Feature Article - September 2008
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Schooled in Aquatics

Waterpark Trends from the College Campus to the Municipal Center

By Dawn Klingensmith

Trickle-Down Effect

From coast to coast, trends from university aquatic centers and resort waterparks are trickling down to the municipal segment.

With regard to investing in some of the latest thrill rides, "Governments typically do not want to be the testing ground for new products and innovations," Hunsaker said. "They want the tried-and-true, so they look to the commercial sector to be the beta test, and as products and ideas prove successful, they adopt—and adapt—them for use in their facilities."

One established waterpark trend that is gaining traction in the municipal segment is branding or theming, which entails creating a setting that evokes a story. Following in the footsteps of traditional amusement parks such as Disneyland, which immerses guests in a vast wonderland populated by princesses, pirates and personified animals, waterpark resorts increasingly center guests' experience on a number of themes or one central theme.

Municipalities that have followed suit include the Apex Center in Arvada, Colo., which features mountain and mining themes to reflect the area's geography and history, and NRH2O Family Waterpark in North Richland Hills, Texas, which features a magical swamp theme with a frog motif.

Yet despite the availability of equipment sold as themed packages, thereby eliminating the need for costly customization, theming is still relatively rare at the parks and recreation level, Hunsaker said.

"Instead, we're seeing an increased focus on overall aesthetics—nicer landscaping, subtler colors, and better materials and finishes," he said.

Another trickle-down trend expected to gain in popularity is the inclusion of spa-like amenities in municipal aquatic centers. For example, massage therapy is already fairly common, Hunsaker said.

Manicures might be next, but in the meantime, at the forefront of most municipalities' concerns are operational costs and requirements. Tax dollars generally cover construction costs, but taxpayers then expect aquatic centers to pay for themselves. That means facility managers must leverage user fees to sustain operations.

"The key for most municipal facilities is coming up with the right recipe that satisfies programming needs while meeting financial requirements," Hunsaker said. "Competitive swimming will always be a priority. Swim teams consistently draw kids and teens. Swimming competitively keeps them occupied in a healthy way and often teaches them their first lessons about sportsmanship. Especially now that there's so much concern about childhood obesity, no one is going to take swim teams away.

"But the fact is, competitive swimming rarely pays for itself. It's a community win, but it's not a financial win."

Not so much a trend as an ongoing challenge, finding the right mix of programs to complement competitive swimming is vital to an aquatic center's success. The goal is straightforward—to have bodies in the pool at all times, be it through senior water aerobics classes, mom and tot programs or "dive-in movie" nights.

"An empty pool is a financial drain," Hunsaker said. "Every hour it sits empty is lost revenue.

"The goal is to be self-sustaining," he added, "but the pricing strategy needs to strike the right balance so that the facility and its programs remain accessible to residents; in other words, so that fees cover operational costs but don't become a barrier."