Special Supplement: A Complete Guide to Aquatic Centers
Just Add Water
By Kelli Anderson
The basic ingredients for any good aquatic center may be design, maintenance, programming and safety, but as any great cook will tell you, a dish is only as good as the quality of its ingredients. Shortchange any one of them, and you end up with a poor product. Choose your ingredients wisely, and even the most ordinary dish becomes superb.
For aquatic centers—the recreational darlings of an American population always clamoring for more—size and age do not necessarily determine popularity or success. Attention to detail, from the very beginning, however, does.
Good design comes from plans and ideas derived from users, staff and reputable designers with a proven track record. Developing a theme for that overall design is one effective way to create a memorable identity with the community.
Sources for a theme can come from just about anywhere your imagination can take you—animals, nautical, fantasy, local iconic features, geographical regions, historical landmarks or ethnic heritage, to name a few.
Whether from the excitement of a treasured pirate cove to the feel-good roots of North-Woods-rustic, themes can corral facility design ideas into a unified whole. Signage, names of concession items, colors, aquatic features, programming choices, landscaping and staff uniforms all can become extensions of a themed design and really help a facility standout.
Good design also incorporates good flow. Louder areas of a natatorium filled with squeals and screams from thrill-rides should be designated to be a good distance away from areas where more leisurely users congregate—decks, lounge areas, whirlpools and lazy rivers. The challenge is to also provide layouts that allow caregivers to keep track of children with plenty of seating and views around the action.
For many facilities, good design also requires planning for multiple use. Although studies have shown that greater amounts of recreational use provide greater monetary returns (which increase recovery costs of construction, reduce subsidy rates and increase revenues), aquatic centers should not ignore the need to accommodate lap swimmers and competitive users.
In an ideal situation (read: healthy budget), aquatic centers can plan for multiple pools designated for around-the-clock recreational activity, lessons, competitive use and rentals for parties. With multiple pools, there are many obvious advantages. Revenue-producing recreation can continue without interruption, special-event rentals can be relegated to a portion of the facility instead of requiring a complete shutdown, and even repairs of these separate systems can be done without having to inconvenience all the users.
If budgets won't budge, however, or if expanding an existing facility is not an option, there are some modest and creative ways to design for multiple use. Recreational features like water slides with separate run-outs are a great solution to a multitasking dilemma. They don't take up much additional space, are relatively affordable and allow some recreational activity to continue while other programming takes place.
Swim-in-place systems for lap swimmers are another way to add a lap-lane element to your facility when space is a premium. For the DesPeres Community Center in St. Louis, the wave pool was designed to change into a lap pool with the flip of a switch. Depending on what elements your users want most will determine how much space and how many elements you will need to take into consideration.
Design should take into account all the senses—sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. For indoor pools, air-quality probably tops the list of sensory concerns.
For the enclosed facility, HVAC systems, and competent maintenance staff to go with them, are a fresh-air must. HVACs should be included with the initial design of the facility to ensure that ductwork is properly positioned. Chlorine gasses, heavier than air, hover above pool water and are most effectively removed by ducts placed at ground level.
As any aquatic center manager knows, enclosed facilities fight a constant battle of humidity and chlorine-induced corrosion. Regulating air quality is essential to keeping clients comfortable and surfaces free of rust and costly maintenance headaches.
"The importance of air quality for indoor aquatic facilities can't be over emphasized," says Chris Stuart, director of aquatics and corporate safety director for the Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, Va. "You have to have proper ventilation—it's probably the biggest indoor issue."
The air purging system used by the Great Wolf Lodge facility is controlled by the touch of a button and can purge the building's air within minutes. According to Stuart, the system was used successfully several times during the facility's first summer of operation this past year.
For facilities looking for the temperature control of the great indoors but without all the air-quality issues that come with it, natatoriums with clear-panel, retractable roofs are another good solution.
Letting the bad air literally "go through the roof" can be a much cheaper way to regulate the air quality of an essentially indoor pool. In addition, it also adds the sun's natural ability to break down chlorine to the manager's arsenal of chloramine-fighting weapons.
For warm climates, cooling systems can be aided by the insulating properties of large-pane polycarbonate. For seasonal climates, clear-panel roofing systems allow HVAC systems to operate only a portion of the year. In both scenarios, facilities can see a significant HVAC-system savings in both monthly utility bills and in maintenance costs.
