Pool Profitability

Revenue-generating ideas to help keep your budget afloat

By Stacy St. Clair

In 1986, recreation officials in Raytown, Mo., found themselves at a crossroads.

They had just purchased a city pool. It was a boring, rectangular box with no bells or whistles. The safest bet would have been to leave the facility unchanged. Invest no energy and even less money.

But recreation officials in the middle-class Missouri community had a vision. They wanted a grand aquatic center, a waterpark that would engage the community and encourage repeat customers.

At the time, few shared their vision. Waterparks still were several years away from joining the mainstream. But Raytown recreation officials always knew their facility could do more, be more. So in 1990, they conducted a feasibility study.

Indeed, residents wanted more than just a rectangular pool. They just didn't want to pay too much for it—not through their taxes nor through steep admission fees.

"It had to be self-sustaining," says Rick Lowderman, director of the Raytown Parks and Recreation Department.

The result was SuperSplash USA, which has become one of North America's best-run waterparks. Like all financially successful aquatic centers, the facility has thrived on a mixture of creativity, customer-service and sound business practices.

Lowderman's primary concern with the facility is creating an environment to which patrons can—and want to—return. It factors into all the decisions he makes, from the design to the attractions to admission.

He set the entrance fee at $8, a fourth of what the mammoth private waterpark in town charges. The concessions are also reasonably priced, which leaves patrons with enough change in their pockets for repeat visits.

"Our prices don't even come close to what the private parks charge," Lowderman says.

The department also has made several positive changes to the facility. SuperSplash USA now has three bodies of water: a big pool with two slides and a lily pad, a children's pool, and a family pool.

The family pool—a revamped version of the original rectangular pool—has been jazzed up significantly since 1986. Officials installed a zero-depth entry and added pumps, a rock-enclosed waterfall and water bucket games.

Popular features also include the park's large wooden decks. The decks make the facility inviting to sunbathers and parents who aren't interested in thrill rides. The decks give patrons a roomy, comfortable place to lounge while others splash in the water. They're so successful, in fact, Lowderman considers them the No. 1 must-have for any waterpark.

"We see having deck space as just as profitable as the pools," he says. "It's perfect for people who just want to jump in the water and then go running back to the deck."

The facility's approach has resulted in a financially successful operation that pays for itself.

Last year, for example, revenues totaled $725,000, while expenses came in at $410,000. The profits are being used to pay off old projects and begin planning news ones.

Raytown officials also have taken great pains to keep the water features fresh and exciting. They add new rides every few years, though the private facilities have the money to unveil new attractions each summer.

"You have to do it every other year," Lowderman says. "The big boys are going to do it every year, so you need to do it every couple years to keep people interested in coming back."


Waterpark Trifecta
If managed properly, there are three sure financial bets in every waterpark:
THE CONCESSION STAND, THE PARTY AREA AND THE GIFT SHOP.
Here are some tips on finding success in these three areas.
THE CONCESSION STAND

If Rick Lowderman has any advice about running a concession stand, it's finding a full-time professional manager.

As director of the Raytown (Mo.) Parks & Recreation Department, he made it a priority this past summer at the municipality's SuperSplash USA. He never regretted it. The decision gave him peace of mind because the snack bar was left in the hands of an experienced food-service expert, not just a bunch of teens looking for summer work.

Under professional management, the concession stand made a killing between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The manager was paid $12,000 this summer and improved revenues by $60,000.

"It was definitely worth the investment," Lowderman says. "We had a professional, not teenagers who didn't know anything about running a business." Lowderman also credits the snack bar's reasonable prices for its success. A customer can purchase a hamburger and soda for less than $5. He believes the low cost allows families to have fun without feeling gouged. Yet, at the same time, the reasonable prices encourage them to spend their dollars on snow cones, Dipping Dots and French fries.

"They don't feel like the prices are unreasonable," Lowderman says, "but we're trying to get as much as we can out of them."

Some experts, however, contend a low-priced meal isn't the only thing that helps keep customers coming back. Old-school concession philosophy suggested never charging more than $1 for a cup of coffee. But we're a Starbuck's world now. People gladly shell out $4 for coffee, if it has a fancy name and a shot of hazelnut. But as the willingness to pay for gourmet foods has increased, so has the expectation of quality. Concession-stand customers want more than just hot dogs. They want chili dogs; cheese dogs; and Chicago dogs with cucumbers, pickles and hot peppers. They also prefer condiment bars with a variety of toppings, including salsas, vegetables and hot sauces.

