A Look at Trends in Aquatic Facilities


he latest annual sports participation report released by the National Sporting Goods Association shows that swimming moved up to the No. 2 spot in 2008, boosted by a 6.1 percent increase in participation and moving ahead of exercising with equipment. This increase brings the number of participants enjoying a swim in 2008 to 63.5 million—that's about 20.8 percent of the U.S. population engaging in an activity that helps them enjoy better health.

This is good news for the more than half (54.9 percent) of respondents to our Industry Report survey who said their facilities currently include an aquatic element. (See Figure 31.)

Nearly two-thirds (66.1 percent) of the respondents with aquatic facilities indicated they have outdoor pools, while nearly half (49.5 percent) have indoor pools. Almost a third include hot tubs, spas or whirlpools (29.5 percent) or splash play areas (29.1 percent) as part of their facilities. And finally, an impressive 15.1 percent indicated they include a waterpark. (See Figure 32.)

Outdoor pools were most prevalent among respondents from campgrounds, RV parks, and private and youth camps, where 61 percent include an outdoor pool. On the other hand, as one might expect based on the outdoor nature of these facilities, they were not likely to include an indoor pool (5.5 percent). And less than 10 percent indicated that they include splash play areas (8.9 percent), hot tubs (8.2 percent) or waterparks (8.2 percent).

Parks and recreation agencies followed camps, with 45.6 percent of respondents in this category indicating they include an outdoor pool.

Indoor swimming pools were most likely to be found among the YMCAs, where nearly three-quarters (74.5 percent) of respondents include one. Colleges and universities were second most likely to include indoor pools, though they were not as prevalent there as among YMCAs. Just under half (49.1 percent) of college and university respondents indicated they have an indoor pool. They were followed by health clubs, 43.4 percent of whom include indoor pools.

Hot tubs, spas and whirlpools were also the most likely to be found in YMCAs, where 45.3 percent indicated they feature them, followed by health clubs, where 41.1 percent include them. A fifth (20.1 percent) of college and university respondents include hot tubs at their facilities.

Splash play areas are predominantly found among the park and recreation respondents. Nearly a quarter (23.3 percent) of park respondents said they have splash play facilities. Next most likely to include them were YMCAs, though just 13.2 percent of respondents in that category indicated they do so.

Waterparks were also most common among park respondents. More than one in 10 (10.5 percent) park respondents indicated they include a waterpark, and many have seen this as a growing trend among municipal agencies.

According to the World Waterpark Association's Aleatha Ezra, director of park member development, one reason for the growth "concerns the fact that many cities are seeing a drop-off in attendance because their flat-water pools simply don't hold the same appeal they once did." She added, "Once people have experienced the fun of a waterpark, they are less interested in visiting a regular flat-water pool. Plus, many of the nation's pools are getting older and the costs to repair and maintain them are expensive. So these facilities are replacing their old pools with mini waterparks—and thus adding to the industry's growing numbers."

In addition to a growing number of these municipally run waterparks, this trend translates into more pools that are designed for recreational use. Our survey bears this out, with nearly all of our aquatic respondents (98.8 percent) indicating that their facilities are used for leisure and recreation, or a combination of leisure and competition. Only 1.1 percent said their aquatic facilities are used for competition only. (See Figure 33.)

As might be expected, pools designed for competitive use were most prevalent among respondents from schools and school districts, as well as colleges and universities. At schools, 18.2 percent of aquatic facilities were used for competition only, and 78.8 percent were used for a combination of competitive and recreational programs. Only 3 percent of respondents from schools said their pools had no competitive element at all. At colleges and universities, 3.2 percent of pools were used for competition only, and 57.6 percent had a combination of leisure and competition pools. Another 38.6 percent in this category said their pools had no competitive element.

According to Randy Mendioroz, principal and founder of Aquatic Design Group, a California-based designer of aquatic facilities, this tendency toward more recreational usage, or a combination of recreation and competition, is the best way to improve a facility's bottom line. "About 50 to 60 percent of revenue comes from open recreational swimming," he said, "and for the facilities that do a good job with play structures, slides and splash pads, that percentage is even higher. You can only swim so many laps and jump off the diving board so many times before you're bored out of your skull."

