Supplement Feature - February 2015
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Beyond Treading Water

Finding Profitability in Aquatic Operations

By Dawn Klingensmith

Rowland suggests that municipal pools stay true to their "swim mission" and quit trying to be something they're not. "The way to attract users to traditional swimming is to offer a great product on that level," he said. In other words, the primary product or service is the opportunity to swim. Making that opportunity inviting and worthwhile comes down to basics: updated locker rooms, overall cleanliness and customer service, he said.

Though not as essential, concessions and retail bring in money and offer customer convenience. "If your goggles break or you left your swim cap at home, you can just go buy one," Rowland said.

Asked to describe an ideal municipal pool, Rowland starts with "a couple of bodies of water" or more at different temperatures for different uses. A single pool cannot please all users temperature-wise and otherwise; certainly, patrons can't be expected to pay to experience physical discomfort or come back for more.

Rowland follows up with a bright, well-maintained entrance where guests receive a friendly greeting from staff; "clean, modern locker rooms with more of a club-like feel" and signage reminding people to shower before entering the pool; attentive lifeguards; and impeccable water quality.

And finally, "Whatever I want to do, there's some pool space to do it," he said.

Pleasing patrons and turning a profit is not impossible, Rowland said. "You just have to work hard at the details."

Knowing (Not Blowing) the Budget

Minding the details includes minding the money. "Most pools don't really know what their costs are. The city absorbs certain expenses," Clayton said. "Well, you need to know your basic costs. Lots of facilities rent out their pools for less than the operating costs because they don't know those costs. It can be hard to get a handle on the exact cost of running a pool. But if you figure out it costs roughly $50 an hour to run, you can't have recreation that brings in $20."

To turn a profit or just break even, aquatic facilities must be run like a business, he added.

Risk of closure forced the city of Seattle to take a more businesslike approach to running its eight indoor pool facilities and two outdoor pools. Back in 2002, "Looking at all 10 pools, cost recovery was less than 50 percent," said Kathy Whitman, aquatics manager for Seattle Parks and Recreation.

While Whitman supposes that's "probably typical across the nation," she and her team knew that in Seattle's case it was not enough to keep the doors open. That was a problem—and not just from her perspective. "We had kids showing up in life jackets at public meetings saying, 'We want you to keep our pool open,'" Whitman recalled.

The aquatics team began to conduct monthly financial analyses, looking at costs and performance compared to the same time in previous years, and compared to other pools in the region. The result is better asset management and 80 to 90 percent cost recovery across all 10 pools. Like most parks and rec departments, Seattle's provides free and discounted programs to ensure inclusion. Were that not the case, the pools would actually post a profit, Whitman said.

The department did increase fees with community support, but at the same time developed a scholarship program to keep swim lessons accessible to low-income children, with funds coming from the city as well as donations.

More pools need to follow Seattle's lead and raise fees, matching program pricing with the cost to operate the pool, said Nelson, adding that aquatics managers have a hard time heeding this advice. "They think people won't pay it, and they think it will exclude low-income members of the community," which runs counter to the parks and rec mission, he explained.

But if Seattle is any indication, communities would rather see fee hikes than pool closures.