Feature Article - January 2010
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Staying Afloat

Operating Aquatics in the Black

By Dawn Klingensmith

Rethinking Entrance Fees

Generally, municipal aquatics facilities charge such low admission fees in the name of accessibility that it's all but impossible to break even. The city of Raleigh charges $1 for children, $2 for seniors and $3 for adults. Rates are established by the city council. Like most aquatics directors, Stroupe does not have the support or authority to set fees to make money, although she thinks people would pay more without too much grumbling. After all, were she to double or even triple the price, it would still cost less than going to a movie.

Because accessibility is important, pools could perhaps raise rates in conjunction with implementing sponsorship programs whereby local businesses provide funding for "free days," Stroupe suggested.

Unfortunately, the system "won't allow us to see what the market will bear. And we can only change fees once a year," she said.

Oakland County is an exception. The Parks and Recreation Commission recognized that "It is imperative to employ responsible business practices and empower staff to make and implement decisions," and in April 2009, it changed its pricing policy accordingly, Stencil said. Now, without prior approval, management is permitted to adjust prices as needed to respond to supply and demand, which fluctuates according to season and time of day. A point-of-sale system captures patron data and usage patterns, and has enabled to county's waterparks to develop a customer loyalty program.

Value Received Pricing

"When it comes to defining a price point, the more you're offering, people are willing to pay more," said Post of Counsilman-Hunsaker.

Patrons tire of the same old same old. "You need to have some sort of cycle for updates and improvements, including new features for patrons to look forward to," Stencil said.

Sangree agreed: "If rates were higher but people can see you're continually reinvesting, they'll keep coming."

Nelson of USA Swimming said aquatics facilities must abandon the pricing model that has been carried over from the past. "Plan to offer a superior service and set your pricing so you can afford to do so," she writes in a co-authored guide titled "Facilities Development," available from USA Swimming. She suggests that users pay a membership fee plus additional charges for specific programs and services, with rates based on how much each costs to run. Know your aquatic centers' entire budget, she advises, and then determine how much each program needs to bring in to contribute to its share of the expenses.

Fears persist that customers will leave if prices are increased. But this mindset does not take into account the rising cost of construction, utilities and staffing. "Traditional pricing simply cannot keep up with escalating costs," Nelson writes. "Value Received Pricing (VRP) should be the pricing philosophy for the future." It's based on the premise that a facility is offering better amenities, programming and customer service than the competition.