Special Supplement: A Complete Guide to Aquatic Centers
By Jessic Royer Ocken
Of course you're anxious to get right to the good stuff and see your new facility take shape, but hold on a minute. Many of the most important decisions will be made before anything at all has been built. In fact, your planning process (or lack thereof) can seal the fate of your facility.
One of the most important considerations is the effect your proposed project will have on existing budgets, according to Dave Burbach, president of Burbach Aquatics, a Platteville, Wis., design firm whose clients are usually local units of government. "We custom-tailor an expenditure budget and revenue budget for each client," he explained. "You've got to do planning first. I would say that in many cases, planning takes from one to three years."
And Burbach Aquatics is not alone in this perspective. "We try to make sure to build the right facility," said William Yarger of Yarger Design Group, a Manchester, Mo.-based firm that's been creating theme parks and recreation and aquatic centers for some 30 years. "We do a feasibility study up front. We first look at the population, the climate, the number of people who will be coming and, competitively, what other kinds of recreation venues are around in the area," Yarger explained. "What do the neighbors have? Why would people come to this facility versus where they're already going?"
What's already established in your area should dictate, at least to some extent, what you build so that people have an assortment of choices. "Usually if a [pool facility] is remodeling, it's because they've watched their attendance go down," Yarger said.
Rising maintenance costs and efforts also may be a signal that it's time to make a change. "If you don't differentiate [your facility], you end up competing for the same marketplace," Yarger noted. "It's really important to understand what you're putting in."
But back to budgeting for a moment. You don't want to drown in debt shortly after putting in your fantastic new pool. "Every community has limited funds, and if [your aquatic center] is not successful you'll have to subsidize it more and more because it's not bringing in revenue," Yarger said. "That's why we do feasibility studies."
And here's the part where your planning can save you, even if you don't get exactly what you want. "If [a community] knows up front what they think they want, and then can see that they won't be able to cover the costs, before they make any mistakes we can show them what to add to change the bottom line," Yarger said.
And the size of your community is a big factor in this, he noted. About 25,000 people are needed to support an aquatic center, and perhaps 50,000 for a fully equipped recreation center. "If the population is only 10,000 people, [we ask] what can they afford and what will they use?" he explained. "We try to help people understand that they're not just picking a design off the shelves."
Another important thing to plan for? The future. Right now it may seem incredibly exciting to be building a pool or adding a waterslide, but eventually this will be old news. And if more and more competition will be springing up in your area, you'll want to save a little something for further down the line. Many designers suggest that you plan to add a second phase or a few new elements in three to five years. This approach also makes you more able to respond to your community's changing needs. You may find a few years down the line that the population in your area has shifted, so it makes more sense to build a second facility at another location, rather than adding on in the same space.
"We're thinking big," said Aquatics Coordinator Tammy Hawkins about the City of Las Vegas' plans for the future of its aquatic centers. "Dual slides and rock climbers that go in the water, lily pads... We're looking at Raging Waters [a nearby waterpark] and some of the things they have on a smaller scale, some elements that can be removed for swim meets. Those are good to attract more people."
So now that it's time to build, how do you decide what you want?
"Most people are familiar with box-type pools, but in the last 16 years we've seen more zero-depth entry pools, waterslides and water features," said Roger Schamberger, director of marketing for Burbach Aquatics. "It's not enough to have a box pool, a concrete deck and a chain-link fence. These days you're serving a discerning crowd. You need grass, sand, a volleyball court and some play features."
What's driving these changes? A part of it is perhaps an altruistic desire to provide better entertainment opportunities for the community, but another part of it is most certainly something else. "Municipalities need to reduce their operating deficits," Burbach said. "One of the most effective ways to do this is to increase the recreational assets of any facility."
Additional features beyond just a concrete pool increase the "play value," Schamberger explained. "This expands the time pool patrons spend at the facility."
He noted that he's watched many aquatic centers go from having no snacks available to vending machines for soda and candy bars to full-service restaurants on site. "Planning for [these concession areas] parallels planning for the aquatic center," he said. "If planned correctly, both will perform and produce and hopefully generate a positive operating budget for the local unit of government."
Beyond the snacks, you want your facility to look like a fun place to be. Aquatic centers are "really important to quality of life in a community," Yarger noted. "They're happy buildings. Community centers and recreation centers are fun places. People want to go there."
