Coming Back to Aquatics

Lessons, Rentals, New Programs Help Facilities Stay Afloat

By Chris Gelbach

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the aquatic world into disarray, leading to temporary pool closures across the country. It has also spurred reflection on how to incorporate more social distancing, new surface-cleaning protocols and other safety measures into aquatic programming.

According to Miklos Valdez, who helps aquatic facilities plan new facilities and operations as studio director at Counsilman-Hunsaker, aquatics may in some respects be well-positioned to manage the ongoing crisis compared to some other recreational activities. Taking steps to counteract viruses and bacteria successfully has been a priority of aquatics facilities for many years. The facilities also tend to offer good airflow compared to many indoor environments because they are working to mitigate chloramines in the air.

"None of this is necessarily new as far as the water is concerned. What ends up being more of a question is how do we deal with all of the hard surfaces around the pool areas and the number of people in a lane or in a pool," Valdez said.

To help operators, USA Swimming has a Coronavirus Resources section on its website offering extensive helpful information related to operating and reopening an aquatic facility during and emerging from this crisis.

If anything, the pandemic has further reinforced the need for pool operators to plan wisely and include sufficient budgeting for operational costs and foreseeable equipment replacement.

"The cost of operating pools keeps going up. That's going to be a challenge for us. Chlorine keeps going up. It's going to go up again [as a result of the crisis]," said Mick Nelson, principal and owner of Total Aquatics Programming LLC and former senior director of aquatic facilities development for USA Swimming.

The crisis is also likely to lead to increases in insurance costs. Given that costs for electricity, gas and water were also trending up, these factors together make operating a pool an increasingly costly proposition.

"If you don't build into your budget a 20% cost-to-operate increase over a two-year period, you're probably going to have to go out and figure out what kind of fundraiser you're going to do to make up the gap," Nelson said. "And then they [pool operators] say, 'Well, I can't raise my prices to my members by 20%.' Well no, you can't. So you need to get some of the cost-of-living increase built in, and then you need to identify different funding sources."

A Shift to Perpetual Programming

Among the shifts Nelson is seeing to help aquatic facilities budget more successfully is an industry transition toward perpetual programming for things like swim lessons and adult aquatic programs. "Which basically means that we're not doing an 8-week session. We're not doing 12 weeks of this. We're doing it monthly like you do piano lessons, karate lessons, swim teams or anything else," Nelson said.

While many methods exist for implementing this, the most common, according to Nelson, is billing the member for the program or service the 15th of the month for the following month. This prevents facilities from getting stiffed by patrons at the last minute and also makes scheduling and budgeting easier.

Swim Lessons Important

Swim lessons are one of the programs that are shifting more to an ongoing payment model as more facilities adopt the billing practices of the private swim schools. They are also being embraced as one of the more potent options for profitability.

"We're seeing that a lot more aquatic facilities are needing to meet higher cost-recovery goals, and swim lessons is one of the best ways to do that," Valdez said. As a result, his firm is working on more feasibility studies and pool designs that focus on either providing dedicated spaces for swim lessons, or on including multiuse spaces that may have recreational features, but are also perfectly suited for swim lessons.

"We're doing a lot more shallow water and water with bench seating and places to stage kids' swim lessons," Valdez said. "More warm-water pools. I think there's a bigger emphasis on those sorts of features right now."

The City of Fife in Washington state has seen great success in its aquatics program, largely due to its swim lessons, which draw patrons to the small community from all across the region and from larger metros such as Olympia and even Seattle.

"There are lots of pools in between, but they drive all the way here and pass many pools to come to our pool," said Marta Gailushas, recreation and aquatics supervisor for the City of Fife. "I think the common themes that we've heard is that our swim lesson program is very structured, and it's at their own pace. So if they come in and they've got some of the basic swimming skills down, we don't hold them back in the class they originally started in. We progressively move them up as much as their skill level allows."

The program has 10 levels for both its preschool and youth levels, and because of this structure, some kids may come in and quickly ascend to level 7 or 8 while others may take years to get there, according to Gailushas. The program is also very specific in its expectations, and includes online videos that clearly delineate the skills developed in each level.

"The single most important thing about our facility and why it has been successful is that the backbone of everything is the structure of our swim lesson program," Gailushas said. "And as we develop things around that and next to that, it's just finding a way to fill the pool and the facility with [other] different programs and different offerings at any time of day."

