Creating Recession-Resistant Aquatic Facilities

By Thomas M. Lachocki, Ph.D.


business files for bankruptcy. A family member is laid off. Hundreds of pools close their doors. Why do these things happen? You may be thinking, "It's the economy, stupid!"

A couple of weeks ago, I met with over 200 Colorado CEOs to discuss how to survive and prepare to thrive in a recession. There were plenty of business horror stories to go around. Yet, there were also companies that continue to grow and prosper. Why does this happen? You may be thinking, "They are recession-resistant, stupid!"

Are aquatic facilities recession-resistant?

Due to the recession, people have cut back on large-ticket purchases. However, government, insurance companies, physicians, employers, universities, academia, media outlets and others are encouraging us to get more exercise. High health care and insurance costs are driving the emphasis on prevention. After all, the best health insurance is to stay healthy. As a result, convenient and inexpensive life experiences that also improve health are attractive options—especially during a recession. Visiting the local pool is ideal.

But though the local aquatic facility is an attractive option, headlines confirm that many are closing. Several factors contribute to making these difficult decisions, but there is usually only one reason. The aquatic facility is not profitable.

If you doubt profitability is the key, consider this: What government or business leader would close a facility that generates enough revenue to cover the cost of personnel, equipment, programs, utilities, maintenance, risk management, future renovations and upgrades, and provides a profit to the owner? "None" is the obvious answer. The good news is, we are in control of our destiny. The bad news is, we are in control of our destiny.

The question we should all consider is, How do we take responsibility and become profitable? The general answer is relatively simple: We need more customers to pay for programs at levels that exceed our costs. The challenge is in the details of how we select and implement programs and develop internal capabilities (staff and facilities) that match customer needs. We also have to manage risk at the facility to minimize costly liability (see "Managing Risk" below).

The more customers a facility can reach, the greater the likelihood it can generate revenue to exceed its expenses. There are five general programs that draw customers to aquatic facilities: learn-to-swim, building swimming proficiency, vertical fitness programming (exercise), therapy and rehabilitation, and recreation and play.

To implement these programs, management may have to build or borrow facilities or staff to match the right water depth, temperature, features and training needs. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help assess and improve how to reach, attract and satisfy customers.

A two-day workshop at the 2009 World Aquatic Health Conference (WAHC), Oct. 28 to 30, 2009, in Atlanta, Ga., will feature experts from organizations in these program areas. For those who are unable to travel, the WAHC seminars will be recorded and available to watch on demand, on the Web (www.nspf.org) about two weeks after the conference. Online seminars are extremely economical since they are not limited to the number of viewers per access code. As a result, recreation managers and other team members can learn about profitable program development from leading experts. Then, they can better judge which resources best match their facility's needs.


Most facilities offer learn-to-swim programs for children. There are many proven programs to choose from. The U.S. Swim School Association (www.usswimschools.org) helps support successful learn-to-swim programs. Their 2009 Annual Conference will be held in San Diego, Oct. 13 to 17.

Many facilities have had limited success reaching a very large, unexploited market segment—people who fear water. A Gallup survey has shown that 46 percent of American adults are afraid in water over their heads when in a pool. A surprising number even fear putting their head under water (39 percent). These students need a different approach to attract them to a class and to help them overcome fear before trying to teach them how to swim.

Fortunately, programs are available now to help target and succeed with the large market of people who fear water. Instructors from the Miracle Swimming Institute (www.conquerfear.com) offer courses to attract those who are afraid and teach them how to overcome that fear. The Institute also holds regular instructor training courses and has an Instructor Conference in Sarasota, Fla., Oct. 7 to 9.

Managing Risk

The presence of water is a hazard that results in drowning, illness and injury risk. The liability following an accident at a facility is expensive and may even threaten the facility's financial viability. As a result, implementing aquatic operational and risk management practices is important. Trained and certified operators and managers raise awareness and increase ways to minimize risk and reduce liability. The newly published Aquatic Risk Management booklet from NSPF, and several online training courses available at www.eproacademy.org, are good resources to help facilities understand and manage risk.

Building Swimming Proficiency

Swim classes and teams are a natural extension of learn-to-swim programs. USA Swimming (www.usaswimming.org) and the American Swim Coaches Association (www.swimmingcoach.org) are excellent resources to help create exceptional programs. Proficiency can extend to competitive swim programs. U.S. Masters Swimming helps facilities implement programs for adults who are interested in fun, fitness and even competition (www.usms.org).

Vertical Fitness Programming (Exercise)

The Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA) helps aquatic facilities deliver dynamic aquatic exercise programs (www.aeawave.com). AEA hosts the International Aquatic Fitness Conference in the spring and courses throughout the year to teach skill development; the conference also educates attendees on how to implement and promote exercise programs.

Being aware of new research can help promote aquatic exercise programs. Recent findings demonstrate that swimming provides unique heart, lung and nervous-system health benefits. Health benefit seminars presented at previous World Aquatic Health Conferences are available at www.nspf.org.

Therapy & Rehabilitation

Since water reduces strain and often increases blood flow to injuries, aquatic therapy is gaining greater acceptance with researchers, physicians and health-care providers. As a result, more providers in the medical community are exploring opportunities to deliver therapy and rehabilitation programs in the water.

There are organizations that host a spectrum of educational programs and conferences to train staff members in this field. They can also help support programming, sales and marketing efforts. Two reputable organizations that are excellent resources include the Aquatic Therapy & Rehabilitation Institute (www.atri.org) and the Aquatic Resource Network (www.aquaticnet.com)

Recreation & Play

There is nothing like playing in the water. Waterparks have transformed aquatic recreation by bringing a spectrum of aquatic play features to the public. Play features have become more common at many pools—not just at waterparks. The World Waterpark Association (www.waterparks.org) hosts an annual conference and regional meetings, which help facilities implement play features. Also, the Aquatic Play Feature Handbook and corresponding online training program, available at www.eproacademy.org, educates managers and operators on the maintenance of these unique features.

Facility Expansion

During a recession it may be difficult to justify investment in new facilities. Recreational facility management should consider if they can borrow (rent) other local facilities or contract with qualified instructors to begin delivering new programs. For example, therapy or swim lessons require warmer water temperatures than those available in a competition pool. Nearby hotels, health clubs, community or apartment pools may not be fully utilized and may have the physical attributes to build a program, attract students and earn revenue. Similarly, contracting with qualified instructors may be more economical than training staff. After the program is implemented, revenue and expenses will be better defined to help justify future investment.

Building or expanding an aquatic facility is a complex process. There are tremendous resources available to help organizations best match community need to facility design. USA Swimming hosts a Build-A-Pool conference that focuses on the planning, programming, designing and building of aquatic facilities. In 2010, five regional conferences are planned.


Good or bad, the future of aquatic facilities is in our control. Aquatic facilities that deliver programs that create value to broader user groups have a distinct advantage in achieving profitability. This is especially true during a down economy. Fortunately, there are tremendous resources available to help make your aquatic facility recession-resistant.


Thomas M. Lachocki, Ph.D., is CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). He earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Louisiana State University and his bachelor's from Lock Haven University, Pa. Lachocki has researched and published in diverse fields including catalysts, detergents, solvents and recreational water. He was awarded six patents that have been issued and are practiced in at least eight countries. Prior to joining NSPF in 2003, he was responsible for product development for a leading recreational water treatment chemical and equipment company. For more information, visit www.nspf.org.

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