Programming Your Pool

A closer look at aquatics facilities that used their successes and failures to grow

By Kyle Ryan

Programming is the great leveler of the aquatics playing field. Without it, the newest, flashiest facility will be a shell of its potential. With it, even the most boring rectangular pool can bustle with activity. Speaking generally, the competition for people's time grows ever more fierce as time passes. It takes effort to reserve a place in their busy schedules, and if you can't do it, someone else can.

Scott Irvine, aquatics coordinator for the city of Las Vegas, runs an award-winning, 40,000-square-foot facility that is the city's crown jewel of aquatics. He also supervises the city's other, more ordinary pools, including two that are more than 40 years old.

When a nearby YMCA opened a large play pool, one of the city's old pools suffered. A six-lane, 25-meter pool with diving board, it lacked anything resembling pizzazz.

"We know there were kids in the area because there's a middle school right there," Irvine says. "We couldn't get those families to come out and swim if our lives depended on it."

So Irvine and his staff changed tactics by shifting their focus to preschoolers. They painted the fence in primary colors, created more shade and bought pool toys, life jackets and noodles. Then they sent letters to preschools offering two-hour exclusive rentals, which decreased in price as rental quantity increased. Pool staff supervised the kids and provided some learn-to-swim instruction.

"We tried to accommodate them in any way we could, and that's actually proven very successful this year," Irvine says. "Our pool is so booked with outside programming…We've made more money in that pool than we have in the last few years combined."


That municipal pool in Las Vegas experienced an impressive turnaround by catering to a very specific audience, but in general, successful programming appeals to a variety of people. In the past, pools at gyms and health clubs have been perceived as the domains of swim rats, not the general population.

At HealthBridge Fitness Center in Crystal Lake, Ill., Group Fitness Coordinator Kathy Kozak says it's the opposite.

"Most people look at the fitness end and not the lap swimming," she says. "Most people actually look at the pool as the old-lady workout."

People need to see people like them in the pool to swim. That means targeting any particular group too much can have negative consequences. But facility managers also need to understand their mission. If their aquatics area is part of a hospital facility that caters mostly to senior citizens, then having more senior classes makes sense. Programs should match the community.

Programming tends to be instructional or recreational, but through creative multitasking, all types of programs can take place at the same time. For example, a pool like the previously mentioned one in Las Vegas could have a water-fitness class in the shallow end, a water-running class in its deep end and a lane open for lap swimmers. Through circle swimming, where swimmers follow the sides of the lane, up to half a dozen people can use one lane. Managers just need to help people understand how it works, which could be accomplished with strategic sign placement.

Programming also has to be named correctly: generally, the more specific, the better. "Water aerobics" could mean just about anything. Even specific names can be problematic if not chosen carefully. Brad Swendig, president and executive director of City of Midland Aquatics in Texas, had a hard time naming his seniors' class.

"We've called it 'therapy,' and you have seniors coming in and going, 'I'm not in therapy; there's nothing wrong with me,'" Swendig says. "So you call it 'the 'seniors' class,' and these guys are like, 'I don't want to be in the seniors' class—I'm not that old!' It's like, 'We've got to calling it something!' Technically, I think we call it our 'Senior and Warm-Water Exercise Class,' which seems to suffice."

He laughs. The curriculum of the seniors' class matched that of the warm-water therapy class, which people of all ages took. To save time, Swendig decided to combine the classes—bad idea.

"We couldn't combine the names because those people that were in the aerobics [class] did not want to be in the same program as 'those old people,'" Swendig says. "It's really funny."

The programs still have the same director, same dues, same basic curriculum and same class times, but they stay in separate pools.

Opened in 1999 for a cost of $5.6 million, the Municipal Pool in Las Vegas features a 50-meter-by-25-yard pool with two one-meter diving boards and one three-meter board. The year-round facility also has classrooms, a fitness area, a concessions area and outdoor pavilions for picnics and such.

In 2003, it took top honors for programming in the municipality category for the United States Water Fitness Association's (USWFA) annual aquatics awards. This year, it received the Department of Leisure Services Recreation Division's Excellence in Aquatics Award.

The attention isn't unwarranted. When asked about what programs his facility offers, Irvine isn't sure where to begin.

"Gosh, you name it, we do it," he says.