Design with this happiness in mind, and the building itself can help attract visitors.
To that end, try to implement a "layering effect," Yarger suggested. "If you're working out, you want to be able to look over and see someone doing something else." Big windows and even glass walls can help create this sort of transparent environment, which not only comforts those who are exercising by showing them that others are suffering along with them, but also can introduce patrons who come in focused on one activity to all the other options available.
And what might those options be? New-generation swimming pools are styled to reach "the newly born and the nearly dead," Yarger said. The easier it is to enter and get familiar with the water, the more comfortable your guests (particularly the very young and the elderly) will be. Leisure pools with zero-depth entry have been popular in Europe for years and are now making a stateside splash.
"Where there's a shallow edging and a shoreline, you don't have to get into 4 or 5 feet of water right away," Yarger said. "You can get acquainted and go from there."
It's not just the shorelines that are shallower these days. Many pools are shrinking the deep end or forgoing it altogether in favor of more water recreation options. You can now build play elements and jungle gyms surrounded by just a few inches of water, Yarger explained.
If you've got competitive swimmers or those who love laps in your area, you may want to keep some obstacle-free, deeper water around, but "the battle is always how much," Yarger said. Even in the design phase, it's important to consider how your facility will be used.
Yarger cited a recent renovation project handled by his firm that helped transform a community pool complex with a 50-meter outdoor pool with diving boards, an instructional pool and what he referred to as a "urine puddle"-style baby pool. The renovation created a more entertainment-focused area by adding a small zero-depth-entry children's area, a second instructional pool, two body slides and a lazy river. These upgrades leave plenty of water available for competitive use, but they dramatically increase the amount of water for "casual" use.
Adding a theme is another fun way to get kids engaged with the water. The Yarger Design Group has done a "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" play area, complete with giant foam fish on the play elements, water sprays and overhead awnings with waves on them "so it appears that the kids are underwater looking up at the waves," Yarger explained. In Michigan, Avalanche Bay waterpark is styled to look like an Austrian village, which connects this watery play area to the nearby ski resort and the frequently wintry weather outside.
And speaking of waterparks, how do you decide whether to build a pool or go the more exotic route? "Usually a community pool doesn't have the extreme attractions that you'd find at a waterpark," Yarger noted. "A waterpark also draws from a larger area than a community pool."
In other words, waterparks are harder to come by, so people will be willing to travel a bit further for the experience. However, waterparks are rare birds because they up the ante in almost every category—from construction and maintenance costs to safety considerations and staffing needs. Depending on the size of your budget and your community, a waterpark might be a bit more than you've bargained for. However, most modern recreation-focused pool complexes borrow at least a few of their tricks from the waterpark world. You might consider a wave pool to add the motion of the ocean to your entertainment offerings or a lazy river to give tube riders and inflatable-float fans a place to bounce along.
For filtering your pool, your options are essentially the standards that have been available for a number of years, and if you have an older facility, you're likely already familiar with one of the following: Most commercial pool filtration systems use sand, cartridge-style filters or diatomaceous earth (DE) filters, which are definitely made of the coolest material—the fossilized skeletons of itty-bitty creatures.
Each generally works by drawing unfiltered water into the filter and sending filtered water, free of organic material and many bacteria, out the other side. As the filter fills up with debris, the pressure in the system rises, and you know it's time to clean things out.
Filter systems, especially the DE variety, can capture some remarkably small bacteria, and hopefully anything that zips through will be zapped by the sanitation system you have in place (more on this below) in short order. Over time, however, a few of the more wily germs have developed ways to elude chlorine, and if you don't have other sanitation options at the ready, your pool may have a problem.
To combat this situation, consider adding a coating to your filters. Coatings give your filter a positive charge, which helps it grab bacteria and viruses (that tend to have a negative charge) like a giant magnet. The Environmental Protection Agency recently approved a new particle-removal system product that even helps your filters contain the evil cryptosporidium—notorious for causing nasty illness outbreaks at sprayparks—as well as algae and E. coli.
Crypto germs come contained in a handy chlorine-resistant shell, so your best bet is to filter them out of the water altogether (or prevent them from getting there in the first place—see the section on safety for more on this). This improved ability to remove debris and germs from water also yields a clearer, less cloudy pool, and these products work with many existing filter systems.
