New Pool Rules

Passive amenities are out; floating creative water spaces can increase attendance

By Rick Dandes

Nowhere is the influence of television shows that feature physical challenges, such as American Ninja Warrior, more noticeable these days than with amenities now in place at aquatic parks and community pools of all sizes in the United States. And that impact of having more active amenities is growing stronger all the time, said aquatic facility administrators and play equipment manufacturers.

These influences are less apparent at colleges and university aquatic facilities. At secondary schools and colleges, from a competitive pool perspective, the amenities are pretty much the status quo, said David Keim, vice president, business development at a Cohoes, N.Y., company that designs and builds waterparks, aquatic centers and recreation facilities. "If the pool were designed and intended for competition and training use, they'll have all the competition and training program equipment and accessories on hand," he said.

It's a whole other story from the recreational aquatics perspective, Keim said. "We have seen a lot of colleges and universities beginning to adapt more creative water space for their student recreation programs, including flume slides, lazy rivers and big lounge pools. And these things are becoming part of a student recreation center, which is a real departure from the old flat-water rectangles of old. They have started to adapt some fun things. The times are calling for it."

Of course, even the more traditional swim lanes can be used creatively, suggested Ashley Clark, a pool products manager with a Constantine, Mich.-based manufacturer of aquatic sports products. As people are trying to do more with their pools, making the most out of every hour, peak hours is always the main focus, she said. "Racing lanes can be a great inexpensive option, where you can easily section off different areas of the pools for different activities without a lot of cost."

Water polo is a growing sport, Clark explained, "and we are seeing more and more programs developing in which people are looking to outfit the pool with water polo goals, course lanes, polo balls and various other equipment. Having a sturdy and secure goal and course set up is the key to a great program. Water polo courses are regulated to a certain extent, but depending on your pool measurements and layout it can be tough to get exactly to regulation. You can work with the lane manufacturer to make sure you get the best layout for your pool.

Nowhere is the influence of television shows that feature physical challenges, such as American Ninja Warrior, more noticeable these days than with amenities now in place at aquatic parks and community pools of all sizes in the United States.

Meanwhile, on the community recreation side, things have been exploding, Keim said. "We've gone from the old days of the flat water rectangular city park pool with a little wading pool next to it to full-blown almost waterpark-like aquatic centers," he observed. "Some of the things we are starting to see a lot more often now in the municipal setting are creative wave pools—wave pools that are different than the original keystone shaped wave pools that used to be the standard in municipal aquatic facilities for decades."

Now there are wave pools that don't necessarily look like a wave pool, Keim said. There are pools that have beaches at both ends and the waves are generated at the center of the pool. You are starting to see communities, especially in the Midwest, that are putting rivers in their aquatic facilities, but rather than being a lazy river that you leisurely float around in a tube, they are adding wave generation equipment, booster pumps and things of that nature to make them more of an action river experience.

"They've stepped it up a notch," Keim said. "What's trending are some form of adventure pools incorporated into the municipal aquatic centers, in that you have a pool that may have a climbing wall, and a jumping ledge built into a wall somewhere. The effect is like people used to do in the old rock quarries. Pools that are actually being built intended to re-create that effect."

Surf simulators are also becoming more common in municipal aquatic centers every year. "There are nearly 30 of them now in municipal aquatic centers across the country, and their popularity keeps growing year after year," Keim said.

Excite & Engage

Standalone flat pools at the municipal level will never survive, said Ron Pratt, director of the Sunbury Community Pool in Pennsylvania. "It's almost like you have to have a mini-waterpark to compete with the other recreational activities in your municipalities, and that holds true at whatever level of finances you find yourself in. That's basically what we have here. We fall under the city's parks and recreation budget, and our finances are minimal. We have a standalone pool. But if we didn't liven it up with amenities, we'd die a slow death."

Many pools have removed their diving boards, because their insurance policies prohibit it being there, Pratt said. "So, if you don't have a diving board, what do you need? That's why you have to be smart with amenities like slides, walls and activities for people to do," he said. "If you pigeonhole yourself into just one thing, then you're probably going to appeal to just one demographic. Who visits your pool on a daily basis? What age groups do you see? What is the median age group in your area? Do you have a lot of kids in the area, young families? Those are things you have to look at."

For incorporating more activity into the pool, inflatable play products are "one of the most active trends in our industry," said Michael Garland, executive vice president of a Louisville, Ky.-based provider of swimming pool and aquatic equipment, products and supplies for institutional and commercial swimming. In the past three years interest in inflatables has really grown, he said.

Obstacle tracks in pools are a huge trend, because they offer a different kind of action and fun for every age, added Lara Hülskamp-Seesing, marketing assistant of a Bocholt, Germany producer of inflatable play products.

Inflatable play structures can be anchored to the floor of the pool but float on top. "You can create obstacle courses and things of that nature," David Keim said. "If you are a city that can't afford to go full-blown waterpark or create permanent water features, you can install an inflatable play structure inside an existing flat-water pool and turn it into something that is a whole lot more fun, and for relatively little dollars."

There is an appeal here to different age groups as well, Keim said. You can find inflatable courses that mimic those TV challenge courses. "They are not necessarily at American Ninja Warrior level of difficulty, but they are designed to be challenging, and to be fun," he said. "They are intended to be something that you can have competition with your friends and family members. The goal is to try to appeal to all age groups in every aquatic center to the greatest extent possible."

Interactive play structures are still extremely popular, and are changing and evolving every year, Keim said. "They get more creative with theming, with the slides that come off with them. Slides will always be big. It's a waterpark staple, and it's a staple in the municipal or public recreation center."

