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Making Waves for Fun and Fitness

Need to attract more people to your pool? Looking for some new aquatics programming ideas? Find out the basics of creating aquatics programs, and get some ideas from other fitness centers on how to bring life to your pool.

Pools at fitness centers are often a necessary burden - members expect one, but don't use it often or aren't willing to pay more for one. But, it doesn't have to be that way. Your pool can be a revenue and/or membership generator, with the proper programming.

Understand the basics

Before designing classes or events around your pool, understand what your members want and when. Scot Hunsaker, from the aquatics consulting firm Counsilman-Hunsaker, St. Louis, Mo., offers some tips on how to figure out what type of aquatics programming is right for your fitness center.

Types of programming. The four types of programming for your pool are competitive, recreation, lessons, and fitness and therapy. What type you offer may already be decided by what kind of pool you have. Competitive swimming requires the pool to be cool and deep. The others require the pool to be warm (78 to 82 degrees) and shallow (5 feet or less). For most fitness centers, recreation and fitness are a good combination, if managed properly.

Know your market. Is your culture competitive or more of a neighborhood pool? Will non-members be allowed to use the pool? If you don't know what your market wants, conduct an email or telephone survey of your members. Or, create a member advisory board that represents a good cross-section of your members, and consult them about programming ideas. Know the ages of the people who will use the pool, and the number of people. Also, know the times that they will most likely use the pool, the days of the week and the time of year.

Are your members lap swimmers or recreational users? Lap swimmers make up about 10 percent of of those who use a pool, and generally expect pool usage to be part of their membership. Recreational users make up about 90 percent of pool participants, and are willing to pay more for pool use, especially on a one-time basis.

Remember, part of knowing your market is also knowing your competition. Is there another pool across town that offers swim lessons at a discounted rate? Is there a water park nearby where children have birthday parties? Find a niche for you pool that isn't already being filled in your community. One niche that is often missing in pool programming is the teen market. You could create a social program for this group after school or during the summer.

Indoor vs. outdoor. Whether you have an indoor or outdoor pool will greatly affect the type of programming you offer, especially if you live in an area that has cold and/or wet winters. If you have an indoor pool, offer fall and winter programs for moms and tots, home-schoolers and older adults during the day when most children are at school. With an outdoor pool, most facilities are limited to summer use and, then, times have to be managed carefully. Since children aren't in school, it doesn't make sense to offer an older adult program in the middle of the day. Maybe offer it in the early morning, before children would arrive.

Know your goals. Before creating programs, define success for your pool. Is it attendance, revenue or simply a service to members? And remember, goals need to be changed according to need. Revisit your goals once a year and see if they are still working.

Does programming attract users?

Some fitness center managers may wonder if it is worth it to create programming around their pool. Does it really benefit the facility? Joel Dickerson, aquatics manager, Four Seasons Association, Bloomington, Ill., says it does. "Pools are an attraction that not every facility has. By drawing people to our aquatic programs, we attain more participants, which flows over into all other programs," he says.

In addition, aquatic exercise is great for many types of members who can't perform regular cardio or weight-training exercises. Says Andy Lemons, athletics and aquatics coordinator, Texins Activity Centers, Dallas, Texas, "We have a rather large senior population that attends our water aerobics classes. Many of these folks are physically unable to take part in other, more intensive, workouts. ... Water aerobics gives them [another] ... option." Dale Luoma, senior program director at the CJ Lofino Family Complex of the Sarasota Family YMCA, Sarasota, Fla., agrees: "We have a large senior population that we serve through our water programming. If we did not offer the programming, a lot of these members and participants would not come through our doors."

For those who can participate in more traditional forms of exercise, aquatics programs can help them add variety to their workouts. Says Ally Baker, director of wellness services at Roanoke Athletic Club, Roanoke, Va., "Having a well-run aquatics [program] is important to bringing in new members. It gives our members the opportunity to have options for their workouts, [in addition to] traditional cardio and group exercise classes."

And, members who enjoy a particular class or program at your facility will often tell their friends about it. Says Lemons, "We pull numerous new accounts from [our] specialized group aquatics class each month from referrals." Jeno Rab, president and CEO, Fitness Associates LLC, Andover, N.J., says that, in addition to referrals, if you market your programs correctly, members will participate. In particular, create programs for specific types of members: "By marketing to a specific type of user, such as for sports-specific training, you can attract users to your pool. Marketing is key."

Coming up with ideas

So, how do you come up with these great ideas that will bring people to your pool? Look around, and see what other facilities are doing in your area, and around the country. Can you do something similar, or tweak it to make it your own? Books, magazines and the Internet are also great ways to research programming ideas, and your members may have a few ideas of their own. Baker says that members are a great place to start: "Our primary method of program decision-making stems directly from member requests and feedback. ... Newer members tend to be more 'big picture' in terms of comparing our programs to that of other clubs in the area."

Most fitness centers have more than one staff person involved in the planning process. Frank Vaccaro, aquatic director at the Jorgensen Family YMCA, Ft. Wayne, Ind., says, "I have the final say in what programs we offer, [but] we do have brainstorming sessions, [and] our instructors give feedback on what they hear from participants and members." Lemons agrees that brainstorming sessions can work: "We have brainstorming meetings with the staff members in lead roles of the aquatics programs ... to discuss pool use and activities designed to increase traffic into the pool." Brainstorming sessions, says Baker, are great for "improving existing programs or creating new ones to accommodate different interests."