But about that sanitizing. This is, of course, your other main line of defense against debris, disease and other potential water nastiness. The majority of pools still use chlorine, either gas or liquid, but even those old-school facilities can adopt an automated chlorine-delivery system. Automation helps regulate water chemicals and can mean less chlorine use and less labor for your staff.
Whether it's a full-sized pool, a hot tub or a wading pool, "more organizations, states and counties are requiring automatic feeders," said Tom Lachocki, president of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). "When you have automatic controllers and feeders, health codes allow those facilities to test the water manually less frequently, so you save on manpower. You do water chemistry to keep things sanitary based on present conditions and be sure you're not spreading infectious disease. No water is sterile that has people in it, but when you control the pH you make sure the pool has a greater likelihood of being compliant with water standards."
For those able to look toward the cutting edge, there are some other sanitizing options gaining ground on chlorine's market share. Salt-chlorine generators produce the tried-and-true pool-disinfecting substance (chlorine), but they create it by breaking down salt. At the end of the process, any leftover chlorine returns to the salt format. One manufacturer described the process as passing salt ions over specially coated blades, then adding an electrical charge, noting that salt-chlorine generators are by far the most popular means of sanitizing pools in Australia. In many cases salt is a cheaper substance to acquire than chlorine—and less hazardous, too.
Another alternative is an ozone system. Long used to sanitize municipal water, ozone can greatly reduce the amount of chlorine required when it is used as part of your pool-sanitizing mix. "We don't advocate ozone alone, but we have found that when you use ozone in combination with chlorine, you can use a lot less chlorine. In some cases you can reduce it by as much as 80 percent," explained Kevin Caskey, a microbiologist who works with a manufacturer of ozone systems for swimming pools.
"Ozone is a great disinfectant. It kills [germs] and destroys a lot of things quickly. It just penetrates the cell wall of bacteria and destroys it," he said.
With such a system, pool water passes through tubing where it is mixed with tiny bubbles of ozone and disinfected. But after doing this work, ozone doesn't hang around in the water like chlorine does, so you need a bit of chlorine as a second line of defense. However, with a lot of the water's organic contaminants (sweat, urine, fecal matter) knocked out in this initial treatment, the remaining chlorine has less to do. It takes a bit of new plumbing and some extra equipment to add an automated ozone system to your pool, but in the long run, you might decide it's worth it.
Other newer types of sanitizing systems use ultraviolet light, minerals or silver and copper ions to kill bacteria, but you should consult with your pool's designer and maintenance staff to determine what's best for you.
"At Burbach we tend to recommend filtration systems that are easy to maintain, with fiberglass or plastic components," Burbach noted. "With disinfectants there are many styles and concepts. Some people say chemicals are the only way to go. Others say to use UV and ozone generators. There are lots of methods, but primarily we still rely on very proven and easy-to-maintain systems."
If your staff is mostly seasonal and relatively inexperienced in pool sanitation, ease of use may be your primary concern. However, with a more experienced year-round maintenance team in place (and perhaps a larger budget), you may have your pick of systems.
The move toward more automated systems may not only simplify your water sanitization process. If you've got an indoor facility, this can help with air quality as well.
New products on the market are designed to take indoor air samples and monitor the level of chloramines present. Chloramines are formed when the levels of "free" chlorine used to kill germs are not sufficiently high to oxidize natural waste products like sweat, body oil and urine. Instead of oxidizing these wastes, the too-low levels of chlorine combine with them to form chloramines.
When the levels of chloramines get too high—causing itchy eyes, dry skin and that infamous smell—the system sends a signal to your air-handling system and replaces as much air as needed to bring the chloramines back to a more pleasant plateau.
Over time, lower levels of chloramines may help reduce corrosion of your facility's components. Another benefit? A system like this ensures that you're replacing only the air you need to and avoids unnecessary heat loss when it's cold outside.
Other air systems are designed to keep a handle on humidity, which can be particularly unpleasant in facilities that are used for more than aquatic pursuits. The sensation of swimming in a rainforest atmosphere may be just fine, but if you're working out or attending a class in an adjacent area of the building, being damp and sticky is not likely to enhance the experience.
