Ever-Expanding Aquatics

Tips for Programming a Profitable Pool

By Joe Bush

Aquatic programming is everywhere and all the time, but don't take it for granted.

The days of offering only swimming lessons and water fitness are long gone. Generations change and with them their preferences and goals, and if public facilities want to fund their operations, they have to be creative and resourceful. The economic crisis of nearly a decade ago hit municipal bodies as hard as private. It's not enough to be a swimming lifer to run a successful revenue-generating aquatics department.

"We had a lot of closures, especially during the downturn, and budgets are tight," said Roy Fielding, aquatics director at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, also known as The Pool Professor.

"We're having to be more creative because these facilities are costing more. They're not going to keep a person around very long if they can't produce an income. A pool historically has been a money loser in recreation. A $25 million facility, it's tough to recoup that.

"You've got to build variety into your facility or you won't have a long stint, in my opinion."

Fielding's words are supported by data gathered by USA Swimming, whose member clubs and teams comprise one of the country's largest renters of pool space. Mick Nelson, facilities development director for USA Swimming, said that because of this sensitivity to pool availability, his organization began tracking pool closings in 2009.

To date, 1,661 pools have closed, according to the organization.

Bad budgeting and old-fashioned aquatic programming make pools lose money, and that can be corrected.

"If the pool is not programmed for financial sustainability, it will not be there for us to use," he said. "The cost to build and operate a facility is escalating at over double the cost-of-living increase each year, so a modernized plan for multi-leveled programming at different cost and professional budget development is a must."

USA Swimming has identified the three top reasons for the closures: unexpected renovations draining the budget; not enough income; and overwhelming expenses.

Nelson said that because no single organization, especially a nonprofit, can fix the problem, USA Swimming encourages pools to follow its Total Aquatic Programming suggestions to increase income, cut operational cost, and plan for repairs and renovations. Nelson knows pools need help, but is optimistic.

"The fact that pools lose money is a myth," he said. "There are too many successful aquatic programs in the country to make a statement like that, but we hear it from the public sector all of the time. Bad budgeting and old-fashioned aquatic programming make pools lose money, and that can be corrected."

Nelson suggests three general solutions:

  • New pool design with multiple pools, taking into consideration the four pillars of aquatic programming and their recommended water temperatures: learn to swim (water temp at 87 to 88 degrees); rehab and therapy (90 to 92 degrees); adult aquatic exercise and membership programs (87 to 88 degrees); and competitive swimming and recreation (80 to 82 degrees).
  • Having people who are going to direct the staff and programming for pools understand all of the options and buy into staff certification by the various aquatic organizations.
  • A modernized plan for multi-leveled programming at different cost and professional budget development.

Three years ago, Nelson said, USA Swimming's aquatic programming specialist wrote a detailed Aquatic Programming Manual in collaboration with other industry programming executives. It was published with the help of a grant from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and is available in electronic form for free from USA Swimming.

The hope is that infrastructure can one day meet the requirements of the planners, Nelson said.

"The evolution in programming is already here, but the new pool model has to catch up," he said. "All of our new pool designs have at least two pools. Three are preferred, and they all have different temperatures, accesses and depth to facilitate programming. No one temperature can satisfy all of the aquatic programming a community wants and needs."

Justin Caron, a principal and vice president of Aquatic Design Group, said shapes of pools are important to programming as well. Caron explained that in a hypothetical new facility, the number and types of pools depends on the business model.

"What are your goals financially? Is this a facility you're comfortable subsidizing? If so, how much?" Caron asked. "Is it a facility that needs to break even, or is this a facility that wants to be a profit center? Once we understand that, it helps to shape the directive within a given budget."

Caron said rectilinear pools are meant for competitive activities—swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming and, one of the newer ideas, underwater hockey. They are not meant to rake in revenue, however.

Moneymakers such as therapy classes, swim classes, recreational open swim and birthday parties need shallow water and curvilinear design, he said.

"For a client looking to break even on a facility, our general recommendation is you need to have as much fun water space as you do competitive water space," Caron said. "You just can't charge swim teams and water polo teams enough money to make competitive water, deep water, profitable, whereas you can charge a lot more for the curvilinear pools, the shallow water, the splash pads, water slides, the currents.

