Feature Article - April 2005
Find a printable version here

Programming Your Pool

A closer look at aquatics facilities that used their successes and failures to grow

By Kyle Ryan

The floatbox derby took place at the city's Pavilion Center Pool, which is closed to the general public from September to May. During that time, the city rents it to local swimming clubs.

The aquatics programs in Las Vegas aren't even limited to the pool, as with the "Dump It Pump It" initiative. During winter, staff members spend a month at five different elementary schools doing CPR training for eighth graders as part of their health curriculum. Each class dumps change into a bucket for the American Red Cross at the end of the period, and at the end of the month, the staff weighs all the coins. Whichever class brought the most gets a party with free food from a local sandwich shop. Each student who participates in the program also receives an information packet about the city's upcoming aquatics programs.

Not everything Irvine and his staff touch turns to gold, though. For several years, the pool hosted a "haunted pool" on Halloween that featured a water obstacle course and games, but the idea never caught on.

"That's one big thing that has failed, and we just can't seem to find out a way to get the people in the doors to do it," he says.

Facilities around the country have had some success with "dive-in" movies, where people relax on flotation devices in the pool as they watch a movie. In Las Vegas, they had no such luck. Despite the cheap price of admission, people stayed away—9 p.m. sunsets during the summer didn't help things, either.

Teenagers ages 13 to 17 have given Irvine the most trouble. The success of the junior-lifeguard program notwithstanding, programs for teenagers have never worked. "Teen night" at the pool on summer nights has had sparse attendance, but Irvine refuses to give up. His new idea: live music. For $5, kids get refreshments and can swim if they want while listening to local bands perform. He's also considering purchasing a big-screen TV and a waterproof video-game system—if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Even though teens present a formidable challenge, Irvine has had success with tweaking programs in the past. This year, he hopes to improve his water-polo program.

"What we do is try to pick a program that is not as successful as it used to be, breathe new life into it, and pick it back up," he says. "We did that with synchro. It's amazing how popular it really is."

Breathing new life into a program entails finding a volunteer who feels passionately about it and can relate to the potential participants.

"As far as manpower, we're a little strapped on that," he says. "So we get people that actually approach us that have the same passion as we do and would love nothing more than to go out and recruit these people for this program."

New participants, in turn, feed the club teams, who recruit the newbies.

"Our kids grew up in our recreation program," Irvine says. "They go onto the club team, and then usually in the summer we get them back as coaches for our synchro team. So it's just constantly feeding the system there, and it works great for us."

Sometimes a massive overhaul isn't required to save a program. When the Municipal Pool's winter learn-to-swim program had problems, the staff adjusted its schedule. Instead of late-evening classes Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they switched it to late-afternoon Tuesdays and Thursdays, and an early-afternoon class on Saturdays. The pool's Spanish-speaking lifeguards also became ambassadors to the area's Hispanic community to drum up business. After making those changes, Irvine says the program's numbers jumped 150 percent.

Where do good ideas like that originate? Irvine didn't have to look far. When staff members, even hourly staff, become part of the creative process, they take ownership of the results, which in turn drives them to make programs successful.

"We brainstorm a lot, our team here," he says. "Everybody can add something different to the event or program, and that's why we work so well together, and that's why our programs seem to be so successful."

He also makes sure to listen to the community's needs, through talking to customers and reading their comment cards. To spread awareness, he relies on a multifaceted system of brochures (up to 20,000), a Web site, e-mail alerts and postcards to customers, backpack flyers for school children, and press releases, which play a huge role in getting new business.

Notice what's missing? Advertising.

"We don't have a lot of money to do that, and it's complicated with some other things that are involved as far as people higher up than us," Irvine says. "But we get all the free press we can get. Usually if we send out this news release, we get bites all the time."