Guest Column - March 2010
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Aquatic Marketing

Is Waterpark Envy Killing You?
How Rectangles Can Work

By David M. Rowland

The hot trend in aquatics is waterpark-style "features"—from basic spray pads to slides, lazy rivers and even video games in the water. More and more community aquatics facilities are moving in this direction, striving for more users and better financial performance. Operators of "rectangles" (traditional pools with few or no features other than the water itself) often throw up their hands and claim that they can't possibly compete with feature-laden destinations. This "waterpark envy" is transforming community aquatics—but not necessarily for the better. Waterpark-style features are not the next logical phase in the evolution of aquatics. Rather, they represent a shift to an entirely different product, and in that shift communities risk losing something valuable—actual swimming.

What's Wrong With Features?

Let there be no mistake—features are hot for a reason. Waterparks offer a unique experience, and they draw lots of users at a premium price. But it's important to recognize that pools and waterparks are not the same product—even though they both involve water, they fill entirely different consumer needs. Waterparks offer pure entertainment, and they do it extremely well.

But operators with waterpark envy don't recognize that when you look at the strengths of traditional pools, it's waterparks that can't compete. Traditional pools offer much more than just entertainment. They offer lifelong skills, exercise-based recreation, a healthy lifestyle, education, drowning prevention and more—simply put, they offer actual swimming. You don't get that at waterparks. While a day at the waterpark is thrilling for the whole family, the local pool has a tremendous impact on a community's quality of life. People go to waterparks a few times a year, but a well-run pool will become part of their daily lives.

Waterpark-style features certainly fill a consumer need, and can help boost financial performance—but they don't replace a well-run traditional pool. If you're delivering the benefits of swimming to your community and want some additional entertainment, then adding a feature or two is fine.

The Dangers of Waterpark Envy

When the desire for features comes from desperation, however, it is a problem. Waterpark envy usually strikes when a traditional pool suffers from low usage, high costs and low perceived value to the community. If the traditional pool isn't working, but waterparks are, it must be the lack of features, right?

Well, no. If a traditional pool isn't working, it's because it isn't capitalizing on its strengths. The problem with waterpark envy is that, in most cases, it indicates a fundamental lack of understanding of the product offered by traditional pools. If you don't understand your product, you'll never get the most out of it.

Here's the worst part: When waterpark envy strikes, the community is doomed to miss out on the tremendous array of benefits associated with traditional pools, regardless of what happens. If you're not doing a good job delivering the strengths of a traditional pool to the community, adding features isn't going to change that. They might disguise the shortcoming (by improving financial performance), but they won't change the fact that your community is missing out on all the benefits of actual swimming. And as long as you think that features are the answer, you won't be working on the real answer—getting the most out of your rectangle.

Rectangles Can Work-Here's How

So when waterpark envy strikes, first ask yourself if you're getting the most out of your rectangle. If you understand the product you have to offer, and how it's different from the waterpark product, then you can make it work—and work well. Here are a few tips to get started.

Don't Focus on Entertainment.

You should have some fun and entertainment, certainly, but your marketing efforts should focus on your biggest strength. Your little rectangle offers the promise of a healthy lifestyle, lifelong skills, water safety and drowning prevention, fitness, exercise-based recreation and more. Your marketing efforts should focus on these attributes. (Oh, and by the way, it's also fun and enjoyable.)

Offer Something for Every Age Group.

One of the best things traditional pools offer is a healthy lifestyle—over an individual's entire life. To capitalize on that strength, it's important to offer programming for every age group.

Most community aquatics facilities offer the standard array of programs. There's swim lessons for kids (including infants), adult lessons, group fitness and some time available for independent use.

But there's so much more. Most pools miss entire demographics—find ways to reach them at all stages of life. What about different group fitness programs for seniors, young professionals, youth (more than just swim teams) or pre-natal/post-natal? Organized play opportunities for toddlers and parents, youngsters, tweens and teens? Physical therapy (or other injury rehab programming)? Do you have a great party program that allows you to showcase your facility to friends of your current customers? Do you run a few big special events designed to introduce your facility to the non-swimmer?

Be Convenient.

The unfortunate reality is that sometimes a healthy lifestyle isn't the easiest choice. It can take willpower to be healthy, and customers have varying amounts of it. The more convenient you are, the more customers you gain. Do you have independent use available at a broad array of times, in extended blocks? Are you open consistently, or are your hours sporadic (and do you close at the drop of a hat)?

Master the Basics.

A lot of pools fail because they've simply forgotten the basics. Yes, you have water, and that's great. But is your facility clean? (Really clean?) People might love the water, but after a while those grungy locker rooms will have them considering other options. What about customer service? Are you available to field questions outside 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.? Is detailed information available online?

With the multitude of options for the fitness/recreation consumer, missing basic elements like these can be a deciding factor.

Do It Right, and They Will Come

Don't deprive your community of the tremendous array of benefits associated with traditional pools by timidly giving in to waterpark envy. Recognize these benefits, value them, and work to deliver them to your community. If you do, you'll have plenty of customers, and probably good financial performance as well.


David M. Rowland is president of Lutra Aquatics, which offers consulting and management services to help indoor commercial aquatics facilities maximize their performance. For more information, visit