The newest of these dehumidifying systems also coordinate closely with the building's HVAC setup. The new Student Recreation Center at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., includes one of these systems, which keeps the building's weight rooms, climbing wall and exercise areas at a pleasant 55-percent relative humidity and recycles the heat generated in this process to warm the building and the water in the pool.
Once you're on the road to this sort of environmentally friendly efficiency, you may find it hard to stop. "We're working with the design and planning department on campus, and there's also an effort by students to make more of our buildings green and efficient," reported Joe R. Carter, director of university recreation at Appalachian State University. "We're wondering how to capture the evaporation lost in dehumidification."
If collected for a year, this water would be approximately equal to the 637,000 gallons it takes to fill the pool. "It's already being filtered, so if we could reclaim it, that would be a savings," Carter said.
"There's been a lot going on in the last 10 or 20 years with the emergence of waterparks," said Lachocki, of the NSPF.
The popularity of waterparks has led even community pools to look into incorporating some of these parks' exciting recreational features into their own facilities.
"There's lots of emphasis on fun, which gets people exercising," Lachocki said. "But in parallel there needs to be the study and assessment aspect: How do these [features] impact us from a safety standpoint? Sprayparks have become more popular, and the potential for drowning there is next to impossible, but there was one of the largest outbreaks in U.S. history at a New York sprayground last year because safety hasn't caught up."
Turns out that what keeps kids safe from drowning doesn't automatically keep them safe from waterborne illness. "The bottom line with [cryptosporidium, the germ to blame for several spraypark outbreaks] is that it's chlorine-resistant, so prevention is the best approach," Lachocki said. "If you've had diarrhea, don't go swimming."
Safety and sanitation systems are catching up quickly, and ultraviolet sanitization, which kills crypto almost on contact, is now mandated for New York sprayparks. But "not every pool can afford to do that, and it will be forever before all the pools have those types of systems in place," Lachocki noted. "UV, automatic controllers, those aren't enough. We need education, awareness building and changes in behavior to make sure people know how to minimize risk from a consumer standpoint. No one wants to go to the pool and get a rash or diarrhea. Once people recognize that swimming is essentially communal bathing, they'll catch on. If you have a potential disease, it's not a good idea to swim."
As you're navigating your way through these safety considerations, be sure to keep in touch with your insurance company and with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines for your area.
Terry Knapp, manager of an older pool in Midlothian, Ill., reported that she "deals with insurance a lot. They keep us on track as far as what needs to be done and what they're looking for in terms of OSHA and safety." Although this might be frustrating at times—you have to use the money in the budget to install new deck drains rather than add an additional slide—"their guidelines make it easy to come up with a plan," Knapp said. Better insured and compliant than closed.
Beyond the safety of the water, what about safety in the water? Your staff is trained in safety procedures, but what about those using the pool? Making sure pool patrons know the rules and meet basic requirements can help prevent accidents.
When camps or visitors from other park districts come to the Midlothian Park District pool, Knapp has them start with a pre-arranged water test. Kids line up with lifeguards and swim across the pool. Those who accomplish this with ease have full access to the three pools, but those who prove less proficient may be restricted to the junior pool or to water that comes up only to their chest. To avoid an undue burden on the lifeguards, Knapp also makes sure the counselors who brought the visiting kids know their limits, so they're partly responsible for enforcing the restrictions as well.
Safety is also important for staff working behind the scenes. In particular, the chemicals you keep on site are a potential danger to those not prepared to handle them.
At the Midlothian pool, liquid chlorine is kept in two 125-gallon tanks inside a locked room. The sanitation system is automated, "so the only reason staff would ever have to go in would be if we were getting a delivery," Knapp said. "And even then they wouldn't go in. They would just unlock and open the gate and door for the delivery person."
Goggles and gloves are at the ready for use when handling the chlorine, and in case of a spill, this area is a mere 6 feet from the edge of the pool. "In the event of a spill, that's their instruction," Knapp said. "Get into the pool for an immediate flush. It won't damage the pool or anyone in there, but it gets the chlorine off faster than going to the pumphouse for the hose."
The Midlothian pool also uses dry acid, which is kept in a 50-gallon bin behind the pumphouse. The staff's only duty related to this is to "open the padlock, lift two lids to look at the level, and if it's too low notify a manager," Knapp said.