Recreation officials in Golden, Colo., for example, added a little spice to their concession operations when they opened a family aquatic center in the summer of 2002. They invested $30,000 in equipment, including an outdoor grill that proved to be integral to the stand's success. Consultants urged managers to buck many of the traditional ways of doing things, including the age-old tradition of keeping the cook out of sight. Rather than hiding the cooks in the back of the concession stand to flip hamburgers, they positioned the grill outside. It brought the employees -and the smell of a backyard barbecue-closer to the patrons. As swimmers and sunbathers enjoy their afternoons, they can look to the concession stand and see the food being made. The mouth-watering smells of hot dogs, chicken breasts and hamburgers waft through the park. The grill gave a sense of freshness—of summer, really—to the stand's menu. On the first day of operations, the snack bar made $4,000 in just six hours.

THE PARTY PLACE

Nearly all waterparks and pools have party packages that encourage large groups. The deals don't vary much from park to park. For a set price, partygoers receive admission to the park, pizza and drinks. Some facilities include party favors and a cake in the deal. The most successful parks, however, have a place to hold the celebration.

Cypress Cove Family Aquatic Center in Woodridge, Ill., for example, built its mechanical room on an island and attached a huge porch to the structure. The porch is home to all parties at the park, as well as the Woodridge Park District's "Dive and Jive" concert series. Architects designed the porch to be large enough to fit two groups at one time—thereby doubling the revenue opportunities for the district.

"It has become a very popular place for birthdays," says Pam Sanhamel, the district's public relations and marketing coordinator.

GIFT SHOPS

A good waterpark, in many cases, can be the highlight of a child's summer. Why not give the kids a chance to remember it with something tangible? An increasing number of waterparks—even smaller ones operated by local taxing bodies—have found financial success in the gift shop arena. Splash Station in Joliet, Ill., for example, operates a small souvenir stand at the park that offers hats, T-shirts, water bottles and various keepsake items. Other gift shops have become more like convenient stores by selling sunscreen, disposable cameras and anti-chlorine shampoos. Several facilities also carry swim diapers, which the management requires all non-potty trained children to wear. Parents who forget the diapers can purchase them for a few dollars at the gift shop.


BIG IDEAS

Hyland Hills Water World knows what it takes to keep patrons coming back. The Colorado facility's creativity and keen business sense has helped it become the nation's largest publicly owned waterpark.

The 64-acre site has 42 attractions and 25,000 square feet of shaded structures. The park—which has won numerous awards for design and innovation—is the birthplace of the family water ride and the first themed, partially in-the-dark water ride.

The management adds a feature almost every year, including Storm in 2003. The million-dollar ride replicates a torrential downpour with amazing sound effects, replicas of toppled buildings and simulated thunder, lightening and wind.

Hyland Hills Park and Recreation officials came up with the concept during a brainstorming session with staff. The slide was then custom-built in keeping with their stormy theme.

"We're always looking at the industry and seeing what other parks are doing," says Joann Saitta, the district's marketing manager. "We've got some very creative people on our staff, and everyone's ideas are taken seriously."

The attraction, which proved wildly popular this past summer, is 700 feet long with a 60-foot vertical drop. It can handle nearly 1,000 people per hour.

The facility's commitment to new offerings has been enhanced by forward-thinking, cost-saving designs. The Storm, for example, was strategically placed to leverage the natural elevation and curvature of the land.

Officials intentionally built redundancy into a nearby pump so the ride easily could tap into to the pumps and share water with another attraction. The plan conserved roughly 150,000 gallons of water last season.

"That was a huge savings for us," Water World General Manager Steve Loose says.

The park's water conservation program is one of the most aggressive in the country. The rides have splash guards to keep water from spilling out, and the district has planted low-water use perennials in its award-winning floral displays.

"By saving water, we're saving money," Loose says.

As such, the park has become the conservation model for North American waterparks. It's a role Hyland Hills officials take seriously.

"We want to set the tone," Saitta says.


