Feature Article - July 2010
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Hidden Treasure

Aquatics Facilities Can Be Gold Mines If Done Right

By Dawn Klingensmith


eady or not, the idea is taking hold that it's time for public pools to grow up and stop relying on "floaties" in the form of taxpayer dollars.

That means it's time for aquatics directors to evaluate their facilities and programs to find out why, if there's profit potential, they and so many others are struggling to keep their heads above water.

"We believe aquatics can be a gold mine if you know how to do it. But that's the problem — people don't know how to do it," said John Spannuth, president and CEO of U.S. Water Fitness Association in Boynton Beach, Fla.

From blowing the basics to trying to compete with waterparks, municipal pools make costly mistakes that force them to operate in the red. And while there's no single, surefire formula for success, there are growing numbers of profitable aquatics programs in both the private and public sectors from which to draw ideas and inspiration.

First Impressions

The customers' experience begins as soon as they walk in the door—or perhaps even prior to that. A facility's Web site often is the first impression potential patrons get. A static, amateurish-looking Web site will turn people off, while one that's polished and has an up-to-date calendar might bring in a lot of traffic. If you have a rectangular pool, refer to it on the Web site and in all other communications as a multiuse pool as opposed to a lap pool "so people know it's for everyone," Spannuth suggested.

Everything from staff to signage should be positive, Spannuth said. He recently was called upon to revive a YMCA pool in Norman, Okla., that did not even contain water upon his arrival. One of his first recommendations was to switch out the "Do not run" signs to ones that say, "Walk." It was a small change, but contributed to an atmosphere of positivity that made the aquatics program a success, drawing the attention of local media and the endorsement of doctors who'd been sold through outreach on the merits of "water walking" and other aqua-fitness programs publicized by the YMCA.

Staff can be incentivized to provide superior customer service and fill programs to capacity. For example, offering a one dollar bonus per participant above a predetermined headcount will have staff posting sign-up sheets and talking up new and existing programs, Spannuth suggested.

To make sure staff members maintain a team mentality and don't assume the zombie-like demeanor of unmotivated wage earners just going through the motions, provide them with ongoing training, regular employee reviews, and uniforms to foster professionalism and cohesion, and to play up a brand identity, advised Jim Clark, assistant general manager and aquatics director of LifeCenter Plus in Hudson, Ohio, which operates two indoor and three outdoor pools.

Remember, a happy staff goes hand-in-hand with satisfied customers, so make employees feel valued and appreciated. For example, "I feel strongly that aquatics staff should not be responsible for cleaning the pool," Spannuth said. "They are aquatics professionals, not janitors."

On the other hand, some facility managers believe that having lifeguards take charge of maintenance tasks when not on guard duty is cost-effective and fosters a sense of personal pride in the pool's appearance and cleanliness—both of which are critical for guest comfort and enjoyment.