Taking the Plunge

Saving Facilities and Lives Through Smarter Aquatic Programming

By Kelli Anderson

First, the good news.

Public interest and demand for aquatic fitness and recreation is on the rise, and it's not hard to understand why. Swimming sensation Michael Phelps

during the 2008 Beijing Olympics put competitive swimming back on the map at the same time an aging baby boomer demographic is turning to aquatics for gentler fitness alternatives and therapy to treat aging joints. More than ever, the American public is willing to spend time and money in local aquatic facilities.

The trouble is, this good news comes at a bad time. With cash-strapped communities looking for ways to balance budgets, aquatic facilities—especially those struggling to keep their heads above financial water—are often the first to find themselves on the chopping block with an estimated three public pools closing per week in the United States.

But, there is hope. With new models of management, better understanding of aquatic programming essentials and creative thinking, even failing facilities can be rescued, revived and renewed. It's all about smarter programming.

Raising the Titanic

When Kevin Dessart and his wife, Tina, owners and directors of Colorado Springs Swim School, offered to manage three of the seven public pools being closed by the city of Colorado Springs, Colo., this past summer, they were confident they could use their knowledge of aquatic programming and business savvy to raise what others considered a doomed Titanic.

Although less than one year into their aquatic venture, all three facilities (two outdoor and one indoor) are not only turning a profit, but turning heads in an industry that more than ever needs new ways of doing the essential business of promoting water safety, fitness and fun. In the case of the Dessarts, success began with an adherence to Total Aquatic Programming.

"Total Aquatic Programming has become a tag line for where all pools need to be going (unless its a really unique situation)," said Mick Nelson, facilities development director for USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, Colo. "We've had hundreds of pools close across the country in the last two years, and most of them would love to blame a single new rule or incident, but the fact is that it's just poor long-range planning and expecting an old model of daily fees and the tax base to be able to support the facility. It doesn't work anymore. We need to stop planning to do business in 2010 with 1980 methods."

Pillars of Wisdom

What Nelson advocates in his own business, and that of others who attend his conferences around the country each year, is a concept of predictable programming based on four pillars: learning to swim; adult aquatic exercise; aquatic rehabilitation; and competitive swimming.

"It's a natural progression," Nelson explained of the programming strategy. "Kids learn to swim and want to try it as a sport. The pool is there, the hours that competitive swimming runs are very cooperative with other programming, so it's a natural outcropping. Then, once you have aquatic exercise, adult programming follows with masters swimming and vertical swim because you've already built the base. It won't happen in a summer, but if you market it right, the culture of health and wellness in the water will demand some kind of competitive swimming exercise after that."

According to Nelson, learning to swim is the most fundamental pillar but unfortunately, also the most deficient. Given that all other programs are built on this foundation, it is no surprise that if it isn't done well, all other programs will suffer as a result. "We still have 10 kids dying every week in the USA because of drowning that's preventable," Nelson said. "Learning to swim is extremely important. All else is a byproduct of learning to swim."

Practically speaking, where Nelson sees most facilities falling short is in spending too little money on staff development, certification and marketing to the general public. When this is done well, however, tiered programs can comprise the bulk of the budget, allowing the aquatic facility to further develop other program options, spend more money on staff, and to plan accordingly.

Intelligent Design

The best planning, of course, happens before a single stone is laid. In the past, programs were designed around the limitations of a single large pool and the few activities we once imagined they were for (think: laps, lessons and little else). Today, pools need to be designed around a much broader scope of programming that requires multiple pools, multiple depths and multiple temperatures.

"Our facility was built in '96 during the height of the Summer Olympics in Georgia," said Misty Selph, facilities manager of the recently renovated Chatham County Aquatic Center in Savannah, Ga. "It was originally built for swim teams, but we should have thought more about the long term and not just immediate in order to draw more people to our facility."

Although the Chatham County Aquatic Center has since made changes that have allowed it to expand programming far beyond swim teams, the center's experience speaks volumes about the importance of designing for the longterm.

Advocates of sustainable pool design recommend a minimum of two pools and, optimally, three. With different temperatures and different depths to accommodate different learners and their needs, a main pool can be primarily used for lap swimming. A second, smaller and warmer pool is ideal for high-intensity aerobics and adult exercise, such as programs for senior citizens. If budget and space allow, a third pool can be used for special needs and aquatic rehabilitation. With these multiple spaces, programming can expand far beyond the boxy confines of the traditional model.

Thinking Outside the Box

Once a facility has at least two pools, and is in a position to implement the foundational programs that are the bread and butter of an aquatic budget, it's time to think outside the box.

With one of the outdoor facilities located at the base of Colorado Springs' stunning foothills, Dessart was inspired to think of ways to use the pool beyond conventional thinking. "We had this beautiful setting—just magnificent—but we'd close it to the public at 6 p.m. and wondered what we could do after hours," Dessart said. "So we did camping nights for a small fee. You bring your tent. You can swim out when it's dark under the stars. We do games with the kids, story time, roast marshmallows and promote parties. At the base of a mountain, the setting is ideal."

