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    Credit: NICK ORABOVIC

When the National Recreation & Park Association announced that 2011 would be the last NRPA National Aquatic Conference, and that its National Aquatic Branch would be dismantled, many in the industry were left wondering what would fill the void.

In many ways, it appears that the fledgling Association of Aquatic Professionals has begun to do just that.

AOAP held its inaugural Conference and Exhibition Feb. 13-16 in Austin, Texas, and the group has big plans to expand its reach beyond that annual show with new initiatives and programs aimed at the whole of aquatics.

“There are so many professionals out there who are not participating and attending any educational opportunities,” said Farhad Madani, executive director of AOAP and consultant for Aquatic Safety Experts, LLC, in Austin. He hopes to see the nearly 500 member-strong-organization — the only one exclusively focused on commercial aquatics — double in size.

The recent conference represents a cornerstone in making that happen. It attracted more than 150 attendees, 38 speakers, and exhibitors from more than 60 companies.

“It’s fantastic to see [what NAC offered] revived in a different setting,” said attendee Jimmy Gibbs, aquatics manager of Lawrence (Kan.) Parks and Recreation Department. “It’s so important for us to be able to get together as professionals and find out what’s new.”

Looking ahead, plans are in place to hold the conference in Austin again through 2014, and work already is under way for the next show. “We’re really trying to take it to the next level,” said Juliene Hefter, AOAP president. “We want to be a one-stop shop for people.”

That means reaching beyond the old NAC recreation and park-focused audience to attract professionals from across the aquatics world.

“People in aquatics need to feel like they have a home,” said Kathy Lucker, vice president of Lincoln Aquatics and a founding board member of AOAP. “If you’re in aquatics, we would love to have you.”

At this year’s conference, some of the show was open to the public, including certain education sessions. The goal was to attract new audiences that don’t often attend other aquatic shows, such as those who manage aquatics and recreational facilities for housing developments and homeowners associations.

Other new initiatives from AOAP include expanding online education and information resources, developing a scholarship/grants program. A partnership with Aquatics International also is in the works to develop an awards program.