"The more recreational water, the more profitable; the more deep water, the more subsidy."

Caron said facilities that can't afford to remodel can make the most of the competitive pools when they aren't being used for their natural purposes. Fill them with inflatable obstacle courses and slides and bridges and climbing structures, deck-mounted climbing walls, zip lines, hamster balls, goals and inner tubes for inner-tube water polo, and sell wristbands for play periods, Caron said.

"Those things are pretty inexpensive, and they're easy to make money on, and they utilize the rectilinear water space," he said. "In a three-pool facility, they have a competitive pool, a warm water therapy pool and a multipurpose pool. The competitive pool is going to be mostly empty, and those sorts of things add another fun element without compromising the primary purpose of that body of water."

Creativity and trend-following are mandatory for programmers, said Caron. Other than underwater hockey, he said to watch for a popular college game named Pool Battleship to show up in non-campus facilities. In this game, between two and four people captain a canoe against other similarly manned canoes with the object to be the last canoe floating; sinking is done by pushing water into the other canoes. Another activity for experimentation is paddle boarding classes, he said. Paddle boards are not expensive and don't take up much room.

Other revenue-raising considerations include monetizing poolside areas, Caron said, opening up possibilities of outdoor birthday parties or other group events. Retrofitting can include new private party spaces or converting storage rooms to wet/dry classrooms.

"What is a facility doing that it hasn't in the past?" Caron asked. "Cabana rentals are big now, shade is a premium everywhere. Facilities have figured out they can charge $50 dollars or $20 dollars or $100 dollars, depending on the market and demand for a private cabana. You don't have to fight for chairs."

Caron's nod to thinking outside the pool for programming and revenue is not outrageous. In Summit, N.J., Judith Leblein Josephs helps run the Summit Family Aquatic Center, a 43-year-old facility that was renovated and rebranded in 2004. She said at any one time just one-third of members and guests are in the pool, meaning the others are open to activities on deck.

Moneymakers such as therapy classes, swim classes, recreational open swim and birthday parties need shallow water and curvilinear design.

"Aquatic programmers focus on the water and the aquatic experience, but I think that aquatic programming includes so much more," said Josephs, the city's director of community programs. "Outdoor aquatic centers should be seen as a community center without walls. Indoor aquatic facilities have great value in their deck space, often overlooked for programming. In other words, aquatic center programming doesn't have to be wet.

"Sure, you want people to use the restrooms, visit the snack bar and take a little rest, but then what? Our guests are active folks with varied interests. Keep them interested and they'll keep coming back."

The facility has a mascot and themes each season, and tries for a balance of events and activities that reward members as well as reaching out to prospective members with fee-free programming that is subsidized by sponsors from the community or public entities like the fire department or police department.

"Deck-side education can be entertaining and enlightening," Josephs said. "Why not create a Splash and Learn Series where your guests can learn CPR, AED, safe boating, water safety tips, sunscreen application, skin damage exams and more? These can often be no cost to you other than planning time, a pop-up tent and a sign. Fire departments, EMS and police departments welcome these opportunities, especially in the summer months."

Josephs said not all programming should be focused on short-term revenue; some planning needs to be devoted to awareness, attracting new members and reactivating dormant ones. She suggests charitable events such as food drives and lap swim pledges. Have low-key concerts at night, invite local dance groups, entertainers or fitness studios to show off their talents, partner with a library for poolside story time.

She makes it clear that special care should be taken to reward active members with events just for them. Aquatic-themed art contests with facility-related prizes such as future memberships or gift certificates, scavenger hunts, and themed parties are popular in Summit, and this year they held the inaugural Doggy Dip after the pool season ended. Eighty dogs owned by members got to swim in the leisure pool, and proceeds went to the facility's scholarship fund.

This sort of creativity extends back to water-based programming in Summit. Josephs said instead of revamping a learn-to-swim program, why not simply refresh?

"Before branching out from the basic learn-to-swim program, take a look at how you can improve the current program," she said. "If you find that the learn-to-swim program you are currently offering has not grown, perhaps it's time to 'brand' the program and make it special. Create more of an experience and it will improve the perceived value of the program.

