Aquatic Programming Gets Back to Basics
By Emily Tipping
"Aquatics is a lifelong activity that promotes health and wellness," said Mick Nelson, club facilities development director for USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport of swimming.
Unfortunately, along with the fun and the health benefits of swimming, there is a cost, as drowning remains one of the leading causes of death around the world. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), an average of nine people died in the United States every day in 2004 due to unintentional fatal drownings, and that does not include fatalities due to boating-related incidents. In that same year, of all children between the ages of 1 and 4 who died, more than a quarter died due to drowning, and fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for all children between 1 and 14 years old.
Those are heavy costs, but there are other costs to our love for water as well, and these costs come in real dollar amounts. Among recreational facilities, pools and aquatic centers boast some of the highest operating costs, and many municipalities and other entities have been looking for ways to increase these facilities' revenue to bring more money back from these heavy investments of mostly public dollars.
"There's definitely a huge movement toward the indoor and outdoor leisure pool right now, and it's based on agencies believing there's an ability to turn a profit," said Jim Wheeler, aquatics director for the City of Oakland, Calif., and a past masters swimming coach. He cited an example of a facility in California that built a beautiful 50-meter pool alongside a leisure pool, hoping the leisure pool would help pay for the more traditional pool. But, he explained, "you have to have a pretty large multi-use leisure facility to offset the expenses of a typical pool."
Despite the push toward leisure pools, many parks and recreation districts, school districts and other entities that operate aquatic facilities are stuck with what they've got, and often what they've got are aging, traditional pools. Building a new facility takes a fairly hefty investment, but there are ways to improve your aging facility, according to Randy Mendioroz, principal with Aquatic Design Group, a San Diego, Calif.-based aquatic design firm that has worked on both recreational and competition-style pools for facilities of all types. From a competitive standpoint, if you have an older pool, you likely need to make it deeper to comply with updated standards. But unfortunately, going deeper is difficult—and expensive.
"When it comes to recreation, it's a lot easier," he explained. "You can add things like waterslides, which only require 3 1/2 feet of water. You can add inflatables, which can be anchored to the pool floor. If it's a wading pool, there are some things you can do with soft foam slides. If the code allows, there are things you can do with water sprays, though I rarely recommend those in pools that are deeper than 2 feet, because it becomes difficult for the lifeguards to see when you ripple the water surface."
Unfortunately, in the push to improve pool revenues, some of the more traditional pool programming is getting forgotten—programming that really makes a difference in people's lives. An attitude adjustment on the part of the municipality or facility may be required. If you want to serve a mission, you may have to accept that your aquatic facility is not going to be a big money-maker. Wheeler explained that Oakland's seven public pools are heavily subsidized, "but the payoff is that the citizens get access to these programs that really make a difference in their lives. We offer basic swim lessons, recreational swim teams, lap swim, public swim, water exercise and then maybe a junior guard program, but not a lot more, because we felt the basics are important to cover. We don't have a lot of bells and whistles."
Nearly 1,700 miles away in Keller, Texas, the Keller ISD Natatorium doesn't feature a lot of bells and whistles either, though the facility opened its doors in March 2003. What it does offer is a state-of-the-art competition and training pool, featuring 25 lanes and two moveable bulkheads and fixed seating for 750 people. With a depth ranging from 6 feet 10 inches to 12 feet 6 inches, and with its three 1-meter diving boards and two 3-meter diving boards, the Keller ISD Natatorium cannot compete for recreational dollars with the city-owned facility next door, or with the NRH2O Waterpark down the road.
Instead, said Lee Feris, manager of the natatorium, they've worked to find their niche. "We've worked hard to define how we fit competitively with these waterparks and facilities that have all the bells and whistles, and then we've tried to continue to find our niche where we can satisfactorily meet our bottom line by redefining who we are," he explained. "We're a 50-meter pool. We don't have the zero-depth entry. We don't have the other amusements and attractions. So my job has been to seek out every opportunity for creating revenue streams."
When the facility was built, Feris said the mindset was that it would be a great competition and training pool, but he knew when he came on board that this would only cover a small portion of the pool's costs. "We had to be a lot more, and so we continue to identify what else we can do and how we can impact the community and become an even better voice for water education and water safety."