He added that the facilities that have the best returns have at least a 50/50 split between the recreational and linear pool spaces. "If you can increase that to maybe 75/25, I can almost guarantee you'll break even on operating costs," Mendioroz said, adding that this is true even though most of the facilities he's talked to to come up with these numbers are charging just a fraction of the fee of attending a waterpark. "It's a great value for people, especially in this economy," he said. "So the more recreational programming you have, the better you are from a cost-recovery standpoint."

Economic Impacts

But this doesn't mean pools and aquatic facilities aren't feeling the impact of the economy. Many of these facilities have long been operating at a loss, with other programs making up the difference in terms of revenue. Now that the economy is forcing agencies and organizations to further reduce their spending on pools and aquatics, many facilities are struggling to remain open.

"From newspaper reviews and articles, we're definitely seeing more closures around the country, and it seems to be in the hundreds, which is troubling," said Tom Lachocki, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). "It reinforces how important the economics is. It's not just about programming, which is important, but the overall package—how it's marketed and promoted—and being financially and fiscally responsible with those facilities is more and more important."

But, he warned, this is not the time to cut back on excellence. While there may be opportunities to improve the efficiency of your aquatic operations, when it comes to creating value for your patrons and providing a safe environment, you can't cut corners.

"Facilities that were managing their money effectively in the past and still have cash have the luxury of asking, 'How are we going to use that money to be better?' The facilities that haven't been connecting to broader audiences in their communities or haven't been running like a business are probably struggling more," Lachocki added. "There are other facilities where good things are happening, but because of frantic cuts in municipal budgets, they're caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Philosophically, I'm a believer that organizations that are diligent in good times and bad and connect to broader customers are going to be OK for the most part. Some good organizations will not make it, but most will find a way to make it."

With this situation in mind, it comes as little surprise that this year's survey shows a slight drop of 2.5 percent in aquatic operating expenditures for fiscal 2008 from those reported last year for fiscal 2007. However, in fiscal 2009, when facilities of all kinds are expecting a drop of 13 percent from their fiscal 2008 expenditures, aquatic facilities are expected to see their operating expenditures rise by 7 percent. And from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2010, respondents are projecting a 13.6 percent increase to operating expenditures for their aquatic facilities. (See Figure 34.)

The highest projected increases in aquatic operating expenditures between 2008 and 2010 were to be found among YMCAs, whose respondents projected an increase of 16.7 percent; parks and recreation respondents, projecting an increase of 14.6 percent; and health clubs, projecting a 12.8 percent increase. Interestingly, these three types of facilities also reported the three highest operating budget amounts for aquatics for each year. For YMCAs, the fiscal 2008 aquatic operating expenditures were 37.4 percent higher than average, and for parks they were 17.4 percent higher. On the other hand, while health clubs reported higher aquatic operating expenditures than respondents from schools, colleges and camps, they still spent 27 percent less than the across-the-board average.

While no facilities projected their aquatic operating expenditures to decrease in fiscal 2009, those from colleges and universities, schools and school districts, and camps and campgrounds all projected a slight decrease in fiscal 2010, though their fiscal 2010 expenditures are still projected to be higher than 2008.

When it comes to revenues for these facilities, more than half of respondents indicated that they expect no change in revenues from 2007 to 2010. While 36.6 percent reported an increase in 2008 versus 2007, slightly fewer (31.8 percent) expect to see an increase in 2009, and just under a third (32.8 percent) expect an increase in 2010. On the other hand, 11.7 percent reported a drop in 2008, and 15.1 percent expect to see a decrease in 2009.

Adding More Fun to the Water

When it comes to improving the attendance at your pool, adding more fun to the water can really boost your attendance—and your revenues. This probably explains why so many respondents across the board plan to add splash play areas, and why so many aquatic respondents indicate that they have plans to add fun features like slides and play structures to their pools in the next three years.

