Making Aquatics More Cost-Effective
By David Schwartz
How can you make an aquatic facility cost-effective? We hear that question more frequently now, especially in the current economy. Planning a new facility, renovating an existing pool or adding a spray park gives you an opportunity to make cost-effective decisions, but where do you begin? Additionally, what operational and maintenance plans will be effective for the long term? We offer several suggestions, including practical, easy-to-use ideas, to help give you positive answers to the above questions.
As a pool operator, manager or owner, you may be facing attendance figures far below your pool capacity. Your income may be less than your expenses. What are your choices? Should you raise pool fees? Are you considering closing your pool? These are basic business questions that you may be asked to answer whether you are planning a new or renovated facility or simply trying to maintain what you currently have.
There are several items that affect acceptance of an aquatic facility in any community. You will not have control over the current demographics, adjacent land use, facility access or the other issues that either encourage or deter attendance. You do have control over your management and administration style at your pool. The fee options, concession menu, hours of operation, program offerings and related items should each be evaluated for how well they serve your community.
Older pools may have no entrance fees or offer a fee of $1 or less to help out the low-income patrons. This is an appropriate public goal, but this can be accomplished in other ways that help your bottom line. Consider "scholarships" for kids on assisted school lunch programs. This way you know who needs help and either the city or local service organizations can fund the scholarship pool passes.
Aggressively market pool passes and get creative with the options. Consider weekly and monthly passes in addition to season passes. Offer discount fees for residents as opposed to higher fees for non-residents. This is a subtle positive sales technique.
Your greatest line item cost will be for personnel. Carefully staff your facility for safety, but do not overstaff your pool. Weather and attendance affect your operating costs somewhat. There is a base level of cost you will need just to open your pool, regardless of attendance.
After you streamline your staffing and management plan, the most cost-effective thing you can do is to increase attendance. For the most part, as attendance grows, your operating costs stay nearly the same. This means you should plan to renovate or enhance your aquatic facility.
Before you renovate your pool facility, you must understand what you have. Can you physically make upgrades to the site and existing structure? Is it cost-effective to lengthen, widen and deepen your pool if it has a remaining life of five to 10 years? How will the new features affect your attendance? Will nearby pools continue to attract more patrons because of their features and fee schedule?
Set realistic goals. Your pool may be a 50-yard deep-water pool that offers little recreation in today's market. Consider reinventing your pool by adding slides, shallow water, sprays or a current channel. This is not an inexpensive endeavor, but it is much more cost-effective (millions less) than building a completely new pool.
If complete renovation is not needed, consider enhancing what you have. Adding shade, a grass deck, benches, tables, lounge chairs, floatables, small slides and a spray park are just a few examples of what can be cost-effective improvements to your aquatic facility. You may need infrastructure improvements to the pool systems (piping, gutter, filters, pump, heater, chemicals and pool structure), and they may take priority over enhancements the patrons can see or use. The infrastructure work will not be seen or understood by the public, so be aware that it will not increase your attendance. Set your expectations accordingly.
We increasingly see communities choosing to replace old, large pools with spray parks. The large pools may be located in less-than-ideal areas and may have growing subsidies. A spray park, also commonly referred to as a splashpad, sprayground or other, can offer alternative aquatic fun at a fraction of the cost of a new or renovated pool. Typically it will contain a slab of concrete with numerous flush or above-grade sprays. Operationally it is low maintenance and typically does not need to be staffed. Should adding a spray park still not be the answer, another option to consider is replacement with a new pool.
If neither renovation nor a spray park is the community choice, pool replacement may be the preferred option. Planning and building a new pool requires several decisions by designers and owners. This is a great opportunity to take a cost-effective approach. This does not mean cheaper is better. Consider the impact of each piece of equipment on the operation and maintenance needs. Consider the durability and life expectancy for each material. The pool systems must function to meet your goals for effectiveness and reliability.
Keep in mind that the annual operating cost for most pools will exceed the initial capital cost within 20 years' time. As you make choices and decisions, consider the impact on cost-effective operation, as well as first cost.
Some examples of cost effective choices follow:
- Set realistic goals and expectations.
- Create a market plan and business plan.
- Listen to your community for their preferences.
- Select a site that supports your goals.
- Use an aquatic designer without any relationship to a supplier or builder.
- Use an aquatic designer with an engineering background as your unbiased advocate.
- Avoid single supplier equipment recommendations.
- Match your new design with the revenue potential.
- Understand your demographics and market area.
- Do not over build; bigger is not necessarily better.
- Create multi-use areas for multiple program use.
- Balance capital cost goals with sustainable operating cost projections.
- Avoid pool structures not designed by a licensed professional engineer.
- Avoid oversized pool structures—potentially big due to designer's inexperience.
- Understand your chemical costs; avoid sales jargon.
- Understand your pool coating renewal frequency versus first cost.
- Be aware of water treatment trends and size equipment appropriately now.
- Use variable frequency drive pumps where beneficial.
- Avoid using multiple small pumps for a single pool—do the hydraulics.
- Invest in a subgrade design that reduces risks of expansive soils or frost heaving.
- Consider phasing multiple waterslides and other large play equipment.
- Keep records of your attendance and program participation; when interest begins to drop, add or adjust features or programs to keep pace with your market.
Some items are general in nature and will be useful for most facilities. Others are more specific, so they may not apply to all situations. We hope this discussion helps you take a fresh look at your aquatic facilities and how you can implement these cost-effective ideas for years to come.
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