Feature Article - July 2020
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Coming Back to Aquatics

Lessons, Rentals, New Programs Help Facilities Stay Afloat

By Chris Gelbach

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the aquatic world into disarray, leading to temporary pool closures across the country. It has also spurred reflection on how to incorporate more social distancing, new surface-cleaning protocols and other safety measures into aquatic programming.

According to Miklos Valdez, who helps aquatic facilities plan new facilities and operations as studio director at Counsilman-Hunsaker, aquatics may in some respects be well-positioned to manage the ongoing crisis compared to some other recreational activities. Taking steps to counteract viruses and bacteria successfully has been a priority of aquatics facilities for many years. The facilities also tend to offer good airflow compared to many indoor environments because they are working to mitigate chloramines in the air.

"None of this is necessarily new as far as the water is concerned. What ends up being more of a question is how do we deal with all of the hard surfaces around the pool areas and the number of people in a lane or in a pool," Valdez said.

To help operators, USA Swimming has a Coronavirus Resources section on its website offering extensive helpful information related to operating and reopening an aquatic facility during and emerging from this crisis.

If anything, the pandemic has further reinforced the need for pool operators to plan wisely and include sufficient budgeting for operational costs and foreseeable equipment replacement.

"The cost of operating pools keeps going up. That's going to be a challenge for us. Chlorine keeps going up. It's going to go up again [as a result of the crisis]," said Mick Nelson, principal and owner of Total Aquatics Programming LLC and former senior director of aquatic facilities development for USA Swimming.

The crisis is also likely to lead to increases in insurance costs. Given that costs for electricity, gas and water were also trending up, these factors together make operating a pool an increasingly costly proposition.

"If you don't build into your budget a 20% cost-to-operate increase over a two-year period, you're probably going to have to go out and figure out what kind of fundraiser you're going to do to make up the gap," Nelson said. "And then they [pool operators] say, 'Well, I can't raise my prices to my members by 20%.' Well no, you can't. So you need to get some of the cost-of-living increase built in, and then you need to identify different funding sources."

A Shift to Perpetual Programming

Among the shifts Nelson is seeing to help aquatic facilities budget more successfully is an industry transition toward perpetual programming for things like swim lessons and adult aquatic programs. "Which basically means that we're not doing an 8-week session. We're not doing 12 weeks of this. We're doing it monthly like you do piano lessons, karate lessons, swim teams or anything else," Nelson said.

While many methods exist for implementing this, the most common, according to Nelson, is billing the member for the program or service the 15th of the month for the following month. This prevents facilities from getting stiffed by patrons at the last minute and also makes scheduling and budgeting easier.

Swim Lessons Important

Swim lessons are one of the programs that are shifting more to an ongoing payment model as more facilities adopt the billing practices of the private swim schools. They are also being embraced as one of the more potent options for profitability.

"We're seeing that a lot more aquatic facilities are needing to meet higher cost-recovery goals, and swim lessons is one of the best ways to do that," Valdez said. As a result, his firm is working on more feasibility studies and pool designs that focus on either providing dedicated spaces for swim lessons, or on including multiuse spaces that may have recreational features, but are also perfectly suited for swim lessons.

"We're doing a lot more shallow water and water with bench seating and places to stage kids' swim lessons," Valdez said. "More warm-water pools. I think there's a bigger emphasis on those sorts of features right now."

The City of Fife in Washington state has seen great success in its aquatics program, largely due to its swim lessons, which draw patrons to the small community from all across the region and from larger metros such as Olympia and even Seattle.

"There are lots of pools in between, but they drive all the way here and pass many pools to come to our pool," said Marta Gailushas, recreation and aquatics supervisor for the City of Fife. "I think the common themes that we've heard is that our swim lesson program is very structured, and it's at their own pace. So if they come in and they've got some of the basic swimming skills down, we don't hold them back in the class they originally started in. We progressively move them up as much as their skill level allows."

The program has 10 levels for both its preschool and youth levels, and because of this structure, some kids may come in and quickly ascend to level 7 or 8 while others may take years to get there, according to Gailushas. The program is also very specific in its expectations, and includes online videos that clearly delineate the skills developed in each level.

"The single most important thing about our facility and why it has been successful is that the backbone of everything is the structure of our swim lesson program," Gailushas said. "And as we develop things around that and next to that, it's just finding a way to fill the pool and the facility with [other] different programs and different offerings at any time of day."

At Greensboro Aquatic Center in North Carolina, the facility's bread and butter is its contracts with eight teams that train year-round at the facility, in addition to the high school swim teams that also train there. But the facility also made swim lessons a priority even before the facility's 2011 debut with the goal of teaching more local kids to swim.

"What we did is when we put a shovel in the ground and built this place, we put together an advisory committee that contains school board members, a school superintendent, school principal, school teacher and us," said Susan Braman, manager of the Greensboro Aquatic Center. "And we said this is what we want to do. Tell us why it won't work so we can overcome it."