Splash play areas are the top planned addition for respondents of all types, 10.2 percent of whom indicated they have plans to add spray parks.

"Splash pads are a no-brainer," said Randy Mendioroz, principal and founder of Aquatic Design Group. "You don't have to staff them, or you just need someone more like a ride attendant. No lifeguards are needed because there's no standing water."

Among respondents who include aquatic features and have plans to add features in the next three years:

  • 30.5 percent plan to add water play structures
  • 26.4 percent plan to add waterslides
  • 23.8 percent plan to add zero-depth entry
  • 16.1 percent plan to add lazy rivers
  • 3.5 percent plan to add wave pools

Finding the Way

To improve profitability and run your aquatic facility more like a business, you must consider your entire facility and determine where you can improve efficiency, as well as where you might be able to boost your bottom line, whether by investing in recreational elements that will draw more swimmers, adding programs that pay for themselves, or reducing your energy consumption by investing in solar pool heating, covers and other technologies.

And depending on where your facilities are located and your own budget situation, now might not be a bad time to make some of those investments. In California, for example, where the state budget crisis has been looming large for years, the collapse of the housing market has just thrown even more competition into the construction landscape, and Mendioroz said that as a result of this increased competition, the competitive bidding process many cities engage in is seeing impressive results. "We're seeing bids come in at a minimum of 20 percent under budget," he said.

"If you're building new facilities or renovations, you don't need to worry so much about the budget because prices are cheaper than I've seen them for some time," he added. "It's like falling out of your boat hoping to get wet."

And, in fact, many of those we surveyed who have aquatic facilities indicated they do have plans to add more features to their existing facilities in the next three years. Nearly a third (28.4 percent) said they plan to add additional features to their facilities in the next three years. The most commonly planned additions include:

  1. Water play structures
  2. UV disinfection systems
  3. Waterslides
  4. Zero-depth entry
  5. Solar pool heating and pool lifts/accessibility equipment (tied)

Many of these features might serve to improve the bottom line for the facilities that install them. For example, installing water play structures, slides and zero-depth entry adds recreational elements to the pool that might help draw more users, while installing a pool lift or making a pool otherwise more accessible to handicapped or older patrons can also be a way to reach out to more users.

The prevalence of respondents planning to add UV disinfection systems reflects the ongoing commitment to fighting recreational water illnesses (RWIs) at aquatic facilities.

"With the number of outbreaks that occurred over the past several years, there's much more interest in installing UV or ozone and having a third leg in the protection scheme on the pool," Lachocki said. "Right now you have chlorine filtration on almost every pool. In the future, it will be chlorine filtration plus something else, and more and more it's becoming UV. More and more data is showing that enhancing filtration is a good way to reduce the risk of RWI outbreaks."

The fact that solar pool heating appears on the list of top features aquatic facility respondents plan to add reflects a determination to improve energy efficiency, which is another way to boost the bottom line. Mendioroz said he's also seen more existing facilities make such investments.

"They're looking at passive thermal solar, because so much of the facility cost is just to heat the pool," he said. Other investments that help reduce the pool's energy costs, he added, include variable frequency drives on pumps, water-saving filtration systems, automatic backwash and filtration and more.

While solar can be a pricey investment for some because of the needed footprint, Mendioroz said, it can result in impressive cost savings. "It gets very expensive if you have to build something to mount the solar panels on," he said. "It's not cheap, but we have found that the combination of solar with thermal blankets—the covers you so often see—will save between 70 and 80 percent of pool heating costs." Rising energy costs are having a major impact on how quickly you can recoup the investment in these kinds of technologies. "It used to be that solar was an eight- to 10-year payback," Mendioroz added. "In today's costs, it's four to six years."

Increase Interest With Programming

Properly programming your aquatic facility and ensuring access for all who want to take a dip is another essential step to ensuring the facility's success. A majority (92.7 percent) of aquatic facilities respondents to our survey indicated that they do include programming of some kind at their pools.

