Flexibility & Innovation

Aquatic Programming Ideas to Keep Your Pool Busy


A swimming pool full of sparkling water represents different things to different people. For a pool operator it's an opportunity to engage a large segment of the community, whether through recreation, competition, education, exercise and fitness, therapy, parties and special events, or just plain beating the heat. Long gone are the days when a pool was simply used for mere splashing around, though there are still plenty of us who aspire to do just that. Nowadays pool managers look to be as creative with their programming as their bodies of water will allow, simply to stay afloat.

Flexible Plans

Aquatic programming considerations begin to take shape in the planning and design phase. "In new facilities we're constantly planning programming options for operators," said Jennifer Gerber, business development leader at Water Technology Inc., an aquatic planning, design and engineering firm. "Every designer and operator faces the challenge of providing enough entertainment value based with programmatic offerings to ensure that all ages and abilities are engaged."

She explained that when they're designing a facility—no matter the size or shape—they're looking to provide a multifunctional design so operators have maximum flexibility to provide programming options, making sure "designs are flexible and represent a good blend of attractions."

Gerber pointed out that while features such as waterslides and lazy rivers can interest teens and tweens, it's the multipurpose leisure and activity pool that will offer maximum flexibility for operators. "Areas with warmer water, zero-depth entries and some bench seating offer much more than play space for the youngest swimmers; this is also ideal for learn-to-swim programs. We also try to tie these elements into an activity pool with additional space for basketball, volleyball, climbing walls and more." She added that current channels are a perfect example of multifunctional space. "They can be used for a relaxing float for patrons of all ages, resistance walking and even exercise and aqua-aerobics classes."


Support spaces like grassy areas, deck space, shade, birthday party rooms and party pavilions can be key to creating additional revenue opportunities, according to Gerber. "Facilities often make money on concessions and rentals; all of these spaces directly contribute to the functionality of the facility to continue standard operations, while providing all-day opportunities for guests to enjoy."

When children are engaged and having fun, parents want to stay. And when parents are comfortable, it's easier for them to spend more time—and money—at a facility. "Plenty of loungers, specifically in water space such as sun shelfs, can be pivotal in creating a comfortable user experience for the whole family. Additional hours in the evening, good lighting and even the opportunity to serve alcohol can create an elevated experience for families, which can drive revenue for the (facility)."

Gerber said that amenities like climbing walls and obstacle courses are incredibly popular, and so they suggest these features to many of their facilities as low-cost opportunities for user engagement and flexible programming. She also noted that retractable ninja courses are revolutionizing what flexible programming can look like. "It offers maximum flexibility with the opportunity to change the course's individual components so that you can continually upgrade and keep your pool 'fresh' and unique for users. In 60 seconds—with the push of a button—operators can retract the system to maintain lap lane functionality and to resume standard pool operations."

In addition to recreation, the obstacle courses are used for exercise and fitness, lifeguard conditioning, student athletics and swim teams, private rentals and competitive events including leagues and tournaments.

"Moveable bulkheads offer maximum flexibility in competitive pools, and they're extremely common to increase opportunities for various course layouts," said Gerber. "Moveable floors can also provide maximum facility usage opportunities by facilitating a variety of depths, including coming out of the water so that you can effectively walk out over the pool."

Gerber believes it's critical to offer multiple bodies of water to really up your game. "Athletes look for cooler water temperatures for their training and competitions. Swim lessons require warmer water temperatures and shallower water to facilitate beginner-level aquatics. By planning for two pools, there will be ultimate flexibility in the programming of the pool, serving a larger audience and contributing toward greater cost recovery."

Get Creative to Attract Patrons

The Association of Aquatic Professionals (AOAP) is a nonprofit, member-based organization bringing professionals from all aspects of aquatics together to network, educate, advocate, enrich and improve the aquatics industry. Executive Director and CEO Juliene Hefter mentioned some other features that can help attract patrons, including standup paddleboards, log rolling, surfing pools, climbing walls, zip lines and aqua bikes, as well as many new programs such as aqua boxing and SAF Aqua Drum Vibes, which combines rhythms and exercise. "Those that operate aquatic facilities need to be as creative as possible in order to bring in revenue; the facilities that offer more unique programs, events or activities are the ones that are seeing larger revenue streams."


Hefter said they provide a lot of assistance to members when it comes to programming, including webinars and numerous sessions at their annual conference covering programming and special events. "We've created and produced a programming and special events booklet that was compiled through various sources by requesting individuals to submit their programs and special events that are unique to aquatics. We then put together a PDF that we make available to anyone that submitted those ideas and/or is a member of AOAP."

