Feature Article - November 2015
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Ever-Expanding Aquatics

Tips for Programming a Profitable Pool

By Joe Bush

Justin Caron, a principal and vice president of Aquatic Design Group, said shapes of pools are important to programming as well. Caron explained that in a hypothetical new facility, the number and types of pools depends on the business model.

"What are your goals financially? Is this a facility you're comfortable subsidizing? If so, how much?" Caron asked. "Is it a facility that needs to break even, or is this a facility that wants to be a profit center? Once we understand that, it helps to shape the directive within a given budget."

Caron said rectilinear pools are meant for competitive activities—swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming and, one of the newer ideas, underwater hockey. They are not meant to rake in revenue, however.

Moneymakers such as therapy classes, swim classes, recreational open swim and birthday parties need shallow water and curvilinear design, he said.

"For a client looking to break even on a facility, our general recommendation is you need to have as much fun water space as you do competitive water space," Caron said. "You just can't charge swim teams and water polo teams enough money to make competitive water, deep water, profitable, whereas you can charge a lot more for the curvilinear pools, the shallow water, the splash pads, water slides, the currents.

"The more recreational water, the more profitable; the more deep water, the more subsidy."

Caron said facilities that can't afford to remodel can make the most of the competitive pools when they aren't being used for their natural purposes. Fill them with inflatable obstacle courses and slides and bridges and climbing structures, deck-mounted climbing walls, zip lines, hamster balls, goals and inner tubes for inner-tube water polo, and sell wristbands for play periods, Caron said.

"Those things are pretty inexpensive, and they're easy to make money on, and they utilize the rectilinear water space," he said. "In a three-pool facility, they have a competitive pool, a warm water therapy pool and a multipurpose pool. The competitive pool is going to be mostly empty, and those sorts of things add another fun element without compromising the primary purpose of that body of water."

Creativity and trend-following are mandatory for programmers, said Caron. Other than underwater hockey, he said to watch for a popular college game named Pool Battleship to show up in non-campus facilities. In this game, between two and four people captain a canoe against other similarly manned canoes with the object to be the last canoe floating; sinking is done by pushing water into the other canoes. Another activity for experimentation is paddle boarding classes, he said. Paddle boards are not expensive and don't take up much room.

Other revenue-raising considerations include monetizing poolside areas, Caron said, opening up possibilities of outdoor birthday parties or other group events. Retrofitting can include new private party spaces or converting storage rooms to wet/dry classrooms.

"What is a facility doing that it hasn't in the past?" Caron asked. "Cabana rentals are big now, shade is a premium everywhere. Facilities have figured out they can charge $50 dollars or $20 dollars or $100 dollars, depending on the market and demand for a private cabana. You don't have to fight for chairs."

Caron's nod to thinking outside the pool for programming and revenue is not outrageous. In Summit, N.J., Judith Leblein Josephs helps run the Summit Family Aquatic Center, a 43-year-old facility that was renovated and rebranded in 2004. She said at any one time just one-third of members and guests are in the pool, meaning the others are open to activities on deck.

Moneymakers such as therapy classes, swim classes, recreational open swim and birthday parties need shallow water and curvilinear design.

"Aquatic programmers focus on the water and the aquatic experience, but I think that aquatic programming includes so much more," said Josephs, the city's director of community programs. "Outdoor aquatic centers should be seen as a community center without walls. Indoor aquatic facilities have great value in their deck space, often overlooked for programming. In other words, aquatic center programming doesn't have to be wet.

"Sure, you want people to use the restrooms, visit the snack bar and take a little rest, but then what? Our guests are active folks with varied interests. Keep them interested and they'll keep coming back."