Feature Article - February 2007
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Special Supplement: A Complete Guide to Aquatic Centers

By Jessic Royer Ocken


The point of programming is to attract visitors and keep them coming back. A full pool or waterpark is of course better than a mostly empty one, but it's also important to consider why your pool is full, noted John Spannuth, head of the U.S. Water Fitness Association.

On a visit to a Wisconsin pool, the aquatics director proudly told Spannuth that her indoor pool was filled to capacity at that very moment—2 in the afternoon, a notoriously slow time of day. Intrigued, Spannuth walked with her to the six-lane pool and saw six people swimming laps. Six people?

"To her it was full, but people have to determine what is the major reason for having their facility," he explained. "If you're a retirement center, that's different than a fitness center or a Y or a parks and recreation department. A lot of aquatic facilities lose a lot of money, and they don't need to."

The cause of this money drain? The wrong kinds of programs.

Historically, lap swimming and swim teams have been the most common activities at pools and aquatic centers, Spannuth said. But neither of these is a giant cash cow. "You have to realize that every inch of water is possible money, and if you're wasting pool time, you're wasting money."

Now, it's probably not a wise plan to abruptly boot out all the lap swimmers, but "as you develop programs, your water space becomes more valuable," he said. Consider cutting back on lap swimming by a lane or two to make room for swim lessons or a water exercise class. Or, during peak hours, maybe all the lappers have to share one lane.

Also, it may not be just the lap swimmers who are reluctant to relinquish their pool time. "Swim-team parents don't want to alter their dinner schedules," Spannuth said. So they may lobby to have practice during the prime hours for other activities.

However, "if you had swim instruction classes in there instead, you'd be raking in the money," Spannuth explained. "Water exercise classes can also be productive, as can one-on-one personal training sessions. The number-one moneymaker at present is swimming programs for people age 5 and younger."

But this may not be the case in the future. "My feeling is that aquatic personal training in the next five years will produce more money than swimming instruction," he said. "That's the hottest thing going."

As you start looking for ways to get more patrons to your pool, identify your target market and then enlarge it. "Who are the people who are not now in the pool?" Spannuth suggested asking. "How can you get them in?"

Look for ways that are both appealing and efficient. A lap lane can accommodate only one or two at a time, but a "water walking program, where people walk in waist- to chest-deep water" can have more than 20 people working out at once, Spannuth explained. "Never call your pool a lap pool," he added. "Less than 5 percent of Americans can swim 400 yards without a stop, so that restricts your target market. Call it a multipurpose pool or come up with something else."

Water exercise classes will be more appealing if you explain specifically what they are. "The name helps to determine who will be in [the class]," Spannuth said. "Water exercise got a bum rap years ago, and now it's pictured as little old ladies in shower caps."

Actually, water workouts can be great for conditioning athletes and those doing physical therapy, and classes can be tailored to tone muscles or require a hearty aerobic effort. Consider exercises done at the wall, strength training, water yoga and deep-water running as possibilities, suggests the U.S. Water Fitness Association.

The Las Vegas Municipal Pool has about six different water exercise offerings, including shallow-water exercise, a special program for patients with arthritis, a class for recovering stroke patients and a water walking workout.

The pool also partners with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and its physical therapy students who come to the pool to offer a free program on a monthly basis. "They offer hands-on instruction and support to anyone who signs up with an aquatic physical therapist," said Aquatics Coordinator Hawkins.

On a more practical note, if you're planning a shift to more exercise options in the pool, be sure to require water fitness shoes for both teachers and participants. Shoes protect those exercising in the water from scrapes from the bottom of the pool, and they also help keep pools used for exercise cleaner, Spannuth noted. Dead skin scraped off countless exercising feet can really make the water cloudy. (Eeeew!)

The way you format your programs may also make a difference in their success. For years, the Las Vegas Municipal Pool offered a synchronized swimming and a diving program year-round, but they were set up as "drop-ins." Kids paid $4 or $5 a session or bought a pass good for 15 sessions, but they could come—or not come—as they wanted.

"There was not a lot of motivation to stick with a program in that format," Hawkins said. So, after consulting with parents and her instructors, Hawkins decided to revamp these activities into a "session" format.

Starting this summer, for $25, students will sign up for a month of lessons, and if they miss one, there's no making it up. "Students will be more committed, and they can plan around the dates [of their lessons]," Hawkins said. When instructors are trying to teach new skills or get a group ready for the synchronized swimming show, "they need commitment," she explained. "Hopefully this ensures that everyone will show up."

Availability is also key to keeping your pool a popular destination. "Municipal Pool is open for recreational swimming from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.," Hawkins said. "It never closes. We always have an area for recreational swimming, even when there are other activities going on."

In short, your job is to "think of everything," Hawkins explained. "It's great to offer your traditional programs. People will always respond to that. But what else can you do?"

Could you plan a triathlon? Las Vegas has an upcoming Splash and Dash that includes a swim and a run through the nearby park.

"If you have access to a road, you can do biking too," Hawkins said. "Maybe there's a community center or school activity that can be adapted to the pool. Be creative."

It's also important not to overlook the resources around you. "Work with your team and get ideas from your staff," Hawkins said. "Sit down at an in-service training session and ask them to come up with ideas. They do a lot of things at school that could be adapted. Think outside what you would normally do at a pool."

Whatever you decide, remember that it's not the beauty and newness of your pool that ultimately makes the difference. Much more important, Spannuth said, are an administration that backs aquatics programs and a dynamite aquatics director. The creativity and enthusiasm of your staff and programs will always take you further than a gorgeous facility that stands empty.

See the sidebar on Other Potential Programs for additional ideas about how to fill up that water.