Origins of Parks & Recreation
We begin with the origins and definitions of parks and recreation, providing examples to help illustrate the differing perspectives about them.
While a “park” is often described as simply an area designated for recreational pursuits, a variety of perspectives can bear upon one’s definition. As such, a park may be construed simply as an open space without the formal designation of a park, or more formally identified as a named park facility that includes buildings, playgrounds, parking lots, and trails/paths to and within. Parks are most often owned and operated by public sector agencies at the local/regional, state and national levels of government for reasons that extend well beyond just recreational pursuits. These reasons often include designation due to an area’s natural beauty or geographical features, historical or cultural significance, or a particular scientific interest around an area’s formation, its natural resources, or biological diversity. These varying perspectives coalesce in the mission of the US National Park Service ((NPS) est. 1916) to “preserve[s] unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world” (NPS, 2020, para. 4). The NPS also protects natural and cultural assets that are globally important.
The NPS currently manages 422 sites within 19 designations. The national park designation is the most well-known and there are 62 such parks. The remaining designations include historic sites, monuments, battlefields, rivers, seashores, scenic trails, preserves, and recreation areas (e.g., Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in Southern California is the largest urban recreation area in the US and the second-largest in the world). From the year 2000 to 2019, annual visitation to NPS sites for recreational purposes fell between 265 million and 331 million visitors annually. Other federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, US Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, and US Fish and Wildlife Service also offer a range of sites, ‘parks’ by definition, for recreation.
Established in 1927, the mission of the California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR) is “to provide for the health, inspiration, and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state's extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources, and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation” (CDPR, 2020, para. 1). Yosemite, now a national park, was first protected by California in 1864, pre-dating the declaration of Yellowstone as the first US national park in 1872. Current sites in California’s state park system include parks, beaches, lighthouses, museums, ghost towns, historic homes, lakes and reservoirs, natural reserves, off-highway vehicle recreation areas, and Spanish-era adobe buildings. Collectively, the sites offer over 4,500 miles of trails, 970 miles of lake and river frontage, 340 miles of coastline, and 15,000 campsites. California with its 280 state park sites has the largest state park system in the country. These state parks welcome more than 75 million visitors annually for recreational purposes (CDPR, 2020).
The word recreation is a derivative of the Latin form recreae meaning to make new, restore, or revive (Merriam-Webster, 2020). First used during the 15th century, recreation originally described a form of refreshment of strength and spirit after work (Merriam-Webster, 2020). As defined here, one can imagine how recreation could seamlessly connect with hospitality (from the Latin hospes: to host or serve). Even the word restaurant has a similar etymology as it is related to the word restore in the context of restoring energy and/or nutrients to one’s body. More contemporarily, Hurd and Anderson (2011) describe recreation as an activity that occurs during free time and that is generally considered enjoyable and socially redeeming. Notably, prior to the 1950s ‘free time’ was generally enjoyed by society’s more well-off members. The established weekend or required off days per week did not exist as they do today and members of the working class and underprivileged had little ‘free time’ to restore/replenish/recreate themselves.
While definitions of recreation have evolved and diverged over time due to different sociological, psychological, economic, or individualized perspectives, for the purposes of this chapter recreation is characterized as an experience that:
is voluntarily engaged in to enhance one’s quality of life for reasons including, but not limited to, fun and fitness
is active or passive
is facilitated on one’s own or with the help of other individuals or public, commercial, or not-for-profit organizations
occurs in indoor or outdoor settings found in naturally-formed or human-made spaces, structures, or facilities
presents broadly across humanity including, but not limited to, the social, cultural, fitness, faith, hobby, sport, and play domains.
Intersection of Hospitality
Having introduced you to parks and recreation broadly, we will now more fully examine various intersections of hospitality with parks and recreation. There are many examples that illustrate the interaction of recreation and hospitality in the context of managing people, resources, and facilities in a community setting, we will consider it broadly.
It is likely that when the public hears the word ‘park’, especially when paired with ‘national’, images of a range of outdoor recreational pursuits such as hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and wildlife viewing come to mind. Similarly, they may also picture tent camping and sleeping bags along with cooking over an open fire and eating trail mix. National and state parks allow for all of the aforementioned and more, but there is a very wide range of activities and amenities on offer, from simple and rustic to sophisticated and luxurious. Some of these are managed by concessionaires under license from the national and state park systems. Lodging within parks is not simply tent camping but runs the gamut from basic camping to ‘glamping’ (upscale/luxury camping) and campsites often offer a combination of tent camping, RV sites, cabins, and even yurts. Several luxury hotels are sprinkled within state and national parks. For example, The Ahwahnee is a historic 4-star hotel in Yosemite National Park, while Old Faithful Inn and El Tovar are unique historic hotels in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park, respectively. The Xanterra Travel Collection, which bills itself as the largest park concessions management company in the US, operates Old Faithful Inn and El Tovar. Concession licenses in national parks also cover food and beverage services, campgrounds, camp and retail stores, guided tours, equipment rental, and more.
