Mix It Up
Innovative Accessories Help Pools Expand Programming
As commercial, municipal and private swimming pool facilities began to reopen this summer after COVID-related shutdowns, stakeholders have had the challenge of welcoming a public eager to get back in the water and have fun, while finding ways to recover economically and do it all safely. Pool-designing experts and equipment manufacturers suggest that when you add essential accessories, you can add programs, expand access, improve attendance and boost the fun factor.
As our culture has evolved, said Karen Andres-Hughes, marketer at a pool equipment company headquartered in Canby, Ore., it takes a lot more than a pool full of water to draw people to your aquatic facility. Dynamic, interactive activities like slides, diving boards, games and engaging programming encourage kids and families to get back in the pool. "Across the country," she said, "we are seeing aquatic facilities realize that they need the fun factor, products, to get kids and families to return in numbers to aquatic facilities."
Developing an operational business plan during a planning project or for an existing facility will assist in creating and utilizing efficient and multi-functional spaces, said Lauren Ozburn, operations analyst for Water's Edge Aquatic Design. "If a facility is already open, conducting an inventory of the available spaces and how and when they are currently utilized can help identify potential opportunities for increased offerings. If there is a space, time or demographic that is possibly underserved, narrow down the missing need and focus on that solution."
Pool managers need to engage the public with new, exciting
and fun accessories, but any change starts with your initial plans, suggested Chris Seris, project director with Counsilman-Hunsaker. "Start with the basics. We go to user groups to get an idea of what accessories might be appropriate. As designers, we tend to categorize them in terms of five user groups: a competitive group, where we see swimming, diving, water polo and synchronized swimming; recreation, the largest user group; instructional groups, such as learn-to-swim, water fitness classes; fitness, with users being people who are going to lap swim for fitness or water walking; and then aquatic therapy."
These groups are going to require different things as a pool is designed and programed. Each will require a different water depth, and, generally speaking, different water temperatures. If you are working with a pool designer, they need to know these basics in order to later outfit the pool with appropriate accessories, and provide for each group, or as many groups as necessary in an aquatic facility.
Competitive swimmers want a cooler body of water, so having a lap pool used for competitive swimming is different from water fitness or water therapy users. They will want a much warmer body of water. If for some reason you have to combine those two user groups, some compromise will have to be found on the water temperature and the water depth, Seris said.
"If we have water-based exercises, water fitness and instructional programs, the depth of the pool will have to be shallow enough to accommodate that," he added. "There are a couple of ways to do that. There are moveable floors that are available where you can turn a lap pool from an 8-foot-deep pool to a 3.5-foot-deep pool. You can install a moveable floor in a competition pool, and raise the floor from the normal 8 feet at one end and bring it to zero if we wanted to or any depth in the middle. In that way you can provide almost a land-based fitness class, or even something like kayaking classes, where an instructor will stand in the water while people practice rowing."
Some other options are a little smaller in scale, he added. There are platforms that can be installed, and those that be taken out or put in for instructional programs. They are smaller than moveable floors and on the less expensive side.
"There are also permanent features that can be incorporated into a pool design, such as moving water," Seris explained. Current channels and lazy rivers have a moving-water component, which is great for recreation and leisure, if it is large enough to accommodate rafts or tubes in the river. For fitness running or swimming, going against the current is an idea.
Some features that are used quite a bit these days include climbing walls, which vary in height and difficulty for different age groups. Zip lines have also been around for a while. But some newer designs are more self-contained, so that the user doesn't have to go across the entire pool.
Other ways to outfit a pool include newer features, such as water-based obstacle courses. Operators can install them in the pool where kids can run, climb, jump and make it through a course. Big pyramids and slides can transform a flat water pool into a more active adventure space. And, Seris pointed to a new feature on the market, a ninja course rig mounted over a pool that offers an intensive obstacle-course experience similar to Ninja Warrior on TV, with swinging, climbing and a race component with a timing device.
Flexibility in how a space is used is certainly one of the primary ways a facility can enhance usability, Ozburn noted. "Ideally," she said, "a space can and will be used in more than way by more than one group, and varying depths are available throughout the facility so that there is functional space for the range of swimming abilities."