In addition to your members and staff, other professionals can offer ideas. Dickerson says that he and his staff attend conferences to get new ideas: "Keeping in touch with professional contacts is a great way to keep up with new trends and ideas for aquatic facilities. ... Only having one person in charge of coming up with new ideas could be detrimental to overall user enjoyment."

Keeping programming fresh

Once you have programs that work, make sure that they continue to work. Explains Rab, "As with any event or class, you must continue to change up routines to keep your members interested." However, don't lose track of what your members want. Says Lemons, "Like most aquatic facilities, we have our staples, which drive numbers year after year. ... We look to enhance our programming where appropriate without directly affecting the 'tried and true' methods that have worked for years at our facility." Vaccaro agrees: "We are always trying to refresh our water aerobics classes, but most of the participants want and expect the same class."

Dickerson says that the age of participants may be an important thing to consider. "I have found that the programs that involve the younger children may need changes a little more often. Keeping up with the youthful trends is imperative to the success of a children's program," he says.

If your staple programs continue to be a success, you could offer special programs or events every so often to mix things up. Vaccaro gives examples such as an Easter egg hunt in the pool, water safety events for families, a beach party and summer swim school. Christy Barry, aquatics supervisor at the Roanoke Athletic Club, says, "We try to update current programs by adding challenges, contests and incentives to generate interest."

Another way to keep things fresh is through continuing education for instructors. Says Luoma, "We make sure we send our instructors to training so that they are kept up-to-date on new techniques."

Sample programs

If you need a jump-start to help you come up with programming ideas, here are some that work for other fitness centers.

Non-competitive swim. Four Seasons offers year-round non-competitive swim. Says Dickerson, "There are an abundance of competitive swim teams that run year-round in our area. By giving people an alternative to the high-pressure/high-intensity of a competitive swim team, we gain participants that would never have been interested in a swim team program. With this program, we ... stress competing against yourself."

Swim teams. Texins Activity Centers charges a monthly rate to join its swim team, which covers the salaries of coaches, equipment, administrative costs, dues and meet fees. Says Lemons, "Our parents continually recommend our program to their coworkers, friends and family."

Swim lessons. The swim lesson program at Roanoke Athletic Club is thriving and continues to grow in popularity each year, according to Baker. "We offer classes that apply to a wide range of ages and skill levels, beginning with parent/child lessons through competitive athlete and triathlete training."

Swimming lessons are also successful at the Jorgensen Family YMCA. It offers group lessons for parents/child from six months to three years, Preschool (three to five years), Progressive (six to 12 years) and Youth Conditioning (eight to 18 years). It also offers private lessons. Says Vaccaro, "In an average seven-week session, we have 300-plus participants in group lessons, and more than 150 private lesson packages (seven, 30-minute lessons)."

Water aerobics. Texins Activity Centers offers 28 water aerobics classes per week, with an average of 15 attendees per class. "Our early morning classes have the most in attendance," says Lemons. Classes are included in the cost of membership, and "participants see this as a great advantage to our facility," Lemons says.

Growth Through Aquatics. The Growth Through Aquatics program at Texins Activity Centers is designed for individuals with special needs. It helps to develop social, swimming and interactive skills, says Lemons.

Infant Aquatic Survival. Infant Aquatic Survival classes at Texins focus on preparing toddlers for emergency situations. "These are ideal for people who own boats or pools," Lemons says.

Arthritis aquatics classes. The American Arthritis Association-certified arthritis aquatics class at Roanoke Athletic Club, called Twinges in the Hinges, is very successful, according to Baker, because of the growing number of people who have the condition. The Jorgensen Family YMCA's Aqua Joints classes are "our most successful classes year after year," says Vaccaro.

YMCA Splash. The YMCA Splash program covers pool, beach, boating and water park safety. It is usually a one-day event, and is a great way "to give non-members an idea of what we [offer]," Vaccaro says.

Diving. Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics (HFFA), Huntersville, N.C., offers a diving program called Fuel Diving for elite divers. The facility has diving platforms and springboards, and also offers its Learn To Dive program, which is "designed to teach people of all ages fundamental skills for safe diving," says Aquatics Director Joan Roberts. Group lessons include dry land training to develop strength, flexibility, body awareness and skill.

Programming vs. lap swimmers

Even with great programs in place, there will always be members who simply want to swim laps. You need to accommodate these people, as well, and have a plan for avoiding conflict between lap swimmers and other pool users. Lemons agrees that there needs to be a plan: "We ... keep a minimum of one lane open for lap swimmers, regardless of the programs going on in the pool. During our busier times, ... we increase our communications regarding when the best time to use the pool for lap swimming is." Luoma and Dickerson agree that posting schedules and keeping at least one lane open at all times is important. Says Dickerson, "We also believe that it is important to maintain open swim for members at all times."

Vaccaro says that schedules and keeping a few lanes open are important, but that "time is not the problem, the water temperature is. Too cold for lessons, too hot for laps. We have found a happy medium with 83 to 84 degrees. This tends to keep most participants happy."

Lemons says that it's important not to forget your lap swimmers. "Our lap swimmers are an important part of our pool - many of our revenue-generating programs are attended by lap swimmers [who are] looking to get something more out of their aquatic experience. Alienating lap swimmers by focusing on our revenue-generating programs can be detrimental to the overall goal of our aquatic program, which is to increase the awareness and opportunities for aquatic exercise to all members," he says.

Getting the most out of it

Your pool is a great amenity to your fitness center, and can attract members and create revenue. However, you must be willing to put in the time and effort to make it a success. Pools are a big financial commitment, says Hunsaker, so "you have to take it seriously. Figure out how to make your pool a three-ring circus," in order to get the most out of it.
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