Teaching swimming has always been a popular way for aquatics professionals to augment
personal income or a facility’s revenue stream. Today,
there’s a growing trend of professionals opening their own
swim schools and teaching swimming full-time. This can be very
rewarding — or very harrowing — depending on the level
of preparation and planning.
teaching swim lessons at a market price level requires a major
commitment from the swim school owner. This involves offering the
highest level of customer interaction and service, a stable quality
curriculum, a well-trained staff and a facility geared toward
providing a welcoming, quality environment for the youngest of
swimmers and their protective parents. The efforts are high, but so
are the rewards.
A desire to operate
a service business is a key component for the swim school
owner/operator. To be successful in a business of this nature, you
must be prepared for many daily customer interactions. When an
offered product is sold in 20- or 30-minute increments once or
twice a week, it needs a broad base of clients to ensure success.
These clients expect excellence. They are bringing something
precious into your swim facility: their children.
Parents enroll kids
in swim lessons for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they simply want
to provide a physically stimulating environment or a social
activity for their children. Or maybe they’re motivated by
fear, especially if they or the grandparents have pools in their
own yards. Regardless of the reason, a swim school owner/operator
must understand that parents enroll children because they’re
not comfortable teaching swimming themselves. As research has
shown, more than 65 percent of adults feel uneasy in water over
their heads. The lower the parents’ comfort level in or
around water, the higher they expect the quality of
But you can’t
know what type of lessons will be most successful until you
consider local demographics.
The potential swim
school owner should examine the population, average and median
incomes, and the number of children per household — within a
certain range of the desired location. This will dictate possible
patrons and what they might be looking for: learn-to-swim basics
for younger kids, or a swim team-fitness component for the older
ones. The distance will be directed by the size of the community
and how far people are willing to travel for this type of service.
For example, a five-mile radius in New York presents a different
economic and population mix than a five-mile radius in a more
suburban type of community such as Phoenix, where families may be
willing to drive greater distances.
The cost of
providing a swim lesson in a swim school is different than those
provided in traditional programs, such as summer swim lessons in
municipal or nonprofit pools. The swim school operator is competing
with those agencies, yet will be obligated to pay income taxes,
real estate taxes and the operating costs of the facility.
Municipal or nonprofit entities, such as the city pool or YMCA, do
not have such costs. As a result, operators of these facilities may
be able to offer lessons at lower prices. Swim school owners must
be prepared to compete in that environment.
One way creative use
of space. A new swim school owner may be able to find an
underutilized or unused pool in the community. Such a pool can be
leased on a full- or part-time basis. This can be an excellent
opportunity to get started and develop a client base while learning
more about the business.
Once you’ve decided to build your own school, a number of
considerations must be examined. For example, choosing between
leased space or purchased property depends on several factors.
Local land prices and commercial rental rates make a huge
difference. Certain communities have abundant land at affordable
prices, while many mature cities are developed in such a manner
that finding vacant land at affordable prices is impossible. A
growing number of swim school operators have constructed their
pools in leased commercial spaces.
Along with the
rental rates, another significant cost is parking. It’s
essential to have enough space for patrons’ vehicles. Indeed,
the intensity of swim school parking needs often overwhelms a
traditional strip center or industrial office development. You must
calculate how many students and staff you anticipate at a maximum
capacity, and ensure that parking meets those
Finances are a major
component as well.
Unless you have
funds from private sources, you’ll need to figure out how to
obtain money for land acquisition and construction of the building,
pools, lobby, office and parking spaces. Develop relationships with
a variety of financial institutions, bearing in mind the different
information each requires in analyzing the project’s
For instance, many
institutions need to be educated about the swim school industry and
how a school operates financially. You should spend time detailing
revenue projections and costs to help the financial institution
make its lending decision. This can be the hardest part of the
journey to building a swim school. Lenders will challenge you on
many of your assumptions. Keep in mind that as they underwrite the
credit risk, they are presuming your business will fail. They need
a way to recover the funds they are lending to a swim school
Unlike a restaurant,
where the financial institution can remove the equipment and sell
it or place another restaurant in the location, a pool cannot be
moved. Lenders will need to find someone else to run a swim school
in that location, which makes it difficult for them. So
they’ll probably require a high degree of financial
participation and commitment. That can require a pledge of home or
other personal assets to secure the desired financing early in the
With so many commitments, prospective swim school owners need to
build facilities they want to run. Make sure it matches your
personality and the market. Without the right demographics, you
won’t have enough students to meet your financial
commitments, no matter how good your curriculum.
