Programming: Aquatics

Water for Everyone
Build Out Your Core Aquatic Programs

By Rick Dandes

A well-run and safe aquatic facility can be both a source of tremendous civic pride as well as revenue generator for a community, even in tough economic times.

"It can be done, but these days parks and recreation directors, many operating under tight budgets, may need to rethink how they run their operation," said Sue Nelson, a program training specialist with USA Swimming, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based organization that helps municipally run aquatic centers survive through planning, marketing and programming.

Creating effective programming ideas to bring more people into your aquatic facility requires knowing who your customers are, and who your potential customers can be, suggested Laurie Batter, of Batter Up Productions, a consultant on marketing for organizations and businesses in the swimming pool industry.

Basically, she said, you need to identify your target market, understand who they are and discover what will drive them to you. Your team should take the essential steps to go through a process of assessing the needs, attitudes and desires of the community of people you want to be serving.

Take a look at your facility's current culture of users. How many are lap swimmers, and how many are recreational users? Lap swimmers make up about 10 percent of those who use a pool, and generally expect pool usage to be part of their membership. Recreational users make up about 90 percent of pool participants, and are willing to pay more for pool use, especially on a one-time basis. Will non-members be allowed to use the pool?

If you don't know what your community wants, conduct an e-mail or telephone survey of your members. Use social media like Twitter, or use your Facebook page to put out the question. Create an advisory board representing a cross-section of your membership, and consult them about programming ideas. Know the ages of the people who will use the pool, and the number of people. Also, know the times that they will most likely use the pool, the days of the week and the time of year.

"Our organization believes programming should precede design where possible," Nelson, of USA Swimming, said. By using this model, you can learn what programs are going to work best in what demographic, and then design and build your facility based on what you discover.

The older strategy was to build a pool first and then decide what to do with it. "I don't think that leads to a sustainable situation," Nelson explained. "But whether you are building a new multiple pool facility or just rethinking how to program an older pool, the key is to listen to the needs of the people in your community."

Creating effective programming ideas to bring more people into your aquatic facility requires knowing who your customers are, and who your potential customers can be.

Mission Possible

Create a mission statement for your aquatic facility, Batter said, "which will be the heart and soul of your organization, "and will help drive strategies and programming. Here's an example of an effective mission that also speaks to your target audience: 'At Watermania, we believe that everybody will find fun, fitness and improved health through aquatics. We are committed to offering a state-of-the-art aquatic facility, providing programming that promotes a healthier and safer Watermania community.'"

This kind of approach is effective, Batter noted, "since the overarching goal is to get more of your clients in the water and to bring new clients in who will appreciate the benefits of your aquatic facility. Once you define your marketing strategies, programming will follow, along with tactics to execute the strategies. Of course, your marketing strategies, programming and tactics should continue to evolve, as society and resources evolve.

There is more than one pillar that actually supports a facility, Nelson added, and those pillars are: learn to swim, aquatic exercise, competitive swimming and aquatic therapy.

"Some facilities will have multiple programs or they will pick what their strongest pillar is that will support their community," she said. "When we talk to groups, we talk about 'beyond recreation.' Recreation, when I was growing up, is what you did at a pool. You went to the pool to have fun and play and it was open swimming, with not a lot of competitive swimming going on, not a lot of classes."

"That's right," Batter agreed. "You can continue to do what everyone else is doing, but that may not differentiate your facility and may not help you reach new user groups."

Learn-to-swim is an important part of what all aquatic facilities offer. Yet many facilities miss out by not reaching out to under-served groups. Teaching children is key. Yet, there are other groups of people who can also benefit with the right approach to learning this life-long skill. These untapped markets should be considered for your 2014 strategy.

  • People who are afraid to be in the water: A 1998 Gallup poll of Americans reported that 46 percent of adults are afraid in deep water pools, and 64 percent are afraid in deep, open water. These adults, who never learned to swim, often pass that fear on to their children.

    "Consider positioning your facility as one that encourages all members of the family to learn this critical life skill with a Family Learn to Swim program," Nelson said. If you partner with or train your own certified instructors who specialize in teaching those who are afraid, make this part of your strategic marketing message. Develop a list of tactics that can help you carry out this strategy to broaden your learn-to-swim outreach.

    Swimming lessons can, and should, be fun. But they are also teaching life skills that could save your life someday, Nelson said, "And there isn't any other sport that can say this. So you need to market it that way."

    Learn-to-swim programs apply to every age group. Programs should be marketing the fact that every child should know how to swim no later than the third grade, and that way they are able to participate in the other aquatic recreation programs.

    "So, the whole concept of 'beyond recreation' is huge for keeping our facilities sustainable, and we have to revisit how we price it because in aquatics it has always been known that we just give it away," Nelson said. Multiple reasons why aquatic programs are no longer free is that in essence you are providing safety, health and wellness.

  • Minorities: The rate of death from drowning is four times higher for black and Hispanic children ages 10 to 14 and two times higher for those children ages 5 to 9, when compared with white children. The rate is shocking and disturbing—especially because the tragedies are preventable through education and swimming lessons. These two age groups and demographics are entirely teachable, but they must have access to swimming pools and lessons. Your organization can develop a marketing strategy that speaks to this crisis and develop programming and partnering tactics to carry it out.

