When the recession hit and the city of Colorado Springs, Colo., found itself facing a serious budget shortfall, public pools went on the chopping block. Pool hours were reduced and staff members let go, but city leaders decided that wasn’t enough. Ultimately, they shut down the pools entirely.
But that wasn’t the end. When Tina and Kevin Dessart heard
what was happening, they saw an opportunity to step in. The
co-owners of Colorado Springs Swim School needed pool space, and
with seven municipal pools scheduled to shut down, there was going
to be a lot less to go around. They worked with the city to
establish a partnership arrangement, and in May 2010 the Dessarts
took over operation of three of the city’s facilities.
Since then, they’ve taken a business-minded approach and
improved efficiency in a number of ways, including adjusting
staffing levels and taking a hard look at costs for various
Time will tell whether the partnership is successful.
“There’s still a lot of work to do for this to be
successful,” Kevin Dessart says.
Other aquatics operators are facing similar budget-related
wait-and-see situations as aquatics facilities continue to fall
victim to shrinking state and local coffers. In fact, 70 percent of
operators say they’ve been directly affected by budget cuts,
according to an Aquatics International State of the Industry
survey of approximately 500 readers.
In a way, that's hardly a surprise, given that the nation remains
in the grip of the worst economic downturn since the Great
Depression. But our State of the Industry survey went deeper. The
goal was to determine how core issues — including facility
maintenance, construction, patrons, programming and staffing
— have been affected, and the different ways that aquatics
leaders are looking at operations with more business-focused eyes.
Then we went to the experts and asked them to interpret the
The result is a detailed analysis of what it will take to get
aquatics back on track when the economy finally turns around
— and how to get there from here.
Survey results show the majority of respondents, approximately 80
percent, are affiliated with public or nonprofit facilities. The
other 20 percent are affiliated with private operations. Regardless
of affiliation, however, everyone seems to be putting off needed
The survey finds 40 percent operating pools that are more
than 20 years old, so it’s not surprising that more than 60
percent of respondents say they’d like to renovate their
facilities in the next five years.
But the bottom line is still the bottom line. Upfront cost is the
most important driving factor for nearly 30 percent of respondents,
and approximately half believe they won’t realistically be
adding anything to their facilities any time soon.
“We’ve seen more people who just want to keep their
existing facility running,” says Kevin Post, project manager
at Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis.
Keeping the doors open means equipment must be working, and many of
those surveyed indicate that the last piece of equipment they
bought was an essential component.
Approximately 23 percent say a pool pump was the last major piece
of equipment purchased.
Filtration equipment systems and pool vacuums make up almost
another 30 percent, while UV systems comprise another 15
Still, development is happening: Three percent of respondents have
facilities that are less than a year old. When it comes to
renovation, 21 percent plan to add a water slide. Another 21
percent want to add shaded deck space, and 20 percent plan to add
splashpads. (Respondents were asked to choose from a list and mark
all options that applied.)
When asked to rank renovation projects in order of priority, adding
a pool or substantial new amenity (such as a water slide), was
chosen most frequently as the highest priority, ahead of adding a
play structure or spraypark, remodeling bathrooms, improving deck
space, upgrading to more energy-efficient equipment, and adding
shade structures and group rental space.
But experts warn that in this era of fiscal responsibility, just
adding a new amenity is not the key to fiscal sustainability.
“When you added a water slide 15 years ago, you were
unique,” Post says. “Now it’s standard.
It’s being efficient, not different, that’s going to
drive the revenue now.”
Apparently some operators are getting that message. According to
survey results, 30 percent say either revenue potential or ongoing
maintenance costs are a top priority when considering a renovation
“People have come to understand the reality that their
thinking needs to be, ‘yes we have X dollars to build the
pool, but do we have enough to operate it?’” Post
Patrons and programming
While 44 percent think recreation is the main reason patrons
utilize their aquatics facilities (ahead of physical fitness,
aquatic therapy, competition programming and learn-to-swim), in the
final analysis, it’s programming that drives revenue —
and there’s more competition now than ever
“It’s not just offerings for kids, but fitness options,
too,” says Dave Rowland, president of Lutra Aquatics in
Simsbury, Conn. “I think the industry has been very slow to
adapt to the rapid expansion of options for people to spend their
Survey respondents do offer a diverse range of programming,
everything from Masters Swimming (34 percent) to scuba (26
percent), but the majority focus their efforts on children. The
most frequently selected main demographic was children ages 4-12.
That corresponds with the fact that the most popular program, by
far, is learn-to-swim classes for youngsters. Such programs also
are the most widely offered by survey respondents. A total of 85
percent offer learn-to-swim classes for kids. Only 62 percent offer
a competitive swimming/ diving program.
Focusing on the kids is a good thing, suggests Mick Nelson,
facilities development director at USA Swimming in Colorado
Springs, Colo. Learning to swim builds a foundation for other
aquatic activities, such as elementary school before high school,
But to maximize opportunity, pool operators must be constantly
evaluating program offerings to make sure they’re providing
the most benefit to the community.
“We have to operate the most valued programs out
there,” agrees Sue Nelson, aquatic program specialist at USA
When it comes to marketing their programs, it appears operators are
not taking advantage of available marketing channels. TV and radio
advertising doesn’t come cheap, and given that budgets have
been slashed, it’s not surprising that only 2 percent of
respondents report running TV ads. The same is true for
So why aren’t operators taking advantage of free or low-cost
options? Just under 30 percent say they produce a brochure, and
only half of that number utilize a Web site. Around 10 percent run
print ads, but only 2 percent report using any form of social
media, such as Facebook.
Perhaps it’s a matter of being comfortable with the
technology. Or maybe it’s one area that operators still need
to understand from a business perspective.
Either way, Sue Nelson says, “If I had to decide to put
dollars toward marketing or toward my staff, I would put it toward
my staff. They are the people who are going to make us