The number of pool starts in the United States dropped by more than 70 percent between 2008 and 2011, according to market research firm PK Data. And even though the industry appears to have hit bottom and is on its way back up this year, aquatic facility operators still face plenty of challenges.

During a well-attended and information-packed Athletic Business Conference session Thursday morning, Scot Hunsaker, president of St. Louis-based aquatic engineering company Counsilman-Hunsaker, asked for input from attendees, who shared their struggles. The operator of one recently opened facility is now worried about finding the funds to keep it afloat, while another wasn't even sure her organization would make it past a current feasibility study. A third expressed concerns about needing to retrofit a 50-meter, six-lane competition pool in order to make it more accessible and inviting to more users.

In one way or another, each of those concerns is related to obsolescence of either the physical or functional kind, and it's a reality faced by an increasing number of facility operators. "You need to create a model that is fiscally responsible and encourages repeat business," Hunsaker told the full room. "The decisions you make now will last 50 years, so give yourself the elbow room to do a lot of different things with that pool."

Indeed, within the past decade, the demand for a higher-quality and unique pool experience has soared. That means facilities must better serve increasingly diverse user groups, including competitive and recreational swimmers, water fitness enthusiasts and learn-to-swim participants. Retrofits must take into consideration each of those groups and their distinct water depth and temperature requirements.

A feasibility study is the best way to begin, Hunsaker said, but make sure it includes concrete strategies to set your facility apart from the competition. He mentioned one facility that opened decades ago and is still in business today, despite now having more than 20 competitors, because it offers a unique experience. Additionally, he stressed the importance of implementing new elements of the Model Aquatic Health Code, which will - from mechanical equipment to risk management practices - alter the way future pools are built and retrofit.

It also doesn't hurt to downplay some of the negative perceptions about swimming, such as drowning and entrapment, stressing instead the activity's physical, psychological and social benefits. "We have so many good things about our industry, and we can't ignore them," Hunsaker said. "The more we can do to increase ease of access and make pools a safer environment, the better. We have a gift: There is no better experience than designing an aquatics facility."