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Feature Article - November 2013

Programming: Aquatics

Water for Everyone
Build Out Your Core Aquatic Programs

By Rick Dandes


A well-run and safe aquatic facility can be both a source of tremendous civic pride as well as revenue generator for a community, even in tough economic times.

"It can be done, but these days parks and recreation directors, many operating under tight budgets, may need to rethink how they run their operation," said Sue Nelson, a program training specialist with USA Swimming, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based organization that helps municipally run aquatic centers survive through planning, marketing and programming.

Creating effective programming ideas to bring more people into your aquatic facility requires knowing who your customers are, and who your potential customers can be, suggested Laurie Batter, of Batter Up Productions, a consultant on marketing for organizations and businesses in the swimming pool industry.

Basically, she said, you need to identify your target market, understand who they are and discover what will drive them to you. Your team should take the essential steps to go through a process of assessing the needs, attitudes and desires of the community of people you want to be serving.

Take a look at your facility's current culture of users. How many are lap swimmers, and how many are recreational users? Lap swimmers make up about 10 percent of those who use a pool, and generally expect pool usage to be part of their membership. Recreational users make up about 90 percent of pool participants, and are willing to pay more for pool use, especially on a one-time basis. Will non-members be allowed to use the pool?

If you don't know what your community wants, conduct an e-mail or telephone survey of your members. Use social media like Twitter, or use your Facebook page to put out the question. Create an advisory board representing a cross-section of your membership, and consult them about programming ideas. Know the ages of the people who will use the pool, and the number of people. Also, know the times that they will most likely use the pool, the days of the week and the time of year.

"Our organization believes programming should precede design where possible," Nelson, of USA Swimming, said. By using this model, you can learn what programs are going to work best in what demographic, and then design and build your facility based on what you discover.

The older strategy was to build a pool first and then decide what to do with it. "I don't think that leads to a sustainable situation," Nelson explained. "But whether you are building a new multiple pool facility or just rethinking how to program an older pool, the key is to listen to the needs of the people in your community."

Creating effective programming ideas to bring more people into your aquatic facility requires knowing who your customers are, and who your potential customers can be.

Mission Possible

Create a mission statement for your aquatic facility, Batter said, "which will be the heart and soul of your organization, "and will help drive strategies and programming. Here's an example of an effective mission that also speaks to your target audience: 'At Watermania, we believe that everybody will find fun, fitness and improved health through aquatics. We are committed to offering a state-of-the-art aquatic facility, providing programming that promotes a healthier and safer Watermania community.'"

This kind of approach is effective, Batter noted, "since the overarching goal is to get more of your clients in the water and to bring new clients in who will appreciate the benefits of your aquatic facility. Once you define your marketing strategies, programming will follow, along with tactics to execute the strategies. Of course, your marketing strategies, programming and tactics should continue to evolve, as society and resources evolve.

There is more than one pillar that actually supports a facility, Nelson added, and those pillars are: learn to swim, aquatic exercise, competitive swimming and aquatic therapy.

"Some facilities will have multiple programs or they will pick what their strongest pillar is that will support their community," she said. "When we talk to groups, we talk about 'beyond recreation.' Recreation, when I was growing up, is what you did at a pool. You went to the pool to have fun and play and it was open swimming, with not a lot of competitive swimming going on, not a lot of classes."

"That's right," Batter agreed. "You can continue to do what everyone else is doing, but that may not differentiate your facility and may not help you reach new user groups."