Enclosed pools also have the advantage of creating a year-round swimming season—a real boon to areas where climates become either oppressively hot or too cold. Increased revenues from year-round use and expanded programming usually will more than cover the initial investment of enclosing a pool.
Although not permanent, an inflatable dome, which usually lasts about 10 years, is another enclosure option that may also give a community the programming and year-round revenue-building power to eventually consider a more permanent enclosure solution.
In any case, enclosed pools, whether crystal palaces, brick and mortar, or rising like a bubble on the landscape, all provide a marketing advantage—they're visible.
It helps if being visible also includes looking good.
"To look good is to feel good," a piece of comic wisdom à la Billy Crystal, apparently holds true for buildings as well as people. Designing an aquatic facility that looks good can translate into client's feeling good about coming back. It also can work as built-in marketing for your aquatic programs.
Paying attention to the color scheme, quality and variety of lighting elements, landscaping both indoors and out, and finishing materials (touches of wood, stone or steel, to name a few) will provide effective eye-candy even if used sparingly. In all these elements, consistency to create a cohesive look and good placement will more than make up for quantity.
Making a good impression also means putting a lot of emphasis and design energy into the entrance and changing areas. Whether installing a striking reception desk or check-in counter with drop-pendant lighting or just hiding clutter with a colorful band of cloth from a hanging banner, paying attention to what your clients perceive at the beginning of their aquatic experience is thoughtful planning time and money well spent.
Changing areas, often a budgetary afterthought, actually can be the space where aquatic centers separate the proverbial men from the boys, so to speak. If glass tile, multiple showerheads and spa-like amenities are part of the parting experience, clients are sure to notice, appreciate and return.
Even if upscale is not in your budget, there's nothing to keep a facility from considering the atmospheric effects of up lighting, well-placed plants, or creative and colorful textured flooring. Add family changing areas with roomier grooming spaces, enlarged lockers, and private rooms with a toilet, sink and shower stall for family users or those with special needs like the elderly, and you'll create long-term devotees.
It's no secret that changing areas, shower areas and restrooms can be challenging spaces. They must be designed to withstand the harsh, waterlogging environment and stand up to heavy use—all while looking good and staying clean. Choosing elements that are durable, bacteria-resistant and easy to maintain will help make this intimate environment a comfortable and attractive one.
Starting from the bottom, flooring choices need to take slip-resistance, bacteria-resistance and comfort into account. Textured cement floors, for example, can look good with an infinite variety of staining and integral color choices and be easy to clean with a hose. Epoxy coatings can add a splash of color as well as a bacteria-resistant factor.
Tiled floors, an attractive and durable choice, also can clean up well, especially if walls are coved, and grout is sealed properly to resist stains. Bacteria-resistant floor mats can go anywhere, making a more comfortable choice especially in shower areas, whereas even shorter-lived but comfy carpets designed for pool environments are great for dryer (read: not-so-squishy) changing or grooming areas.
Sinks, lockers and toilet partitions also need to be selected based on durability, design and, of course, cost. But choosing basic and durable materials doesn't have to be institutional. Adding amenities such as suit dryers, hair dryers, and dispensers of shampoos and soaps along with attention to service-oriented details like efficient towel supplies will help users feel well cared for. This is especially true when the environment is kept clean and clear of debris.
The visual impact of an aquatic center—both outside and inside—acts much like the appetizer before a good meal. It builds the anticipation for the rest of the patron's experience. When so much energy, time and money go into creating an aquatic facility, it makes sense that keeping it in top form becomes a top priority.
Maintenance strategies, especially proactive ones, will not only save the day but save money in the long run, as well. For some managers, proactive planning is a natural byproduct of a detail-oriented personality. For others, it is a matter of sheer discipline.
First steps for good maintenance include an effective inspection and evaluation process followed by workload cost tracking to formulate accurate budgeting forecasting for needed upkeep and replacement costs. Gathering information on the condition and status of your aquatic facility involves developing an inspection program that includes input from customers and especially the oft-neglected staff.
Surveys of customers, hourly pool checks, daily walkabouts, and following manufacturer's guidelines for inspections and treatments of the HVAC or filtration systems should be part of the calendar schedule. Resulting information should culminate in an annual evaluation to measure successes and determine which areas need to be addressed or improved.
