Put Your Pool in Overdrive
Programming Your Pool for Success
By Rick Dandes
Pools are an incredible community amenity. But in this era of economic belt tightening, and given lean parks and recreation department budgets in many municipalities, it's more important than ever for managers to maximize swimming pool revenue and efficiency.
Every effort should be made to make the best use of pool time, explained Joshua Reusser, aquatics coordinator, Northwest Recreation Center, Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation, Utah. That's easier said than done. "Municipalities with a vibrant swimming community," he said, "often have trouble figuring out ways to have enough programming for everyone."
When Reusser programs a pool, he tries to have activities that appeal to all generations, in order to give everyone an opportunity to find something interesting and engaging. "My favorite part about pool programming is seeing the connections made with real people," he said. "Locker rooms are places where more than just clothing is shed. We also take off our outside qualifiers, titles and positions, for example, and strip down to our essential human selves. Connections are made across social, gender, generational and racial divides that might not have otherwise taken place."
Because of these opportunities for human connection, Reusser feels that the most important aspect of pool programming is ensuring a robust swimming lesson program is at the core. "If all segments of the community served by a recreation center, including diverse areas, have the ability to access the swimming lesson program," he said, "then other pool programs will see greater success, and the pool can be a hub of community engagement and development."
In addition to the basics, like the always popular learn-to-swim programs, many pools are attracting new customers by expanding and offering everything from therapeutic recreation and aquatic exercise to water obstacle courses and more.
"I think that how you program your pool depends on the community you're in, and the type of pool you have," explained Crissy Withrow, vice president, Midwest Pool Management, St. Louis, Mo. "I've been in the pool business for more than 20 years. When I started as a lifeguard, you just had a rectangular pool, which is great for lap swimming. Now, that same rectangular pool may have to also accommodate other kinds of activities, features and interactive play. It's great for people to have things to play on in the pool. But this does hurt a little in the sense that it hinders other people from doing basic, traditional swimming activities."
One of the challenges faced during the colder months by Ann Arbor, Michigan's Parks and Recreation Department is their small indoor pool facility, the Mack Indoor Pool. (The city has the Mack, as well as three outdoor pools used during warm weather months.) "We have a 25-yard pool that has six lanes, and then we have an attached 30-by-42-foot children's tot pool, which only goes to three feet deep. A ramp leading into the pool provides for easy accessibility," said Gayle Hurn, recreation supervisor. "The two areas are connected to each other but are separated by a wall. And so it really does limit the amount of space we have available."
What Hurn tries to do is offer programming that coincides. "For instance," she said, "during our youth swim team time, we also have private lessons going on as well as open lap swim. We really use all areas of the pool to the max. Log rolling is something we can do on our shallow end, while we have lap swimming and other adult swim team programs going on."
What's critical for Hurn is building in programming that can overlap, so that when kids are in swim team, their parents can lap swim; when parents are in a master swim program and they are practicing, their kids can take private lessons or come to enjoy an open swim period. "That's something we really think about all the time," Hurn said. "What will bring the whole family out, and get them all in the water at the same time? A lot of our cross-programming, the overlapping, is based on that premise."
Hurn is a master scheduler. She rents morning swim time to a school that is connected to her facility. An adult master's program begins early, at 5:45 a.m. "That is for adults who want to get their workout in before going to their day's work," she said. After that the school takes over. From noon to 2, the pool is available for seniors and people who come during their lunch break for lap swim. Late in the afternoon the pool closes; Hurn calls it her "dead period, when people are doing other things and it just doesn't pay to be open."
The evening hours are full. This is when the majority of the pool's cross-programming actually happens, she said. That includes special programming time for tri-athletes, for whom swimming is not their strongest suit. "They still need to build up their endurance and strength, so we have a program for them, complete with coaches, which overlaps with our general swim programs," Hurn said.
New and innovative programs can help draw new people to your pool, Withrow said. "Sure, your basic learn-to-swim lessons are far and away the most popular draws to public aquatic facilities, but you also need to be creative to expand your customer base. After all, there's a lot of competition for a person's non-working, or leisure time, so pool managers by necessity need to find ways to make going to the pool a more exciting experience through creative programming."
