Get your Feet Wet
Creative Programming and Marketing Draw Aquatic Crowds
By Richard Zowie
Water activities are becoming more and more popular among American cities with people viewing aquatic programs as both a refreshing way to beat the summer heat and as a creative-but-effective way to get some exercise. How do these cities go about creating and then promoting aquatic activities? By creating an aquatics marketing plan that not only attracts new customers, but also helps retain previous ones. While creating the plan can be a tedious process that requires much time organizing, marketing, implementing and making changes as necessary, it's turning into a crucial tool to attract interest, develop commerce and give residents a creative outlet for fun and exercise.
Because the term "aquatics" can be ambiguous and subject to broad interpretation, when implementing an aquatics marketing plan, it's necessary to initially identify the various user groups and consider what they want and need, said Mick Nelson, Club Facilities Development Director for USA Swimming. "Your audiences will range from toddlers in learn-to-swim classes to senior citizens to the competitive swimmer," he explained. "Therefore, you need to develop a marketing strategy that takes into account each of these different groups."
Having a specific aquatic marketing plan tends to go against the grain of what many local governments have done in the past, said John Whitmore, superintendent of Aquatics, Golf, Tennis Civic Center and Marketing for the City of Denton, Texas. "Traditionally, municipal recreational departments have used a shotgun approach to marketing to economically reach all citizens," he explained. "All smaller programs can get lost in a deluge of other programs and activities. Somebody, centrally, would look for aquatic and may not know about other aspects of the programs. They might want swimming lessons for kids, not knowing other options are available, such as adult swimming lessons and exercise lessons. We try to expose those markets to something more than just what limited view the public might have."
This means examining the community and trying to customize an aquatic plan according to its needs instead of attempting a "one size fits all" approach.
To get an idea of how to plan an aquatic program, Whitmore looked around at local areas in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, such as Garland and North Richland Hills. What he found is that they had waterparks (not a bad idea, considering Texas' notoriously brutal summer weather) and combined the park with swimming lessons or traditional aquatic programs.
This works, Whitmore explained, because waterparks are more regional in nature. He estimated they receive about 25 percent of their business from non-residents.
"What we try to do is create distinctions between ourselves and others—not political distinctions," Whitmore said. "We try to promote the uniqueness and quality of our aspects."
Whitmore said that when designing their aquatic program, they also consulted with Horizon Amusement Group—which runs a series of waterparks and commercial enterprises. They helped the City of Denton to create an initial plan, which was then heavily adapted to be used in the public eye.
John Spannuth, CEO of Boynton Beach, Fla.-based United States Water Fitness Association (USWFA), draws from a vast background of experience when it comes to designing an aquatics marketing program. He's been a leader and innovator in virtually every field of aquatics, starting more than 50 years ago, when he was aquatics director of the Reading, Pa., YMCA. Spannuth also has served in Oklahoma as head swimming coach, National Aquatics Administrator for the Amateur Athletic Union, International Director for the Special Olympics and has also served overseas. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, he served as Aquatics, Sports and Recreation Administrator while teaching swimming to native children in the region. These days, he conducts aquatic seminars across the country and speaks at a variety of conferences.
"I've spoken to major national programs like AAHPERD (American Alliance of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance), ASCA (American Swimming Coaches Association), NRPA (National Recreation and Parks Association) and World Waterpark Association," he said. "I consult with many organizations and facilities. Our big thing here is how to increase revenue, retention and participation. We try to help people in aquatics learn more things about this."
USA Swimming has helped more than 200 member clubs implement an aquatics marketing plan in the past three years, Nelson said. They are able to implement plans through information presented during the annual Build a Pool Conference at USA Swimming's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo.
When it comes to diversifying an aquatics plan, it's important to be flexible, said Angie Proctor, executive director of the Nokomis, Fla.-based Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA).
"Think outside of the box and think about current trends and/or predictions," she said. "A pool is not just for swimming or for seniors in aquatic fitness; it's multi-purpose and multi-serving. Looking to new target markets and or trends to adapt into your facility will increase cash flow and opportunities within the community."
When it comes to identifying potential customers, Whitmore said you can expect to do research. Lots of it. You have to do general market research, assess a community's needs, perform demographics research and keep a close eye on who's in the district. "For example, the Denton Independent School District had a 20 percent increase in attendance and registration for kindergarten," Whitmore explained. "This was significant. We researched and saw the greatest growth and prepared fliers specifically for those classrooms for swimming lessons. These were brand-new people in the district. That's the research in general we do that bears some fruit."