Staff members must be 18 years old to perform this duty, they must always check the acid level in pairs, and they must wear tennis shoes, rather than flip flops. Within 15 minutes, if any of the acid's tiny sugary crystals have contacted skin, they'll begin to burn their way through. A hose is kept nearby in case of any accidents.
When it comes to safety, there's almost always something further to discuss, and the particular design and circumstances of your facility will dictate the areas that need the most attention. But to get an idea of other topics to consider, see our sidebar offering "More Suggestions for a Safe Pool."
With all these new features popping up around the pool, one you may be seeing less of is the diving board. A few well-publicized accidents and rising insurance costs have virtually eliminated this element from backyard pools, and some community pools have followed suit. But there are as many opinions on this matter as there are ways to bounce off the board with a crowd-drenching splash (something definitely not allowed much anymore), and your choice is likely highly dependent on your own situation. For your consideration, here's a sampling of opinions in the industry.
"With any type of activity, you do have the potential for accidents," said Burbach of Burbach Aquatics. "[However,] there's not a great deal of risk inherent with the more standardized recreational assets—lazy rivers, waterslides—as compared to a box pool. The activity in a box pool is diving."
But that doesn't mean Burbach is against diving. "At Burbach we design facilities with a 50-year life, and many times [we're designing them] for smaller towns that will have a single facility, so it needs to be multipurpose. Ninety-five percent of our facilities have diving designed into the project."
In other words, diving may be a bit on the outs now, but in a few years, who knows?
"In the 1920s, diving was low on the priority list and recreation was high," Burbach said. "Then during and after World War II, diving came back in. Trends come and go, just like water coming up on the beach. It comes in and recedes."
The NSPF's Lachocki noted that there are indeed fewer facilities with diving boards these days, and those that do have them are usually used for competition. "It's a safety consideration, as you need a sufficient water envelope to dive into, and you can make the pool larger to accommodate this, but then the cost goes up," he said.
However, not building a board doesn't necessarily remove you from all possibility of diving injuries. "It's also important to realize that most diving injuries don't occur where there's a board," Lachocki explained. "They're usually in shallow water and when the person is impaired in some way."
The Midlothian Park District pool is vintage-1960s and still includes a diving well. Although Knapp would like to remove the 1-meter board in favor of a slide, which she thinks a lot more visitors would be interested in, she has not been able to do so yet.
In the meantime, her solution is a strictly enforced set of rules. "You go straight off," she said. "No flips or anything fancy, and we have a weight limit for the board of 250 pounds. The fulcrum is set so you're not changing the spring. All these things take away from what a board should do if someone is trained, but since not everyone is..."
There's always a lifeguard assigned specifically to the diving well, and when the pool is especially full (such as when a day camp visits), Knapp adds another guard at a station on the other side of the well, and perhaps a walking guard as well.
"Most of our rescues are in the kids' pool or the diving well," she explained. If someone takes too long to resurface after a dive or seems disoriented at the surface, a guard steps in for the assist.
In Las Vegas, they love their diving boards.
"To be honest, 1-meter boards are fairly safe," Hawkins said. "We always staff a lifeguard in the diving wells, and they're open during recreational swim and during diving practice. They're only closed if we have a learn-to-swim program going on. We have very few accidents off the board in general."
She added, "This past summer at one pool, we had several little slips on the board. That was a case where the board needed to be resurfaced, so we're doing that before next summer. We have a 3-meter board at Municipal Pool and at our other Olympic-sized pool, and those are monitored more closely because they have an old-school ladder system, not like a stairway, and that's more dangerous. Most of those accidents occur when a kid gets up and decides not to go, then slips coming back down or falls off."
Diving rules are posted at every diving well, Hawkins explained. "The kids know the rules: one person on the board, only one bounce, no going off backwards," she said. "We tend to find that kids adapt to what the rules are, and new kids see what's going on, so it's usually not an issue."
The other key to this process is that "when kids break the rules there's discipline," Hawkins said. The offender is told to "go read the rules and report back on what you broke. They know not to break the rules a second time, or else they can't use the board any more. It's about enforcing the rules. That's what the guards are there for, too."
"A facility is only as good as the scheduled maintenance on it," said Carter of Appalachian State University. "You've got to constantly brush, brush, brush and drop in automated vacuums at night. Your goal is crystal-clear water, to see from the deck to the bottom constantly."