Hospitality is also innate in the provision of recreation opportunities, as even the Federal government frames its recreational offerings in hospitality terms. For example, Recreation.gov, a central booking agency for reserving federal recreation sites, describes itself as a one-stop-shop for planning an adventure to create lasting memories worthy of a story, using terms like reservations, venues, and destinations, as well as slogans like “something for everyone” and “escapes right down the road or across the country” (Recreation.gov, 2020). Indeed, this jargon and similar are commonplace in a variety of hospitality settings unrelated to parks and recreation.
Spooky Nook Sports exemplifies the interaction of recreation and hospitality in terms of managing people, resources, and facilities(Spooky Nook Sports, 2020). Spooky Nook Sports operates The Nook in Manheim, Pennsylvania, the largest (700,000 square feet) indoor sports complex in the United States. With over 50 acres of outdoor facilities as well, The Nook simultaneously hosts clubs, leagues, tournaments, and championship events year-round. The Nook also encompasses a fitness center, a climbing center, numerous meeting, event, and party spaces, a food court, and an arcade. The Warehouse Hotel and Forklift & Palate restaurant, located on-site, round out its substantial variety of guest services (Spooky Nook Sports, 2020).
While there are many privately-owned commercial recreation ventures like The Nook, the vast majority of recreation-based services are offered by public agencies and not-for-profit organizations that meet a particular community’s needs. Each community is self-defined and membership is often characterized by geography, interests, and abilities but most importantly by its needs. As such, the services provided by community recreation organizations can differ immensely from one community to the next. These organizations often fill the void, satisfying needs unrecognized or unmet by both the public and private sectors.
The remainder of this section will first examine recreation through local and regional public parks and recreation agencies. Then we will conclude with an example from the often under-appreciated not-for-profit sector to round out your understanding of how hospitality and recreation intersect.
Local and regional park and recreation agencies manage facilities and programs that are driven by their community members. From a facility perspective, the typical agency serves its members by providing parks/natural spaces/trails, playgrounds, sports courts, baseball and/or softball diamonds, multi-purpose rectangular fields, dog parks, swimming pools, and community/recreation centers. Centering on community needs and geography, agencies might also manage a skate park for in-line skating, skateboarding, or scootering, while others may manage an ice rink for ice hockey, figure skating, or curling, and others still may create a bike park for BMX and mountain biking as the City of Santa Clarita did in 2020 (City of Santa Clarita, 2020; (National Recreation and Park Association, 2020).
From a programming perspective, the typical parks and recreation agency serves its members by providing experiences like individual and team sports, social and special events, fitness/health/wellness classes, and after-school and summer camp programs. Again illustrating the focus on community needs and geography, agencies might also provide cultural- and performance-art-based trips and tours, while others might provide golf and boating programming. Most importantly, agencies that are focused on meeting the needs of all community members will tailor programs for different ages and those with diverse abilities, among many other demographics, (National Recreation and Park Association, 2020).
Finally, sometimes neither the private nor public sector can serve a community well, if at all. Specialized not-for-profit organizations may step in to fill the gap and focus on the needs of an under or not-served community. The Triumph Foundation is an example of such a not-for-profit niche organization (Triumph Foundation, 2020). Its mission is to help children, adults, and Veterans with spinal cord injury/disorder to minimize the obstacles that they might face after suffering a traumatic injury, serving a community in need that is not being served by the private or public sectors. Among many other endeavors, the Triumph Foundation provides care baskets for the recently injured, remodels homes for better accessibility, and serves to network people throughout and after their recovery. Its most popular service is helping its clients live a life of purpose and adventure through adaptive recreation activities (Triumph Foundation, 2020).
“The Triumph Foundation Adaptive Kayaking” by CSUN Aquatic Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0. The Triumph Foundation partnered with CSUN’s Aquatic Center and Valley Go! to offer adaptive water-based recreation for people with spinal injuries at Castaic Lake State Recreation Area.