Boy Scouts go there to get their aquatic merit badges. There are fitness classes and others for people with arthritis or who have had strokes. Scuba companies rent the pool for training. Swimming and synchronized-swimming clubs use the pool.

With so much going on, Irvine has to juggle his scheduling. Most of the programs take place at the Municipal Pool, and when it's time to schedule the pool, programs come first.

"We program our pool, and then club teams or people that want to request pool time put in their request with us, and we try to accommodate everybody," Irvine says. "It's worked well for the most part."

Its most successful programs are the junior lifeguard training (Irvine also has lifeguard and lifeguard-instructor training), its learn-to-swim classes, and surprisingly, synchronized swimming. The sport may be the butt of many jokes come Olympic time, but Las Vegas has two synchro clubs and numerous synchronized swimming meets and performances. Some of the casinos in the city have considered doing synchro shows.

The seven city-run pools also host a number of special events. For the first time last year, the city partnered with the American Red Cross for a pool-safety program called Float Like a Duck. Kids came in on Sundays and learned how to float if they fell in a pool.

Every August, the Municipal Pool hosts a beach party, where participants pay $3 for food, games and music. Similar to that are the tropically themed nights, which have Polynesian dancers, fire-eaters, a DJ, and arts and crafts. The tropical night attracted up to 500 people on its own, so both programs have been very successful.

So have the splash camps offered at the pool during school breaks. Kids who sign up receive an hors d'oeuvre platter of water activities: water safety, synchronized swimming, water polo, and so on.

One new event the city tried in 2004 was a floatbox derby. Organizers invited people to race flotation devices made from certain materials. People competed in three categories, including single-sailor (where one person rides while another tows) to family. Although Irvine concedes the event was only moderately successful, he hopes it will catch on this year.

The floatbox derby took place at the city's Pavilion Center Pool, which is closed to the general public from September to May. During that time, the city rents it to local swimming clubs.

The aquatics programs in Las Vegas aren't even limited to the pool, as with the "Dump It Pump It" initiative. During winter, staff members spend a month at five different elementary schools doing CPR training for eighth graders as part of their health curriculum. Each class dumps change into a bucket for the American Red Cross at the end of the period, and at the end of the month, the staff weighs all the coins. Whichever class brought the most gets a party with free food from a local sandwich shop. Each student who participates in the program also receives an information packet about the city's upcoming aquatics programs.

Not everything Irvine and his staff touch turns to gold, though. For several years, the pool hosted a "haunted pool" on Halloween that featured a water obstacle course and games, but the idea never caught on.

"That's one big thing that has failed, and we just can't seem to find out a way to get the people in the doors to do it," he says.

Facilities around the country have had some success with "dive-in" movies, where people relax on flotation devices in the pool as they watch a movie. In Las Vegas, they had no such luck. Despite the cheap price of admission, people stayed away—9 p.m. sunsets during the summer didn't help things, either.

Teenagers ages 13 to 17 have given Irvine the most trouble. The success of the junior-lifeguard program notwithstanding, programs for teenagers have never worked. "Teen night" at the pool on summer nights has had sparse attendance, but Irvine refuses to give up. His new idea: live music. For $5, kids get refreshments and can swim if they want while listening to local bands perform. He's also considering purchasing a big-screen TV and a waterproof video-game system—if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Even though teens present a formidable challenge, Irvine has had success with tweaking programs in the past. This year, he hopes to improve his water-polo program.

"What we do is try to pick a program that is not as successful as it used to be, breathe new life into it, and pick it back up," he says. "We did that with synchro. It's amazing how popular it really is."

Breathing new life into a program entails finding a volunteer who feels passionately about it and can relate to the potential participants.

"As far as manpower, we're a little strapped on that," he says. "So we get people that actually approach us that have the same passion as we do and would love nothing more than to go out and recruit these people for this program."

New participants, in turn, feed the club teams, who recruit the newbies.

"Our kids grew up in our recreation program," Irvine says. "They go onto the club team, and then usually in the summer we get them back as coaches for our synchro team. So it's just constantly feeding the system there, and it works great for us."

Sometimes a massive overhaul isn't required to save a program. When the Municipal Pool's winter learn-to-swim program had problems, the staff adjusted its schedule. Instead of late-evening classes Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they switched it to late-afternoon Tuesdays and Thursdays, and an early-afternoon class on Saturdays. The pool's Spanish-speaking lifeguards also became ambassadors to the area's Hispanic community to drum up business. After making those changes, Irvine says the program's numbers jumped 150 percent.