At Greensboro Aquatic Center in North Carolina, the facility's bread and butter is its contracts with eight teams that train year-round at the facility, in addition to the high school swim teams that also train there. But the facility also made swim lessons a priority even before the facility's 2011 debut with the goal of teaching more local kids to swim.

"What we did is when we put a shovel in the ground and built this place, we put together an advisory committee that contains school board members, a school superintendent, school principal, school teacher and us," said Susan Braman, manager of the Greensboro Aquatic Center. "And we said this is what we want to do. Tell us why it won't work so we can overcome it."

The center wanted to bus kids in from local schools during the school day for swim lessons, and originally received pushback from some of these key decision-makers, and having them on the advisory board helped the facility overcome that initial resistance.

"Once you onboard that group of people—that's the hurdle. At first, they said let's do this after school. We said no. That will not be reaching the kids who need it the most," Braman said. "So then we worked with them to develop the schedule of onboarding schools."

The program started with an initial pilot program of four elementary schools with the aquatic center paying to bus in groups of second-graders for swim lessons for eight days of 90-minute turnkey lessons, including the bussing, change of clothes and lessons. It has since grown tremendously.

"This year, we serviced 29 schools and to date we're over 6,000 graduates of our second-grade learn-to-swim program, and what has really helped our business and our exposure is that program," Braman said.

According to Braman, the program creates opportunities for the facility that far outweigh its costs because of the community engagement involved. "Because we are always out soliciting writing a grant, or we're out in the community saying, 'Can you sponsor a school?' " Braman said.

And once a business sponsors a school, requests about swim lessons for employees at that business follow, as do frequent offers from the businesses to supplement memberships to the facility for their employees.

"So the potential that you get back for these community outreach programs where you're not making money is tenfold," Braman said. "Not even considering what we're doing to save lives. It's just been phenomenal."

New Recreation Opportunities Abound

To supplement swim lesson programs, which are growing for children and adult patrons alike, facilities are filling in unused times with an ever-widening array of recreational programs.

One such program that Fife's facility and many others have had success with is paddleboard yoga. The facility has also recently adopted adults-only late-night lap swim to positive response.

According to Nelson, a wide variety of recreational activities can be considered as opportunities to fill in the gaps after you've got a solid schedule of perpetual programming figured out, because those programs are predictable, whereas things like recreational activities tend to be more short-term offerings or things that people will drop in for occasionally.

"We might look at our schedule and go, we don't do a lot on Wednesdays, and then have a family swim on Wednesdays where we might put some of our blow-up inflatables in the large pool for kids and adults to play on," Nelson said. "We might do something like Ninjacross, where it comes down from the ceiling and you can exercise and play on different things. That would be more for a specific night and possibly for the weekends when there's no events scheduled."

Nelson also recommends that other activities like log rolling, standup paddleboard lessons and kayak lessons be scheduled as interesting activities for those fill-in times when nothing else is going on.

Valdez is seeing a lot of growth in other recreational aquatic activities that include paddleboarding, underwater spin classes, and Acquapole. "Water fitness classes are still very popular," Valdez said. "I think what we're seeing now is an emphasis on ensuring that those are profitable and that we're not steering on with the same classes just because that's what we've done for the past five years."

At Greensboro Aquatic Center, the facility recently expanded with a fourth pool with both shallow and deeper areas and has seen success with water walking programs for seniors in both the shallow and deeper areas. "And we can staff it with an instructor once a week and put some music on and teach them certain exercises to do when they're in there or we can do a fun game where they're racing or on a relay," Braman said. "And all of those things have helped to grow it … senior programming in general is a huge trend now."

Greensboro is also seeing a fun, unusual and fast-growing trend of patrons who like to pretend they are half fish. "We have what we call mermania here," Braman said. "We have a mermaid certification program for children and adults and wow, they fill up every single time."

The facility now has two days a week of dedicated, put on your tail and swim like a mermaid time. "We make them sign up and participate in our certification course first so it's a revenue stream, but also it's a great lesson because you can't just put on a mermaid tail and think because you're a swimmer you can do it."

The facility even hosted a large mermania event featuring vendors selling tails, participants wearing mermaid outfits worth thousands of dollars, coverage from CNN, and documentation by scuba-clad film crews. "The mermaid thing is huge, and people should not underestimate that as a trend, number one, and as an opportunity for additional income," Braman said.

Pool Party!

Rentals for pool parties are also growing as an opportunity for additional income and cost recovery.

