A few weeks ago, following a night of incredibly heavy thunderstorms that left a good portion of our area without power, our local swimming pools experienced a temporary population spike. At least in part, this was because the locker rooms were being overrun by people grateful to take advantage of a hot shower.
The other reason, though, was the result of a really nice gesture on the part of our community association: The power outages coincided with a string of 100-plus-degree days, so association officials opened all 23 of the neighborhood pools to any county residents who didn't have power, regardless of whether they were members of the Columbia Association.
The pools, particularly the bigger facilities with splash pads, water slides, snack bars and other kid-friendly amenities, saw a lot more traffic, and all of it was good. Kids were thrilled to get into the water, and parents were relieved to be able to provide them with a safe diversion. The regular crowd of children was glad to have more playmates, and the lifeguards got all kinds of effusive thanks from visitors. Everyone was happy.
As it turned out, Columbia wasn't the only group being generous with its facilities. The YMCA of Central Maryland also opened its doors to those who wanted to shower, cool off and unwind.
We're used to watching out for our senior population in the heat; senior citizens are always being encouraged to go to air-conditioned community centers and other buildings. But this was the first initiative I'd seen that was directed at families and singles, not just the most vulnerable population where excessive heat's concerned.
Beyond being a nice gesture, it turned into an amazing marketing opportunity. Once an announcement was made to the local media, it became the top feel-good story almost immediately. Word of the free pools and YMCA facilities was carried on TV and radio, and printed in newspapers, as well as on multiple websites and social media. TV stations even came out to take footage of kids jumping into the water. It was the best advertising ever, and it didn't cost a cent.
What's more, it became a membership recruitment tool. A woman at my gym told me about a friend who, upon hearing about the program, packed up her shower supplies and made tracks for her neighborhood YMCA. "She was prepared to have to prove she was still in the blackout zone, but they just waved her in the door," my friend told me. "And she said she really liked the place. I think once the power comes back on and she has her life back in order, she's going to get a membership there."
Say what you will about power outages. This one, thanks to some really forward-thinking managers, made for some pretty enlightened decision-making.