Fortunately, this task is much simpler than it used to be, as there are new cleaning gadgets hitting the market all the time. Whether it's a remote-controlled and battery-operated pool vacuum, a floating skimmer that takes the backbreaking labor out of that task or a handheld suction tool that sucks up sand and grit in pools and hot tubs without even requiring patrons to leave the water, you've got little excuse for a dirty pool these days.
And you may even be able to get some help with this. "Sometimes what we see is, especially if it's a city or a parks and recreation department, the department of public works may expand on their end to take care of maintenance at the pool—vacuuming, cleaning the filters, doing the chemicals," said Schamberger of Burbach Aquatics. "Then the pool staff and manager may hire the lifeguarding staff and handle water safety instruction and the food court. It depends on the size of the community and what their budget can handle. We try to be very careful about planning so that if it's a smaller population or environment they can get by with minimal staff. You don't want to bring in more people than they need, as that drives the cost up."
So this is yet another aspect of running an aquatic center that should be considered from the very beginning. "Maintenance issues are discussed at three times," Burbach noted. "First, in the [planning] study, we explain the procedures. The second time is during design. The client may want certain items to be low-maintenance or more complex. The third time is when the project is handed over to the contractor."
As Burbach likely explains in the second maintenance discussion, the materials you choose will also make a difference in your maintenance schedule.
"We have a ceramic tile deck, which should last a lifetime," Carter said. And the pool is ceramic tile as well, giving it a life span of 25 to 30 years. "With plaster pools, about every four to seven years you have to redo them. For an outdoor painted pool it's about every year. The chemicals break it down."
Sometimes special conditions create special maintenance needs. "We do shut down for a week between Christmas and New Year's to pressure-wash the ductwork and beams," explained Maintenance Supervisor Dan Stover about the indoor/outdoor Municipal Pool in Las Vegas. "We're right next to a freeway, so we get road exhaust and dirt."
And then there are the decks, which get pressure-washed a whole lot more frequently than that. "With it being an indoor/kind-of-outdoor facility, the sun doesn't help dry [the deck]. We tend to grow mold and algae," Stover said. "We clean the deck drains out a lot, and we clean the pool every day, either with a robotic vacuum, or it's hand-cleaned by the staff. Then there are the general things you'd do for any pool—tightening nuts and bolts on the hand rails and diving boards."
The little tasks you do (or should do) daily and weekly not only keep your facility looking clean, they're also likely to prolong the life of your investment. At the Midlothian Park District pool, monitoring the pool's sanitizer is one of the manager's duties, and chemical levels are recorded on a sheet, which in turn is left for the person in charge of the next shift.
"We also do general housekeeping every day," Knapp noted. "When the staff arrives each morning they skim the pool. We get seeds and flies and leaves."
If it's been windy or stormy overnight, she also has staff police the deck for any overturned trash cans or garbage lying around.
Marketing your pool complex or water recreation area doesn't have to mean an involved plan and the help of a PR firm. Don't forget the basics.
The Midlothian Park District pool is in the midst of a residential area, a bit removed from any of the main thoroughfares. Knapp found that visitors found their way much more easily after she followed a staff member's suggestion and placed a few signs at nearby intersections to point the way to the pool. Even better, the city paid for them.
Be sure you're touting your staff's expertise as well. If you've got certified instructors, use this to your advantage. And if you don't have certified instructors, consider sending them to training for certification so you can use this as a selling point for your programs.
The Las Vegas Municipal Pool uses two brochures a year to get the word out about the facility's hours, programs, activities and special events. But sending the brochures is not enough. They also maximize their opportunities to get them into people's hands. Hawkins keeps a stack of brochures at the ready at the pool, and they're mailed directly to anyone who asks for one. From time to time the city helps with a mailing to a particular ZIP code, and they also make sure the schools and community centers in the area have a plentiful supply of information.
The Las Vegas Department of Leisure Services is also large enough to merit a media relations person who keeps the city Web site updated with all the pools' info, as well as creating news releases and flyers about special events—from the holiday synchronized swimming show to Christmas Break Splash Camp to the annual Lifeguard Olympics.
Even if your staff is a bit smaller, check with your city to see if you can send them information for the Web, and poll your employees to see if you've got someone who's a closet graphic designer or copywriter and might be willing to help develop promotional materials.
