Tips for Running a Successful Group Program

By Terri Milner Tarquini




December 1, 2016
30
   In The Loop Extended Articles

Kimberly Berry employs an almost through-the-looking-glass type philosophy when coordinating group programming. Simply stated, she attempts to see everything not as a coach, but as a parent.

“As instructors who are on the inside, we see things differently,” said Berry, figure skating director at the Edge Ice Arena in Littleton, Colorado. “We have to flip that and always be aware of the parents’ perspective and how they see things from the outside looking in. We have to see what a parent sees.”

And that begins from the second they step foot in the building.

“Here they are coming into this big, giant facility where you have to wear different clothes from other sports and have different footwear that they often don’t even know how to tie properly,” Berry said. “It’s so different from other activities and it can be daunting and overwhelming. We need to provide guidance every step of the way so they feel comfortable and they feel confident handing their children over to us.”

To begin to initiate mom and dad into the world of skating, Berry’s program distributes a welcome letter, as well as a quarterly newsletter keeping parents in the know regarding opportunities outside of the group classes, such as ice shows, exhibitions, additional programming, and public skate times.

“It’s your duty to hook the parent as much as it is to hook the child,” Berry said. “That starts with assessing how easy your program is to use. Does a parent know where to check in, where to get rental skates, and where the class is taking place? These are questions to ask of your program.”

Berry’s program has diagrams on how to tie skates and coaches are required to be available 10 minutes prior to the first class helping with proper skate tying. She also makes sure there is a flow chart, both online and in hard copy, of a skater’s progression through the program and what that progression means.

“Skating is such a different animal than other sports,” she said. “If you want to go into figure skating, this is the path you’ll need to go down. If you want to go into hockey, then it’s this path. Parents need to be aware of the pipeline so it’s not just a black hole. They need to see the light so they know where they’re headed and what comes next.”

As with any skill development program, the path often rests squarely of the shoulders on those teaching the skills.

“The face of the program is your staff,” Berry said. “Coaches must be well-trained and developed, they have to know 100 percent of the safety procedures and they need to understand the concept of teaching through fun. It’s all about developing skills through games. The kids just think they’re having a good time; they don’t even realize they’re learning. You know you’ve done your job when the kids don’t want to leave.”

At the Edge Ice Arena, the teaching staff is all over the age of 18, are all full coaching members, are PSA and U.S. Figure Skating compliant and are Certified Learn to Skate USA Instructors. Teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 can be assistants, following a seven-week training course. A yearly seminar, as well as in-service staff meetings every other month, keeps staff educated on procedures and techniques.

“Retention rate is directly correlated to the quality of the program,” Berry said. “Retention is more important than bringing in new people. Providing patrons and families a product they want to keep returning for is the foremost goal - period.”

Berry should know: Her retention rate is a staggering 70 - 75 percent. But it wasn’t always that way. The fledgling program began six years ago with the classes being taught without any accredited group curriculum. There was virtually no money coming in and very little enrollment.

That’s when, in 2012, Berry joined the Edge Ice Arena, rolled up her sleeves and did what she is good at: building a strong, viable program.

Using the Learn to Skate USA Program, formerly the U.S. Figure Skating Basic Skills Program, the Edge Ice Arena, in its peak times during the school year, has close to a whopping 300 kids for every seven week session.
“And we do it all on two-and-a-half hours of ice a week,” Berry said. “When program directors hear our numbers they immediately think we must have a ton of ice, but the truth is we don’t. We pack our ice and I provide enough adequate, knowledgeable staff to handle it.”

Berry is enthusiastic over Learn to Skate USA’s approach to group programming, as well as all of the tools available for directors.

“Learn to Skate USA is a program anyone can run,” she said. “Everything they provide, I use. There are so many resources from the logistics side, as well as marketing and promotion and ideas to make the whole process fun for the consumer. And they are always there to help or answer questions. Ultimately, we are all very invested in getting as many kids on the ice and keeping them there as possible.”

A somewhat newer idea to retention rate is the movement to provide group programming at higher levels.

“Our staff knows how important the group environment is,” Berry said. “Private lessons are in addition to group, not instead of group. Staying in classes builds camaraderie and lends a team feel to what can otherwise often be a very solitary sport if you funnel into the figure skating side. In group, they can make friends and both encourage and push each other. There is most certainly a place for private lessons, but group is a great way to get extra ice time and extra instruction with less financial impact on parents.”

When it comes to finances, a successful group program has the potential to really rake it in - and provide for bigger and better opportunities for all skaters no matter the discipline or level.

“Financially group classes are the most viable program a rink has,” Berry said. “If run correctly, you make the most money per hour on basic skills classes. That’s the money that supports the 6 a.m. ice with only five skaters on it. That’s the money that allows for additional programming needs or wants that couldn’t happen otherwise. Learn to Skate USA provides the foundational base for future athletes, but also provides the financial base for future programming.”

While she still does some coaching, the calling of being a program director is usually a 30-hour-a-week job - as it should be, according to Berry.

“The only way to know your program is to be in your program,” she said. “Program director is not a desk job.”

A solid first step for anyone interested in growing their group program is earning a PSA rating as a program director.

“I highly recommend it,” Berry said. “Just going through the process forces you to step back and look at the program and the facility. It makes you identify your deficiencies, realize where you need education and helps you grow as a director. A director runs a business and is responsible for a lot of different pieces that must work together to see progress and growth of a program. Any strong program has a strong director.”