"Do you have report cards at the end of the program? Can you have your mascot visit the graduation for a photo op for parents? Rename the program, add a few tweaks and you'll see improved attendance and new excitement. Win their confidence in the learn-to-swim program, and the rest will follow."

Before branching out, take a look at how you can improve the current program.

Other suggestions from Josephs include partnering with local healthcare groups to help make senior aquacise programs available for free or reduced fees, and making just the right time and space for special needs community members to enjoy the pools.

"Many children with special needs often find our aquatic facilities today too high-energy, noisy and intimidating, Josephs said. "Plan a special weekly or monthly swim for them with trained teen peer mentors. Mix instruction with water play with the children and their mentors, and create a safe and non-judgmental aquatic experience. The kids, their parents and the teen mentors will all have a great experience."

In general Josephs said to use social media for feedback for evaluation and suggestions, and never stop planning and organizing.

"With the busy schedules of families today, scheduling your aquatic programs for success also includes careful selection of days, times and rain dates," she said. "Sometimes good programs fail because of bad timing or price and not for the value or popularity of the program."

Across the country, Mark Olson is not only adjusting to a new job but a new facility. Olson has been the aquatics program manager at the year-old Alga Norte Aquatic Center in Carlsbad, Calif., since early summer after 12 years in much the same capacity in Poway, Calif. He said creating, implementing, scheduling, training and analyzing never stop as he and his staff try to balance the necessary and the legacy programs with testing the new.

The facility has two warm water pools (a 56-meter competition pool with a bulkhead and viewing bleachers and a 25-yard, 12-lane swim instruction pool), a spa, a splash pad, cabanas and meeting rooms for its standard programs like masters swimming; swimming, diving and water polo teams; lifeguard and swim instructor classes; swimming classes; aquatic fitness classes; birthday parties; and kids camps. There are inflatable structures and hamster balls.

"We're still building our program and trying to find out what's the best value that our customers and patrons want," Olson said. "We are trying to be competitive and, at the same time, as a public facility, to cover our programming costs and our operating costs, so we're looking for the newer things. We're looking for different avenues for customers to participate in our programs, and then sign up for other programs when they see what else we have.

"One of the challenges we have is we just don't have a lot of space. Even with the two pools here, we're fairly programmed out. As a public facility, we have to be sensitive to making sure we're offering something for everybody, but at the same time trying to be engaged in bringing in revenue we need to operate."

Create more of an experience and it will improve the perceived value of the program.

Olson said one of the fundamentals in programming for him is the willingness and ability to adjust. Flexibility to completely change or just tweak classes, personnel or schedules is necessary but only triggered by a feedback system between staff and administration and members. Olson said his facility uses paper surveys as well as online surveys.

"The general thing for programming, it's got to constantly be evaluated both from an internal perspective as well as a user perspective, engaging with the people who are actually taking the programs," Olson said. "Times change and people change, and if you're not getting the right feedback, both from your instructors and your internal participants as well as those that are taking (classes), from a customer standpoint it's going to be hard to try to move and adapt to what the changing needs are.

"The people, especially where we work, have resources. They'll go to where they can get what they want, so we have to be able to be sensitive to that. If something's not working, no matter how nostalgic or how ingrained it is, sometimes there needs to be change in order for a program to succeed or a facility to succeed. Constant evaluation and constant adjustment where needed in order to be successful: That's the foundation."

With so many classes and staff members, one of Olson's main challenges is scheduling. At peak season, Olson has approximately 150 part-time workers to supervise. He's found help from a web-based employee scheduling software.

"It helps us centralize everybody's schedule, and staff can have access to it remotely if they need to change something or they're sick, they can notify everybody with a click rather than make a bunch of phone calls," Olson said.

The technological help will only become more important if everyone involved with the facility's success does their job, from the city's marketing department using social media and brochures and banners to Olson's staff staying in tune with the public.

"The biggest thing is the experience," Olson said. "Word-of-mouth goes a long way, and a good experience is worth a lot more in our opinion than any marketing campaign, and we try to drill this into our staff—how (people) feel when they leave dictates if they come back and if they bring friends."

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