In addition, Hawkins keeps marketing on her mind, even when her main objective is something else. "When we're doing [lifeguard] recruitment, we'll market at the schools, through the high-school swim teams and dive teams, local junior colleges and four-year colleges," she said. "We go to several job fairs, and even then we're always promoting our water activities."
The point of programming is to attract visitors and keep them coming back. A full pool or waterpark is of course better than a mostly empty one, but it's also important to consider why your pool is full, noted John Spannuth, head of the U.S. Water Fitness Association.
On a visit to a Wisconsin pool, the aquatics director proudly told Spannuth that her indoor pool was filled to capacity at that very moment—2 in the afternoon, a notoriously slow time of day. Intrigued, Spannuth walked with her to the six-lane pool and saw six people swimming laps. Six people?
"To her it was full, but people have to determine what is the major reason for having their facility," he explained. "If you're a retirement center, that's different than a fitness center or a Y or a parks and recreation department. A lot of aquatic facilities lose a lot of money, and they don't need to."
The cause of this money drain? The wrong kinds of programs.
Historically, lap swimming and swim teams have been the most common activities at pools and aquatic centers, Spannuth said. But neither of these is a giant cash cow. "You have to realize that every inch of water is possible money, and if you're wasting pool time, you're wasting money."
Now, it's probably not a wise plan to abruptly boot out all the lap swimmers, but "as you develop programs, your water space becomes more valuable," he said. Consider cutting back on lap swimming by a lane or two to make room for swim lessons or a water exercise class. Or, during peak hours, maybe all the lappers have to share one lane.
Also, it may not be just the lap swimmers who are reluctant to relinquish their pool time. "Swim-team parents don't want to alter their dinner schedules," Spannuth said. So they may lobby to have practice during the prime hours for other activities.
However, "if you had swim instruction classes in there instead, you'd be raking in the money," Spannuth explained. "Water exercise classes can also be productive, as can one-on-one personal training sessions. The number-one moneymaker at present is swimming programs for people age 5 and younger."
But this may not be the case in the future. "My feeling is that aquatic personal training in the next five years will produce more money than swimming instruction," he said. "That's the hottest thing going."
As you start looking for ways to get more patrons to your pool, identify your target market and then enlarge it. "Who are the people who are not now in the pool?" Spannuth suggested asking. "How can you get them in?"
Look for ways that are both appealing and efficient. A lap lane can accommodate only one or two at a time, but a "water walking program, where people walk in waist- to chest-deep water" can have more than 20 people working out at once, Spannuth explained. "Never call your pool a lap pool," he added. "Less than 5 percent of Americans can swim 400 yards without a stop, so that restricts your target market. Call it a multipurpose pool or come up with something else."
Water exercise classes will be more appealing if you explain specifically what they are. "The name helps to determine who will be in [the class]," Spannuth said. "Water exercise got a bum rap years ago, and now it's pictured as little old ladies in shower caps."
Actually, water workouts can be great for conditioning athletes and those doing physical therapy, and classes can be tailored to tone muscles or require a hearty aerobic effort. Consider exercises done at the wall, strength training, water yoga and deep-water running as possibilities, suggests the U.S. Water Fitness Association.
The Las Vegas Municipal Pool has about six different water exercise offerings, including shallow-water exercise, a special program for patients with arthritis, a class for recovering stroke patients and a water walking workout.
The pool also partners with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and its physical therapy students who come to the pool to offer a free program on a monthly basis. "They offer hands-on instruction and support to anyone who signs up with an aquatic physical therapist," said Aquatics Coordinator Hawkins.
On a more practical note, if you're planning a shift to more exercise options in the pool, be sure to require water fitness shoes for both teachers and participants. Shoes protect those exercising in the water from scrapes from the bottom of the pool, and they also help keep pools used for exercise cleaner, Spannuth noted. Dead skin scraped off countless exercising feet can really make the water cloudy. (Eeeew!)
The way you format your programs may also make a difference in their success. For years, the Las Vegas Municipal Pool offered a synchronized swimming and a diving program year-round, but they were set up as "drop-ins." Kids paid $4 or $5 a session or bought a pass good for 15 sessions, but they could come—or not come—as they wanted.