However, this unusual crossover from swim school to campground was not an easy sell to those who were more aquatic-minded. "You have to talk to somebody outside of aquatics for ideas," Dessart advised. "Ask what they could do with your facility. Think outside the box."

Not all ideas have to be so radical, however. It can be as simple as letting your staff's additional talents and passions combine with aquatics to create something entirely unique and wonderful.

At the Houstonian Club, for example, awarded the best aquatic programming in Texas by the U.S. Water Fitness Association a few years ago, management sees the value of letting staff follow its passions. "I let staff create," said Erica Meyer, aquatics director of 19 years. "For years I dictated it, and it was wrong. I have a great staff; they're motivated to do what they're interested in. Now, if they really believe and are committed to a new idea, I listen. And what they put out is usually a success because there's ownership and they're accountable."

One such success has been the club's School in Pool program, a combination of something practical and something fun. "The swim instructor, Connie, loves tutoring kids and she loves swimming, so her swim programs revolve around education," Meyer explained. "The kids bring their homework and she works with them for one hour, gives them a snack and then they swim for an hour and play games—all skill-oriented. It's very popular."

At Sunsplash Family Waterpark in Cape Coral, Fla., a staff-initiated course in aquatic safety, offered free of charge, and a junior lifeguard summer camp program have been creative, win-win propositions.

"One of my lifeguards and me were reading about yet another 2-year old drowning in a pool and we thought, there's got to be something we can do to prevent this. Why don't we offer a clinic?" said Tony Marzullo, aquatic supervisor of the parks and recreation-managed facility. "If we can get just one babysitter to learn not to turn her back on a toddler near a pool, then it's mission accomplished."

The waterpark's junior lifeguard program, a successful two-week day camp that parents and kids alike enjoy, has also served as a recruiting tool for future staff. "Quite a few go through this program and at age 16 they're working for us as lifeguards," Marzullo said. "It's a very profitable program if you do your numbers correctly."

The Staff of Life

Allowing your staff members to apply their passions to your programming, however, can only happen if your staff is pretty darn good to begin with. Like designing your aquatic space to fit your long-term programming plans, so the quality of your staff will determine if your programs will ultimately be successful. It's all part of the bigger picture.

Meyer recommended that beyond the givens of certification and skills, she looks for one primary characteristic in all her staff: personality.

"A real simple question is what drives you each day? What excites you? What makes you tick?" Meyer explained of her interview process. "And if they say, their family, their friends or their school, you know you have a person who works well. We want people who build relationships and take pride in learning names and greeting them and waving at the kids. It really gets down to personality."

When it comes to lifeguards, Meyer's interviews go from personal to physical, requiring potential employees to take a timed test to see how quickly they can respond to a victim in the water. She theorizes that when clients know they are being served by competent staff, they will be more willing to entrust themselves to the programming that goes along with the package. It's all about attention to detail.

At the Chatham County Aquatic Center, keeping staff on their toes means regular training. "One thing we do differently is we require all our staff to attend a monthly inservice," Selph said. "So on a monthly basis, they're learning about new trends in swimming or changes we've made as a facility regarding their certification or training or updates."

It's also about cross-training. "I think there's a definite need for aquatic professionals to be cross-trained in different disciplines to teach and be certified through AEA," said Jill White, founder and owner of Starfish Aquatics Institute (SAI) in Lincolnshire, Ill. "They need a broadening base that includes children or adults with disabilities and being certified as adaptive aquatic instructors. It's becoming more prevalent and a huge need that has been dropped by the wayside in the last few years."

According to White, training isn't just needed for staff. It's needed for management as well, as pools around the country continue to close as a result, she said, of inadequate training in programming. In an industry that trains lifeguards and pool operators, there is yet to be a systematic way to train aquatic directors to develop the kind of successful programming that includes such elements as fitness, instruction, fun and games. To that end, SAI is currently developing a management curriculum and USA Swimming is also investing time and energy to develop programming training and sustainable design for those who attend its conferences.

Listen and Learn

Listening to what your patrons have to say or being aware of their needs is also key to developing the programs that will succeed. "Number one is you've got to listen to the population you are serving," Meyer advised. "If you are targeting moms with 2-year-olds you need to know when nap time is and feeding times are to plan around that. Novice swimmers can be shy; they won't come when the pool is rocking and rolling hard. The retired population are great at coming midday or in the morning. Know what they need and do what fits the best time for them."

Meyer is also quick to add that new programs won't necessarily be right the first time around. Or, even the second. If a program isn't working, Meyer suggested that the problem may not be the program, but the time, the day or even the instructor. "We may test a class for three months and if it's not filling up, we may move it, try a different format or we may eliminate it," Meyer said. "Facilities have to be willing to analyze how a program is doing and figure it out."

The Times They Are a Changin'

Those with their ears to the ground will also tell you that with the change in the economy, people are choosing to invest their limited dollars more in themselves and closer to home. From triathletes looking to improve their swim time to families looking for healthier ways to spend time together, aquatic programs are accommodating all ages and stages.

