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Feature Article - February 2004

In the Swim

The Best Strategies for Aquatic Center Peak Performance

By Kim Tobin


In the commercial aquatics industry, it's sink or swim when it comes to managing all the elements of your facility successfully. Without effective design for your patrons, the right risk management practices, regular and preventative maintenance, a variety of programming, and qualified staff to get it all done, decision makers can quickly find themselves or the future of their aquatics center in deep trouble. The following guide navigates options in each of these key areas to help keep a facility running swimmingly, today and tomorrow.

Design for the masses

Swimming remains one of America's favorite pastimes. In 2002, it ranked number three on the National Sporting Goods Association's survey list of most popular sports among Americans. While the old swimmin' hole has morphed into everything from municipal mega-centers to indoor waterpark resorts, the way to keep revenue from drying up remains clear: offer something for everyone in your design. In some cases, that design is becoming more architecturally interesting as well.

"The trend is more fun, more family, all ages and abilities," says Dave Schwartz, P.E., a licensed engineer and owner of Water's Edge Aquatic Design, an aquatic facility master planning firm in Lenexa, Kan. "Facilities are no longer limited to a purely athletic swimming approach."

Many facilities also are moving to a shallow water emphasis to highlight the play features for all ages. Others minimize the lap lanes for competition swimming, or just provide fewer of them. But it's important to preserve the competitive aspect of the pool because there is still a segment of the population that wants that feature. It should not, however, be the only feature.

"If you do provide competition, because those types of swimmers are a very vocal group, you have to provide the other venues, such as zero-depth entry and slides, or else you're going to lose attendance like crazy," adds Bill Yarger, president of Yarger Design Group, a St. Louis-based architectural and planning firm. "If you have an older pool, you need to figure out how to bring your citizens back. Because if they're not swimming in yours, they're swimming somewhere else."

Many in the industry agree that there are key features to keep bathers flocking to your waters. If there's a large budget and renovating or rebuilding are options, these features include: zero-depth or beach entry, which offers a very graduated entry for splashing the feet or easy entry into the water for the youngest children; zero-depth interactive splash play areas, also for younger children; and a variety of water-based play elements that can offer amusement or relaxation. These elements can range from different types of slides to vortexes and therapy couches. Other popular design features include lazy rivers for inner tubes and floating, as well as dry areas like shaded pavilions or grass for observing the action, hosting events or just socializing.

If you're not blessed with a large budget, there are plenty of installable accessories that can refresh a facility's look, expand activity options and boost the fun factor without breaking the bank. Components include everything from water-based climbing walls and floating volleyball games to water teeter-totters. Depending on the type of component, each can range from about $600 for water teeter-totters up to about $7,000 for climbing walls.

Taking a cue from waterparks, municipal or institutional pools also can take advantage of the variety of modular components to help theme a facility. Themes can help unify overall design and can be easily expanded and changed with renovations. Slides, rides and splash play features are on the market to provide mining, Caribbean, surfing, animal or nautical themes, to name just a few.

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