Owners also must
recognize where their talents lie. For example, if you love to
teach, but don’t care for the business side of teaching, make
sure you have support staff to handle the administration. If you
don’t enjoy managing people, find someone who does, or build
a smaller swim school and run it with only a few
The business model
you choose will determine how other parts of your school will be
structured. Here’s a look at other crucial
• Curriculum. Unless you’re prepared to be a solo
teacher, you must have a course of instruction for your staff. You
can use a national system such as the American Red Cross’.
You can also develop your own, but it must be based on sound
educational and developmental principles. A commitment to continual
employee training is a crucial component in the ongoing operations
of a swim school.
should offer a broad range of classes to encompass not only the
potential ages of young swimmers, but also their respective skill
levels. You must be prepared to teach students with a broad range
of skills spread across one or two age groups. This might include
3- and 4-year-olds, who range from beginner to fairly accomplished
and are working on out-of-water arm recovery and side
In addition, these
classes must fit with the parents’ schedules and demands. If
a couple has several children close in age, they will only be
willing to stay for about an hour. If they enroll children of
varying ages and ability, the swim school needs to have enough
classes, levels and instructors to meet their
• Staff. The staff can be composed of a variety of people, ranging in
education from high school through graduate school. The age mix can
cover the whole spectrum, from 16 to 80 years old. Usually,
existing staff members and clients are the best recruitment source,
though advertising at local high schools and colleges works, too.
The ideal candidate will love kids, yet adhere strictly to the
curriculum and structure. Staff members cannot afford to be lax or
inattentive with the children in their care.
experienced people is always an added bonus, you can create great
swim teachers out of staff members who have no prior swim-teaching
experience or even good swimming abilities. A positive attitude and
desire to learn can make for an excellent, hard-working employee
— and eventually a teacher as well.
•Maintenance. A major unseen component of a successful swim
school is the water quality. Many operators are used to larger
pools with lower bather loads. When the pool size diminishes, but
more little bodies are added and the water temperature is raised
from its traditional 78 degrees to 90 degrees, operators must be
sensitive to chemical levels and having higher water turnover
Most schools operate
in smaller pools with warm water. A large number of students in a
small body of water also places strain on the filtration equipment.
This combination of a small body of water, many little children and
high temperatures often requires oversized, quality filtration
equipment. A well-educated staff capable of maintaining pristine
water also is necessary.
• Advertising and marketing. Educating the public about the
learn-to-swim business is crucial to a new swim school’s
success. Our society is more acclimated to the
“traditional” two-week summer lessons rather than year
’round. How do you bring people in to fill 52 weeks a
The most effective
methods of advertising will depend heavily on the local
marketplace. Are there many children’s magazines or local and
regional newspapers? In some markets, radio and even cable TV are
attractive options. Marketing on the Internet is a growing area
where some swim school operators target prospective customers.
Purchasing mailing lists of various demographic groups, such as
homeowners with backyard pools or families with babies) and mailing
them brochures or postcards can be an additional
Having a client base
is very helpful, as well as attractive to a financial institution.
New swim school owners who have been teaching, even on a part-time
basis, can bring those clients to the new school.
involvement is a great way to educate potential clients about what
the school is offering. And once you have a solid client base,
nothing beats word-of-mouth advertising from happy
that there are, in essence, two clients: parents and their
children. The kids may be having a great experience, but if the
parents think otherwise, they won’t continue with the swim
lessons. Therefore, everyone in the school must ensure that parents
and children are viewed as equal participants in the
You must be prepared
to deliver a quality swim lesson in a well-maintained pool with an
excellent, dedicated teaching staff for the children and parents of
the community. All of this must come at a price that parents can
afford and on which the swim school owner can base his or her
business’ financial viability.