Good to the Last Drop
The Hyland Hills Park and Recreation District in Colorado has saved thousands of dollars with an aggressive water conversation program. Here's a look at how they've saved water—and money.
  • Using reclaimed water for landscaping, saving millions of gallons of water per year
  • Planting low-water use perennials and xeroscaping in park and award-winning floral displays
  • Appointing a district-wide water conservation task force to recommend and monitor water conservation at all district facilities, including Water World
  • Using artificial turf instead of grass where feasible
  • Serving bottled soft drinks has saved more than 30,000 gallons of water per year because the beverages are not being poured over ice
  • Installing splash guards to keep water in attractions
  • Installing a computerized, wireless-controlled irrigation system that automatically shuts down when rainfall occurs or when there is a damaged irrigation head that could waste water
  • Continuously looking for new ways to save water

Of course, water conservation alone won't put a waterpark in the black. Patrons need something more tangible to keep them coming back.

Hyland Hills has accomplished this by creating a myriad of rides to delight even the most seasoned waterpark aficionado. The selection process is done by keeping close tabs on industry trends and understanding what patrons desire.

"We're good at asking our patrons what they want to share together as a family," Saitta says.

The result has been a facility that has a little something for everyone: fast, heart-stopping rides for thrill-seekers and a lazy river for the non-daredevils.

The selections were so well-researched they remain popular years after their installation. For example, the Screamin' Mimi—a 100-foot slide with a 30-foot drop—remains a favorite among customers despite making its debut 21 years ago.

The ride's popularity helped lure 425,000 guests this summer. The park boasted enough revenue during the past season to cover its own expenses and subsidize local youth sports.

"We watch our expenses and have tight management," Loose says. "That is key."


Cleaning Made Easy

When automatic pool cleaners burst onto the scene years ago, they became the instant darling of the aquatic industry.

They were easy, efficient and—best of all—extremely economical. They could clean an entire pool overnight without human supervision, cutting a significant need for manpower.

But while city pools and moderately sized waterparks fell in love with the product, the big boys were left a bit heartbroken. The machines simply weren't mighty enough to handle their facilities. They could only filter 10,000 gallons per hour, not nearly productive enough for a massive, commercial aquatic center.

The big parks, however, now have reason to rejoice. A new vacuum, which has been used in Europe for years, finally has made its way to North American shores.

The new systems can filter 19,000 to 21,000 gallons per hour and doesn't need to be baby-sat. Industry experts estimate the self-sufficient machine will save 12 personnel-hours per night.

"It's going to cut manpower into nothing," aquatic industry supplier Carol Ramundo says. "That's a lot of money saved." The filter system also keeps the water cleaner, reducing the pools dependence on chemicals.

"They're incredible," Ramundo says. "They're really like little steel tanks."


MIGHTY MANAGEMENT

Tropicanoe Cove in Lafayette, Ind., also knows how critical careful management can be. Like all Midwest waterparks, the facility can grapple with uncooperative weather much of the summer.

In total, half a recent season's days were either rainy or cooler than 80 degrees. Still, the facility managed to net a small profit.

Park officials, for example, took great care to make sure they weren't overstaffed. If cool weather emptied the park, managers sent employees home rather than have them guard a vacant pool.

"Controlling your expenses is just as important as any ride," says Vicki Mayes, director of the Lafayette Parks and Recreation Department.

No business plan, however, will do more for the bottom line than customer service. Patrons don't like to feel overcharged and warm to niceties such as free parking and the ability to bring food into the park.

"Success depends upon returning guests," Water World's Loose says. "We want to treat our guests well."

Fun Features

It doesn't always have to be a colossal slide like Storm.

Smaller pools and waterparks can increase interest and revenue by adding splash play areas, cannons and bucket games.

The features are easily added to facilities without major renovations or expense. They have become a popular solution for facilities with limited space and budgets.

"Anything the kids can control and spray their friends with is pretty popular," aquatic expert Susan Baker says.

Baker points to Great Bridge YMCA in Chesapeake, Va., as an example of how a few changes can improve a facility. The aquatic center, which has a slide, recently added some smaller features.

The simple improvements earned the facility first-place honors from the National Spa and Pool Institute in 2002.

"Sometimes it can make a big difference by just adding a few features to the existing facility," Baker says.

The industry has become extremely creative as well, with an impressive array of water features and themes. The splash play areas, for example, are now being marketed with medieval, western, nautical and fire station themes, to name a few.

The fire station play area, for example, has a truck that shoots out water when various pedals and brakes are pushed. The nautical theme boasts a flag that can be raised and lowered on the ship's mast, depending on how many holes are covered on an interactive water pad.




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