Swimming has become a lucrative programming option for facility operators who know to position themselves in the marketplace.

The scene May 1 at Almaden Valley Athletic Club in San Jose, Calif., was one that operators of fitness and aquatic facilities often imagine but seldom actually see: Long lines of people stretched out the doors and into the parking lot, as parents waited to sign their children up for summer swimming lessons at the renowned AVAC Swim School. Eight hours later, more than $130,000 had been transacted. Not bad for only the first day of registration.

Considered the largest learn-to-swim program in the nation, AVAC's Swim School teaches more than 3,000 students every week during daily sessions that run from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., with abbreviated schedules on the weekend. It is on track to generate revenues in excess of $3 million in 2005. That's at least $2.5 million more than the club brought in prior to 2000, when AVAC officials opened a new $2 million, glass-enclosed facility -- with a retractable roof for added comfort and flexibility -- designed strictly for swimming lessons.

"We have an outdoor pool at the club, but it essentially restricted when we could do lessons. Even in California, it gets kind of chilly by 7 p.m., which does not make for a conducive environment for teaching kids to swim," says Sue Davis, AVAC's general manager and director of the club's aquatics program, adding that lessons were scheduled in between other pool programs and confined to the summer months. "Not being able to use the pool for lessons eight months out of the year played a huge role in what our income was at the time."

With classes of no more than four students each, instructors who work with students for a minimum of three months and a variety of scheduling options, AVAC's Swim School has become a destination point, providing programming above and beyond what might be offered by area parks and recreation departments, YMCAs and other health and fitness clubs. "We knew that there was huge potential for this kind of program in San Jose, but we didn't know it was this huge," Davis says. "It has exceeded our expectations."

Expectations are the foundation upon which aquatic centers are built. Facility owners design and construct pools with the expectation that people will want to use them. In turn, a broad spectrum of users -- swim clubs looking for practice space, physical therapists looking for rehab solutions, parents of home-schooled children looking for physical-education outlets -- expect programming options that will meet their needs. But if facilities don't meet those needs, pools often languish, as revenue potential and real estate value go down the drain.

Swim clubs, in particular, are known to be especially demanding. "People who operate facilities do not want to hear the words 'swim team,'" contends Mel Goldstein, director of Indy SwimFit, a YMCA-sponsored program for adults that began at the Arthur Jordan YMCA in Indianapolis almost 10 years ago. "Swim teams have an all-encompassing power that comes over a facility once they get in it. I'm not opposed to swim teams, but they want prime time, and if you give them three lanes, they want four lanes. That creates animosity among other members who want to use the facility."

The key to avoiding animosity between any user groups -- swim teams included -- is developing an array of appealing programming options that satisfy the whole spectrum of users.

That certainly isn't easy. "A lucrative aquatics operation is a byproduct of superior staffing and excellent programming," says Mick Nelson, director of club facilities development for the Facilities Development Department of USA Swimming, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo. "If you do it right, dollars are going to be generated. But you have to generate dollars for at least 12 hours, if not 14 hours, a day. Pools throughout the country are being decommissioned because they're money pits and people cannot afford to keep them open. I can't tell you the number of health clubs and fitness facilities I've walked through on my travels during the past 20 years where the pools sit vacant. Nobody is using them between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. A pool seems to be something facility operators think they need -- more like a showpiece than an actual programming tool."

Enter USA Swimming's newest entity. The Facilities Development Department surfaced in June 2004 out of a need to find many of the organization's 2,700 swim clubs -- 95 percent of which rent pool space from existing facilities -- more places to train. Its threefold goal is to help pool operators strategically renovate existing facilities, build new facilities and properly program both. To that end, the department has already acted as owners' representatives for more than $600 million worth of planned facilities and fostered partnerships between USA Swimming, the Aquatic Exercise Association and the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute in an effort to help facilities develop more-versatile programming options.

Last fall, when Hurricane Ivan's 130-mph winds blew roofs off the natatoriums at the University of West Florida and Pensacola Junior College, the Greater Pensacola Aquatic Club's swim team was forced to find new places to train and compete. The organization not only lost pool space for its competitive swimmers but also suspended its swimming school, a strong revenue stream that served as a feeder program for the team. With the help of public and private pools, though, GPAC was able to resume training and hosting home meets -- even though the small size of at least one of those facilities (an area high school natatorium) forced the club and other teams to significantly reduce their number of competitors.

