Technical Corner

The Past & Future of Recreation Facility Concessions

August 31, 2023

As we enter the final life-cycle phase for many of the Wintario era recreation facilities in Ontario, we look back to a time when Star Trek was the only place a person saw a handheld communicator – today, almost everyone has one. In the beginning, recreation facilities were the social hub of every community with concessions playing an important role in this connection. Recreation facilities were inviting places for local law enforcement where facility mangers often offered no cost “coffee” to these individuals as they used the opportunity to connect with the community. Today, a facility manager must invest time in creating some form of formal security plan for the building.

Early facility managers were trained on the importance of putting on the coffee-pot and popping fresh popcorn when opening for the day so that the smell might drive early sales. In addition, tips of adding extra popcorn topping or ice to a soda cup to increase revenues were common practices. Today, these comfort foods are considered unhealthy choices and often avoided.

"It is hard to imagine but the greatest hockey player of the time Wayne Gretzky’s pre-game meal consisted of junk food, including hot dogs with onions, mustard, pie, and a diet coke. While this may seem shocking to many, it is important to consider the context of the time. There were no energy drinks or power bars available at the time. Instead, he found that drinking diet coke provided a similar energy boost to the glucose found in many energy drinks." [More

Today, organizations like the Nutrition Resource Centre at the Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA) and the Ontario Society of Nutrition Professionals in Public Health’s (OSNPPH) Healthy Eating in Recreation Settings Workgroup offer resources to assist with healthier eating in recreation settings across Ontario. Designed for public health professionals, municipal and recreation staff and community partners, The “Getting Started with Healthy Eating in Your Recreation Setting” resource offered step-by-step actions to help build support for and transition towards healthier food and beverage options in places like arenas, concession stands, public swimming pools and gyms, and more. [More]

Although these programs were well intended, they often shamed facility users if they visited the facility concessions for what was considered unhealthy eating choices. Today, most users visit a drive thru of a fast-food provider prior to heading to the recreation centre, which if you have noticed is often strategically constructed near a public recreation facility. Eating healthy is the right personal choice. However, purchasing, preparing, and holding healthy food choices in a recreation operation is expensive, has a low profit margin and shelf life, which results in quick spoilage. Larger operations can explore concession partnerships with established companies. However, smaller operations will not have the necessary user traffic to attract such a relationship.

There is no doubt that early food services in a recreation facility had less administrative responsibilities. Today, facility management must be aware of the Health Protection and Promotion Act Ontario Regulation 493/17 Food PremisesHarmonized Sales Tax Regulations, and Pest Control requirements as some of the regulatory management responsibilities that add to the difficulty in offering food services.

A recent post on the ORFA Discussion Board - Status of Your Concessions In Your Facilities asks some real questions to ORFA members regarding the current state of concession operations. [Survey Link]

    • How many arenas still have a concession?
    • Have any of your concessionaires shut down?
    • If you do not have a concession area anymore, have you repurposed the space?

The future of recreation concession operation is also experiencing a staffing attraction and retention problem. Once considered a quality “first job” or a “retirement” position, recreation facilities now compete with other businesses for these same individuals. Recreation concession foods will no longer be an important revenue source, but rather a decision to offer a convenience to users in some operations.

    Comments and/or Questions may be directed to Terry Piche, CRFP, CIT and Director, Training, Research and Development, Ontario Recreation Facilities Association

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