There are things happening now in aquatic centers that go far beyond a couple of slides. It doesn't take any skill to take to a slide, Keim said, "but we are starting to see things that really engage more with park patrons. These things include simulators, adventure pools, climbing walls, all of which engage guests in physical activity. That is a good thing, especially when you are looking at it from a public recreation perspective. It gets kids off their video and smartphone devices and gets them in the water exercising, active and having a good time."

Leverage Your Strengths

The more fun and interactive a facility is, the more people are going to want to be there. And if there is something there for everyone in the family, there is a tendency to not just want to go there, but also to spend more time while they are there. The good news is, the public aquatic center, out of all the options that are available to families for recreation, is by far one of the most affordable.

"No doubt our amenities are a draw to our facilities," said Gregg Gagnon, recreation superintendent, Plano, Texas. Plano lies within the Dallas multiplex area, and last year, Gagnon reported 2.4 million visitors, year-round.

Not only are inflatables a trend, he said, but also a climbing wall over deep water, which is an adventure type thing. Surf simulators are also a big draw. "Connected to our climbing wall is our Cliff Dive," he added. "Adventure-type amenities are definitely a trend with us, whether it be the [inflatables] or the climbing walls."

This is the third summer when the Plano facility has had those attractions, and they are by far the busiest areas of the pool. "We can't accommodate as many people as we'd like for the [surf simulator], cliff dives and climbing walls at those pools, so there are lines there all the time," Gagnon said. "Our lazy river of course can hold more people at once."

In Plano, lazy rivers are also now more than just "lazy," given wave generators that are available now. You can have a wild river or adventure river for people who are so inclined. Another thing Gagnon is seeing are adventure courses, almost an adventure playground, where you have wet and dry stations in a course. "The challenges would be a bit more adventurous and athletic," he said. "There is no doubt about it that American Ninja Warrior has become a great influence in what people want and what we want to offer our community."

The more fun and interactive a facility is, the more people are going to want to be there. And if there is something there for everyone in the family, there is a tendency to not just want to go there, but also to spend more time while they are there. The good news is, the public aquatic center, out of all the options that are available to families for recreation, is by far one of the most affordable.

In every municipality, you always have to consider every demographic group, Gagnon advised. "Families will come to our facility and they might bring along a teenager, an 8- or 9-year-old, and a toddler. We try to have something for everybody, amenities that they all can participate in. For example, we just added a third slide. We realized we didn't have a slide that could accommodate a certain height, for someone not quite as tall as the height minimum for other slides. We added one for someone 42 inches tall, and that has become very popular. It gives that 8-, 9-year-old kid who isn't quite tall enough, something to do, rather than just jumping into the water or going around a lazy river."

Plano does not do a lot of promotions. The municipality is fortunate in that the facility is extremely busy, particularly in the summer. "We just don't have to do promotions with our outdoor facility," Gagnon said. "But it is something we are definitely looking at. Especially with the [surf simulator]. We are thinking about programs for people with disabilities or injured vets. We've learned that it can help vets to regain their balance. People may have lost a limb, so there is an adaptive [surf simulator] that is very appealing to us. We have been looking at offering special times for that market."

Therapy recreation, it's called, and wounded warriors or children with special needs is a market Plano wants to include. "Also, some of these kids might not want to be around a large group of people so we'll give them special times to enjoy the facility. Maybe early morning times."

The contrast between Plano's facilities—there are 15 pools—and their attendance numbers, and smaller municipalities such as Sunbury, is significant in terms of funding, but their key issues are surprisingly similar: engage and please your clientele, grow your attendance and be financially viable.

Smaller Communities, Greater Challenges

In a year, the Sunbury Community Pool averages upward of 5,000 visitors. "We are limited because of seasons and limited because of schools," Ron Pratt said. "Many of our schools return to class in August. What we do has to have an immediate impact, and if it doesn't we're not going to gather an audience."

When Pratt took over as director in 2004, he recalled, "There was nothing here. In 2001 slides were put in. But in 2004, when you walked into the pool we had benches that were the same color as buildings. And to somebody that is outside of marketing, that doesn't mean much, but it meant something to me. I did an analysis of what we had here, and I realized that there were people seeking shade because we had an older demographic bringing a younger demographic—grandparents bringing grandkids. We had to make some changes to attract people."

Pratt did so at the most basic level: livening up inexpensive amenities. "The first change we made is putting colorful furniture in. That's a psychological thing. Color makes people happy; color draws people to your facility. At our facility there are multi-colorful amenities. We also quickly realized we needed to hit a lot of different age groups. Our baby pool hit one demographic. Our in-water basketball hoops, our climbing walls, our slides hit yet other demographics."

Small community pools are like mom-and-pop businesses. "We can't compete with waterparks in the Poconos or Hershey Park. We even struggle getting lifeguards. We do a lot of promotions, and most of them are sponsor days, local businesses, so those are free admission days. It's a draw for people to see our facility—people who wouldn't ordinarily come because they can't afford it. If we get memberships, great. If we get positive social media 'likes' that is a successful day."

Market your amenities on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, Pratt said. "As a community pool in a small populated area, we don't have a marketing budget, so we market our amenities through social media, and that has made all the difference in the world for us. Then we 'share it' through our friends and family."

Pratt agreed with Gagnon and Keim that you almost have to have a floating waterpark to compete with other recreational activities in your municipalities. "Ours is the only community pool within a 50-mile radius with an outdoor climbing wall."

Pratt's best piece of advice, no matter how large and well-funded your facility? Talk to the people who come to your pool. Get them invested and engaged. Get their ideas of what they would like to see at the pool.



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