Supplement Feature - February 2018
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Profitable Pools

Strategies for Designing Pools to Stay Out of the Red

By Deborah L. Vence

Planning for a new pool or renovation takes time and money. But, one of the biggest challenges is ensuring that you don't lose money after it's built.

If you ask aquatic directors who have experienced a new aquatic facility, designed for today's aquatic users, if their pool can be profitable, you will get a resounding "yes," suggested Robbie Hazelbaker, regional director of project development, Water Technology Inc. (WTI), a Beaver Dam, Wis.-based company that specializes in aquatic planning, design and engineering.

He said that since the beginning of time, this wasn't the norm, as pools were either a necessary evil or perhaps a way to round out membership.

WTI professionals see different philosophies as far as what a city chooses to charge in fees, and how much tax payer dollars they expect to use to offset pool expenses. "The majority have multiple pools and of multiple ages," he said. "But the fact is that a well-designed pool built for today's sophisticated pool user can cover its overhead, and generate a positive revenue-to-cost ratio."

How Can Pools be Profitable?

To help ensure that pools are profitable, they should be treated like any other business.

"Pools can be profitable if they are the right pool, in the right location, with the right plan. The key to success is to consider the profitability goals before designing your pool," said Kevin Post, principal, Counsilman-Hunsaker, an aquatic engineering and design firm in St. Louis.

"Once a pool is built, it becomes increasingly more difficult to guarantee a profit. This is due to over-building the new pool, designing a pool that can't offer the programs and services desired by the market area, or not considering the pricing needed to support the entire operation," Post said.

But, "A right-sized pool, in the right location, that meets the needs and expectations of the market area, and has an operational plan based on sound business models can be profitable," he added.

Other experts say several factors influence whether an existing or renovated aquatic facility can be profitable.

"First is the market that the facility, or proposed facility, resides in," said Darin Barr, senior associate, Ballard*King & Associates, a recreation consulting firm in Highlands Ranch, Colo. "For a pool to be profitable one will need a critical mass of population that is willing and able to pay for services.

"The benefit is that participating in swimming (i.e., using a pool) is an activity that the full age spectrum of the population will participate in, as opposed to other activities. Engaging potential participants early to understand what they are looking for in a new or renovated facility is vital," he said.

A second factor is determining the other service providers in the market and the amenities they offer.

"The ability to differentiate your new or renovated facility, from those that already exist, is important for establishing a good market position," Barr said.

Third is operating structure and programming.

"While there will be specific operating hours for your facility, a pool is a 24-hour-a-day operation with regards to utility and chemical consumption. Setting reasonable hours that address the needs of the community is important, as is tracking use and adjusting hours once the facility is open," he said. "With this in place, the facility can program to the needs of the community. It is important to note that referencing programming means the full range of options, to include rentals."

In developing programs, it is important to take a more focused approach, offering quality programs and instruction.

"Once you establish that reputation you can begin to address trends and expand your program offerings. Attempting to do every program possible when you open an aquatics facility, can result in poorly run programs with insufficient instruction," Barr said.

A pitfall that his company tries to steer clients away from is programming every minute of the day.

"This is very important if you are operating a membership based facility. Members will want the availability of drop-in activities like lap and recreational swimming," he said. "A complaint that we sometimes hear from members of aquatic facilities is, 'I love the pool, but there isn't time to swim laps or play in the pool.' Recognizing that drop-in use is a program is an important realization for operators."

Frances Caron, MPA, assistant director of recreation, aquatics program, University of California, Riverside, said that while it is extremely difficult to operate a profitable facility, it is not impossible.

"Many facilities will close during the off-season to help with this. However, that is not always the only way to break even or be a profitable facility," she said. "Programming and rentals are the largest money makers for an organization. When looking to break even or make a profit, I encourage facilities to oftentimes look outside the box.

"Swim lessons, lap swimming and rentals are amazing programs, but the out-of-the-box programs will bring in new customers and, if done right, feed into those programs. For example, floating pumpkin patches, floating egg hunts, a snowman plunge, rubber duck races, hamster balls, etc.," she said.

What's more, Caron said the largest influence in a pool's profitability is the facility design.

"If you plan on running a children's swim lesson program, but your facility was designed all deep you may struggle with the program. The second largest, in my opinion, is staffing," she said. "Oftentimes, staffing ties directly into a facility design. If you need to staff additional lifeguards because your design has blind spots that weigh heavily on your budget."