Schooled in Aquatics
Waterpark Trends from the College Campus to the Municipal Center
By Dawn Klingensmith
fficials at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau believe their newly opened Student Aquatic Center features at least two amenities that no other campus recreation center currently offers: a 40-foot-wide, 14-foot-high climbing wall spanning one side of the facility's leisure pool, and a zip line consisting of a gravity-propelled pulley on a cable that provides a splashy way of entering the water.
The climbing wall was designed and painted to resemble the craggy bluffs skirting the Mississippi River in southeastern Missouri. As a further challenge to climbers, four separate waterfalls cascade down the wall, simulating a real-life rock-climbing experience.
In addition to the climbing wall and zip line, the aquatic center also boasts a six-lane, 25-yard lap pool for competitive swimming; a 12-person whirlpool spa; men's and women's locker rooms, as well as three family changing rooms; and artificial vegetation to complete the outdoorsy feel.
Designed by Hastings and Chivetta Architects Inc. of St. Louis and completed in December, the Student Aquatic Center is intended to increase Southeast's marketability among incoming freshmen, since other colleges in the region have similarly impressive aquatic facilities.
"Having just opened, we have not been able to gauge whether the Student Aquatic Center has had an impact on recruitment or retention efforts for the university," said Troy Vaughn, Southeast's director of recreation services. "However, we do note that the facility is very popular among those asking about the university from an admissions standpoint and is a top attraction when prospective parents and students tour the campus. The university has accepted the two largest freshmen classes in its history during the past two years. We foresee that the Student Aquatic Center will just add to that."
This campus aquatic center is not only the crown jewel of Southeast's student recreation program, but also a crystal ball, providing a view of the future of aquatics at the municipal level, suggested Scot Hunsaker, president of Counsilman-Hunsaker, a St. Louis-based aquatic design firm.
"The university segment is a great market to watch because of the fierce competition for students," he said. "Quality of campus life is one of the top three criteria students consider when selecting a school, and universities and parents are seeking to provide a well-rounded, wholesome, healthy experience, which is where aquatic facilities come into play."
In their marketing materials, schools can emphasize their ability to provide such an environment and counteract any "Animal House" or "party school" type of associations parents might have. In addition, well-designed aquatic centers make a strong visual impact—campus tours often begin and end at the student recreation center.
"The dilemma universities wrestle with is how much money to invest in education versus providing these sorts of extracurricular, social and leisure experiences," Hunsaker said. "But if this tells you how important (aquatic centers are) to students, funding usually comes from student-approved increases in student fees. So students are essentially taxing themselves to create these experiences."
How will this phenomenon in the university segment affect aquatics at the parks and recreation level down the line?
"Today's students are our future leaders," Hunsaker said. "What we've done is raise their expectations, which in time raises the bar for what municipal facilities will be expected to offer as students graduate, have kids of their own, and serve on their city council or get involved in their community."
The concept of aquatics already has evolved significantly in the past four decades from our early understanding of the neighborhood pool, consisting of rectangles within rectangles. "In the '60s, we had the rectangular pool with the rectangular deck and the rectangular fence based on a competitive pool model," Hunsaker said.
Over time, the "neighborhood pool" evolved into the "family aquatic center" encompassing multiple bodies of water, each designed with particular programming needs in mind, such as leisure and competitive swimming. The opportunity to take a dip commonly is bundled with other amenities, like places to pump iron or order a smoothie. "So instead of just 'the pool,' it has become one component that complements a lot of other offerings for a more well-rounded experience," Hunsaker explained.
Since "the pool" no longer adequately describes most aquatic centers, lay people tend to refer to all facilities of the non-rectangular variety as "waterparks," but industry leaders use that term more specifically to refer to a resort-like destination that draws families from a 200-mile radius for an extended stay. Furthermore, aquatic facilities can be categorized into segments, with waterparks leading the pack in terms of amenities and the municipal segment typically being the most modest.
