The Call: Successful sessions will identify and forecast trends in park and recreation programming to make attendees more aware of changes to come. We seek sessions that address specific challenges in programming with a particular emphasis on trends in youth sports. Sessions also should consider agencies at different stages of launching and managing programs, from those that are just getting started to those that have been in the programming business for decades.   

Communications and Technology

The Issues: Innovations in technology promise to make the work of managing park and recreation agencies more efficient and impactful. Yet new technologies can also disrupt well-established policies and procedures if they aren’t thoughtfully planned and implemented. Some agencies may find some new technologies too expensive to adopt or too complex to manage with existing human resources.  The public increasingly expects public agencies to stay current with new communications media and technology, including social media.  

The Call: We seek sessions that will introduce attendees to new and emerging technologies that will revolutionize their work practices and explicitly name the resources agencies must have in place to successfully adopt and deploy new hardware and software. Successful sessions will help attendees think critically about “must haves” versus “nice to haves” and connect potential tech solutions to well-defined problems. We specifically seek sessions that grapple with technology in recreation programming, from eSports to social media to virtual reality.  Topics of immediate relevance include using text messaging and social media to promote — and sometimes even host — programming; using QR codes and payment processing systems beyond cash and credit cards; and communicating with audiences that speak languages other than English or are less likely to receive information electronically.  

Careers in Parks and Recreation

The Issues: Park and recreation leaders need to take steps to recruit, mentor, train, coach and promote the next generation of leaders in the field. With fewer young professionals coming to the profession through formal academic programs, how can leaders onboard new talent and get them ready to assume a growing cadre of responsibilities for years to come?  

The Call: Successful sessions will focus on leaders as mentors and educators, providing them with the skills and conceptual knowledge necessary to “raise up” the next generation of park and recreation professionals. We seek sessions that focus on mentoring, coaching, staff development, organizational structure and personal growth.  

Revenue and Development

The Issue: Park and recreation agencies continue to struggle with budget shortfalls for daily operations and maintenance in many jurisdictions. Paradoxically, many park and recreation systems find themselves with a sudden influx of capital funds from state and federal sources. Managing the ups and downs of public finance and the gaps in funding for capital and operations is an ever-present challenge for leaders in the field.   

The Call: Successful sessions will assume attendees have baseline skills and conceptual knowledge in financial planning to focus on innovations and in fiscal management for park and recreation professionals. Topics covered should include financial sustainability, multi-year funding and budgeting models, diversified revenue streams, next practices in fiscal management, and deep-dive issues like salary transparency for equity.   

Aquatics

The Issues: Building, financing, managing, and upgrading aquatic facilities is a broad and varied field of practice within the wider world of parks and recreation. Aquatics provide communities with a range of opportunities for recreation and improved health and wellness. They also present their own unique challenges above and beyond those faced by any other aspect of park and recreation management. Making aquatics facilities inclusive and accessible to a diversity of users is an emerging concern for many agencies.  

The Call: Successful sessions will grapple with the unique and specific challenges faced by aquatics facilities operators. We seek sessions that explore innovations and advances in aquatics programming, including therapeutic aquatics, services for all ages and competitive sports. We also seek sessions that focus on making aquatics facilities and programs inviting, accessible and appropriate for a range of audiences. In keeping with our call for proposals related to Talent Recruitment and Retention, we also seek proposals that explore recruiting, training, and retaining lifeguards in different settings (beaches, pools, etc.).  

Conservation and Environment

The Issues: Parks are at the center of many efforts to make communities more environmentally sustainable and resilient to climate change. At the same time, park landscapes and built facilities are uniquely at risk in a warmer and wetter world. Conservation areas and waterbodies face a growing list of challenges that include invasive species, climate-induced migration, fires, floods, droughts and more. Simultaneously, the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts, with greater — and more intensive — use of trails in many public lands during recent years.  

The Call: Successful sessions will explore cutting-edge practices in making parks more sustainable across a range of factors, from waste reduction to energy efficiency to potable water conservation. We seek sessions that teach attendees how to make parks more resilient to the stressors of climate change and, in turn, leverage park landscapes to make communities more equitably resilient. We also seek sessions that explore programming for outdoor enthusiasts, with a special focus on trail making and management, public art on trails and trail accessibility for people with a diversity of abilities.

Advocacy

The Issues: Park and recreation agencies need advocates to promote and protect their work with funders, decision-makers and the general public. Agencies compete for limited public funding, and civil servants need help making the case for improved and expanded investments in park and recreation facilities and programs.  

The Call: We seek sessions that explore working with advisory boards and empower them to be better advocates on behalf of the park and recreation systems they serve. We also seek sessions that help park and recreation professionals understand the opportunities to serve as advocates and the ethical and statutory limits they face when stepping into those roles. Successful submissions will emphasize storytelling and data in making a compelling case for parks and recreation and introduce strategies for mobilizing park patrons to serve as advocates.  

Design and Planning

The Issues: Park and recreation agencies are perpetually designing and planning new facilities, from landscaped parklands to buildings that house a variety of specialty programs. Park and recreation leaders are called on to wear many hats during the design and planning process: consultant managers, contract negotiators, community liaisons, program experts, quality managers and more. Professionals also are called on to creatively repurpose existing facilities and make them functional for a variety of uses.  

The Call: Successful submissions will grapple with designing facilities for “now and beyond,” sharing tips and strategies for designing with emergent functions and flexibility in mind. We seek sessions that focus on retrofitting existing spaces and getting started with design and planning processes for new facilities, including working with developers and contractors to get it “done.”