Guest Column - February 2016
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The Power of Water
Aquatic Programs for Diverse Communities & Profitable Swim Centers

By Anne-Marie Spencer

Ask people about what they like to do in the water, and most people will respond with activities like swimming, playing at a waterpark, or going down the tried-and-true slippery slide using a garden hose and a long length of plastic. For many people, water provides a medium that promotes mobility, therapy and exercise

Therapy usage is currently the fastest-growing aquatic user group. New research provides evidence of the benefits of aquatic exercise for therapy, mobility improvement and overall health. In the recently released treatise, "Water Immersion Works: Research-Based Health Benefits of Aquatic Immersion and Activity," aquatic scholars across several disciplines and specialties contributed articles to provide aquatic centers with additional information to assist with program development and expanding advocacy.

In the book, "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America," Jeff Wiltse traces the evolution of municipal pools in America from the late 1860s to today. Of note is the proliferation of new municipal pools that were built through the 1950s and '60s, when "municipal pools served as centers of community life. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people gathered at these public spaces where the contact was sustained and interactive and community life was fostered, monitored, and disputed at municipal pools."

Today, commercial pool operators are looking for ways to widely engage the public again, and grow their revenues to undertake often-delayed upkeep. They must decide how to balance needs of the community with the need of the center to self-fund. To be effective, it is important to include a variety of opportunities to meet the needs of all types of aquatic users.

While aquatic facilities often provide a well-rounded program of open and competitive swim times, water aerobics and lessons, there is evidence that the benefits of water immersion extend far beyond the activities that first come to mind. From working with returning soldiers on reducing post-traumatic stress to helping people regain mobility, enhance arterial blood flow and strengthen muscles, water immersion has far-reaching benefits that can be facilitated at public swimming pools.

How do parks, YMCAs and other public pool owners investigate and develop new programs to bring these activities to the public? Creating a master plan specific to the aquatic facility is one way to organize and take steps to mobilize efforts. By documenting past activity, state of the facility today, and direction for the future, the facility can create a roadmap for actions, along with documenting the stakeholders and funding needed to achieve the plan. Reaching out to local schools, rehabilitation hospitals and facilities, neighborhood groups, senior service facilities and the public at large is a great way to solicit feedback, and present the potential opportunities for expanded programming and activities.

Performing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis for the facility provides a starting framework for analysis. For instance, participation in swim lesson programs and recreation swim sessions may be a strength, particularly in their ability to bring in multiple people, produce strong revenue, and provide a good resource for marketing other aquatics programming and opportunities. If no public waterslides or waterparks are available within close proximity, offering this activity may help attract tweens and teens, who are often underserved when it comes to activities in public spaces.

Weaknesses might include facility conditions, holes in programming, decreases in attendance or certain programs, or overall underutilization of the facility. A facility may find that while afterschool swimming lessons are a strong opportunity, already-scheduled activities in the pool may pre-empt the ability for kids to attend afternoon sessions, indicating a weakness. Another area of concern may be lack of attendance during weekdays, which could facilitate opportunities like mom-and-me swim lessons for stay-at-home parents, programming targeted at retired people, or other options that involve people not at work during these hours. Potential threats may include lack of interest due to competing programs or facilities, or inability to change schedules to facilitate additional programming.

Once these critical factors are identified, it can provide the framework to move to the next level in growth by setting goals for the facility. Creating an optimum mix of programming that provides the right activity at the right time to the right people can increase participation and fill the pool during current "off" hours. Utilizing marketing firms or hiring a marketing professional can help drive interest and participation. Each facility's plan will differ, depending on identified needs, but putting that plan on paper and creating an action plan to achieve it is the key to success.

One of the groups that can benefit the most from aquatic activity are aging and retired people. Because they are often unconstrained by working hours or the needs of school-aged children, they are a meaningful demographic that can bring activity to an aquatic facility during typical slow times of day. Offering a diversity of programming, and utilizing professionals to facilitate the program, can build usage among this group of people. "Water Immersion Works" reviews several critical benefits that water can accommodate for the active-aging population. Water immersion is a valid tool in promoting balance and fall prevention. Since balance activities on land can make older people feel uncomfortable due to concern for inadvertent falls, performing these exercises in water can promote the same benefits while providing stability and confidence, making the pool an ideal environment for balance training.