"Parties and rentals can be huge profit centers for a facility, especially if they're able to do full turnkey-type parties where a parent can pay a flat rate and everybody comes in and swims and you get cake, you get food, you get decorations and everything is taken care of," Valdez said. "As a parent, that is gold. You don't have to do any planning, you bring in all the kids and it's done. You don't have to worry about any of it."

At Greensboro, the parties can incorporate the mermaid theme, which boosts revenue because all participants need to take the certification course before participating. At Fife, the facility offers regular pool parties on Saturdays and pool parties on Sundays featuring two obstacle courses that the aquatic center purchased about a year ago. Either option includes a party room, decorations and lifeguards.

"That rental for two hours is $495 before tax," Gailushas said. "And so when we look at the staff time and then just the cost of all the party stuff we do for each party … I think those obstacle courses are actually paid off by now." She also noted that the facility sometimes runs as many as three two-hour rentals on a single day on a Saturday or a Sunday. "In the last couple of years, our pool rentals have become wildly successful," Gailushas said.

Staffing Challenges Continue

As aquatic programmers offer a growing array of programs, focus more on swim lessons, and continue to prioritize safety in increasingly complex pool environments, staffing has only become more of a challenge.

According to Nelson, part of the difficulty is that the industry remains so dependent on high schoolers and college students home for the summer even as the certification and safety demands placed on lifeguards continue to increase.

"It's getting hard to find people who want to do that, even at $15 an hour," Nelson said. "It's not as cool as it used to be when you said, 'I'm going to get a tan, dye my hair blonde, sit in the lifeguard chair, and I'm going to be the most popular guy out there.' That's gone. It's big business now. It's big safety."

To deal with these challenges, Nelson recommends that facilities start looking for staff earlier and begin the process in January as opposed to the spring or beginning of summer. And he sees more and more facilities opting to pay the guard certification.

"How am I going to tell a person they're going to work flex time 20 hours a week for eight weeks during the summer time, I'm going to pay them $15 an hour, but they have to take $300 worth of certification to get that job?" Nelson said.

At the Greensboro Aquatic Center, the facility pays for the training of future lifeguards in return for a minimum number of hours of lifeguard work afterward. "We can also take people who don't think they can be lifeguards and get them ready for that," Braman said. "So you see more people doing this in our industry, and we also run things like junior lifeguarding to introduce kids to it."

According to Valdez, it's also important to show some flexibility when trying to find a aquatics manager, with a focus on finding someone who can manage the facility and its profitability effectively, as opposed to demanding that every candidate possess a variety of advanced certifications.

"So it's not necessarily somebody who has Lifeguard Instructor Trainer and Water Safety Instructor Trainer certifications and has been in the aquatics world forever," Valdez said. "It might be somebody that has a business background but maybe lifeguarded for a few years and maybe was a pool manager but didn't go through everything else. But they have enough of a background in aquatics and a love for it that they can really help the program out."

Reviewing Your Operations

To create profitable, effective aquatic programs, Valdez also recommends that aquatics facilities review their programming annually. "I think the biggest thing I see is we forget to look inward and to really take stock of our programs and make changes. Once we get things running, we just keep them running and don't look at how well they're doing," Valdez said.

According to Valdez, that means looking at everything you're doing at the facility, including reviewing all your price points, registrations, attendance numbers and other analytics to see what's working, what's not and make changes.

"Sometimes that means cutting a program," Valdez said. "Sometimes that means just tweaking a program. Or providing more marketing dollars for a certain program if it needs to stay and you want to beef up attendance."

New Facility Considerations

Operators are also making more strategic choices in new facilities to accommodate a variety of programs, and Nelson noted that he typically has two or three pools in every new model they do to provide different temperature access and depth, including warm-water areas for kids' swim lessons and for seniors.

According to Nelson, the most typical design for smaller towns (25,000 and under population) is a 15,000-square-foot facility with an eight-lane 25-yard pool and an additional warm-water programming pool. Cities of up to 75,000 are doing a 10-lane pool and a programming pool that's a bit larger, and larger cities are looking at 50-meter pools for the main pools, with some facilities in warmer climates reaching into the 45,000-to-50,000 square foot range.

But the design must be influenced both by programming and by related staffing requirements. "We have to quit designing things and figuring out what we're going to do with them afterward," Nelson said. "We have to have a plan so that every single body of water, every single area of the facility, is responsible to be able to make enough money to support itself. So we don't keep having to go back for tax increases and loans."

By designing with a programming focus and then continually reviewing and improving those programs, facilities can successfully offer patrons valuable, beloved aquatic programming—while still being financially responsible in a challenging economic environment. RM



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