Some of the events and activities mentioned include movie nights and theme parties, scuba and snorkeling, rowing camp, inner-tube water polo, float nights, homemade raft race, puppies in the pool, homeschool swim team and watsu—a floating massage. Adaptive kayaking and other programs aid those with special needs. There's an aqua festival featuring a penny dive, inner-tube races, limbo, scavenger hunt, water balloon toss, a crazy dive contest and chalk drawing on the deck. Fishing groups teach kids how to cast lines, and programs are offered to assist boy and girl scouts with getting their safety badges. There are holiday events, community fundraisers, bargain swim nights and other promotions.

Eventful Offerings

The Apex Centre in McKinney, Texas, is a community fitness and recreation facility. In addition to other amenities, there are four swimming pools: an indoor leisure pool, indoor competition pool, outdoor leisure pool and outdoor kiddie pool. Erica Lyght is manager of the facility, and she said their strategy has always been to deliver a diverse lineup of aquatic offerings. "As a membership-based facility, we always ask ourselves how we can best add value to our members."


She explained that their location and diversity of programming work together to attract residents and non-residents alike to become members. "We offer programming and amenities that will be of interest to all ages in all stages of life.

"We've found that many of our members gravitate to family-friendly special events," continued Lyght, who added that many of these take place around holidays when families are looking for activities. Offerings include the Pumpkin Dunk, Easter Egg Splash and Splish Splash Freedom Bash, which sold out in its debut. The event "gave members a place to watch the fireworks with their families and enjoy the pool at the same time in a more private setting. Our members loved it and have repeatedly asked for it to return this year, which it will. Our outdoor dive-in movies have also proven to be a huge success."

Lyght said their cabanas are also extremely popular and routinely fully booked.

The city of McKinney also operates two other outdoor aquatic centers and an indoor, warm-water senior pool. "Our Splash into Summer: Pirate Pool Party is a new event to kick off the summer season and encourage guests to purchase the new McKinney Aquatics Summer Splash pass, which allows summerlong access to our community outdoor pools," said Ryan Mullins, assistant director of parks and rec in McKinney. "Hawaiian Night is a pool party that's been a mainstay summer event for 21 years."

The pools offer various amenities including waterslides, body slides and river channels. "The basketball hoop at the outdoor pool is always in high demand, and the volleyball net over the outdoor pool during our members-only Birthday Bash is a huge hit," said Mullins. "We're always looking for features to add more excitement to the indoor and outdoor pools. We also have a rock wall and floating dragon bridge at Juanita Maxfield Aquatic Center—both are very popular!"


One of the pools at the Apex Centre boasts the first indoor installation of a retractable ninja course in Texas, which Lyght said they'd seen at an industry trade show. She explained that their system features two obstacle courses for different skill levels, and described it as "an excellent mix of fitness and fun and a great new way to work out. It's growing in popularity as more people give it a try. Our younger patrons love it for recreation, but more adults increasingly include this in their fitness routine."

The obstacle course is available for use Friday through Sunday, and is included in the membership or day pass fee. Groups coming for birthday parties can also utilize the amenity. In fact, all the pools in McKinney are available to rent for private events, as are party rooms and pool pavilions.

While they don't host competitions at the Apex Centre, they do partner with a year-round club that trains young swimmers to prepare for meets at the high school and college levels, typically averaging 120 team members from 5 to 18 years old. And they offer lifeguarding and CPR classes year-round, with a majority of the participants hired on as part of their team. But they're not immune to the current lifeguard shortages, said Lyght, and they host hiring fairs for seasonal and part-time positions. They also visit local high schools to recruit candidates, and they've implemented a referral program where a staff member can earn a $50 reward by referring a friend who completes 90 days of work.

Lyght said their learn-to-swim programs typically sell out the morning registration opens, and they offer adult lessons and diving lessons as well. Their exercise offerings also fill up quickly. "We offer shallow and deep water exercise classes in the indoor leisure and competition pools for all abilities. Our seniors love the water exercise classes, which are a great way to ease into exercise post-surgery or for anyone looking for low-impact exercise."

Mullin reported that the community pools also have a loyal following of aquatic fitness enthusiasts, with a variety of classes available.

Get Fit, Be Well

Hefter suggests that if your facility is not offering water fitness and exercise programs, you should do so right away. "They should set up a focus group within the facility to see what patrons are interested in … to make sure they're meeting the needs of the community."

She said it's important to offer programs for all levels from teens to adults to the growing geriatric population, including arthritis classes and exercise classes for special needs groups.


The Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA) is a nonprofit educational organization committed to the advancement of aquatic fitness, health and wellness worldwide. "We offer education through online, virtual and in-person workshops and events to meet the needs of different individuals," said Julie See, director of education at AEA. "Facilities often reach out to AEA to schedule training and certification for their staff with in-person training programs, allowing them the convenience of easy access and the opportunity to personalize the courses to suit the facility needs."

See said that more facilities are recognizing the importance of programming pools with more than swimming-related activities. "Exercise, personal training and therapy can be performed in shallow, deep or transitional depth water, making these types of activities available to all pools. Water temperature varies based upon the populations or conditions being addressed, as well as the type and intensity of programming. But most all water temperatures can accommodate 'vertical' options."

By expanding the types of programs, equipment utilized and intensity of training, a larger and more varied demographic can be reached, according to See. "A mid-temperature-range pool can accommodate some types of therapy, pre-hab and rehab, personal training, arthritis-specific classes, children's exercise, pre- and post-natal programs, general group exercise classes with varied populations, and high-intensity training for athletes in addition to open swim, swim lessons, swim teams, etc."

Equipment options such as treadmills, bikes, trampolines, poles, standup boards and boxing bags can attract new clientele and increase revenue, "especially if set up as an additional fee program to help offset the initial cost," said See. "Some facilities do allow members to utilize the equipment outside of supervised programming, but safety must be considered."


See pointed out that many high schools, colleges and universities with pools are also expanding their offerings. "PE classes for students are popular, and some schools also open these programs to the communities, either through separate programming or combined programming. Many college/university pools are also opening their facilities to programs like Silver Sneakers or the Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program." She believes this is an ideal offering for all facilities because arthritis and related conditions impact people of all ages. And AEA has recently merged with the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute, expanding their efforts to include therapists.

Offering water therapy can be a great opportunity for facilities to partner with local hospitals, rehab centers and therapists. "Water therapy is one of the most beneficial therapies there is because it takes the weight off of the patient," said Hefter. These therapies can help with an array of health issues as well as surgery recovery. "Therapies for special needs individuals is also beneficial."

She added that local corporations sometimes work with aquatics facilities to offer special deals for their employees, in an effort to help them get healthier and fitter. In fact, facilities often partner with a variety of local groups to offer innovative programming, such as scuba clubs, kayaking clubs or fishing groups. "We encourage collaborations with lots of different groups."

Innovative Offerings

Matthew Reedy is the senior director of Kirk Family YMCA in Roanoke, Va.—part of the YMCA of Virginia's Blue Ridge group—and he noted that tough times create innovation in industry, and this includes aquatics. "I know that we've looked at the potential of adding SwimFit (aquatic CrossFit), SUP (stand-up paddleboard) yoga, daytime swim clinics on days that school is out, homeschool daytime lessons, non-competitive swim team and mini-swim meets."

The facility currently offers rentals for scuba lessons, and they've had rentals for kayak practice in the past. "We do offer birthday parties, private rentals and Parent's Night Out, which are themed."

The Kirk Family Y features one indoor pool, and over the past couple years, Reedy said they've hit record numbers for enrollment and revenue with their learn-to-swim offerings. "We offer swim lessons for ages 6 months to adult in both group and private settings. We also offer adult masters swim and competitive youth swim team options."


Their exercise/fitness offerings are also popular with classes remaining pretty full, according to Reedy. "We currently offer Aqua Zumba, Deepwater Aerobics and some lower-level/low-impact shallow-water classes called Aquabilities."

All three Blue Ridge Y locations with pools have their own swim teams and host meets, as well as renting space to local high schools. And all facilities also offer lifeguard training. "At Kirk, we're about to add lifeguard instructor training, and we've added the Lifeguard Academy, to train novice swimmers to be lifeguards over a four-month class."

For those looking to bolster their aquatic programming, Reedy suggests joining social communities with like-minded professionals, like the Aquatic Managers groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. And investigate competitors and other associations like USA Swimming, National Drowning Prevention Alliance and World's Largest Swim Lesson.

"Survey your members and employees for new programs and establish community partnerships. For example, there are outdoor companies here that rent paddleboards during the warmer months. Perhaps we could work out a deal where we rent them during the colder months at a reduced price to lower our startup costs for offering something like SUP yoga."

But he cautions against over-scheduling and potentially alienating patrons. "Keep in mind your current member base and programs."

Gerber simply summed it up this way: "Operators that have a pool in use from sunup to sundown are far more likely to be operating in the black." RM