That kind of cooperation between pool operators and user groups is essential to the continued health of the aquatics industry, Nelson says. "We have to do a better job of helping our clubs understand how partnerships benefit all of aquatics," he says. "They may have to train in water that's 84 degrees instead of 81 degrees, because that pool isn't going to be there in three months if they don't allow the owner to bring the temperature up a bit to cater to people with arthritis and chronic pain. If there's not a little bit of give and take, everybody loses. And I don't think it's just swim clubs. Any special-interest group is demanding, because it knows what its needs are. But that's not fair to the facility operators. We have to keep their best interests in mind, too, because if they're not happy, they're not going to offer cooperative programming. They own the water."

To help facility operators better cater to a greater range of potential users, USA Swimming encourages them to always keep in mind the three most important components of a pool: temperature, access and depth.

  • Temperature: One of the most important features of any aquatic facility is the ability of operators to vary water temperatures for specific populations and programs. Typically, USA Swimming recommends that water 82 degrees and cooler be used for competitive training, lap swimming and high-intensity vertical water exercise. Water between 86 and 88 degrees is best for swimming lessons, moderate exercise, synchronized and recreational swimming, and diving. Water with a temperature of 90 degrees or warmer is suitable for aquatic therapy and learn-to-swim programs for small children. The more individual pools a facility operates, the easier it will be to manage temperature-control issues.
  • Access: Access issues involving how users get in and out of the water -- stairs, ramps, ladders, lifts -- also need to be considered, especially if water aerobics for mature adults and aquatic rehabilitation are part of the programming mix. The Americans with Disabilities Act recommends that commercial pools provide two distinct types of entry. The primary means must be via slope or lift; secondary means can be via slope, lift, stairs, transfer wall or transfer system.
  • Depth: Unless they feature a ramped entry, stair entry or zero-depth entry, pools traditionally begin at a depth of 42 inches at their shallowest points. Water walking and running, water aerobics and lap swimming can all be performed in water that's either 42 or 48 inches deep. Water between 52 and 60 inches deep is ideal for orthopedic water walking, strength-training programs, competitive and recreational swimming, and vertical athletic training. Water with a depth of 7 feet or more is best reserved for advanced swimmers, as well as overweight people, because the deeper the water in which a person chooses to exercise, the less stress their joints will experience. (Also keep in mind that, according to USA Swimming, approximately 50 percent of aquatic exercisers or aquatic therapy participants do not know how to swim.)

Ideally, programming should precede design, Nelson says, with temperature, access and depth taken into consideration from the very beginning. But because that's not always possible, facility operators must find ways to make existing designs fit current and future programming needs.

That's what Goldstein attempted to do with Indy SwimFit, a self-sustaining United States Masters Swimming program for adults that extends to five Indianapolis-area YMCAs, Indiana University's Natatorium, Warren Central High School and the private HealthPlex Sports Club. Rather than force facility operators into what they may perceive as unfair agreements, Goldstein says SwimFit aims to bring them business they're currently not getting. "We come in and say, 'We'll provide you with a program and give you something that your members are looking for. In return, let us have the use of your facility,'" he explains. "Generally, adults swim when pools have downtime. When I started a weekday session at the IU Natatorium at 11:30 a.m., everybody told me I was crazy. But instead of going to eat a 2,500-calorie sandwich at McDonald's, people now choose to swim on their lunch hour."

Goldstein started SwimFit in 1996 at one YMCA with a nucleus of 35 or so swimmers. Today, two full-time and more than a half-dozen part-time coaches provide structured workouts and offer stroke instruction during 45 different practice times each week for a membership that has increased tenfold. Many of SwimFit's 350-plus members -- ranging in age from their late teens to early 80s -- compete in the national YMCA and USMS championships, which are open to whoever wants to participate. Indy SwimFit also sponsors free stroke clinics every other Sunday at a designated Y, in the hopes of attracting new members. Current Y members pay monthly dues of $26 (on top of the $35 annual USMS membership fee), while nonmembers pay $44 a month (plus USMS dues).