For any aquatic facility, the programming offered depends on the number of pools you have, as well as the water temperature and depth of those pools, Nelson said. The basics include learn-to-swim programs, adult aquatic exercise, recreational swimming, competitive swimming and aquatic rehab. By finding your own niche—and the best mix of these types of programming—you can drive more usage, and more dollars, into your facility.
"You need to decide: Do you really believe in a well-rounded aquatic program, or do you have a lopsided program?" asked John Spannuth, president and CEO of the U.S. Water Fitness Association. "I can name facilities in this country that place their whole emphasis on competition. They don't have many other types of programs. I can tell you about others with more than 100 swimming classes and not much else. They're what I call lopsided programs." Of course, how you define "well-rounded" depends a great deal on your facility's mission.
At AquaChamps Swim School, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the mission is all about helping people find success through the mind—and through swimming. The newly renamed school (formerly the Jack Nelson Swim School) was founded by legendary U.S. Olympic swimmer and coach Jack Nelson, and recently moved from its home at the Swimming Hall of Fame to a new facility in Wilton Manors. In its 50-odd years of operation, AquaChamps has taught around a million kids and adults to swim, from 3-month-olds to 100-year-olds, said Dan Vawter, head coach of the swim school.
One of the reasons the swim school opened the new location, Vawter said, was due to a growing focus on dollar signs, which he said conflicted with the school's ability to meet its mission. "When you get a new breed of leaders, it's sometimes difficult for them to understand the tradition. The idea becomes about the dollar rather than the person coming to the facility," Vawter said. "We had a great history there, but our programming has grown, and the opportunity presented itself. It was a chance to do something on our own and be dependent on ourselves."
In Broward County, AquaChamps is serving a big need, helping address the risks inherent in such a watery landscape. The county has more than 300 miles of navigable waterways, 24 miles of beachfront and more than a half-million pools. Teaching kids and adults to swim helps reduce the risk of drowning.
Vawter emphasized that it's important not to mislead parents by using terms like "drown-proofing." "There's no such thing," he said, explaining that such terminology causes parents to let their guard down around the water. "The number-one thing about being safe is being attentive and understanding how to avoid an accident—being proactive rather than reactive," Vawter said. "We keep it basic to help parents and the children get into the water and be safe. We want them to be able to enjoy everything the water offers recreationally. It's not just about swimming, but things like water sports as well, which are a great opportunity for bonding."
In addition to making kids and adults safer in and out of the water, swim lessons can do their part to help support a facility. According to Feris, one of the Keller ISD Natatorium's most successful programs is swim lessons, and the facility did more than 10,000 lessons in its first four years of operation.
"I consider us to be one of the most successful swim lesson schools in the county," he said, adding that this success is not due to charging the highest amount possible for lessons. "What we've tried to do is offer a program that virtually everyone can afford," he explained. "We could set a higher price, but one of my goals when I came to Keller was I wanted every single child and adult, if there was a want or a way, for them to take a lesson and for every child to know how to swim. By setting a very fair, marketable price, we've proven that we can make a difference in parents' lives and in the lives of children. It doesn't have to be for the finite few who can afford it."
Despite the fact that the facility does not charge a premium for its lessons, Feris added that the lessons are one of the facility's biggest revenue sources, paying for nearly 25 percent of the natatorium's $700,000 annual operating budget.
Some of the main challenges associated with offering swim lessons, according to Nelson of USA Swimming, are "finding staff that is properly certified; tracking and reporting outcomes; and making sure participants understand aquatic progression and that there is more to learn-to-swim than just a set of lessons."
To combat the midday doldrums, when many pools and other recreational facilities sit empty, Feris introduced a water safety program targeted at area schoolchildren. Called Waterproof Kids, the program initially brought in third-graders from the school district for a one-day field trip to learn about water safety. Four or five college students help run the program, acting as instructors, and Feris credits the heightened excitement and energy level during the lessons to their closer age proximity to the school kids.
"Since its inception, we've had over 14,000 children come and participate in the one-day field trips," Feris explained. "We totally immerse them in water safety education." The program covers the rules, first aid and how to handle an emergency, as well as teaching kids never to swim alone and how to non-invasively help a friend who's in trouble in the water—in a way that doesn't run the risk of having two people drown.
As part of the program, every child also goes through a general skills evaluation, and at the end of the day, they go home with a completion certificate. For kids deemed to be at greater risk, a strong recommendation goes home with them letting the parent know that their child needs some lessons.
