For those who have staked their careers in the aquatics industry, it comes as no surprise that the majority of an aquatics facility's revenue is generated through two means: learn-to-swim programs and competitive swim teams. These two staples of the aquatics facility landscape are dependable, continuous, low-maintenance — and predictable. Unfortunately, this means that the bulk of a facility's cost-recovery rests on the shoulders of a relatively small population. How can facility managers cater to the needs of their most loyal patrons while driving growth in the simultaneous goals of fun and profit?
The programming a facility can afford to offer is informed by both the resources of the facility itself and the population the programs have the opportunity to serve. For facility owners or managers who are looking to build or renovate an aquatics space, there is an exciting potential to diversify the programs offered and expand the population served. According to Justin Caron, principal architect and vice president of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Aquatic Design Group, it is for precisely that reason that he begins each consultation with a new client by asking what programs the facility will need to offer.
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"If this is a facility that is being designed to cater to competitive or deep-water programming, that's a much different discussion than if this is a multi-use facility that wants to serve therapy and learn-to-swim in addition to fitness swimming, or even in addition to competitive swimming, water polo or diving," says Caron. The second question he asks is, "What is the expectation for cost-recovery?" Once those two key questions have been answered, facilities can start to weave them together to determine the right mix to best serve their communities — and, once the needs of key programs have been met, facilities can start to think about how to fill the water during the predictable low-usage timeslots.
Standing out from the crowd
One important factor for facility operators to consider when looking for additional programs to run is program differentiation. Caron suggests becoming familiar with what is offered at surrounding facilities and then making a decision about whether to directly compete with those facilities or pursue more success by filling in the gaps left by neighboring pools. "Essentially, empty water is going to lose money and full water could break even," says Caron. "Reach out to the homeschooling community to offer phys ed space or reach out to local therapists, PTs, hospitals, those sorts of programs, and try to build support with groups that typically want to use your pools at times when they're not really crowded."
Differentiation can also mean specialization, especially in urban areas where aquatics facilities are numerous and close together. While municipal pools often cater to a diverse population, private facilities may find a stronger revenue-generating base by providing a program-specific aquatics space. Studio director Miklos Valdez of aquatics engineering and consulting firm Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis, Mo., says his team has seen an increase in the number of private organizations wanting to build specialized competition training facilities or facilities solely devoted to swim lessons. "I think specializing helps to generate more revenue because those facilities tend, out of necessity, to operate at a high efficiency," says Valdez. "It provides a concise direction for the facility so they're really able to focus on what their business plan is going to be."
Adding interest post-construction
Building an aquatics center to the exact specifications of its user community isn't a luxury every aquatics organization can afford. Many municipal pools, or other aquatics facilities in rural areas where the nearest neighboring pool is 45 minutes or more away, find themselves catering to a community with diverse needs that change drastically throughout the day. Luckily, there is an entire industry tirelessly manufacturing portable and removable aquatics features that can be added long after the planning and construction phases have passed.
Add-on aquatics features come in many shapes, sizes and price points and appeal to diverse age groups. From time-tested water slides and diving boards to inflatable obstacle courses, climbing walls and custom ninja courses suspended over the water — marketing a facility's collection of water toys with special events and new programming can generate new interest in an existing pool.
One existing feature that often goes underused, according to Valdez, is a standard current channel. "Most everyone knows what a current channel looks like, but not everyone has thought of using it as a fitness or therapy amenity," he says. "When we talk about the idea of a dual use, not only as a fun recreational amenity for children but also as a fitness or therapy amenity for adults, it really opens people's eyes to some of the other possibilities in an aquatic center."
Other unique offerings that are making their way into the public eye include paddle board yoga, foam "weights" and other personal fitness equipment, stationary bikes, log rolling and even aquatic pole exercise using a portable pole system that can be taken in and out of the pool. Valdez says pole exercises are a good example of an activity that is essentially the same as its land-based counterpart, but adapted to water, adding, "Really what we're finding is that, given enough time, just about anything that is done on land at some point will look to be adapted for an aquatics program."
Innovation hits the deck
While just about every corner of the water is subject to being reimagined for new uses, programming — and revenue opportunities — are also expanding to the pool deck. Something as simple as cabana rentals can bring in $20 to $1,000 per day, depending on the facility and location, according to Caron. "Having that private cabana is something that really resonated at the resorts and then has filtered down throughout the private sector," he says. "Shade has become very valuable."
Beyond harvesting its shade, the pool deck has become the new frontier for aquatics facility amenities, with specialty equipment available to maximize the area around any kind of pool, from curvilinear resort pools to rectilinear competition space. On the competition side, swim programs often require spectator seating. However, with collapsible or roll-out bleachers, coaches and athletes can still have access to an open pool deck for supplemental practice space. Many collegiate programs and other competition swim teams use that space for circuit training with rubber tubing stretch cords, medicine balls, pull-up bars or TRX suspension trainers. Others have invested in swim-specific strength and conditioning equipment such as the Vasa Trainer or Swim Ergometer, which can be used as part of a swim workout or even to simulate in-water workouts on land.
These resistance machines require a clear space of about 4 by 10 feet and can be stored in a separate dry-storage area, or space-saver models that fold up and out of the way when not in use can be mounted directly to walls surrounding the pool deck. Exercise equipment such as aquatic stationary bikes and swim simulators can also give facilities the extra capacity to hold revenue-generating events, such as an indoor mini triathlon — where participants expect to sign up and pay in advance — or even a regular indoor triathlon training class.
Aquatic fitness and recreation programming is ever-expanding, and facility owners and operators will have more choices tomorrow than they do today. One thing experts in the field suspect will continue to grow in popularity is the integration of smart technology. "This is something we're seeing in the big water parks," says Caron, "and things that start in big water parks either die on the vine or people start to expect it." Point-of-sale technology available right from the pool deck is something his team is already configuring for the convenience of resort guests, but Caron sees that trending beyond convenience into potentially a kind of augmented reality experience.
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"I have no idea how that's going to evolve," he says, "but I think we're going to continue to become more and more connected to our devices, and someone is going to find a dynamic way to do that with water."
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Turn a profit with innovative pool programming." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.