Once a standard has been determined at which the facility needs to be kept to everyone's satisfaction, costs associated with that standard need to be calculated. Enter workload cost tracking, an invaluable tool no facility manager should be without.
By understanding and putting on paper the costs associated with regular maintenance upkeep as well as eventual larger maintenance costs of repair and replacement, workload cost tracking enables the manager to create a realistic budget that maintains and forecasts for rainy-day eventualities. And remember, maintenance costs need to include man-hours as well as equipment use and supplies in order to develop an all-encompassing maintenance plan.
Another essential component of the proactive approach to maintenance also involves goal-setting. Having goals enables managers to set priorities to know which maintenance needs must be addressed first if push comes to shove. Obviously, safety is the first priority.
Checklists, certified and well-chosen staff, good equipment, and attention to detail are yet more invaluable components of maintenance done right. Good communication to ensure that nothing is falling between the gaps is what makes it all possible.
According to Alison Osinski, Ph.D., owner of Aquatic consulting Services in San Diego, having a point-person to confirm that weekly duties are being performed via checklists and that daily operating procedures are being followed are vital to a good maintenance operation.
Checklists should be used for every job, ranging from housekeeping duties of restroom attendants to hourly water checks. Checklists also should be used for the annual maintenance events that are determined by the monthly walk-throughs and staff meetings.
Even if all maintenance duties are performed like clockwork, no materials last forever. Eventual replacements and an industrial-sized "spring cleaning" are a given. For many facilities, these big jobs are best tackled with an annual shutdown makeover.
Although some annual jobs are routine, such as draining the pools, other maintenance projects (like replacing worn-out carpeting, resurfacing deteriorating decks, and repairing or renovating aging pool surfaces) are ideal for this once-a-year, patron-less opportunity. And when the doors reopen, be sure to have included projects the patrons will be sure to notice and admire.
When the time comes to replace or repair a pool surface, several considerations need to be taken into account before making that final decision. Leaks can be patched only for so long before resurfacing becomes necessary. Some pools can be sandblasted, resurfaced with tile or painted with epoxy to address needs.
Concrete, of course, is very durable but can expand and crack over time. Tile, one of the more expensive and beautiful options, will require regrouting every 10 to 20 years. Plaster, also a very traditional choice, requires patching after about 10 years and creates sediment as the surface wears away. Fiberglass, a more affordable material in the short-term and which cleans easily, is not typically as durable and may not perform well in colder climates. New pool liners are also a viable option.
When it came time for the competitive, Olympic-size pool at Oklahoma Community College (host of the NCAA Mountain West Conference) to be resurfaced, several key considerations went into the surfacing selection process. Among those criteria were a long warranty and more comfortable surface to eliminate foot injuries caused by a rough-textured pool bottom.
"We started with an Olympic, plaster pool that we've had 14 years; even with the best of care, it was 10 years before we were patching," says Gary Belcher, building maintenance operations supervisor with the college. "It came down to longevity, money, ease of cleaning, algae-resistance and comfortable surface texture. We got a PVC membrane. It took 10 days to do it, they adhered it to the surface, and we got a 25-year warranty. It's really nice."
No matter the surfacing material of your pool, there's no substitute for good maintenance practices, the result of dedicated staff plus solid teamwork. Valuing maintenance staff appropriately with a team-building approach will communicate respect and result in greater effectiveness and pride of work. If skills are valued and input is asked for, staff members will respond with professionalism—they generally rise to the level at which they are treated.
Be on a first-name basis and do lunch from time to time with those who take care of your building. Managers who do, like Jeff Walter, assistant director at McLane Student Life Center of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, will tell you it's one of the best things a manager can do.
When it comes to water-quality control, staff members need to be ever vigilant.
"We have an engineer constantly on the job—looking at motors, valves, oiling—they're always on it," says Perry Kanelos, director of aquatics at Timber Ridge Lodge and Waterpark at Grand Geneva's Moose Mountain Falls in Lake Geneva, Wis. "They have to be A.F.O.- and C.P.O.-certified."
Water-quality maintenance, central to preventing corrosion from wreaking havoc on everything from stainless-steel rails to filtration systems, must be handled by those who know how to control it. Veterans will tell you that even with today's automated systems, checking pool samples by hand is still a fail-safe way to ensure all systems are go. Only trained staff can know how to evaluate and treat the complexities of ph, total alkalinity, total dissolved solids, temperature and calcium hardness.