    Do you have a large Muslim population in your area? If so, consider offering closed aquatic sessions, as Muslim women in particular have specific needs in terms of privacy and body exposure.

  • Special needs populations: Autism affects more than 2 million individuals in the United States and tens of millions worldwide. Moreover, government autism statistics suggest that prevalence rates have increased 10 to 17 percent annually in recent years. "People with autism experience levels of sensory perception that most of us wouldn't know or understand," said Dr. John O'Connor of Montana State University. "It overloads them, so they engage in behaviors that distract them. Exercise gives them the same benefits, but it doesn't have the negative social connotations." Aquatic facilities that reach out to autistic children will provide a great service to the children and their families.

  • People with Type II Diabetes: People with diabetes can benefit greatly from aquatic exercise. Tailoring classes specifically for this group and helping them monitor improvements in their diabetes as they exercise is an option.

Healthy Living

Spread the word that aquatics are good for your body, and great for your health. Demonstrate the real facts that are available about why water is so good for their health. Seek out the data and research as it is available. Whether it's a relaxing 20-minute soak in a warm water spa, a lap swim workout, or today's aqua vertical exercise programs, your facility can provide the healthy solution every day of the week. Reach out to athletes, older adults and special populations like those who suffer with diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and heart disease. Developing a strategy to include messaging on the specific health benefits can be incorporated into your marketing tactics.

Promote your facility as having the perfect pool temp and environment for your target markets, Nelson said. For example, older adults, those with arthritis and fibromyalgia like the water warmer—preferably around 88 degrees. For an indoor pool, lap swimmers like it cooler. Vertical exercise groups also like the water warmer, since their upper body is typically exposed while they work out. Depth is also important to different user groups. A marketing and programming strategy that reaches out to these populations should highlight the special benefits your facility offers.

Aquatic Therapy

Aquatic therapy can be a part of the aquatic environment, but take care to do due diligence. Done right, with licensed physical therapists, it can be a boon to the community, and bring in substantial revenues. But it can backfire if you don't have the proper information, cautioned Terri Mitchell, a training specialist for the Aquatic Exercise Association. "Another plus," she said, "is licensed therapists are able to charge insurance companies, including Medicare for aquatic treatments. This is one reason why the municipal pools need to be registered. Non-licensed specialists would most like be paid by the individual receiving treatment."

Aquatic therapy and rehab programs include those for people with low back pain, upper quadrant injuries, rehab for injured athletes and wounded warriors. Specific techniques include AquaStretch, which is active release of connective tissue; BackHab, a water walking program for persons with back pain; Ai Chi, a relaxing, rotational movement for reducing stress, fibromyalgia symptoms and pain; and PNF in the Pool, a neuromuscular retraining program.

"Many aquatic specialists are also personal trainers and are able to provide one-on-one training to specific individuals," Mitchell said. "These aquatic specialists may also offer group water exercise classes that are for the general public, or with specific needs. For example, arthritis, fibromyalgia, post knee or hip replacement, low back pain, baby boomers, seniors and sedentary children.

If you decide to offer aqua therapy at your facility, Mitchell continued, "You have to understand temperature, access and depth."

And there are also the ADA mandates—getting into the pool, getting out of the pool, the depth of the water, what you will be doing, is it high-performance, is it passive range of motion—all of those things need to be considered before an aquatic therapy program is put into your business plan.

Most pools have 11-inch stairs, Mitchell said, "which make it difficult for many orthopedic patients to get into and out of the pool. Ramps are perfect, but expensive. Chair lifts work, but may require additional assistance with the equipment. Shallow stairs are a good option. Depth of water is another factor. Xiphoid (sternum) to armpit level depth is good for most adults. Deep water works for non-weight bearing activities."

Some aquatic therapy techniques require aquatic equipment such as collars to keep heads above water when a participant is lying supine in the water for Aquastretch. Deep water exercise programs will require buoyant belts to keep participants vertical, but buoyant in the deep water for non-weight-bearing exercises. Noodles are an inexpensive prop that provide buoyancy, resistance, support and fun. Drag equipment such as Aquafins, Aqualogix or webbed gloves provide surface area for muscle strengthening.

"I believe that many residents in communities around the country would benefit from their local pools offering aqua therapy," Mitchell said. "At least for their seniors or even younger folks with injuries.

Many facilities also offer water aerobics, water walking, post rehab classes, arthritis aquatics, etc., which offer great exercises, as well as social interaction. The numbers of people receiving joint replacements is growing, and the age is younger. Water offers a great place to exercise after surgery and physical therapy.

"Municipalities in the past rarely made their aquatic programming decisions based upon money alone," Nelson said. "Now, you have to. I'm suggesting that what you should do is take the different uses at your aquatic center—competitive swimming, recreational, health and wellness programming—and attempt to make them fiscally sustainable."

One of the things publicly owned and operated pools have to deal with is fee structures and income predictions. Access fees are only part of the equation. Whatever programs you offer, they must have fees per program that are commensurate with the level of staffing expertise required to conduct the program. The daily or seasonal access fees should not be the major income generator when looking at the overall budget.

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