So you’ve decided you’re ready to offer health and programming at your leisure facility. Next you need practical ideas to get you there. Here are five operator-tested strategies to pump things up — for you and your facility.
1. Make things at your operation as convenient as possible. Even in a recession Americans will pay for convenience, and data shows that aquatics operators can capitalize. Nearly 42 percent of the nearly 460 individuals who responded to a December 2011 Aquatics International online survey indicated that convenience is a top priority for patrons, and facility users will pay for convenience.
Scheduling presents perhaps the biggest opportunity for convenience, relative to programming. To determine what will make things more convenient for potential patrons, spend time analyzing your target audience. Be aware of school schedules and other factors that might affect plans for a large percentage of your community, suggests Terri Smith, designer, Water Design Inc. in Salt Lake City. Surveys also are an ideal way to discover other factors that might impact large numbers of your patrons.
You might consider increasing the number of times you offer some of your most popular programs and implementing more programs at nontraditional times (think early mornings, late nights and Sundays). Also look for smart ways to pair programs together. For example, schedule aqua yoga at the same time as youth swim lessons, to give parents the opportunity to get a convenient workout alongside their children.
Simply put, “if it’s not convenient for them, they’re not going to participate,” says Tara Eggleston, countywide aquatics coordinator for The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Department of Parks and Recreation in Prince George’s County, Md.
When it comes to registration, if you’re not already doing so, make it a priority to use all available technology — including mobile — to make sure the public can get information and sign up for all programs 24-7. You’ll also want to regularly evaluate your online experience to ensure it’s as efficient and user-friendly as possible.
Remember to pay attention to your offline user experience as well. The Bloomingdale (Ill.) Park District has successfully retained more swim lesson students by setting up a poolside on-site registration table on the day before the final swim lesson of every session, says Carrie Haupert-Fullerton, executive director.
It allows parents to sign up for the next block immediately, while they’re “in the moment,” she notes.
2. Develop classes and programs for new user groups. According to the AI survey, 40 percent name children (ages 4 to 12) as their main demographic. That indicates there is room to create revenue via programming for groups that may be underserved. At Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics in Huntersville, N.C., operators noticed that during the summer, a number of college students were coming to use the facility and purchasing day passes. To make it more cost-effective for the students to use the pool while home on break, management created a special membership package just for them.
“By reaching out … we not only improved our performance and utilization, but made an impact on keeping these kids healthy, fit and out of trouble over the summer months,” says Brooks Shelley, assistant director.
Another emerging group to consider may be adult nonswimmers. Nearly 20 percent of adults who reported plans to participate in water activities during summer 2011 described their swimming skills as limited, according to a 2011 Red Cross survey. Experts say it’s time to break down those ingrained fears, stigmas and preconceived notions. Programming aimed at doing this a great place to start.
Saint Francis Health and Wellness Center is one agency that has developed a successful beginner adult swim lesson program, and it comes down to finding good instructors who can tailor their teaching to adults.
“You’re never too old to learn,” says Doug Gannon, the assistant manager of the Cape Girardeau Mo., facility.
3. Remember, regular patrons are your most tried and true revenue source. They value what you have to offer already, and nearly 40 percent of the survey respondents indicated that a significant percentage of their patrons would be interested in trying a new aquatic program never before offered.
To encourage patrons to act, tap into their needs and wants by finding ways to remind them that what you offer is part of a lifestyle.
Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics has been able to do just that. When it became clear that a large number of seniors use the pool at a regular time, Shelley and his team established a social hour for them to chat and enjoy refreshments. That has enabled the group to bond, and knowing they will see friends when they come to the pool gives the seniors another reason to keep returning, he says.
“We had one of our regular seniors have his 90th birthday party here,” Shelley adds. “His son flew in from Arizona and came straight to the club … since he knew his dad would be here.”
“Sample” opportunities are another important tool to entice patrons to try something new. It might be as basic as offering a free “family day pass” to every child who completes a session of swim lessons. Demos are another option. Consider demonstrating programs that have great visibility such as tai chi or aqua aerobics, suggests aquatics consultant Judith Leblein-Josephs, president of JLJ Enterprises, LLC, in Wayne. N.J.
Ultimately, “any type of program where you can provide a teaser to another program is a great opportunity,” adds Jennifer White, director of operations and the swim school specialist at Starfish Aquatics Institute.
That includes promotions and special events. Every new member at Saint Francis Health and Wellness Center gets a new member “bingo card” that includes several different activities and classes. For every one tried, the new member receives a stamp on their card.
4. Provide added value. Programming that provides more than expected is essential to both attract and retain users. That’s what the Glenview Park District, Glenview Ill., discovered when supervisors decided to update the learn-to-swim lesson program. Today, the revamped program is more well-rounded, with lessons taught by highly qualified instructors. It includes water safety education and instruction for parents, enabling the agency to justify slightly higher prices. Looking forward the agency hopes to continue to build on the success of the new program with more one-on-one instruction opportunities.
“With the strong competition nearby, we want to give parents another reason to stay with us,” says Jen Vernon, supervisor of aquatic programming, Splash Landings Aquatic Complex, Glenview Park District. “Our current parents love the thorough program we offer to their children, but we hope the more individual instruction will push their children to advance faster and feel much more comfortable in the water.”
Safety has always been at the core of what aquatics facilities provide, but it also can be an “added value.”
The Indy Parks & Recreation department has seen attendance increases of more than five percent since implementing free water safety clinics before Indianapolis city pools opened for the day, notes Michelle Snyder, Indy Parks Aquatic Program manager. Anyone who attends the clinics receives a free day pass for the pool and the clinics are frequently filled to near capacity.
Small changes to your overall ambiance can make a big difference in programming as well. You could consider adding appropriate music to certain programs, or try blocking certain hours just for certain user groups. Think ladies nights or senior/adult Sunday mornings, suggests Leblein- Josephs.
“It’s an opportunity for adults who may feel overwhelmed when [the pool] is filled with kids,” she says.
5. Look to the land to maximize your space. “Anything you can do in a family community center you can do on deck,” says Leblein-Josephs. The key is to get creative. Ideas might include:
• Pool-side health and wellness workshops
• Games (mah jong, chess, bocce ball, etc.)
• Line dancing
• Walking clubs
• Story time.
Depending on planning and execution, these types of land-based programs can serve as one of those “added value” strategies, or as a stand-alone fee-based activity.
When developing new programming, land-based or in-water, be sure that your plans have a clear focus, says White. That could be water safety education, health and wellness, or even general fun and recreation.
Look to your community to find experienced, knowledgeable individuals who can become partners to lead land-based activities, and don’t overlook critical logistical and planning issues, adds Leblein-Josephs. For example, patrons will not enjoy a speaker presentation if they have to sitting for 45 minutes in the blazing sun.
In the end, no matter which strategy might work best for your organization, follow-up with careful evaluation. “Set goals for programs … and be ready to make changes,” says Eggleston.