There is a big push for aqua-therapy in the water, and evidence that it can help people recover from injury or surgery. "That can be a good source of revenue," Withrow suggested. Low-impact aquatics are safer and involve a smaller perception of pain and effort, making it a suitable choice for everyone from older or overweight adults to professional athletes.
Aquatic exercise has gained in popularity significantly over the past 25 years, noted Angie Proctor, executive director, Aquatic Exercise Association, in Nokomis, Fla. "More so in the past 10 years," she said. "Seniors, athletes, teens, young mothers and baby boomers are the majority of clients we see worldwide in vertical exercise."
Organize a community youth swim team, Hurn, of Ann Arbor, added. "We've only had that team for three years, but we already average 85 swimmers a session, which is excellent for a team that's so young."
Other successful ideas in the Ann Arbor playbook include paddle-boarding programs and log rolling. Splash Days are afternoons of special games, activities and prizes both in and out of the pool, Hurn said. All activities and prizes are included in the cost of admission.
Learn-to-swim like a mermaid is one of Ann Arbor's more popular programs. "It's pretty unique, and a lot of fun," she said. "It's taught similar to traditional learn-to-swim programs, but with a mermaid tail and the fins. We open that up to adults. When my staff does this, the amount of joy that comes out of people is insane. In all our mermaid classes, trained instructors teach swimmers to move through the water, embodying the skills needed to transform into their inner mermaid/merman. Swimmers work on surface diving, somersaults, turning over from front to back and much more. Each student will be able to use mermaid equipment supplied by the pool throughout the class and get an underwater video of their mer-experience emailed to them."
Another thing pool managers can do to increase revenue is rent out the pool for parties. In Ann Arbor, Hurn offers rentals and party packages that can include log rolling, a mermaid party, bounce house, a dive-in movie or just fun in the summer sun.
Reaching out to minority swimmers is a program many municipalities can and should offer, Hurn said. "We find that those folks, at least in our municipality, are those who have not had access to our programming. That is one of the reasons we try to bring in some non-swimming aquatic programs, as an entry point for those who don't feel comfortable swimming. Our log rolling programming has been very successful for people who are non-swimmers to get in the water with their kids, and we find that people feel a little more comfortable taking the risk on that versus taking the risk on swimming. That's an area we are still trying to build on."
Reusser, of Salt Lake County, suggested a few more ideas that have drawn more people to the pool: Try having a century swim, where you sponsor a swimmer; it's a fun and a good way to potentially raise money for nonprofits, he said. "We are introducing log-rolling. Why not have a dive-in movie night at the pool? Have after hours teen parties. Offer Aqua-Zorbs [water-walking balls] time. Greased watermelon competitions. Coin dives. Inner-tube water polo. Offer free pool passes for participating in other recreation center programs. Or simply have open swim time with no other programming."
Other suggestions: The Aquatic Exercise Association is on the cutting edge of trending programs, but they do require highly trained and certified instructors for aquatic cardio programs, aquatic kick boxing, and aqua-bata shallow workouts.
Trends in Equipment
Baby boomers and athletes are coming to the pool now more often as it provides an excellent and potentially intense workout without stressing or adding injury through typical land training. It's an effective cross-training tool as well to land and recreational activity preparation.
There's so much equipment out there, it's amazing, said Proctor, of the Aquatic Exercise Association. "Aquatic-biking centers are opening in many major cities, and Miami has kicked that off. Treadmills, built-in workout stations, Aqua Poles are a hit in Europe and making a big stamp here. There's probably three or four companies launched in the past two years involved in some type of paddleboard training. Aquatic massage is very big in Brazil and trampoline fitness and kickboxing bags are becoming a norm in many facilities worldwide. Handheld strength training equipment is sweeping the United States, and two companies recently merged and are reaching the highly fit and disciplined enthusiasts as well. All of it is aquatic-based."
Assuming you now have an idea of what programming you want to offer, managers need to then assess the cost of equipment. Group purchasing is always an option: Maybe a local school would cover part of the cost of some equipment in exchange for free pool time. In any case, try to be creative with what you have, but whatever you do, market your programs, Withrow advised, "so that your patrons cover cost as well as bringing in revenue."
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