Nationwide we continue to hear the latest news: Public facilities
closed due to city, county and state financial challenges.
It’s clear we are in changing times with a new mind-set. Gone
are the days when public facilities relying on heavy subsidies will
be allowed or even accepted. The public sector community must
change its operational mode to survive in today’s economic
The simple reality is this: The more your facility relies on
subsidies, the more likely it is to get the budgetary ax. Consider
using the following five operational changes to break your
dependence on subsidies.
1. Accept that subsidies are not a given. Rather
than assume that subsidizing operational costs is a foregone
conclusion, the public sector should focus on becoming sustainable
and fiscally responsible. That said, I’m not arguing that
each and every aquatics facility become a for-profit entity.
It’s unrealistic to ask everyone, regardless of location,
offerings and age, to drop subsidized funding.
Instead, I’m urging all public aquatics facilities to
maximize revenue opportunities and minimize costs. That requires a
committed and serious approach to operational efficiency combined
with a balance of appropriate user rate structure, program
offerings and facility marketing.
2. Review user fees. When looking at revenue
potential, it’s all too common for a public facility to have
user fees that are not in line with other recreational offerings,
and almost certainly not parallel with their counterparts in the
private and commercial environment.
For the sake of comparison, let’s look at the price structure
of public recreation offerings of an unnamed Midwestern community.
The cost for a summer youth baseball program with a season of 12
games, is $95. The cost to visit the outdoor city-owned aquatics
facility is $4 per visit, or $60 for a seasonal pass. If the
average baseball game is two hours, the current cost structure
equates to approximately $3.95 per recreation hour. If the average
length of stay at the aquatics facility is the same two hours, the
cost per recreation hour becomes $2.
When extending the average length of stay at the aquatics facility,
or utilizing the cost of a seasonal pass, the cost per recreational
hour is reduced to pennies. Again, this should not suggest that
every single public facility should raise its user rates. Rather, I
encourage you to review your current price structure for
determination of consistency with other publicly provided
recreation opportunities as appropriate within the community.
3. Diversify programming. Staying current with
program trends is important. Facilities must continue to be willing
to modify or update the programs that are provided, as well as the
times and frequency with which they are offered. Expanding aquatics
programs by reaching out to groups such as adults and seniors
through fitness and wellness programs is just one way to expand
Take advantage of times when there might be overlap in your
aquatics programs, such as children’s swim lessons and adult
aerobics. This can be an opportunity to increase participation.
After all, why should a child’s mom, dad, grandma or grandpa
sit in the shade reading their book while their child participates
in swim lessons when they could be exercising, too?
Even in situations where a public facility has established a
diversified activity schedule, it’s often fear of the unknown
that keeps some people away. Consider reducing program fees, or
possibly offering a program for free for a limited time. Fees are
the ultimate excuse for a nonuser, so once you remove them, you
also often remove a major hurdle. Typically, once a potential user
has participated in aqua-aerobics, fitness, therapy or other
aquatic programs, retention of these users can be high. Now
they’re engaged and interested, and are more likely to
4. Get self-promotional. Why is it that in the
public sector, facility programs and services frequently are not
perceived to have a strong need for self-promotion? A committed
effort to advertise and market your facility and its programs can
result in significant changes in attendance numbers. Far too often
a public facility has limited, if any, advertising in local
newspapers, radio and TV. Ads for special user rate days and times,
programmed special events, rental opportunities and the like have
become a necessity in maximizing revenue.
As new and innovative recreational opportunities come into the
marketplace, competition for discretionary dollars is fierce. In
your next budget, I strongly suggest putting in costs for
advertising and marketing. Attendance directly tied to such
campaigns often can be tracked, and experience has shown that
the cost associated with advertising traditionally will be covered
through increased attendance or program use.
Social media outlets have become a great tool for immediately
getting your message out, and can become a cost-effective tool for
communication and promotion. Utilizing these resources can be an
effective, inexpensive way to not only market your facility to the
everyday user, but also a great tool for updating the public on
your current programs and activities.
5. Look for new cost cuts. I’ve visited far
too many aquatics facilities and witnessed numerous lifeguards not
actively on duty, gathering or socializing. If you find yourself
dealing with ongoing discipline or horseplay issues, chances are,
you may be overstaffed. A guard rotation that will limit staffers
in a non-guarding situation may be necessary to reduce your labor
costs. Nor does the staff monitoring slide towers, concessions and
ticket areas typically require a certified guard.
When it comes to costs associated with utilities, the
implementation of maintenance and energy savings practices have
gone from being a green approach to everyday practice. Capital cost
investments on things such as variable frequency drives for pool
pumps; use of pool covers; high-efficiency pool heaters; and
installation of regenerative media filtration are just a few of the
steps you can consider to reduce operational expenses.
Plus, repairs of leaking pool tanks and piping can save
significantly on water, energy and chemical costs. Lastly, yearly
negotiations with multiple providers of your pool chemicals, food
services, insurance, and other commodities and contractual services
will promote a competitive environment, ensuring you’re
getting the most for your money.