While these suggestions are more of a broad recommendation to parents to get their kids into any facility's lessons, Feris said that they do see some of those kids back at the natatorium. "A lot of children we define as at-risk, their parents will contact us and sign their children up for swim lessons."
The program has been successful in getting an entire school district's worth of kids to learn about water safety. While the district does not require its grade schools to take part, it is recommended, and at this point, Feris said, there is 100 percent participation by every school.
At the other end of the safety spectrum, Feris said his facility also trains 200 to 250 lifeguards every year, and this has been another way to partner with other facilities in the community to build revenue.
When he learned that a new Great Wolf Lodge was set to open a hotel and 86,000-square-foot indoor waterpark in December 2007, Feris' first thought was that they'd need to train their lifeguards somewhere.
"I just knew they'd need somewhere to train their staff, and we're just as viable a candidate as anyone around," he said. "So we invited them to dance with us, and eventually they decided to go on a date."
The relationship blossomed further when Great Wolf Lodge contributed $10,000 for the use of the natatorium and became a sponsor of the natatorium's scholarships, which help get even more kids into swim lessons and the water safety program.
According to USA Swimming's Nelson, learn-to-swim programs can segue into swim teams as interest grows in swimming among students. In fact, he said that the best way to get a team started was to "start your own or partner with an existing learn-to-swim program." From there, you can progress to more advanced classes.
"Progress to a pre-team stroke class," Nelson suggested. "When you have those pieces in place, and have interest enough to form a team, contact USA Swimming's club development division, where zone representatives for each region can offer expert advice on building your program."
Feris said the Keller Natatorium opened its doors—and its water—to a growing number of teams as it went through the process of redefining its mission.
"Our first year was very successful with cornering the recreational dollars out there," he explained. "But we quickly had to redefine who we were and what we were built for, as a 50-meter Olympic-size pool. We were originally built for competition and training."
Why did the facility need to redefine its mission so soon after its grand opening?
Because of The Keller Pointe, a new 87,940-square-foot multipurpose facility featuring fitness, recreational sports and wellness programs, and—yes—nearly 17,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor water surface for local citizens to splash in. The Pointe opened its doors "about 150 yards away from us," Feris said. "It's a small city operation, but they have a lot of the bells and whistles we don't have—slides, covered cabanas and so on. So within a short period of time, we saw all the dollars we had created for open swim go over there, because they were the newest and greatest kid on the block."
Knowing that his natatorium would never be able to compete directly with the city-owned facility next door or the NRH20 Waterpark down the road, both of which offer more options for leisure and recreational activities, Feris said he started looking at area teams and other school districts as a source of revenue.
"We have three high schools as part of our school district who train here, and we have other teams now outside of our school district that rent from us," Feris explained. "Two are neighboring school districts, and there are three Christian schools and a Catholic school. That's one of our revenue streams over the last four years. Those are helping on a regular basis throughout the school year to defray some of our operational costs."
In addition to school teams, the natatorium also hosts a year-round club team with USA Swimming, another continuous source of revenue.
"Other than the year-round club swim team, we also have a year-round diving team, and they're very successful," Feris added. "They started in a district nearby in 1993 or 1994, and they expanded to another pool after that, the Caroll ISD Aquatic Center. And then as we opened, we quickly wanted to embrace having a year-round diving program. Since they came here, we've also become their dry land training facility for the national team. We've added trampolines and a dry board where they practice a lot of dives on deck with spotters, and then take it to the pool."
In addition to training at the natatorium, teams compete there as well.
"We also host some swim meets through them with 250 to 500 or 600 swimmers," Feris said. "Also, with all of the high schools that use our facilities, we host a number of swim meets between September and January, which are a great source of revenue. The largest meet we host for the schools is about 600 swimmers on a Saturday in November."
If you want your pool to host meets and competitions, there are a number of things to consider up front, before the pool is built, according to Mendioroz. First on the list is figuring out exactly what you want to do, and then making sure you don't overlook anything, he said.
"For example, water polo is becoming extremely popular," Mendioroz said. "We're seeing it a lot at the high school level, and even women's teams at the high school level. So when you design a new pool, for years the standard was 25 yards by 25 meters at the high school level because you could get swimming, diving and water polo in there."