Another essential staffing choice is in the area of safety—lifeguards. With the safety of patrons a paramount responsibility, it remains a surprising fact, based on reports of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that even where required, about one in four operators do not have proper training. Certified, well-trained lifeguards are assets every public aquatic center should not be without.
Although certification differs depending on the type of aquatic facility, with waterparks often using Ellis & Associates, municipal pools using the American Red Cross, or agencies using the YMCA, principles of practice and evaluation are very similar.
"We use Ellis & Associates for our training program," Stuart says. "We have to meet the 10/20 rule where our lifeguards see if they can see the problem in 10 seconds and get to the zone in 20." Zones, areas patrolled by a lifeguard, are determined by whether staff can see the top and bottom of a zone and their ability to get potential victims out of the water in 30 seconds.
Because light and glare changes during the day and with the seasons, zones should be evaluated continually for line of sight.
"We have zone validation every month," Stuart says. "It changes. Glare changes. Are there few people in the park? Lots? It's an ongoing evaluation to make sure you have good protection."
Good staff also requires good evaluation with an auditing system. Lifeguards should be assessed regularly for qualities like good head motion, walking their routes and watching their water. Although Ellis & Associates audits three or four times per year, Stuart audits his lifeguards even more frequently, believing that more audits and four hours of service training every month will ensure even higher quality work.
"It all comes down to watching their water," Stuart says. "With lifeguarding there's never slack time. Anything can happen at any time, so we have to be ready all the time."
At Moose Mountain Falls, Kanelos makes sure they know what can happen by showing training videos and daily reviews of CPR. Like the Great Wolf Lodge, staff members are audited frequently with various incognito methods, including the use of video cameras.
To stay in top form, lifeguards should have ongoing evaluation and training. They also must keep on the move. The Five-Minute Scanning Strategy, which teaches that lifeguards should adjust their posture or change their scanning pattern every five minutes, helps them stay alert.
In instances where it is difficult to see underwater, such as in lazy rivers obscured by inner tubes or glare from glass structures, some facilities are finding the use of underwater surveillance cameras to be a helpful solution. Although these systems are not intended to replace lifeguards, they can be valuable tools in the prevention of drowning.
According to latest statistics, minorities and underprivileged children have a 40 percent higher rate of drowning, with Native Americans ranking the highest, closely followed by African-Americans. The most common denominator in the many factors contributing to this inequity is lack of funds to pay for swimming lessons.
Some facilities, such as the Jack Nelson Swim School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., are taking on the challenge by offering scholarships to minority or underprivileged children to help put an end to this alarming trend. Education—swim instruction—is certainly the best prevention for these drowning tragedies.
In fact, drowning is at the top of the list when it comes to safety issues, followed closely by electrocution, recreational water illness (RWI), entrapment, diving injuries, and slips and falls, all of which demand careful planning and preventative measures.
In the case of electricity, extreme caution should be taken around the pool and wet areas. Even extension poles, when being used to help a swimmer or for maintenance use, can become deadly if they come into contact with any electrical equipment near the water.
For the safest bet, radios, fans, light fixtures, televisions or any electrically powered appliances, unless approved for poolside use, should be far removed from a pool area. Nearest electrical outlets should be at a recommended minimum of 10 feet from a pool and should be protected by ground fault circuit interrupters in the event that a cord is damaged.
Entrapment—which occurs when a body part or hair gets caught in the forceful suction of a pool drain causing injury, evisceration or drowning—is another safety hazard that can be prevented easily. Drain-cover inspection should be part of a daily checklist regimen to ensure that drain covers are secure. At the first sign of a crack, deterioration or discoloration, a drain cover should be replaced immediately.
Mike Low, an educator and expert on entrapment prevention, also recommends cleaning out the skimmers and hair lint traps regularly. If blocked with debris, skimmers and traps increase suction on the drain to dangerous levels. Keeping people away from drains through signage and vigilant lifeguards provides yet another layer of protection.
Measures such as education, daily drain and trap inspections, and signage are all part-and-parcel of an effective entrapment-prevention plan. However, in the event that entrapment occurs, two other measures also are essential—emergency shut-off buttons and vacuum-release systems.