"Masters Swimming has a tendency to denote elitism," Goldstein says. "I try to take that out of it and look at the program as an adult aquatic fitness program for those people who have chosen aquatics as a means of exercise for a healthier lifestyle. We have competitive swimmers, but we also have fitness swimmers, who make up the greatest number of program participants. You have to be able to swim, but we're not concerned with how well you can swim."

Indy SwimFit is now poised to become an integral part of programming options at future area YMCAs, and at least two YMCAs in Florida have started similar programs. "What if -- and I'm sure this will happen down the road -- facilities we use realize we're not doing anything they can't do by themselves? Well, fine. Go do it," Goldstein says. "For the most part, these can be self-sustaining programs. Others can be staffed with volunteers. You just have to determine how many people would be interested in such a program, find the most convenient practice times, and go to a local swim shop and ask for sponsorship opportunities."

Members of the combined boys' and girls' swimming and diving teams from North and South high schools in New City, N.Y.'s Clarkstown Central School District, not to mention their parents, were fed up with making 30-minute one-way trips to four different pools at odd hours to train. So they finally built their own 51-meter pool (with a 1-meter movable bulkhead) and spectator seating for 1,000. "This concept has been around for 30 years," says Christopher Serra, the district's director of physical education and aquatics, who was a diver on North's team in the 1980s. "People wanted to put a pool at Clarkstown South High School 30 years ago, and it never happened. They kicked themselves for not doing it back then. The school board wanted swimming instruction for all its students, which it's now going to get. The community wanted use of an indoor pool, which it's now going to get. So it's really solving a lot of problems."

The natatorium, located at Felix Festa Middle School, opened in May and was built at an estimated cost of $8 million to $10 million (Serra won't divulge exact figures). In addition to being home to interscholastic teams and playing an integral role in the middle school's physical-education curriculum, the facility sponsors lifeguard training classes for high school students, an intramurals program for swimmers in grades 4 through 12 that serves as a feeder program for the high school teams, and Sunday-night swimming lessons for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. The facility can also be rented to organized groups such as AAU clubs, and it will host sectional high school swim meets in October and February. Serra hopes to secure the high school state championships in 2007, and were New York to be named host city of the 2012 Summer Olympics, he says he would offer the pool as a training facility for international competitors.

"Are we going to make a fortune off this? No," Serra admits. "We're hoping to just make enough to cut our losses as far as operating the pool -- chemicals, heating, electricity. As long as we stay out of the red, we'll be happy."

Jim Wheeler, on the other hand, is trying to get out of the red. Having gone from overseeing several successful pools simultaneously in major California cities to simply hoping to acquire a donated bulkhead for a 50-year-old, 125-by-50-foot community pool in tiny Nevada City, Calif., Wheeler has his work cut out for him. "I inherited a pool with a $96,000 deficit, and I ended up with an $8,000 deficit after my first summer," says Wheeler, the city's parks and recreation manager and past president of the National Recreation and Park Association's aquatics branch. "It's very challenging. This is definitely the smallest pool I've had in my career."

But by making commonsense changes that added evening swimming lessons, Saturday sessions and Sunday hours, Wheeler has helped get the pool well on its way toward making a comeback within the community. And developing a youth swim team to complement a noncompetitive pre-swim team program already in place at the pool will be the first order of business once that bulkhead arrives. From there, Wheeler hopes to attract swim clubs and other revenue-generating groups -- as long as the pool is meeting user needs that can't be satisfied elsewhere.

AVAC's Davis shares Wheeler's commitment to pool programming, and both have succeeded under less-than-ideal circumstances. The space-constrained AVAC sacrificed two tennis courts to make way for the facility's indoor pool, and had to contract with a nearby church to accommodate overflow parking generated by the swim school -- which now accounts for 35 percent of AVAC's annual revenue. The facility also recently enhanced its 29-year-old outdoor competition pool by coating it with a new fiberglass surface, and club officials want to open more swim schools in communities not served by the kind of all-day aquatics programming that AVAC's San Jose location offers.

More power to them, says USA Swimming's Nelson, who predicts that within three years, more aquatic facility operators than ever will be fostering new relationships with users they previously never considered. Already, pools large and small from California to New York are proving it can be done. "I think we're going to change the face of aquatics," Nelson concludes. "I know that sounds bold and idealistic. But it's also realistic."