These programs are led by leisure swim programs, offered at 82.7 percent of aquatic facilities. Nearly three-quarters offer learn-to-swim programs for children (74.4 percent) or lap swimming (72.4 percent). Around two-thirds offer lifeguard training (69.4 percent) and aquatic exercise programs (64.9 percent). And more than half offer water safety programs (56 percent) and learn-to-swim programs for adults (54.7 percent).

This represents very little change from last year. While leisure swim was the most popular program across the board, it was not the most common program at all types of facilities. At park facilities, for example, learn-to-swim programs for children were the most popular, offered by 88 percent of park respondents with aquatic facilities. Among colleges and universities, on the other hand, lap swim was the most common, offered by 90.5 percent of respondents. At schools and school districts, which represent the only departure from the leisure-focus of the other respondents, swim meets and competitions and school swim teams were predominant. These programs could be found at 90.9 of schools' aquatic facilities. At health clubs, leisure swim was one of the main programs delivered, tied with lap swimming and aquatic exercise—87.5 percent of health club aquatic facilities offer these programs. Learn-to-swim for children was most likely to be found in YMCAs, where 97.7 percent with aquatic facilities said they include such programs.

When it comes to planning for the future, more than a fifth (21.5 percent) of respondents indicated that they do plan to add more aquatic programs in the next three years. These were led by:

  1. Special needs aquatic programs
  2. Aquatic exercise programs
  3. Learn-to-swim for adults
  4. Aqua-therapy
  5. Youth swim teams and adult swim teams (tied)

Park districts were the most likely to be planning aquatic programs for patrons with special needs, aquatic exercise programs, and youth and adult swim teams. Health clubs were the most likely to be planning to add learn-to-swim programs for adults and aqua therapy programs. YMCAs bucked some of the overall trends by being more likely than most to be planning to add swim meets and competitions, as well as water polo. And schools were more likely than others to be planning to add lifeguard training at their facilities.

One way you can learn to improve your own profitability is at this year's World Aquatic Health Conference ( Lachocki said that because of the economy, the NSPF is changing some of the focus of the meeting to provide education that will help facilities. "We're seeing facilities closing, not running programs effectively," he said. With the education lineup at the conference, the organization and its partners aim to help you address this kind of problem.

Lachocki explained that USA Swimming will talk about ensuring a new facility includes enough diversity in the design to reach more potential patrons, as well as highlighting the different programming pillars that hold up a facility, such as vertical exercise, aquatic therapy and learn-to-swim programs. "Those are for both kids and adults, as well as people who have fear of the water," Lachocki said. "They'll also talk about competitive swimming and swim clubs, including master swimming."

In addition, he said, "The U.S. Swim School Association will talk about how they help the facility have learn-to-swim and do it better. Representatives from the Aquatic Exercise Association will talk about vertical exercise and marketing that. A rep from Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute will talk about incorporating therapy programs. Organizations from all of those areas will help equip aquatic facilities with resources to help them be better."

If you can't attend the conference in person, you can rest assured knowing the content will be available online following the conference.

"It's important to raise the bar and become better," Lachocki said. "When we come out of this recession, we want to make sure we're ready for the next one."

Is VGB Act Compliance a Problem?

Many media reports have focused on pools' difficulty in coming into compliance with the Virginia Graeme Baker Act, a law that requires pools to install anti-entrapment drains and devices to protect swimmers. Our survey, which was completed over a one-month period in late February and early March, revealed that in that time frame, more than half believed they were in compliance with the Act. (See Figure 35.)

Tom Lachocki, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the National Swimming Pool Foundation, said it's good to see that so many are in compliance. "As we're approaching the summer season, people are paying a little closer attention," he said. "Many of the pools are opening, and we're getting a lot of people scratching their heads and asking questions. They're not really knowledgeable about what's required. There's also a lot of people out there who say they're compliant but might not be. If the facilities are taking steps—even if the flow isn't perfect through those new covers, at least the risk is reduced."

Lachocki added for those not yet in compliance, "You don't want to give up on quality for the customer or the safety aspects to protect the customer. With VGB compliance, it's clearly focused on protecting the safety of the customer, so coming into compliance is important."

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