Nearby shut-off buttons certainly make a lot of sense in order to manually shut down pumps when entrapment occurs. However, many deaths and injuries occur because potential rescuers are not nearby or are unaware that there is a problem until it is too late. A vacuum-release system stops a pump as soon as it detects an increase in vacuum suction, in essence stopping entrapment in its tracks.
Another area that demands vigilance by both lifeguards and management is the prevention of diving accidents. Clearly visible information and markings like pool-bottom lines, depth markings and signage are vital to alert swimmers of diving conditions or prohibitions.
Changes in diving regulations by many high-school interscholastic associations from 3.5-foot depths to 8-foot depths have prompted facility managers to move starting blocks to the deep ends of their pools. For older pools where depths may not reach 8 feet, diving has been prohibited all together to avoid injuries or costly litigation.
Underscoring the diving dangers, some agencies are even more stringent, such as the American Red Cross that insists that diving should not be taught except in depths of 9 feet.
However, it is not only the depths posing a danger but also the diving methods that create the problem.
"Steering up" is a diving technique that counters the traditional diving method where arms are pulled back after entering the water, exposing the head to potential collision. Instead, steering up teaches divers to keep arms forward until the beginning of the ascent.
Education, whether involving diving skills, swimming lessons or water safety, is central to aquatic center programming. And although education remains key, programming is taking on a whole new look with the addition of leisure-centered activities and even non-water related events. In short, programming is shifting toward an emphasis on entertainment. Make it fun, and they will come.
Leading the cheering section on programming-turned-entertainment, is Judith Leblein-Josephs, operations analyst at Water Technology Inc. in Wayne, N.J., who reasons that just as resorts and cruise ships gather in the crowds like a modern-day pied-piper, so too can aquatic facilities. Education doesn't have to mean boring, and it doesn't have to be limited to water.
"The goal is to entertain guests," Leblein-Josephs says. "Consider yourself as a resort where people go to be entertained."
Think: Anything a cruise ship can do, aquatic centers can do too—and even make a little money while doing it. Chair massages around the poolside can provide a welcomed moment of relaxation for a tired parent. Face-painting elicits giggles and provides colorful fun for the kids. Specialty beverage areas can replicate a coffeehouse coziness or an exotic tropical oasis.
Partnering with local businesses can add to the aquatic repertoire. Bringing in a bookstore selection of latest top-selling books and magazines to sell, having a lending library program or offering an area for a book exchange can provide poolside reading options.
And who needs to stop there? Programming can create communities of like interest: book clubs, child play groups and gardening clubs. You name it. Activities can go well beyond the boundaries of the pool. Story hours and videos can be included in the fun.
At Moose Mountain Falls, an obsolete workout space near the natatorium was converted to a movie room where daily film listings and craft activities for kids provided an additional option for aquatic visitors.
"You have to keep them busy," Kanelos says. "Activities—always have more and not all necessarily in the water. It helps."
Performances and demonstrations also can bring 'em in. Fashion shows, martial-arts demonstrations and classes, and even little theater productions all can be part of the poolside offerings. Bringing in experts from the community to show off their talents and promote their organizations and businesses is a great way to get a broad range of selections.
Drawing from the skills of your employees provides yet another resource. Gardening tips or teaching the art of good time management to a population desperate to get their schedules under control are just some of the how-tos many aquatic centers can offer.
Schools of thought on successful programming may seem to differ. Some say "entertain." Some say "educate." Fun education might be the successful sum total of both. Similarly, some say
"specialize" while others say "diversify," when in fact, successful programming is the combination of both—teach to a very specific audience and teach to all audiences. It's a tall order, but it works.
If a senior retirement community is nearby, senior programs are bound to be a sure thing. If neighborhoods surround you, family programs for parents and kids will fly. If you're near a college town or bustling urban center, programs for young fitness- and socially minded singles may be a good bet.
Programs that target specific groups while offering something for every group have proven to be a winning strategy for many aquatic centers. Good programming is so vital, in fact, that when programming works, expensive bells and whistles may not necessarily have to. That's good news for facilities struggling to compete with less-than-updated designs and challenging news for facilities hoping to rely on just the latest thrill ride.