Where do good ideas like that originate? Irvine didn't have to look far. When staff members, even hourly staff, become part of the creative process, they take ownership of the results, which in turn drives them to make programs successful.

"We brainstorm a lot, our team here," he says. "Everybody can add something different to the event or program, and that's why we work so well together, and that's why our programs seem to be so successful."

He also makes sure to listen to the community's needs, through talking to customers and reading their comment cards. To spread awareness, he relies on a multifaceted system of brochures (up to 20,000), a Web site, e-mail alerts and postcards to customers, backpack flyers for school children, and press releases, which play a huge role in getting new business.

Notice what's missing? Advertising.

"We don't have a lot of money to do that, and it's complicated with some other things that are involved as far as people higher up than us," Irvine says. "But we get all the free press we can get. Usually if we send out this news release, we get bites all the time."

The Mabee Memorial Aquatic Center is owned by a nonprofit corporation called City of Midland Aquatics. Although "City of Midland" is in its name, the facility in Midland, Texas, is privately owned by the competitive swimming and diving teams that call it home. It's not government subsidized in any way, which makes the facility's expansions even more impressive.

The facility started with a 25-yard competition pool in 1972 but added a 25-yard-by-25-yard pool with an indoor diving tower in 1993. It also features a water aerobics and heated therapy pool (powered by solar energy), aerobics studio, weight/cardio room and six locker rooms. Altogether the facility has five pools and another $1.8 million expansion in the works. Not surprisingly, the USWFA recognized it as the country's best aquatics fitness center in 2003 and ranked it second overall for programming.

Although the facility has numerous competitively oriented features, a lot of its programming has nothing to do with competition. There are water fitness and aerobics classes, water-walking, senior programs, scuba, numerous kids' classes, and after the new expansion, dry-land therapy. Its most successful programs have been devoted to seniors, which have been going since 1993.

"There are a growing number of seniors who, all of their lives, have been in good health, you know, exercising and all that—I think more so than the previous generation," Swendig says. "These guys want to keep exercising and keep doing things, and water is what's left that's still healthy for them."

Children have a variety of choices at the Mabee Center. In addition to lessons, kids can be part of the Splash Team, a sort of entry-level stop between swimming lessons and the swim team. From there, kids can move on to the diving team or the swim team. Swendig initially called the pre-team program "Kid Fit," but again he faced problems with his name choice.

"That was my name, and nobody liked it because they just thought it was for overweight kids," he says. "Kids all wanted to be on a team, so we called it the Athlete Prep Team…All these kids have never been on a team before, so the fact that we call it an 'athlete prep team' is really important to them."

Swendig has a new kids' program in the works as well, though this one focuses on a seldom represented group: kids who have average mental faculties but suffer from some physical disability, such as cerebral palsy or juvenile arthritis.

"We've got a Special Olympics program here, but this is not the Special Olympics," Swendig says. "If they're very severe, there's a lot of programs for them, but a lot of kids are walking the hallways of the schools that look very normal, but have some severe problems that prevent them from participating, that prevent them from being physically fit. The water's perfect for them, and yet they can't be on the swim team."

Swendig plans to offer a sort of entry-level swim-team practice tailored to the kids' abilities. Eventually, he hopes to work the kids up to lap swimming. Kids will be able to earn credit for off-campus P.E., a great benefit for kids who face ridicule in the locker room.

Based on the number of requests from parents of disabled kids, Swendig predicts the program will be successful. Kids' programming can be tricky, though, and in the past he's had some classes not pan out as expected.

One aimed to simplify parents' lives by offering both gymnastics and swimming in one class (30 minutes of each) in one location. Although it did relatively well, scheduling it proved to be a nightmare, according to Swendig. He also had a kids' summer cross-training program, where they swam, lifted weight and ran—results were marginal. Ditto for the semester-based swim team, where kids came in once a week for a swim workout and then competed in a swim meet at the end of the semester.

"At some point, every kid will try soccer," Swendig says. "Every kid will try baseball. Every kid will try basketball. With very few exceptions, most of them try it one time, and what if everyone tried swimming just one time? That'd be huge."