Aquatics industry trends tend to be specific to each segment, Hunsaker said. For example, true "waterparks," feeling the impact of high gas prices and the rising popularity of the "staycation" (a home-based vacation), are experimenting with ways to lure families and expand into new markets. Municipalities are trying to meet community expectations that user fees be low enough for budget-minded residents yet cover all operational costs, and all are incorporating thrill rides and seeking other means of appealing to the tricky teen demographic.
But as Hunsaker suggested, universities—incubating trends that sooner or later will trickle down to municipal aquatic facilities—might be the segment to watch with an eye toward divining the future of aquatics.
In the Show-Me State, the University of Missouri's flagship campus in Columbia set the standard in 2005 with the addition of Tiger Grotto, a sprawling indoor space featuring a lazy river, a 20-person-capacity whirlpool hot tub, a 35-foot vortex using currents to push people around in a circle, and a leisure pool with zero-depth entry. Outside, guests can lounge in 4 to 6 inches of constantly moving water in one of two "waterfall flats."
Meanwhile, as multimillion-dollar aquatic facilities proliferate at the university level, municipalities and resort waterparks are giving rise to trends and dealing with challenges, some of which overlap and some that are unique to each segment.
Across the board, "What we're struggling with in the industry right now is how to serve the 14- to 18-year-old demographic," Hunsaker said. "This is an at-risk age group. You don't want them hanging out in parking lots, so you have to provide healthy alternatives. But it's a tough demographic. They like their own unique spaces, away from mom and dad and younger kids."
At Southeast, though the climbing wall and zip line get plenty of use, water volleyball and basketball have proven to be the most popular pastimes—so much so that the Student Aquatic Center has begun hosting formal tournaments, said Chad Sierman, assistant director of aquatics. Yet, when it comes to capturing the tween and teen demographic, the prevailing view is that water plus adrenaline equals success. This view has given rise to "extreme aquatics."
"The trend is toward bigger, faster, steeper, scarier," Hunsaker said.
Jeff Nodorft, studio director at Counsilman-Hunsaker, noted that a lot of "high-dollar, fun toys have come on the market."
One such "toy" is the stationary wave generator—or "surf machine," as Nodorft calls it—which allows novice or experienced surfers and body boarders to test their skills on a thin sheet of water. Like Dance Dance Revolution, the wildly popular video game that gauges participants' dance moves and rewards improvement, a surf machine is a skill-building device and as such has the ability to hold the interest of teens, who generally get bored easily. In addition, onlookers enjoy watching as much as participants enjoy riding.
"When one person is riding, 40 or 50 people will gather to watch the action," Nodorft said. "Because of that spectator element, it becomes a social activity, which appeals to teens."
Indeed, The Wave Waterpark, a municipally owned, outdoor aquatic facility in Vista, Calif., capitalizes on the surf simulator's appeal by hosting after-hours "ride the wave" parties just for teens.
Although only an inch or two deep, the sheet of water generated by a surf simulator approaches riders at about 30 mph, equaling about 36,000 gallons a minute. Single-rider models are available, as well as side-by-side double models that allow riders to pit their skills against each other.
Not all municipalities can afford such attractions and are opting for zip lines, mat racers and other rides that qualify as exciting but fall short of "extreme"—all in hopes of attracting thrill-seeking teens. According to Hunsaker, these efforts are part of a larger trend to offer a "more enhanced experience targeting specific age groups and users." For example, heated pools for water aerobics classes geared to seniors are now considered a staple for municipal aquatic facilities.
From coast to coast, trends from university aquatic centers and resort waterparks are trickling down to the municipal segment.
With regard to investing in some of the latest thrill rides, "Governments typically do not want to be the testing ground for new products and innovations," Hunsaker said. "They want the tried-and-true, so they look to the commercial sector to be the beta test, and as products and ideas prove successful, they adopt—and adapt—them for use in their facilities."