"There was not a lot of motivation to stick with a program in that format," Hawkins said. So, after consulting with parents and her instructors, Hawkins decided to revamp these activities into a "session" format.
Starting this summer, for $25, students will sign up for a month of lessons, and if they miss one, there's no making it up. "Students will be more committed, and they can plan around the dates [of their lessons]," Hawkins said. When instructors are trying to teach new skills or get a group ready for the synchronized swimming show, "they need commitment," she explained. "Hopefully this ensures that everyone will show up."
Availability is also key to keeping your pool a popular destination. "Municipal Pool is open for recreational swimming from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.," Hawkins said. "It never closes. We always have an area for recreational swimming, even when there are other activities going on."
In short, your job is to "think of everything," Hawkins explained. "It's great to offer your traditional programs. People will always respond to that. But what else can you do?"
Could you plan a triathlon? Las Vegas has an upcoming Splash and Dash that includes a swim and a run through the nearby park.
"If you have access to a road, you can do biking too," Hawkins said. "Maybe there's a community center or school activity that can be adapted to the pool. Be creative."
It's also important not to overlook the resources around you. "Work with your team and get ideas from your staff," Hawkins said. "Sit down at an in-service training session and ask them to come up with ideas. They do a lot of things at school that could be adapted. Think outside what you would normally do at a pool."
Whatever you decide, remember that it's not the beauty and newness of your pool that ultimately makes the difference. Much more important, Spannuth said, are an administration that backs aquatics programs and a dynamite aquatics director. The creativity and enthusiasm of your staff and programs will always take you further than a gorgeous facility that stands empty.
See the sidebar on Other Potential Programs for additional ideas about how to fill up that water.
"It's similar to raising children," said Knapp, manager and safety coordinator for the Midlothian Park District pool, about training her staff. "You may have to bring things to their level if you want them to understand the rules. You can't just have them read something. You have to find a way to get it across to them."
When orientation begins, Knapp explains that they'll be having a party at the pool every day, which is their new house for the summer. "We have to clean house, we have to entertain the guests, and we have to make sure everyone is safe," she tells her new lifeguards. Then they go over rules and procedures, from skimming and vacuuming the pool to checking on the chlorine and acid levels to rotating lifeguard positions every 15 minutes to teaching swimming lessons.
And this isn't just a one-time seminar, either. Weekly training meetings and in-services keep skills sharp and allow employees to review procedures throughout the season. "If someone is lacking, we may have a mini in-service just for certain staffers to work on skills," Knapp added. "You show them subtly."
Knapp is also careful not to over-schedule her staff. They can't work every day for eight hours. "Your body won't let you," she tells them. But she keeps them plenty busy, as a staff of 21 guards—some of whom double as managers and half of whom double as swim instructors—keep the pool running smoothly.
And if you think Knapp is detail-oriented, check out the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), which is currently funding research to help eliminate the "data gaps" that exist where effective lifeguard training is concerned.
Specialists with the United States Lifesaving Association, the YMCA and the American Red Cross are collaborating to determine "what is and isn't science-based for lifeguarding," explained Lachocki of the NSPF. Stay tuned for their findings, which will be presented at next year's World Aquatic Health Conference.
"Especially for public pools, making sure operators are trained is almost too obvious to say. If people are running facilities with no background on what the risks are, the likelihood that they'll prevent risks is very low," Lachocki said. "We need to raise education standards so people are aware of the issues and can look at how to reduce risk." In addition, constant education is important because the new features found in aquatic complexes—slides, lazy rivers, spraygrounds—"bring new challenges from a lifeguarding standpoint," Lachocki noted. "It's harder to see patrons in the water of a wave pool. With a lazy river you have lots of patrons in tubes in a large area, and you need to add lifeguards accordingly."
If you feel a bit overwhelmed about providing all this training yourself, don't worry. You have help. Visit the U.S. Water Fitness Association at www.uswfa.com or contact your local Red Cross chapter for more information on lifeguard training and certifications.
"The majority of aquatic facilities are now requiring that their aquatic fitness instructors have a national certification," reported Spannuth of the U.S. Water Fitness Association. "The problem is that land instructors in the past have taught water fitness, and that's like comparing grapes to watermelons. Our opinion is that anyone teaching in the water should have at least a basic national certification. There are contraindicated exercises [in the water], and you want those in the class to get as much out of it as possible."
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