One thing to keep in mind, Whitmore added, is that every community member is a potential customer. "Many people limit their potential marketing area or group, but I feel that everybody in the community is a potential customer," he said.
If done successfully, a solid aquatics marketing plan can pay substantial dividends. One that works well will help you target the markets most likely to use your facilities, Whitmore explained. It saves money and helps them to have quality marketing materials.
"Instead of just shot-gunning 10,000 fliers with cheap paper and ink and hope somebody will get it, we look for specific ages and locations to distribute our fliers," Whitmore said. "We target places like kindergarten or local schools, and we find that we can do more by using color and making the fliers more noticeable. This saves us money and effort and we don't have to print as much."
The fliers are also designed specifically for the age group they're targeting. A great return on the investment results in upgrading the materials. "Far more people will investigate our facilities, and they are most apt to use the facilities," Whitmore explained. "You try to get (customers) into the door with most common needs they have or are familiar with, and then, once there, we educate and cross-market. We do tend to do strategic plans like strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. We try to analyze the marketing environment like that. We also try to find out what people want and target that."
Proctor said that it's important when looking into your community to look at up to five markets and focus on the three that are the "most abundant" and "most reachable" with what can be offered. Consider family communities—especially children's programming, pre- and post-natal sessions and family programs.
And, of course, there also is the couch potato market that an aquatics program competes against. To combat this, try offering exercise classes or even private swim classes. "Cable TV is in competition with public exercise," Whitmore said. "We try to break the cycle and try to find ways to get them out of the house."
Spannuth has found that aquatic programming should include two major categories: internal marketing within the existing facility and customer base and external marketing in the community. For the internal marketing, it involves selecting a dedicated staff member to serve as the project chairperson and then appointing a marketing committee of key staff members who work in marketing and can help customize your plan for your specific facility.
"You can't just say that everybody in the world can have the same marketing plan," he explained. "In most places every pool and facility is different. You customize for each facility."
The customization itself takes on several facets: considering your aquatic facility, your mission statement for the facility, the goals and objectives for your aquatic program, the aquatic philosophies of the organization, staff that will be at the facility, the available pool time and your priorities. Within these facets you have to ask yourself what types of programs you can have there, what do you want to accomplish and how will you accomplish it. The target market, Spannuth emphasized, is very crucial.
Spannuth said it's vital for a program to spell out the benefits of aquatics. "One of the things people have said for years is that you couldn't think of a better sport to save our life," he said. "No other sport I'm familiar with will save your life. Many won't go out in a canoe, boat or yacht because they don't know how to swim."
Spannuth recalled a picture of a boat that sank in New York decades ago. More than a thousand people (including many women) drowned unnecessarily for one tragic reason: They couldn't swim. For some, not swimming can stem from a bad experience in the water or out of a fear of something someone said. To combat this, Spannuth said, it's vital to educate people about swimming and help them to overcome their hydrophobia. One way is to educate on how beneficial water exercise can be.
"Lots of people have converted from walking and jogging to 'water walking,' which is walking in waist-deep to shoulder-deep water," Spannuth explained. "More people water-walk in swimming pools than swim laps. Less than 4 percent of Americans can swim 400 yards without stopping, but 98 percent can walk or jog in the water. Water walking is like a magic magnet that attracts people to the swimming pool."
Water walking can even be beneficial to those who struggle walking outside of the water. Spannuth recalled a wheelchair-bound man, who was able to hold onto the rope and onto Spannuth's hand and walk in the water.
"He was in chest-deep water and he cried when he got done," Spannuth recalled. "He tried by himself without holding onto rope or hand and became a regular. Because his buoyancy held him up, he could walk in the water. We had some steps at one end of pool. I had him transfer from high to low steps, and then I got him to top step in his wheelchair and helped him down into the water."
Simply stated, Spannuth said, having a well-rounded aquatic program is one of the secrets to getting people into swimming pools. In 1986, he returned from Saudi Arabia and conducted a water walking program in Oklahoma. In two years, there were about 2,500 people water walking at the pool.
