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Theeconomy is a mess and facility operators know what that means. Just to keep your head above water, you must do more with less. When coming up against financial difficulties, it’s time to get creative with programming — really creative

Consumers are spending less, thus programs need to stand out to capture all the revenue possible. That means finding niches within current programming and taking some creative risks. Here are some ideas to get you started:   

1. Find gaps, then visualize successful use.

  • Does the facility have gaps in its schedule when the pool is empty or really slow? Is a section not being used? Take a picture, stand there, and just look at the space. What could happen there? For example, if your pool is less crowded during the evening, you could set up a niche program for busy adults who might have some time at night to come in. Consider a 30-minute killer workout for water and land to challenge this group, but respect their full schedules.
  • Who do you think could come in during the gap times? For instance, parents who drop their kids off at swim school could be a great niche market. Instead of just having a cup of coffee, they could bring their coffee klatsch to the water and get a workout while their kids take lessons.
  • Make a list of the people you imagine fitting into your gaps and where they might be found, then go advertise to them. Ask yourself, “Where do people tend to sit and wait?” Places such as coffee shops, doctor’s or dentist’s offices, and barbershops are some examples. Just ask if you can place a pile of your advertising material with the magazines.

2. Market your facility in new ways.

  • Go after people already at your facility. Is there a subgroup that can be folded into complementary programs? For example, swim team parents are very dedicated and watch the kids practice. If you have a facility that runs other activities, get them involved in those. Offer adult swim lessons or some other type of exercise program. Even a book club oriented around the facility and focused on aquatics is a great way to bring in patrons.
  • Subtle hints work wonders. To fill your slow times, try placing an ad on the treadmills at your fitness center with a quip on the benefits of water walking at the pool. Some ideas for ads: “How are your knees feeling? Hips hurt? Remove the pressure!” or “Enjoy a no-impact day at the aquatics center.” For a visual, you could have a picture of someone wearing a waterbelt in the pool. And make sure the ad includes the class times.

3. Convert pop culture to pool culture.

  • Set up aquatic fitness boot camps. How many gutter-ups can you do?! Appeal to people’s sense of challenge. Fitness centers have used boot camps for years. Why can’t aquatics centers?
  • Take a page from television. NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” is a great example. How can you fold the pool element from that show into a community program? They already do some swimming exercises on the show. Start a biggest loser club and use swimming as your main exercise. Require participants to make a commitment. Remember to include the benefits of water workouts in marketing materials. For overweight people, water temperature of 80 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit keeps them from experiencing heat exhaustion. Plus, it’s much easier on joints because of buoyancy. With the right instructor, there’s less risk of injury, and daily aches and pains will be reduced because the individual won’t be competing against gravity.
  • Look to Wii and other video games. Who would have ever thought that the Wii would be a huge recreation hit at retirement centers? The Wii fit, and music, rock band, sports and the like are huge sellers, and they appeal to all ages.  Is there an application for aquatics? Not yet, but there could be. 
  • Tap into the “staycation” trend. Ask your staff and patrons what they think makes vacations fun. Create a reason for families to take a staycation at your facility. In our city, we make the Fourth of July a free recreational swim day and offer a concert in the park before the fireworks. When creating staycation ideas, remember that you need to appeal to the whole family to come to your venue

This is easier at multipurpose facilities, but just about any place can dream up a staycation. For example, advertise your facility as a local cruise ship; make the front-desk person a cruise director, throw a bon voyage party and a buffet. Make people realize they don’t need to leave their hometown to get away. 

4. Reframe, reformat and revitalize.

  • Bring on the Zen. Turn down the lights, mellow out the music and have relaxation time. Why not program for stress relief? People pay big bucks for the sounds of water as a means to relax — and you have a pool full of it! Make it a really quiet time, maybe the last hour of the day. You could call it the spa hour. Consider having experts there to talk people through relaxation exercises in the water.
  • Be with people like you. Use social networking as part of the class format. Apply the team concept to other areas. Create reasons for people to be excited about coming to your place, and encourage gatherings. At our facility, the water exercise group holds a potluck once a week. Can you facilitate something similar? You could bring in a coffee cart after programs to make them more social.

You can also use existing social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Set up a Facebook group for your exercise groups. In our community, a struggling teen excursion ski program used a Facebook page that led to filling the bus in 48 hours. Before that, we could barely fill a van.

  • Don’t be afraid to enlist the help of popular staffers. Lifeguards often get to know regular pool patrons. Encourage these relationships to grow and continue outside of the facility. It will keep people coming back, and they may bring others. For example, we have a guard who has befriended a number of people, and they go for a moonlight swim several times a year. Remember, people come to you by choice. Encourage your staff to be friendly and interact. It works.
  • Appeal to alternative exercisers. Some people love to go out on weekends and do extreme sports or marathons. These people need a gentle come-down during the week. So a perfect niche program is to offer them that alternative.

Consider water yoga, zero-g exercises or lactic acid cleanses. Think in more than one dimension, too. Are you using your deck for dryland classes as well as the water? Why not have Ti Chi classes or aerobics classes on your deck while other programs are happening in the water?