Good programming begins with good radar. Managers need to know what the community wants, where interests lie and what trends are hot. It's a good idea to be talking to customers, to take regular surveys and to pay attention to comment cards to learn what's on people's minds. It's also a good idea to see what's working for other facilities.
Make program scouting a part of your mindset—wherever you go, stop in at other clubs and facilities and check out their schedules and class descriptions for new ideas. Take continuing education courses, attend industry events and read up on the latest industry developments.
After taking the pulse of the community, taking stock of trends and then deciding to develop a particular class, there still remains the problem of communication. What do you call it? How do you get the word out that it exists?
"What's in a name?" is no idle question. Facilities often find that certain words trigger negative reactions from customers or cause confusion over whom the class is for or what it's about. Being specific helps, but sometimes it's just a matter of trial and error. For example, if the word "therapy" is used to name a warm-water exercise class for seniors, some might not think the class pertains to them because they are not in need of "therapy"—nor do they consider themselves "senior." Some bristle at such labels.
Other program names may imply a problem people do not want to be associated with—even the word "fit" in a class name can imply that suitable participants must be "unfit" or overweight and deter potential customers. Aged-based classes for middle-aged groups are a surefire miss if words like "40 and over" are used to describe this demographic reluctant to embrace their middle-child status in the aging lineup.
Conversely, some facilities have had success in selecting names people do want to be associated with such as designating a children's swim class as a "team" even when it is not about competition. Adjust as necessary. Be a mind-reader if you can.
Juggling a full programming load is yet another challenge. Prioritizing is a good place to start, with classes usually coming in first. Club teams and special requests can be accommodated beyond that. For aquatic centers with multiple pools, scheduling without interrupting recreational time—a major breadwinner—is ideal. However, if one pool is required to be all things to all people, multitasking is the next best thing.
"We divided our pool into six zones," says Jared Keeling, director of parks and recreation for Republic, Mo., of the newly opened Republic Aquatic Center. "We have splash time at the same time as aerobics and lap swim. The only thing you'd think is a problem is the sound level—but we've had no complaints."
With open hours from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. and evenings several nights per week, the Republic Aquatic Center has multitasked its mornings with a combination of lap swims, aerobics classes and splash play. During lessons, the pool is sectioned off into four or five zones to let different skill levels learn at the same time in different depths of water.
Efficiency in the water—helping more people use lap lanes while staying out of other people's way—is another approach to maximize your programming space and time. Although it takes a little training and some clearly understood signage to teach swimmers to practice the rules of lap-lane etiquette, the rewards are well worth it.
"Just a few shared conventions—observed by everyone—can go a long way towards making lap swimming safer, more pleasant and more efficient for all," says Art Hutchinson, author of "Lap Swimming Etiquette 101," a Web site (www.cartegic.com/pooletiquette.htm) dedicated to the improvement of the lap-swim experience. When techniques and rules are understood and practiced, lap swim becomes a smooth and well-synchronized operation.
When it comes to choosing from the virtual smorgasbord of programming options, ranging from swim lessons to fitness to therapy, the choices are dizzying. Age groups, special needs and seasons of life, such as pregnancy or parenting of young children and teens, determine the purpose. Finding enthusiastic, equipped staff for a particular class or program determines the practical feasibility.
Probably the most difficult group to reach is the teen scene. With hormones in flux affecting everything from cognitive reasoning to a search for identity, this is a fickle lot who's hard to please and even harder to figure out.
One thing we do know is that is that they're looking for a social experience. Typically, teens want a place they can claim as their own, off and away from parents and younger children. A different but visually accessible area is preferred.
Because teens gravitate to all-things-adrenaline, finding them near deep water, wave pools and speed slides is a pretty good bet. A well-designed natatorium will strive to separate these high-excitement areas from the shallower, low-key tot areas and adult-beckoning lounge spaces.
Such an intentional separation of activity levels has the additional benefit of appealing to teens who want a space less frequented by adults and small children. Likewise, social spaces for teens like sunning decks also need to be set apart from kiddie-locales but still be supervised, however inconspicuously.
Trying to engineer social activities or special events for teens, however, is a hit-or-miss endeavor. "Teen nights" are by no means a sure thing with some facilities throwing in the towel after several unsuccessful attempts while others, with persistent tweaking, do manage to strike it rich.