Retaining only 5 percent to 10 percent of the participants would greatly boost swimming participation, Swendig theorized. Although the program wasn't very successful, he has hope.

"We didn't promote it as well as we should've, and I really think there's potential there," he says. "We didn't do what maybe we could have done to see that it succeeded."

All of these ideas are examples of how programming at the Mabee aquatic center has grown over the years. While some classes may have a very specific group of participants in mind, Swendig resists alienating other groups.

"With the additional pools and the number of expanding classes, we've been able to get very specific with all of our population," he says. "For us, that's the biggest thing. We have really appropriate classes for all people in all levels. When we first started, that was certainly not the case."

Regular surveys of the center's clientele helped with that process. Of the center's 1,100 members, more than 700 responded to the last survey—a startling amount considering a mere 10 percent response rate would be labeled successful.

"They told us where they feel they're not getting what they would like and what's good," Swendig says. "They were very candid about it, and I would say that's really the best way to do it."

Once the programs have been created, Swendig promotes them through occasional advertising, word of mouth and promotional materials sent to schools.

"We've been around long enough," he says. "We're well enough accepted through various other entities in the city that if we wanted to send something home through the schools, the schools are very cooperative, and so is the parks and rec department."

Special Events Programming

These events won United States Water Fitness Association's (USWFA) awards for their execution:

  • Aquatic Spring Events

    Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss.

    A variety of competitions including relay races, aqua-chute races, water-walking, water volleyball, rickshaw races and more

  • Wellness Lotto/National Aquatics Week

    Sioux Valley Hospital Medical Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.

    Patrons received a lottery ticket teach time they exercised.

  • Healthy Kids Day

    Marshfield Area YMCA in Marshfield, Wis.

    Snorkeling, boating safety, games, healthy snacks and more for kids

  • Aqua Carnival

    Sporthaven Health Club in Paradise, Calif.

    A community-oriented event including family games and prizes

  • Workout Against Breast Cancer

    Safety Harbor Resort & Spa in Safety Harbor, Fla.

    Three-hour water class that included aerobics, strength and toning

  • Cops for Kids

    Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans

    Worked with the police department to instruct inner-city youth about water safety, exercise and swimming techniques

  • Summer Rewards Program

    The Club at Ricochet in South Plainfield, N.J.

    Members check in every time they worked out, and after eight visits they earned a prize grab-bag and entry to a grand-prize drawing.

  • YMCA Splash Week

    Sewickley Valley YMCA in Sewickley, Pa.

    A week of free swimming instruction and water-safety training for kids ages 3 to 12

To learn about other winning programs,

For a health club (albeit one affiliated with a hospital), HealthBridge Fitness Center has a large aquatics facility: a six-lane, 25-meter lap pool; a u-shaped, zero-depth-entry leisure pool and a warm-water therapy pool. Kids' swim lessons and group-fitness classes take place in the leisure pool. With so much space, HealthBridge is a busy place.

"It's actually going pretty much around the clock," Kozak says. Their programs earned HealthBridge a top-20 spot in 2003's USWFA's aquatic programming awards.

There are the usual exercise-based programs for group fitness (including choreographed classes and cross-training), but then there's water tai chi and prenatal classes. There are also a number of therapeutic classes for arthritis (two levels), multiple sclerosis, low-back problems and range of motion. Of them all, arthritis reigns as king.

"It's very popular," Kozak says. "In certain ones we're still turning people away."

Sometimes the programs can be victims of their own success. People who take the low-back class often fix their problems and thus don't need the class anymore.

"With other programs, we just keep changing the formats and keep it interesting so they keep coming back," Kozak says. "A lot of people have to work out in the water due to knee or hip issues, so that's why we offer a lot of these classes, but the general fitness classes, your Average Joe off the track just wants to change it up, so we make it fun and exciting."

To keep things fun and exciting, Kozak listens to member comments and keeps up on industry developments. She also likes to see what other clubs offer.

"If I'm out and about and on vacation or just visiting somewhere," she says, "I pick up schedules and read their class descriptions and see if it's something that I think would work in my facility."

In addition, she takes the usual steps: continuing education, lots of reading and attending various industry events. Staying current is key in generating good programming ideas.

"You just have to re-evaluate and take a look at current trends and adapt your program to what's going on," Las Vegas's Irvine says. "If you've got something good, don't change it."

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