"There's a definite trend and need for all ages and stages for those facilities that want to be sustainable. It's a must," White said. "From beginner, parent and child, through things for seniors, there's been a good trend where we're trying to not just build or manage pools for competitive audiences, but trying to encourage facilities to be across all spectrums."

Trends include a greater interest in smaller groups and private instruction, more combined programs for parents with children, more combinations of fun with fitness and a growing need for programming to seniors and those with special needs.

Breaking old habits also includes ways of programming learn-to-swim classes. In days gone by, children were placed in learn-to-swim classes by age. But as anyone who has dealt with kids knows, there's a huge difference between teaching a young 3-year-old versus a child about to turn 4. "We've broken our learn-to-swims into multiple levels," Meyer said. "We did it ahead of the Red Cross. You can't lump all age groups together. You have to do a beginning 4, late 4, etc. Once you get to 6 or 7, however, you're fine."

An Untapped Audience

In 1978, Melon Dash realized that the whole premise of learning to swim was backwards. Teaching her students with traditional methods in her Red Cross swimming class, Dash saw firsthand that simply learning strokes was not enough to overcome her student's fear of the water. As long as fear remained part of their experience, students could not feel comfortable enough to enjoy water recreation and, most importantly, would still remain at risk for drowning.

"The crazy thing is you can't learn strokes until you learn how to swim—it's the definition of swim that's not correct," Dash explained. "We think of freestyle as the way to learn, but what swimming really is, is being able to rely on yourself in deep water for safety, and that has nothing to do with strokes or even treading water. They need to know how water works, that it holds them up, and how to prevent panic."

Dash's learn-to-swim method, explained in more detail on her Web site, www.conquerfear.com, teaches that fear is overcome when students learn how to become reliable in deep water. In only two or three classes, students find that they are free from fear, can safely maintain themselves in deep water and are ready, if they choose, to progress to swim strokes.

When Olympic gold medalist swimmer Jim Montgomery heard Dash speak at a U.S. Swim School Association convention, he knew he'd found a solution to a problem he repeatedly encountered at his swim school. "We had adults saying they could swim in our masters group but they'd never been comfortable in the water; they didn't have fun and water wasn't appealing. We get a lot of triathletes, too, who were taught how to swim but were never comfortable in the water." Montgomery said. "So, they go to a fear of water class before they learn strokes. It's a step-by-step process to hand them off all the way to master swimming."

What Montgomery found even more amazing, once he began the fear of water class, was that once people graduated from the program, they were able to learn strokes even faster since they were more comfortable exploring water skills and no longer felt pressured or awkward in that setting.

With drowning cited as the second highest cause of death in U.S. children, dozens of organizations, in addition to Dash's Miracle Swimming Institute, have joined the fight to eliminate drowning. Methods understandably differ depending on geography, demographics and culture, but all seek to make drowning a thing of the past.

For more information, contact www.usaswimming.org or www.miracleswimming.com.

The Price Is Right

But even when aquatic facilities are designed for the future and programmed for it as well, no amount of long-term planning and programming will succeed with outdated modes of paying for them.

"Municipalities owning facilities are stuck in an old tax base model we call the library model," Nelson said. "Everyone comes but they only pay $5 because they pay their taxes and feel we owe it to them. That's not a viable option. We have to go to the golf course model where you build but still pay a fee, pay for lessons, concessions, and pay a fair price for services. It costs $25 a day to use a pool—we pay that just to go to McDonalds or to go to a movie. We have to tell people to get over it because that's what it costs. We can still give discounts to seniors, but if you try to build your plan around that segment, you won't even cover a lifeguard's salary."

Charging what they're worth has certainly not kept the public from filling up classes and pool times at Dessart's three pools. But, Dessart agreed that there are exceptions that can be made that don't have to affect the bottom line.

"We help out families with a family pass," Dessart said. "You can have 20 kids and as long as they're really yours, there's a set $20 fee. I had one family come in and you could tell they weren't well off. When I told them it was only $20, the mother almost started tearing up and told me that they thought it would cost more—they'd been saving their money to come. In a recession, you can do it; people appreciate it and they come back. I lose a little money, but it doesn't cut that much into the bottom line."

For Sunsplash Family Waterpark, pricing is an area they are currently re-evaluating. "We're contemplating our pricing structure," Marzullo said. "We haven't raised prices in the last few of years because of the economy, but we're looking at what additional things we can offer to justify raising our prices."

Offering swim lessons before the park opens each day at 10 a.m. has helped with its budget, however. "Swim lessons are marginally profitable—we make money with our swim lesson program, so it benefits us from a revenue standpoint," Marzullo admitted. "Lessons are a subsidy to bump our revenues."

Plug It In

Of course, even the best programming won't get very far if people don't know about it. Getting the word out these days, however, and communicating with patrons requires a lot more than just mailing a catalog or putting information in the local paper. Getting people plugged in and turned on to what's happening in aquatic programming has, like so much else in our culture, gone the way of the Internet.

"It is essential to make sure in today's age that you are social networking savvy," Selph said. "We have a Web site and a Facebook page—communication with parents is really important. Online registration is key for parents to have current information and our programs fill up so quickly; being able to access us by phone or internet is key. We're making sure we stay on top of it."

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