"You have to realize you can have great aquatic program anywhere in the world if you know how to do it," he explained. "The major problem is that people don't know how to do it. Aquatic directors are so busy putting fires out and getting people to teach classes that they don't have time to do a marketing plan. But it's something that could help every aquatic facility in the country to have the plan in writing. You can't be a one-man show, though; it must be team effort that involves people helping you put a plan together, people taking part and the public relations people in the community to volunteer. If put together by one person, it doesn't have the impact of a plan that's been put together by group of people who believe in what's happening and who can discuss the plan."
Essentially, a solid aquatic plan focuses on two things: attracting new customers and bringing previous ones back. Spannuth has found that exciting aquatic programs designed for a wide array of people are the ones that work well. "Years ago, a friend of mine who was the chairman of the Civil Rights Commission under [President Ronald] Reagan said the average aquatic program in the country has to include healthy young children. He asked me to help him to change that, so that's been one of my missions in life—to get everybody involved since everybody should be involved in aquatics."
Another thing that draws people into aquatic programs is benefits. Whitmore said it's important to inform potential customers about what they will get out of the program. Will it help them improve their health? Lose weight? Feel better about themselves? With kids, it's important to promote the fun side of swimming. This, he has found, is what seems to attract the most customers.
"We strive to know what everybody's needs are and say we have what it takes to take care of them," he added.
Once you figure out how to attract new customers, you also have to determine how to keep bringing back previous ones. What this boils down to, Whitmore said, is finding out what customers want. Repeat customers generally are ones who like what they see.
"Sometimes, if they do one thing a bit, you can lure them in by expanding their horizons," Whitmore said. "We don't promise what we can't deliver."
Nelson said that it's important to make sure customers are aware of all the amenities a pool offers. The spectrum can indeed be very wide and vast.
His organization talks about Total Aquatic Programming and the "Four Pillars of Aquatics": Learn to Swim, Aquatic Exercise, Aquatic Rehab and Competitive/Community aquatics.
"The plan has to identify three things," he explained. "First, water availability—temperature, access and depth. Second, user groups in need, and, third, fee structure and operational cost recovery so every program is either self-supporting and sustainable or the outreach benefits and funding is identified."
He added that it's also important to keep in mind facility usage, certified staffing and scheduling. A plan must make sure it's reaching target groups, being fiscally responsible and considering the basic operational components.
Proctor summed up the plan's benefits this way: increased pool usage and cash flow. And with increased cash flow comes something that is especially helpful when considering the financial side of running aquatics programs: "A balanced budget with more pool use to offset higher costs of running a pool," she explained.
If you can deliver with an effective aquatics marketing plan, the result is a satisfied customer who will, in turn, tell their family, friends and neighbors about your services. And if they are unsatisfied, the word-of-mouth can work against you just as easily as it could help you.
"We try to deliver on promises and exceed customers' expectations, since some can be pessimistic," Whitmore said. "We also like to form relationships with customers and offer discounts for repeat customers."
Whitmore said that a friendly, professional staff can help to make repeat customers. This style of marketing is what he tries to pass along to teenage employees who are just starting to learn how to work as they enter the work force.
And, of course, a facility that looks professional and comfortable also helps.
"Marketing is simply selling yourself to someone who knows little about you," Nelson said. "Your pitch should include details about your facility (aesthetics and safety), staff (certification and style) and participants (satisfaction and goals)."
"Don't get stuck in the way things were," Proctor added. "Move beyond the basics and strategize with fresh thoughts and innovative planning."
Just like in other plans, there are things to be cautious of when planning an aquatics marketing strategy. For one thing, Whitmore said, you shouldn't just blast out ads that contain only the facts and nothing else.
"Facts are important, but that's boring," he explained. "If somebody's decided to buy they'll see that, but you have to expand more. With any marketing materials we produce, we try to go the extra mile. We don't just sell the bacon, we sell the sizzle."
While there might be the temptation to go for the homerun your first time up to the plate, Whitmore advises taking things slow by going for "low-hanging fruit" first and then going from there.
Spannuth added that it's important to avoid limiting targeted marketing to only specific areas and groups.
Added Nelson: "Avoid overstating and exaggerating any details about the facility or club, and avoid pricing services too low."
Proctor suggests the adage "If it's not broken, don't fix it," and encourages those looking into aquatic marketing plans to be open-minded and flexible. "Often, there are successful aspects to all facilities, and when change and/or marketing campaigns are started, the successful and or solid areas change and it shouldn't be the case," she said. "Keep the good, get rid of the bad."
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