Feature Article - July 2020
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Coming Back to Aquatics

Lessons, Rentals, New Programs Help Facilities Stay Afloat

By Chris Gelbach

Pool Party!

Rentals for pool parties are also growing as an opportunity for additional income and cost recovery.

"Parties and rentals can be huge profit centers for a facility, especially if they're able to do full turnkey-type parties where a parent can pay a flat rate and everybody comes in and swims and you get cake, you get food, you get decorations and everything is taken care of," Valdez said. "As a parent, that is gold. You don't have to do any planning, you bring in all the kids and it's done. You don't have to worry about any of it."

At Greensboro, the parties can incorporate the mermaid theme, which boosts revenue because all participants need to take the certification course before participating. At Fife, the facility offers regular pool parties on Saturdays and pool parties on Sundays featuring two obstacle courses that the aquatic center purchased about a year ago. Either option includes a party room, decorations and lifeguards.

"That rental for two hours is $495 before tax," Gailushas said. "And so when we look at the staff time and then just the cost of all the party stuff we do for each party … I think those obstacle courses are actually paid off by now." She also noted that the facility sometimes runs as many as three two-hour rentals on a single day on a Saturday or a Sunday. "In the last couple of years, our pool rentals have become wildly successful," Gailushas said.

Staffing Challenges Continue

As aquatic programmers offer a growing array of programs, focus more on swim lessons, and continue to prioritize safety in increasingly complex pool environments, staffing has only become more of a challenge.

According to Nelson, part of the difficulty is that the industry remains so dependent on high schoolers and college students home for the summer even as the certification and safety demands placed on lifeguards continue to increase.

"It's getting hard to find people who want to do that, even at $15 an hour," Nelson said. "It's not as cool as it used to be when you said, 'I'm going to get a tan, dye my hair blonde, sit in the lifeguard chair, and I'm going to be the most popular guy out there.' That's gone. It's big business now. It's big safety."

To deal with these challenges, Nelson recommends that facilities start looking for staff earlier and begin the process in January as opposed to the spring or beginning of summer. And he sees more and more facilities opting to pay the guard certification.

"How am I going to tell a person they're going to work flex time 20 hours a week for eight weeks during the summer time, I'm going to pay them $15 an hour, but they have to take $300 worth of certification to get that job?" Nelson said.

At the Greensboro Aquatic Center, the facility pays for the training of future lifeguards in return for a minimum number of hours of lifeguard work afterward. "We can also take people who don't think they can be lifeguards and get them ready for that," Braman said. "So you see more people doing this in our industry, and we also run things like junior lifeguarding to introduce kids to it."

According to Valdez, it's also important to show some flexibility when trying to find a aquatics manager, with a focus on finding someone who can manage the facility and its profitability effectively, as opposed to demanding that every candidate possess a variety of advanced certifications.

"So it's not necessarily somebody who has Lifeguard Instructor Trainer and Water Safety Instructor Trainer certifications and has been in the aquatics world forever," Valdez said. "It might be somebody that has a business background but maybe lifeguarded for a few years and maybe was a pool manager but didn't go through everything else. But they have enough of a background in aquatics and a love for it that they can really help the program out."

Reviewing Your Operations

To create profitable, effective aquatic programs, Valdez also recommends that aquatics facilities review their programming annually. "I think the biggest thing I see is we forget to look inward and to really take stock of our programs and make changes. Once we get things running, we just keep them running and don't look at how well they're doing," Valdez said.

According to Valdez, that means looking at everything you're doing at the facility, including reviewing all your price points, registrations, attendance numbers and other analytics to see what's working, what's not and make changes.

"Sometimes that means cutting a program," Valdez said. "Sometimes that means just tweaking a program. Or providing more marketing dollars for a certain program if it needs to stay and you want to beef up attendance."

New Facility Considerations

Operators are also making more strategic choices in new facilities to accommodate a variety of programs, and Nelson noted that he typically has two or three pools in every new model they do to provide different temperature access and depth, including warm-water areas for kids' swim lessons and for seniors.

According to Nelson, the most typical design for smaller towns (25,000 and under population) is a 15,000-square-foot facility with an eight-lane 25-yard pool and an additional warm-water programming pool. Cities of up to 75,000 are doing a 10-lane pool and a programming pool that's a bit larger, and larger cities are looking at 50-meter pools for the main pools, with some facilities in warmer climates reaching into the 45,000-to-50,000 square foot range.

But the design must be influenced both by programming and by related staffing requirements. "We have to quit designing things and figuring out what we're going to do with them afterward," Nelson said. "We have to have a plan so that every single body of water, every single area of the facility, is responsible to be able to make enough money to support itself. So we don't keep having to go back for tax increases and loans."

By designing with a programming focus and then continually reviewing and improving those programs, facilities can successfully offer patrons valuable, beloved aquatic programming—while still being financially responsible in a challenging economic environment. RM