One established waterpark trend that is gaining traction in the municipal segment is branding or theming, which entails creating a setting that evokes a story. Following in the footsteps of traditional amusement parks such as Disneyland, which immerses guests in a vast wonderland populated by princesses, pirates and personified animals, waterpark resorts increasingly center guests' experience on a number of themes or one central theme.
Municipalities that have followed suit include the Apex Center in Arvada, Colo., which features mountain and mining themes to reflect the area's geography and history, and NRH2O Family Waterpark in North Richland Hills, Texas, which features a magical swamp theme with a frog motif.
Yet despite the availability of equipment sold as themed packages, thereby eliminating the need for costly customization, theming is still relatively rare at the parks and recreation level, Hunsaker said.
"Instead, we're seeing an increased focus on overall aesthetics—nicer landscaping, subtler colors, and better materials and finishes," he said.
Another trickle-down trend expected to gain in popularity is the inclusion of spa-like amenities in municipal aquatic centers. For example, massage therapy is already fairly common, Hunsaker said.
Manicures might be next, but in the meantime, at the forefront of most municipalities' concerns are operational costs and requirements. Tax dollars generally cover construction costs, but taxpayers then expect aquatic centers to pay for themselves. That means facility managers must leverage user fees to sustain operations.
"The key for most municipal facilities is coming up with the right recipe that satisfies programming needs while meeting financial requirements," Hunsaker said. "Competitive swimming will always be a priority. Swim teams consistently draw kids and teens. Swimming competitively keeps them occupied in a healthy way and often teaches them their first lessons about sportsmanship. Especially now that there's so much concern about childhood obesity, no one is going to take swim teams away.
"But the fact is, competitive swimming rarely pays for itself. It's a community win, but it's not a financial win."
Not so much a trend as an ongoing challenge, finding the right mix of programs to complement competitive swimming is vital to an aquatic center's success. The goal is straightforward—to have bodies in the pool at all times, be it through senior water aerobics classes, mom and tot programs or "dive-in movie" nights.
"An empty pool is a financial drain," Hunsaker said. "Every hour it sits empty is lost revenue.
"The goal is to be self-sustaining," he added, "but the pricing strategy needs to strike the right balance so that the facility and its programs remain accessible to residents; in other words, so that fees cover operational costs but don't become a barrier."
Deep-pocketed developers of waterpark resorts are the crest of the wave when it comes to attractions, amenities and innovations, but some industry insiders forecast choppy waters ahead as gas prices continue to soar.
"It will be interesting this year to see how gas prices affect travel," Hunsaker said. "Instead of driving 100 or 200 miles, people might be willing to stay closer to home and pay a little more for a season pass for a local facility. We're starting to see very early signs that this is what's happening."
However, according Hotel & Leisure Advisors (H&LA), a hospitality consulting firm based in Cleveland, Ohio, indoor waterpark resorts are continuing to expand at a healthy pace throughout North America, with 107 in the United States and 14 in Canada as of June 2008. (H&LA defines an indoor waterpark resort as "a lodging establishment containing an aquatic facility with a minimum of 10,000 square feet of indoor waterpark space and inclusive of amenities such as slides, tubes and a variety of indoor play features.")
"Resorts with indoor waterparks are certainly concerned about high gas prices; however, many are located in closer destinations, which do not require people to fly," said H&LA president David J. Sangree. "Managers we have interviewed are hoping that the higher gas prices will actually help their resorts as people can drive less to get to them but still have an enjoyable vacation experience. A number of hotels are offering gas cards as well as special discounts to counteract the effect of high gas prices."
As of June 2008, there were 31,865 hotel rooms associated with indoor waterparks, Sangree said. According to Hunsaker, most of the major trends in this segment hinge on filling these rooms.
"The big trends are geared toward increasing occupancy rates," Hunsaker said. "The economic engine for a waterpark resort is full occupancy."