Now, though, Mendioroz said the standards are changing for water polo. Serious water polo players, he explained, are now looking down their noses at the fixed cage layout many pools feature because the fixed cage provides "a convenient place for the goalie to place a foot and push off the wall."
The new standard is floating cage layouts, which put all of the players on an even footing, as goalies have to tread water like everyone else.
"The challenge with that is you need another 5 meters on top of your 25 meters to make that work," Mendioroz said. "So you need at least 80 feet of all deep water to put in a floating cage layout for high school water polo. But when you've got all deep water, that's not an easy pool to teach and train kids to swim in. So we're seeing pools 30 to 35 meters long because that allows for your transition from that 3 foot 6 inch water depth you need to teach kids to swim."
The point is that when you're planning your facility, you need to think ahead, Mendioroz said. "You have to take into consideration what might happen in the future, because this is a significant investment in infrastructure," he added.
Take diving, for instance. "Designing a pool for diving is kind of like being pregnant—you either are or you aren't," Mendioroz explained. "Trying to make a pool deeper is very difficult. If there's even a remote possibility that you might do diving down the road, design the pool for it and include the anchors for the boards."
From a practical standpoint, Mendioroz said it's difficult to get all three sports—swimming, diving and water polo—into one pool. "There's almost always some compromise," Mendioroz said. "If you're going to move anything out of the one pool, the easiest is usually the diving. Swimming and water polo can coexist easily, but diving complicates matters because the diving boards are big bulky pieces of equipment, and you can't put starting boards there. So if the money is available, we generally recommend that diving be a separate pool altogether if there's space and budget."
Mendioroz said they do see a lot of facilities using moveable bulkheads in order to cordon off areas. "If you're trying to practice multiple sports in the same pool, moveable bulkheads can help because it allows you to separate the swimming and water polo folks, for example. They help in officiating, segregating sports during practice time. The only challenge is just moving it around, because it takes some manpower," he said.
For public facilities, ask around to find out what your peers who have recently built facilities would have done differently, Mendioroz suggests. A mix of uses is better than straight competition for just about any facility, as you'll get more cost recovery on the facility. A 50-meter pool, while easier to design, Mendioroz explained, only brings about 60 to 70 percent cost recovery, tops. A 50-50 split between competition and recreational use will pay off in the end. "Maybe 2 percent to 5 percent of people will participate in competitive swimming. The other 95 percent all have dollars in their little fists waiting to spend them," Mendioroz said.
Even at the college level, when facilities are being financed by student fees, it makes sense to include recreational uses in the design. Mendioroz cited a project at San Diego State University. Two student referenda to increase fees for a competitive aquatics facility failed by a 2-to-1 margin. It was when the design team added a recreational pool that the students changed their mind and passed the fee increase, also by a 2-to-1 margin. "Students have taken to it so much that traffic patterns on campus have changed, he explained. "In the old facility, you rarely saw kids at the pool. Now there's a lot of fun things for the kids to do in addition to the 50-meter pool. They flock to this place."
Once you've got the facility designed and suitable for competition, your worries are not over. Now you have to worry about the logistics of meet management, which Feris said is a big challenge.
"The largest meet we host here on an annual basis is through Texas's summer league program, run by the Texas Amateur Athletic Federation, or TAFF," Feris said. "It's state-run and they have just about every parks and recreation department or city that wants to have a team. The Region 4 Summer League Championships runs over three days with between 1,600 and 1,700 athletes coming in. Mind you, our seating area can comfortably seat about 735 people, but the logistics of running such a large meet and the staging over three days of different age groups coming in and swimming is a challenge."
The big challenge: staffing. "Typically we'll run two swim meets simultaneously," Feris said. "That requires two crews to run the computers, the consoles. It requires a head official at either end of the pool, multiple stroke and turn judges and twice as many timers as you would ordinarily use. …Logistically, the greatest challenge is finding well-trained, capable people. And when you're running a meet that might encompass a day and a half or two days, you might have somebody who can work Saturday, but not Friday evening, so you really need to double your efforts and find twice as many qualified people."
To reach even more people with the healing powers of water, you can consider moving beyond the basics to add programs like aquatic exercise or aquatic therapy for populations with special needs.
As part of its move to the new facility, AquaChamps Swim School expanded its programming to introduce AquaTherapy, a program for individuals to "experience healing in the water," and AquaBilities, which allows individuals living with disabilities to achieve the dream of becoming aquatic champions.