The addition of live music has been known to help. Whether a battle-of-the-bands attraction or just a local band playing at a teen-focused special event, live music has, at times, made a positive difference. For others, it's the addition of a big-screen TV or waterproof video-game system. Add to those the usual offerings of food, beverages and the option to swim, and the rate of success may be turned in your favor.
Another group eager to socialize—and thankfully more easily understood—are the seniors. Unlike teens, seniors tend to look for less noise and avoid commotion. Classes for age-related ailments like arthritis and stroke or classes to keep age at bay and retain range of motion like water aerobics and warm-water fitness are well-suited to a new senior population who has paid attention to fitness all their lives.
In a recent publication of research findings by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), ACE predicts an increase in specialized fitness programming for older adults in 2006. Such programming, the report contends, will "help fight osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, keeping the body more limber, stabilizing joints and lowering the risk of everyday injury." Water-based fitness, of course, is one of the healthiest modes of reaching those goals.
As the population also continues to report record-high obesity levels and risk for diseases like diabetes, families, too, are getting on the aquatic fitness wagon. However, programming to suit such multigenerational needs can be tricky.
Thinking outside the box, management at J.E. Mabee Memorial Aquatic Center in Midland, Texas, tried offering a one-stop shopping model to parents who's children ordinarily would be at several different activities at once like gymnastics and swimming. Another similar program was developed to offer cross-training classes of swimming, weightlifting and running. Results were initially marginal, but sensing that they were on to a good thing, the staff continued to adjust the programming, looking for just the right combination.
Offering good child care as well as swim classes and activities that involve both parent and child are other ways to keep families from balking at fitness opportunities. Creative pairings of popular parent-and-child workouts (like StrollerFit or yoga) with pool activities offered as a relaxing chaser give busy families an all-in-one experience and give moms, eager to shed baby-weight, a chance to get fit without leaving baby behind.
Creating programming that reaches out to women often involves much more than just exercise. Classes not only should cover physical fitness but can be designed to meet social, psychological and emotional needs as well. Add to that the season-of-life issues of pregnancy, postpartum and menopause, and programming options are virtually limitless.
Pregnancy, the physical changes and effects of which women once tried to disguise, has had a particularly noticeable "coming out" as highly visible celebrity pregnancies have become standard front-page news.
This celebration of pregnancy provides plenty of programming fodder on which aquatic facilities can feed. Combining aquatic sessions with the opportunity for women to discuss their pregnancy-related challenges through informative classes in a supportive environment with others like themselves is appealing to women who normally easily can become isolated during this time of life.
Following the lead of women-only fitness facilities who have tapped into what women want, programs can be developed that offer socialization and moral support during exercise or integrate aquatic fitness with elements of nutrition, psychology, beauty and fashion. A one-stop lifestyle shop is ideal for a generation of women with busy schedules.
However, be sure not to overlook child-care options and family changing rooms, which, if neglected, are a deal-breaker for most women who crave the opportunity to be fit but who need child-friendly environments to accomplish it.
Programming for patrons with special needs is another consideration. Whereas classes for the severely disabled may be first to come to mind and probably would constitute a small percentage of the community requiring only one or a few classes, don't forget the opportunity to reach out to the growing and larger percentage of those with less visible but very real disabilities as well.
Special-needs programming can be successful not only in regular class scheduling but as part of less-frequent special events programming too, for example, when special-needs day camps include occasional activities at the pool.
But not all kids or their parents want to be placed in groups for special needs. In fact, with inclusion or mainstreaming as the law, combined with the fact that 80 percent of children choose inclusion if given a choice, embracing inclusion just makes sense.
But it's not always easy.
Getting beyond a separate-but-equal mentality of years past may be difficult, but to truly incorporate special-needs patrons into programs, it is necessary. Facilities that have been recognized for their outstanding achievements in the area of inclusion have learned that the entire staff needs to develop an inclusive mindset—one that does not expect special needs only to be handled by a select few.
Training can come from many sources, from the school-of-hard-knocks observations of other facilities to attending courses like the annual National Recreation and Parks Association's National Institute on Recreation Inclusion (NIRI). Private consultants also can be used to teach similar materials, while some universities offer courses on inclusion.
Ultimately, if the ingredients of design, maintenance, staffing and programming are well-chosen and well-executed, together they should combine to create an aquatic center recipe for success.
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