As such, "Many indoor waterpark resorts are trying to go after business travelers and groups, particularly during midweek periods when families are less available to travel," Sangree said.
One successful chain, Coco Key Water Resorts developed by Denver-based Sage Hospitality, has banked on the fact that business travelers generally prefer established hotel brands. Thus, Sage Hospitality partners with hotels such as Sheraton, Holiday Inn and Marriott and adds a Coco Key Water Resort to the property.
"These properties are trying to attract corporate and group demand during midweek with the help of their national hotel franchise, while the waterpark tries to attract leisure business on weekends and when school is out of session," Sangree said.
Beyond this type of partnership, the Kalahari resorts in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., Sandusky, Ohio, and Fredericksburg, Va., set a high standard and perhaps deserve credit for being the first to combine conference centers and waterparks. The Sandusky location has a colossal African-themed conference center with "huts" for brainstorming sessions, three ballrooms, meeting spaces and all the latest audiovisual equipment. Add in such "adult" amenities as a posh spa or a workout facility, and business travelers might invite the spouse and kids to tag along. To maintain a professional atmosphere, the hotel stands between the waterpark and conference center.
"These are very encompassing properties that, once you get in, you're very inclined to stay because there's so much to see and do," Nodorft said.
The waterpark side of such properties tends to be spread out to create a journey where there might be a new activity around the bend. Such a layout interrupts sight lines, though, so more lifeguards are needed.
Faced with increased competition and to achieve broader market appeal, aquatic facilities of all stripes and sizes are adding "dry" elements and activities, which increases stay times and, in turn, concession sales and other revenues.
"At water resorts, two and a half to three hours is the typical timeframe that people stay in the water," Nodorft said, "so waterpark resorts are trying various things to capture families for the entire day."
The inclusion of "dry" playgrounds, sit-down restaurants, indoor carnivals, arcades, bowling alleys, movie theaters and miniature golf courses might just do the trick. The Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells features an indoor dry complex with a six-story Ferris wheel, laser tag, a ropes course and a go-kart track.
Coco Key Water Resort in Arlington Heights, Ill., created the position of "director of memories and experiences" to develop activities for younger guests, including face painting and hair art, soap making, and opportunities to sit for a caricaturized family portrait.
"Water is still the primary amenity of the property," Nodorft said, "but waterpark resorts are starting to realize that there needs to be more."
At the same time dry elements increase stay times, they also decrease operational costs because they require less staff to supervise and less energy to operate and maintain.
A design and operating philosophy centered on "going green" also is taking root in the aquatics industry. "The necessary technology is coming into the industry to address concerns like water consumption and energy use," Nodorft said.
Regenerative media filters, for example, "allow for a small amount of water to be backwashed or discharged during the filtration process," he said.
In addition, some aquatic facilities have switched from a chlorine-based sanitation system to a salt-based system, which uses less water and results in a lesser buildup of solids so the water actually stays clearer for longer periods.
According to Nodorft, there's a small movement afoot calling for pool covers to reduce evaporation rates.
Intended to be an exemplar of green design, Valley of the Springs Resort, under construction in French Lick, Ind., and projected to open by the end of the year, will pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) recognition. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, the LEED Green Building Rating System is a voluntary certification process promoting the design and construction of sustainable buildings. To qualify for LEED certification, a built environment must perform well in the following areas: energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, materials selection, sustainable site development and water savings.
According to H&LA, if Valley of the Springs succeeds, it will be the first indoor waterpark resort to attain LEED certification. (Some smaller aquatic facilities have done so already.) The resort will use cutting-edge water filtration technology to cut back on chlorine and water consumption and also will feature the largest retractable roof ever constructed.
With more and more universities expressing a commitment to green construction in general, in the coming years, this segment can be expected to assume a leading role in marrying eco-friendly design in aquatics in particular, which is yet another reason that—of the three major segments in the aquatics industry—the university segment might be the one that's most interesting to watch.
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