Feature Article - November 2015
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Ever-Expanding Aquatics

Tips for Programming a Profitable Pool

By Joe Bush

Aquatic programming is everywhere and all the time, but don't take it for granted.

The days of offering only swimming lessons and water fitness are long gone. Generations change and with them their preferences and goals, and if public facilities want to fund their operations, they have to be creative and resourceful. The economic crisis of nearly a decade ago hit municipal bodies as hard as private. It's not enough to be a swimming lifer to run a successful revenue-generating aquatics department.

"We had a lot of closures, especially during the downturn, and budgets are tight," said Roy Fielding, aquatics director at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, also known as The Pool Professor.

"We're having to be more creative because these facilities are costing more. They're not going to keep a person around very long if they can't produce an income. A pool historically has been a money loser in recreation. A $25 million facility, it's tough to recoup that.

"You've got to build variety into your facility or you won't have a long stint, in my opinion."

Fielding's words are supported by data gathered by USA Swimming, whose member clubs and teams comprise one of the country's largest renters of pool space. Mick Nelson, facilities development director for USA Swimming, said that because of this sensitivity to pool availability, his organization began tracking pool closings in 2009.

To date, 1,661 pools have closed, according to the organization.

Bad budgeting and old-fashioned aquatic programming make pools lose money, and that can be corrected.

"If the pool is not programmed for financial sustainability, it will not be there for us to use," he said. "The cost to build and operate a facility is escalating at over double the cost-of-living increase each year, so a modernized plan for multi-leveled programming at different cost and professional budget development is a must."

USA Swimming has identified the three top reasons for the closures: unexpected renovations draining the budget; not enough income; and overwhelming expenses.

Nelson said that because no single organization, especially a nonprofit, can fix the problem, USA Swimming encourages pools to follow its Total Aquatic Programming suggestions to increase income, cut operational cost, and plan for repairs and renovations. Nelson knows pools need help, but is optimistic.

"The fact that pools lose money is a myth," he said. "There are too many successful aquatic programs in the country to make a statement like that, but we hear it from the public sector all of the time. Bad budgeting and old-fashioned aquatic programming make pools lose money, and that can be corrected."

Nelson suggests three general solutions:

  • New pool design with multiple pools, taking into consideration the four pillars of aquatic programming and their recommended water temperatures: learn to swim (water temp at 87 to 88 degrees); rehab and therapy (90 to 92 degrees); adult aquatic exercise and membership programs (87 to 88 degrees); and competitive swimming and recreation (80 to 82 degrees).
  • Having people who are going to direct the staff and programming for pools understand all of the options and buy into staff certification by the various aquatic organizations.
  • A modernized plan for multi-leveled programming at different cost and professional budget development.

Three years ago, Nelson said, USA Swimming's aquatic programming specialist wrote a detailed Aquatic Programming Manual in collaboration with other industry programming executives. It was published with the help of a grant from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and is available in electronic form for free from USA Swimming.

The hope is that infrastructure can one day meet the requirements of the planners, Nelson said.

"The evolution in programming is already here, but the new pool model has to catch up," he said. "All of our new pool designs have at least two pools. Three are preferred, and they all have different temperatures, accesses and depth to facilitate programming. No one temperature can satisfy all of the aquatic programming a community wants and needs."