"We do a lot of water therapy," Vawter said. "A new portion of our program helps people with Parkinson's or people who are recovering from a recent hip or knee replacement. They can immerse themselves in the healing powers of the water. Water is a natural force, so they don't have the same physical restrictions as they do on land. It's so good for the mind, and from there it heals the body as well."
The Keller ISD Natatorium also runs a water therapy program, partnering with the local chapter of the National MS (Multiple Sclerosis) Society. Users of the aqua-therapy program may have MS, while others have Alzheimer's or other health-related problems. The program is physician-prescribed, and the local chapter reimburses the natatorium for lane usage and the cost of instructors.
"In terms of the good feeling of knowing that what we're offering is really benefiting others, the program has far exceeded what I could hope," Feris said. "We have 20 to 30 in every class we offer. We're considering offering even more classes because the interest and the need is so great. We're doing our part to help all types of people. It's not just for the hearty who want to come in and lap swim or the recreational user in open swim. This is an extension of who we are and what we were designed for."
Vawter said AquaChamps takes its aquatic therapy programs beyond people with physical disabilities to offer programs to people with Down syndrome and autism as well, groups that he said are unfortunately often forgotten in the aquatics industry. "We allow them the opportunity to be in the water and learn what success is," he explained. "For those with Down syndrome and autism, the water is such a releasing force. They're able to relax and not have these noises and sounds going on around them. They can immerse themselves and hear nothing but their thoughts."
The Keller ISD Natatorium also reaches this audience, offering an adaptive PE class for kids with special needs. "The first year we had 87 participants, and now we have about 115 participating in that program," Feris said. "A lot of the kids have Down syndrome or autism, and the majority are at the middle school or high school grade level, but are at the third-grade learning level. It's been incredibly unique, and it's so much fun."
Other ways to branch out include offering aquatic exercise programs. If you have the staff for it, you might even be able to branch into what Spannuth believes is the future big revenue-producer for aquatics: aquatic personal training. While he said the current top money-making aquatic program in the United States is swimming instruction for children 5 and under, he believes that five years from now, aquatic exercise personal training will take its place, whether it's private one-on-one instruction, semi-private
one-on-two or one-on-three instruction, or group personal training.
You also can expand your programming by getting out of the pool, as AquaChamps Swim School has. "The basis for all of our programming is access to success is through the mind," Vawter explained. "We wholeheartedly believe that if you encourage people mentally, they can take on anything, and success comes from there."
Along those lines, Vawter said AquaChamps has added out-of-the-water programming, including Spanish, sign language, music and aerobics classes for kids. "Anything that helps their sensory development in and out of the water. Kids learn from their senses first and foremost, and if you can focus your programming on that, I think anyone can be successful."
Special events offer another tried-and-true method to get more people to the pool. Wheeler said that in addition to the traditional programs offered at the city's pools, Oakland's aquatic facilities also feature occasional special events, such as a movie night or a dog event, as well as evening activities for youth. "We have a pretty rough community, so we try to provide nights at the pool," he explained.
Wheeler presents a session for U.S. Masters Swimming called "Getting What You Deserve or Deserving What You Get," which focuses on understanding the politics within your municipality and how that relates to your pool. "The biggest trick for an aquatics program director is to find that balance of trying to please everybody," he said. "We have swim teams that would love to have more space, but when you start to talk about what the water's worth, it becomes hard to justify using that space in that way." He added that Oakland balances various users' needs by offering different types of programming at different times for the various pools, adding that having more than one facility makes it easier to spread the joy. The priority list for most facilities, he said, usually starts with youth swimming, followed by lap swimming and masters teams. "Sometimes you have lap swimmers who wonder why the kids are in the pool and youth advocates who wonder why the lap swimmers are in the pool," he said. "There's a lot of give and take and push and pull with limited resources and really high expenses."
"We have to remember that an aquatic facility can be very expensive to operate. They can't all lose a lot of money. Can aquatic facilities make money? Yes, they positively can, and this is one of my major projects—trying to help people understand how they can do that," Spannuth said. "Under that, we have to realize that we need to develop our priorities based on our organization. I say you need to evaluate programs based on the number of people they get into your facilities and the dollars those programs produce. Also, I say you need to make programs fun. Because people remember if they have a good time."
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