Besides being able to have a variety of swimmers in the pool at once, this strategy allows for progression of use as a swimmer increases in age or skill, keeping that user satisfied at your facility as he or she progresses, she said. "For example, a young or non-swimmer may first be introduced to the water by interacting with small deck sprays at the zero-depth area, and move on to engage with in-water sprays, a dumping bucket, a slide in 2 feet of water. From there, the swimmer can submerge his or her head on their own then jump into deeper water alone, before becoming the risk-taker doing flips off the diving board and going down the speed slide.
"An aqua fitness program can offer classes in several areas, including the current channel/lazy river, lap lanes, deep water and even at the bottom of the slides in the catch pool," Ozburn added. "Zero-depth and shallow water, deep water, moving water, seating areas, deck spaces, shade, and grass areas, all have their primary purposes but also may have secondary purposes that can increase the user's experience."
Thoughtful configuration of spaces is also a way to increase programmatic options, she said. "By offering complementary areas in the pool and having strategic adjacencies, a variety of programs and activities can occur simultaneously. This means that different user groups can comfortably utilize the facility at the same time, increasing participation and revenue opportunities."
An example of this is the Sabetha Aquatic Center in Sabetha, Kan. There, Ozburn explained, a toddler swim could be scheduled in the zero-depth area, along with swim lessons in the shallow area and the signature wet bubble, with diving and lap swim or swim team practice and aqua fitness in the lazy river. The deck around each of these spaces allows for users to "crash" and keep their equipment and belongings with minimal impact on the other programs. Each area is easily accessible from the deck and through the water, which allows for easy and flexible transitions.
At Chilli Bay Water Park in Chillicothe, Mo., Ozburn noted, a tropical island theme is incorporated throughout the facility to create an oasis experience in the Midwest. To go along with that theme and to encourage day-long trips at the pool, private/rentable thatch shade areas were incorporated, complete with palm trees, custom post and rope barriers and tiki sculptures.
"Besides planning for feature improvements," she said, "keeping an annual and semi-annual maintenance checklist and replacement plan will keep the facility on track for avoiding last-minute budget requests and repair work, and will also aid in planning for necessary improvements. Ongoing maintenance of mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems will elongate the facility's life and will keep the facility in working order."
Regularly maintaining vital components will reduce costly expenditures and resources can go toward enhancing the fun, revenue-generating amenities, Ozburn explained. Updating amenities and changing at least one key feature every five to 10 years is one method of maintaining interest and keeping the facility looking fresh.
Often, we think about swimming pools for swim teams, swim lessons, recreation swim and the basic programs that might occur there. The U.S. Sporting Goods Association tells us that many communities can expect about 15% of the population to participate in municipal aquatics. When you factor in the percentage of the community on a swim team, water polo team, master swim or triathalon training, "those groups combined are less than one-half of 1% of a population," said Dennis Berkshire, principal and president, Aquatic Design Group. "With that in mind," he said, "to get the maximum utility of a pool we are really trying to reach out to that other 14.5% to find out what are the programs and levels of services that speak to their wants, desires and needs. Now, the programs that a pool is trying to support are very specialized."
As designers, Berkshire said, "we talk about programs, and then build the environment needed to support those programs. The typical ones we always see are swim lessons, general recreational swim. But we also support kayaking lessons and paddle-board yoga. We can call for drop-in exercise equipment, where people have less weight on their joints to be able to exercise, whether it is exercise bicycle, elliptical machines and all types of other resistance machines. All these things people can do in the water."
Other water program ideas include underwater hockey and underwater rugby. Berkshire recalls a city calling him and wanting to do [frozen] pumpkin races in a pool. "Battleship is big at the university level, where teams get into canoes and they have buckets of water. They throw the water to try and sink the other team's battleship, the canoe. The only rule is you can't bail out water from your own canoe. You are simply trying to sink the other battleship."
