Beyond Treading Water
Finding Profitability in Aquatic Operations
By Dawn Klingensmith
If only aquatic facility managers could control the weather, they might be able to improve their bottom line.
"The heat helps a lot," the local pool manager told the Morgan Hill Times in 2011, when the California community's aquatic center posted high revenues after three years of poor performance.
"But," she added, "we've also changed a lot of program scheduling."
Pool personnel knew from previous summers that demand is high for swim lessons and actually drew a map of the facility to figure out where and when to schedule classes so all the center's pools would be used. They worked to maximize income from food concessions, retail sales, monthly memberships and party packages. With all the improvements, the facility covered 90 percent of its operating costs, up from 74 percent.
That's a remarkable achievement for a municipal aquatic facility. But it's not a result of weather control or any other form of magic.
"You can probably find a number of people who would tell you that Magic Program X, whatever it may be, is a surefire way to raise revenues, but I'm going to give you the non-sexy answer: The best way to bring people and money to a facility is by getting all the little details right," said David Rowland, president of Lutra Aquatics, a consulting and management services company based in West Granby, Conn.
The quest for the "magic" programming solution that would make pools profitable may have peaked during the recession, but Rowland said the public's demand for cost-efficiency predates the recession by several years: "It started to shift 15 or 20 years ago—the increased pressure on municipalities to not have this sinkhole in the budget."
There are those who steadfastly believe that even if a pool operates at a loss, it is still a valuable community asset worthy of taxpayer support. But they compete with vocal groups who can't see funding a facility that only a small percentage of the community uses. "Asking the community as a whole to spend a lot of money for the benefit of those few people" is asking a lot, Rowland said.
Whichever side you take, running a pool at a deficit for too long is a real problem and the reason for most permanent pool closures across the country, said Mick Nelson, facilities development director for USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport of swimming.
So perhaps pools have earned their "bad rap" as "money losers," he said, but in reality if they abandon the old model of charging a nominal fee for a day pass, they can make money. But how?
Back to Basics
It helps to understand the competition but not necessarily emulate it. "For almost every pool, whether they realize it or not, the competition is a waterpark, even if the waterpark is 100 miles away," said Robert Clayton, owner of Aquatic Partners, based in Fort Collins, Colo. "People go to the pool for fun. There are those who lap swim, but setting that aside, you have a rectangular tub of water where the temperature is never quite right for most people."
Waterparks, on the other hand, have attractions that magnetize families with kids—slides, water features, lazy rivers. Municipal pools in recent years have tried incorporating some of these elements to increase their appeal and improve their bottom line, and adding a few play features may indeed make sense. Some manufacturers have elements you can switch out to keep your facility fresh and exciting. But parks and rec purists believe that morphing into mini waterparks undermines a municipal pool's principal mission.
"It's still the case that there's a lot more emphasis on waterpark-type features, whether it's adding splashpads or putting in rivers. The perception is that those things will attract users," Rowland said. "But the scary thing is, none of it involves swimming. Sure, getting 400 pounds of water dumped on your head is fun, but it's not swimming. It's not exercising. It's not developing a lifelong skill."
Too often, splashpads are offered as a replacement rather than an addition to a pool, Nelson said: "How else will kids learn swimming and water safety?"
People's schedules are bloating along with their waistlines, so parks and rec facilities need to make it easy and rewarding to be more active. "Swimming is a form of physical activity that is available to such a wide range of people," Rowland said. "It's a great place for people to start to get in shape if they're new to exercise, and it's great if you have an injury or disability."