The Triumph Foundation hosts over 20 experiences annually, ranging from an adapted sports expo and sports festival to hand-cycling races, and adapted kayaking excursions. Hospitality students may overlook not-for-profits like the Triumph Foundation because they are not as recognizable as other options within community recreation or as glamorous as those in the private sector, but such organizations are where one can get a breadth of experience in terms of managing people, resources, programs, and facilities, while also providing particularly meaningful work because of the communities they serve.
The direct-service model is most prevalent at the intersection of recreation and hospitality in the public sector. However, since park and recreation service agencies often take a disproportionately larger share of cuts when budgets contract, they must often utilize different methods for service delivery. Furthermore, many innovative and trendy activities, as well as recreation opportunities that require unique expertise or equipment, tend to be too resource-intensive for public sector delivery. As such, these organizations look to an indirect service model, namely through outsourcing with private-sector partners. As introduced earlier in this section with regards to national and state parks concessions like hotel lodging, there are ample opportunities for and examples of private hospitality service providers supplementing the direct service offerings of local/regional park and recreation agencies, so community needs continue to be served. For example, the City of Golden (CO) notes in its Master Plan that it utilizes outsourcing to provide services that it is either unprepared or unwilling to provide, and seeks to fulfill those needs through negotiating or requesting bids for contracts with other entities to provide those services. These services include food and beverage management, golf course operations, or ball field/sports complex operations (City of Golden, 2016).
The County of Los Angeles (CA) Parks and Recreation (LACPR) department notes that outsourcing, through the use of concessionaires in most cases, includes paddle boat and bike rental services that are fulfilled through contracts with private, commercial entities (Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation, 2020). Additionally, LACPR also contracts with not-for-profit organizations to deliver services. The Aquatic Center at Castaic Lake, operated by California State University, Northridge’s (CSUN) department of Recreation and Tourism Management, provides hands-on educational services on boating and water safety within the Castaic Lake State Recreation Area. Such an institution of higher education is clearly well-suited to serve as a partner for instructional services that LACPR may be unprepared or unwilling to provide (CSUN Aquatic Center, 2020).
So as one can see, while opportunities abound in the public and not-for-profit sectors for direct service provision at the intersection of recreation and hospitality, there are also a myriad of opportunities to provide indirect service provision within the same domain.
Having examined the intersection of hospitality with parks and recreation, let us now explore the broader scope of parks and recreation.
Many national parks are like cities, with all of the services a city would normally provide from recreation opportunities to housing, medical services, fire services, and community protection services. Oftentimes, because of their size and the volume of visitors they attract, and people they employ, they have a tremendous impact on the gateway communities around them and the states in which they are located. In 2019 Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve in Alaska welcomed just 100 recreational visitors. At the other end of the spectrum, Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California welcomed just over 15 million. Imagine the vast array of services from hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, service stations, etc. that these 15 million visitors to Golden Gate NRA used. All told, NPS sites saw 327,516,619 recreational visitors who spent approximately $21 billion in the gateway regions. The economic impact of this spending was profound at the national level, supporting 340,500 jobs and generating $14.1 billion in labor income and $24.3 billion in value-added (Cullinane Thomas & Koontz, 2020). The jobs and businesses that visitor spending supports at the local level are understandably critical to some local economies.
State parks also impact local communities and the state in significant ways. Like national parks, they protect natural and cultural resources and offer many recreational opportunities. They also have direct and indirect economic benefits. For example, research published in 2015 on the state of Washington estimated that visitor spending (on items such as gas, entry/parking fees, food, equipment) was approximately $1.5 billion annually. The wider economic impact of visitors’ expenditure was 14,000 jobs and $212 million in annual local, state, and federal taxes (Schundler, Mojica, & Briceno, 2015).
While a typical local parks and recreation agency notes 225,000 contacts per year (e.g., swimming at a local swimming pool, hiking on a local trail, playing at a local playground), the larger agencies serve in excess of 4.4 million annually (National Recreation and Park Association, 2020). Furthermore, local parks and recreation organizations in California generated an estimated $16 billion in economic activity in 2017, supported approximately 109,000 jobs, and paid employees more than $5.1 billion in salaries, wages, and benefits. Nationally, such agencies’ activities and spending in 2017 generated more than $166 billion in economic activity boosting national GDP by $87 billion and supporting over 1.1 million jobs that paid $50.8 billion in salaries, wages, and benefits (National Recreation and Park Association, 2020).
As one can see, the breadth of facilities and programs and scope of people served within state and national parks, as well as within local and regional parks and recreation, is ripe for hospitality professionals who are eager to serve.