For triathlon training, rather than the standard lanes, Berkshire positioned four corners of buoys so that people who are training for open water swim can swim circles and never have a wall to touch. "People told us that in an open-water swim, you don't know where you are at, so we looked at the pool and said we could put a small wave machine in to make choppy water, put in jets from lazy rivers on the side of the pool to have cross currents to blow the swimmer off track. We had a dark bottomed pool so that you wouldn't have lane lines to show where you are going."
During COVID-19, people across the United States have gotten reacquainted with the outdoors as indoor gatherings were restricted and eliminated, Ozburn said. "Outdoor recreational activities skyrocketed, and water sports such as kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding have become even more popular. People who never participated in a water activity suddenly became interested. Swim lessons and swim education were modified, and even went digital."
Swim teams incorporated technology that allowed coaches to talk to swimmers in the water, she continued, which allowed for continued practice and development. This phenomenon may have changed how people view water and outdoor activities and incorporating these new methods into a curriculum may be a new way forward as a standard curriculum.
"Classes where guardians teach their children is one such option," Ozburn explained. "Similar to a Masters swimming or mom-and-tot class, an adult could learn to teach swimming techniques and learn a new skill while an instructor teaches from the deck. Kayakers could learn barrel rolls in the slide catch pool to learn a new safety technique. New fishermen and fisherwomen could learn to cast in waders in the lap pool."
Rethinking how and who can utilize the clean, controlled and available spaces can increase usability and create that dynamic and active pool, she said. "Following local trends and successes is one way to keep the facility exciting, but that is not to the detriment of those core programs. Assessing programs at the end of the session or end of the season is recommended so that unsuccessful classes that take up pool time and space do not limit the potential for successful classes."
Health & Safety
You can add all the accessories you want to an aquatic facility, but if you want to entice people to come back at pre-pandemic levels, it all starts with a clean pool facility, said Mike Fowler, commercial sales manager for a Sanford, N.C., manufacturer of aquatic equipment and water treatment solutions. "Most importantly, during this time of COVID-19, if the facility is not maintained and cleaned properly, the word will get out via social media."
The first thing to keep in mind is you have to keep the water as safe as possible, Fowler said, although the CDC has said there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs or water play areas. "But the pool area and accessories must be as properly sanitized as possible," he said. If you've upgraded your sanitization, let people know, he added. "People should know they have added UV to their system or ozone to their system to help ensure that the water is the safest that it can be."
The virus does not spread through water, Fowler said, "it's spread through people," so facilities need to do their part—maintaining their chemicals and filter systems, backwashing properly and so on.
"From a safety standpoint, make sure the rails are tight, and they are cleaned," he added. "The deck area and the chairs all must be cleaned as well."
From here on out, whether it is a month from now or a year from now, people are going to have COVID and cleanliness on their minds.
For decades pools have been focused on safety, Ozburn said, both in the water and out. "COVID-19 has added another layer to that vigilance by requiring increased cleaning, sanitization and social distancing," she said. "For many pools, this presented an increased challenge and need for logistical changes."
Controlling or reducing the number of patrons at a given time was a primary method of enforcing social distancing, she explained. "For some, that meant reducing occupancy to 10% to 50% of the maximum occupancy, while for others it was to assign a water square footage per person."
Berkshire has a suggestion about over-crowding. "There are cameras we can put up around an aquatic center that can pick up if there is a density of population," he said. "If there are too many people, this system can automatically trigger an audio announcement, asking people to maintain proper distancing."
Other options to encourage social distancing are to have swimmers sign up for a swim time and cap the number of swimmers at a time, and to remove or spread out deck chairs so they are appropriately distanced from one another, Ozburn said.
She added some other suggestions facilities have implemented over the past, shortened season. "Features that could not avoid a close congregation of users had limited use or were taken off-line, and others, such as large slides, marked off standing locations on the stair- well," she said. "Lazy rivers had sign-up times and tubes were removed so that equipment did not have to be cleaned after each use. To encourage distancing and reduce points of contact, floor markers of varying materials, including chalk, were placed on the ground to notate where people should stand, and prepaid or cashless payment options were required."
Easily identifiable and universally understood signage, website and social media information campaigns also play a role in helping patrons adhere to new guidelines. RM