Feature Article - January 2010
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Staying Afloat

Operating Aquatics in the Black

By Dawn Klingensmith

Programs and Profit Centers

"If asked, most pool managers probably would not be able to tell you the profitability of various programs," Rowland said, adding that some programs don't cover their own costs but are still important to offer.

Many managers don't know business basics, like the difference between revenues and profits.

Kevin Post, a project manager for the St. Louis-based aquatics facility design firm Counsilman-Hunsaker, knows of a municipal pool that thought its concession stand was its biggest profit center because it did, in fact, bring in the most money. However, upon closer inspection, management realized that the cost of running the concession stand exceeded its revenues, so it was actually running at a loss.

Concessions can be profitable in the right type of facility, though. Sometimes using an outside vendor is best because an aquatics facility then pays nothing for supplies or labor, while charging rent and taking a percentage of the profits.

Providing the right mix of programs is essential for all facilities, as is ensuring "every single foot of water is being used for something at all times," said Everett Uchiyama, aquatics director, Country Club of Colorado at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort.

Post agrees: "If a pool is to be successful, it has to operate like a three-ring circus," with different programs running simultaneously most of the time.

Unfortunately, "Most pools are set up to offer one activity at a time," Rowland said. "Even if you only have one pool, there's no reason why it can't have multiple uses. You can have lap swimming all day long. Lap swimming tends to be overlooked as a profit center. Just post a schedule to let people know when you'll be shutting down lanes for other programs. There's no reason to shut down all lanes just to have swim lessons for seven or eight kids.

"I've seen countless clients who closed the entire pool for rental groups or programs that only needed a portion of the pool," Rowland continued. "By opening up the other portions of the pool at these times, these clients have increased revenues generally by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year."

Uchiyama agrees that lap swimmers tend not to mind sharing the pool with an aqua aerobics class but cautions aquatics directors not to combine two programs that would clash due to noise levels, for example.

Money Makers

Programs that generally pay for themselves or make money are group water fitness classes, lifeguard training and learn-to-swim programs, including private swimming lessons. "One-on-one instruction has been very profitable for us," said Stroupe, though as a whole, the city of Raleigh's aquatics facilities operate in the red.

Other facilities have had success with triathlon training, scuba lessons, doggie dips, "dive-in" movie nights, aqua therapy and hosting teams without pools of their own. Consider your market and then reach out to specific groups that might rent lanes or participate in programs during midday lulls, such as preschools, senior centers, homeschoolers, and moms and tots.

Regarding seniors, "I think that within the next two to three years, if facilities don't start doing a better job of serving that population, they're missing the boat not just in revenues but also community relations," Uchiyama said.

Cornerstone Aquatics Center, which consistently turns a profit, offers intensive pre-season training geared toward high school swim teams. "It's a two-week program held right before their season starts, so they can get up to full speed without injury. It's been a fantastic program for us," said Rowland, who manages Cornerstone in addition to running his consulting company, Lutra Aquatics.

Oakland County plans to use its lazy river on occasion for aqua walks against the current. A local hospital is co-sponsoring the events.