Technically my first NRPA Congress was in 1998 in Miami, Florida. I managed to scrape together a few bucks as a working graduate student to fly 2,000 miles from Phoenix to Miami in anticipation of learning about the best of the best in the field of parks and recreation. If I recall correctly, I managed to have one meeting, over lunch, with my mentors, the late Jim Colley, Ron Dodd and Dale Larsen. The meeting was solid, but nowhere near as powerful as Hurricane George which cancelled NRPA Congress entirely. With the Miami airport closed, I quickly drove to Orlando in torrential rain to catch a flight which gave me plenty of time to wonder what I might have missed.
I am not sure if it was scheduling conflicts or financial constraints that prevented me from attending in 1999. I’d like to think it was scheduling, but the reality is that it could have been otherwise.
I relocated back to my roots in the Chicagoland area in late 1999 to join the Buffalo Grove Park District. I’m sure I whined enough to my boss Ryan Risinger to help support attendance to my first NRPA Congress.
The 2000 NRPA Congress was hosted by my beloved City of Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Libraries Department. One of the keynote speakers was my mentor, Jim Colley. I was fortunate to have Jim, Ron, Dale and many fine former work associates from the City of Phoenix show me the ropes. I realize now that I would have been a lost young professional at NRPA Congress without some help from my friends.
“Don’t waste your time with NRPA Congress” Lesson #1 – ask a seasoned attendee for guidance. Take some time to learn about their most beneficial experiences at Congress. I absorbed as much as I could that year and began to build a foundation for an understanding of the important role of the annual Congress in our profession.
Author Jason (center) seen here with his mentors and guides during the 2000 NRPA Congress, Ron Dodd (left) and Jim Colley (right)
I missed the 2001 Congress with the birth of my son and first child, which is probably the best reason I could offer. The 2001 NRPA Congress took place in Denver, Colorado, adjacent to the finest city in the state, Westminster, Colorado, my home and city which I am privileged to serve today.
The 2002 NRPA Congress was held in Tampa Bay, Florida which was special for a few reasons. Most notably it was the last time I would spend with my mentor, Jim Colley, whom would pass before the next year’s meeting. I think the “park and recreation gods” must have been looking down at Jim because the closing ceremony at the 2002 NRPA Congress on Clearwater Beach was the most amazing and beautiful session I’ve ever experienced at any conference. This inspired so many networking connections linked to that special sunset on Clearwater Beach.
“Don’t waste your time with NRPA Congress” Lesson #2 – make memories, make connections. If I had to say my top benefit that I’ve received from any Congress, it would have to be networking. Our field is packed with the most passionate professionals compared to any other field, bar-none. We have great people with great stories, take time to connect.
The 2005 NRPA Congress was held in San Antonio, Texas. This goes down in my history as the most exhausting Congress in all of my experiences. Honestly, I recall 18-hour days of nothing but NRPA Congress related activities. I was privileged to serve in the American Academy for Parks and Recreation Extern Program. This was a wakeup call for what dedicated exceptional service to our field looks like.
“Don’t waste your time with NRPA Congress” Lesson #3 – immerse yourself with the best, whenever you can. Spending time amongst the finest in our field showed me what it takes to be a true contributor to our field. I took advantage of every moment in the extern program to learn leadership qualities from the very best.
The 2005 Congress was also the first time I really dove deep into cost recovery learning. At the time, several of my Board members were very interested in a model of sustainable services with an expectation for me to deliver. Committing to this learning track at this particular conference had a profound impact on my career as it began my progress from student to teacher to master in the area of sustainable services and cost recovery models.
“Don’t waste your time with NRPA Congress” Lesson #4 – go to sessions that matter to you right now…….and execute. You can get overwhelmed with so many session choices. While I feel it is important to diversify your learning, be sure to find out what you need to know now and learn. If you can do this, it can be very powerful and rewarding.
As the years passed, I “loved” my shin splints from walking around Seattle in 2006, throwing touchdowns at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2007 and the great memories of freezing in Minneapolis in 2010. These were all fine conferences.
The 2012 NRPA Congress in Anaheim, California proved to be special for two-key reasons for me. It was the first time I presented at the NRPA Congress on the topic of “Sustainable Services in a Down Economy.”
“Don’t waste your time with NRPA Congress” Lesson #5 – you would be amazed what you learn as a presenter. That’s right, what YOU learn as a presenter. The engaging conversations from attendees and the panel were enlightening and inspiring. Good news, you don’t have to present, as this is not for everyone. Think Tank opportunities and focus groups can be just as beneficial.
As an added benefit, one of the panel members was Gary Packan (Arlington, TX), which provided the first time for me to connect to this respected mentor and friend (and hear about Brand+Aid for the first time).
The second key benefit from the 2012 Congress was an experience related to a job, which led to a tremendously positive adjustment to my career path.
“Don’t waste your time with NRPA Congress” Lesson #6 – don’t be afraid to consider job opportunities while at NRPA Congress, whatever your situation. I was not considering a job change and certainly not a relocation at the time. Great things happen for a reason. Don’t underestimate opportunities that come with NRPA Congress.
Last year in Houston, Texas was a special Congress in that it was the first with my new organization. Also, it was the last time I would present with my friend and mentor, the late and great Karon Badalamenti. Additionally, 2013 and even the 2012 Congress, for me, are both linked at driving the importance of social networking amongst colleagues. Not that these venues have not been around for some time, but it seems, for whatever reason, that I’ve taken more advantage of them in the past couple of years.
“Don’t waste your time with NRPA Congress” Lesson #7 – keep the conversation going. You will be lucky to take a few key bullets from each session that you attend due to the overwhelming amount of information available to you. While at Congress, commit to learning ways that you are comfortable in keeping the conversation going post Congress.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the importance of the exhibit hall. While daunting in my first few years of attending Congress, I’ve learned to take full advantage of the many dedicated exhibitors.
“Don’t waste your time with NRPA Congress” Lesson #8 – have a game plan for the exhibit hall. Take time to prepare ahead of Congress to ask your organization, your elected officials and perhaps your local partners if they would like any particular information from Congress. When you have this ahead of time, you can strategize your game plan on the exhibit hall. I can’t tell you how many times exhibitors have influenced my final decision on an acquisition or opportunity for my agency.
In closing, I would suggest that you “Don’t Waste Your Time With NRPA Congress” by being prepared to make the very most of your experience. While there, focus on what is important to you and your organization right now. Balance your time between sessions, exhibit hall, networking, engagement and most importantly FUN. Bring a great attitude and consider these suggestions and it might very well have a positive impact on your professional growth.
Let’s keep the conversation going.
What other suggestions do you have for making the most of NRPA Congress? Share in the comments below.
Jason Genck, is the General Operations Manager of the City of Westminster, Colorado and has served in the field of parks and recreation for more than 20 years as a professional, professor and presenter on the local, state, regional and national level.